Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first installment of Hey, Neighbor, a 2017 series that explores the outgrowth of Columbus as seen through the lens of the central core’s surrounding areas.
If you were to ask a longtime Columbus-area resident, picked totally at random off of a Downtown Columbus street, to name the first thing that pops into their head when they think of the city of Westerville, there’s a good chance you won’t get much of a compelling answer in return. Despite the suburb’s 158-year history as an incorporated city—nestled roughly between Alum Creek and Hoover Reservoir north of Columbus—Westerville today lives mostly in tree-covered suburban anonymity.
Sure, anyone who’s spent at least a few years in Ohio’s second-largest metropolis has at least a working impression of the ‘Ville. Good schools. Sharon Woods Metro Park. Otterbein College.
But the town that many might perceive as run-of-the-mill isn’t as sleepy and white-bread-America as it might seem. With a history rich in nonconformist ideals—some progressive, some, not so much—a present of increasing modernity and a future radiating with promise, “The Dry Capital of the World” is dripping with personality.
Most area historians document the first settlers to modern-day Westerville arrived in the first decade of the 19th century; the most obviously influential of those settlers were the Dutch brothers Westervelt of New York. Not long after the trio of siblings arrived, a men’s seminary became the prominent attraction of the newly minted Westerville. While the seminary itself failed within its first decade, it wasn’t long before the building and its surrounding acreage were transformed into Otterbein College (now a university).
Booze and Bombs: The Dry Capital of the World & the Anti-Saloon League
By the middle of the century, Westerville had established a foothold and began its long trek to bustling modern suburb. But while the town filled quickly with new inhabitants—mostly former immigrant settlers pushing west from Connecticut and New York—the newly dubbed Westervillers began to clash. The first jab in what would become a city-defining battle of moral ideals was thrown in 1859, when a new ordinance was passed eliminating the legal sale of alcoholic beverages within the town’s boundaries. Residents were mostly split between booze consumers and anti-booze crusaders. The no-fun-crew (with a viewpoint known as “temperance”) viewed alcohol as a threat to civilized society and the safety and health of its citizens. The anti-temperance folks viewed alcohol consumption as a desperately needed method of dealing with the uptight prudes with whom they were forced to fight (or so we assume). During the ensuing Whiskey Wars of the 1870s, a local saloon owner watched helplessly as, on at least two occasions, his tavern was violently firebombed by gunpowder wielding prohibitionists. The nationally influencing Anti-Saloon League settled their headquarters within the bone-dry enclave in 1909, firmly establishing Westerville as a no-nonsense (quite literally) type of town for decades (upon decades) to come. It would be another 107 years before the first legal beer was poured and consumed in a Westerville establishment.
A prominent stop on the path to freedom
Westerville’s inclination toward moral enlightenment wasn’t always so ridiculous. Area historians believe credible evidence exists that points to the town becoming an emerging hub on the Underground Railroad as early as the 1820s. Researchers at Otterbein have identified several prominent local families that, unbeknownst to almost everyone else in the city, housed, clothed, fed, and transported slaves that had managed to flee their southern captures of the south and evade their legalized hunters of the north. By Otterbein’s founding in 1847, Westerville had developed a strong reputation as an anti-slavery haven; then-Otterbein president Lewis Davis, according to historians, was among the most active anti-slavery activists, and the Davis family was known for their aggressive methods in assisting black men, women and children on their way to more hospitable territories. The Hanby House—named after the family that occupied the brick dwelling during the time of the famed passage—still stands today, open to tourists more than a century-and-a-half later.
A total transformation – becoming a destination for all of Central Ohio
Westerville wasn’t the hotbed of liquor wars and clandestine, death-defying escape for too long, however, as the city outgrew its violent prohibition-ensuring tactics and the Civil War ultimately came to a close. While still under the ever-pressing thumb of “dry” laws until 2006, Columbus and its other suburban neighbors blossomed around it, easing the ability of a thirsty Westerviller to acquire a six-pack simply by crossing city limits.
Today—most notably within the preceding few years, Westerville has experienced a renaissance of sorts, as ambitious developers and city leadership have transformed what was once a decaying Uptown commercial hub into an eye-pleasing, mouthwatering boulevard of unique eateries sprinkled liberally into a solid lineup of traditional favorites that have called the Columbus area home for years. State Street has become a bustling, shopper-attracting promenade that matches or even exceeds similar, long-established efforts in Columbus burbs such as Grandview’s famed and well-trafficked Bank Block District along Grandview Ave. On the same sidewalks where unabashedly violent folks once torched and destroyed alcohol-peddling saloons, businesses now boast openly of their boozy wares. Unique-to-State St.-restaurants include Uptown Deli & Brews; Temperance Row Brewing; 8 State Bistro; Asterisk Supper Club; Corbin’s Saloon; Red Apron Pizza; and Koble’s Greek-Italian Grill. Established, traditional favorites such as Jimmy V’s, Old Bag of Nails, Graeter’s, and even Dairy Queen provide familiar aromas and tastes. Specialty retailers—Blue Turtle Tea & Spice, A Twist on Olives (for the olive oil extraordinaire) and, to top off your day, Two Chicks and a Cookie—are peppered in between to create a wonderland of diversity where there once was little of note for eaters and shoppers who’d grown tired of the typical browsing experience.
So what’s next for a community that has—in almost a literal sense—seen it all? Clearly, the lack of a Scandinavian mega-retailer. The strangely infatuating home of the furniture merchant, Ikea, has broken ground on its next North American installment, a colossal, Swedish-flag-colored structure to be perched among what is currently the Columbus area’s most fashionable playground of urban sprawl, Polaris. Slated for a summer-of-‘17 grand opening, the build-it-yourself furniture peddler will almost assuredly provide a boon of new spenders from across most of the state, eliminating a lengthy trip for consumers who’ve been forced to trudge all the way to the suburban Cincinnati location to satiate their fix since Ikea gave Americans their first taste in 1985.
While the city’s development of its existing space has been, at least recently, fairly furious, opportunities to radically morph its land-use and infrastructure patterns are few, as much of Westerville is firmly established. However, the aggressive nature of recent development and turnover of once-aging commercial space into the vibrant and fresh feel of the new Temperance District, for example, leads one to believe the community won’t be shy about continuing their efforts to attract new, unique attractions as opportunities become available. Already able to boast a top-85 library system nationally (out of nearly 8,000 libraries ranked by the Public Library Service) and benefiting from a new influx of younger, professional residents who were educated within the highly ranked Westerville Public School System, it seems that the most pressing priorities for change have already been knocked off the list. Will Westerville lay claim to the title of Central Ohio’s new The Place to Work, Live and Shop among the area’s growing young professional cohort? The best way to find out is to visit.
Now You Know
• Ok, so it might not be “Jingle Bells,” but everyone can at least sing along to the first verse of “Up on the Housetop,” a holiday season staple that was created by Westerville’s own Benjamin Hanby, namesake of the anti-slavery landmark Hanby home that today functions as a museum dedicated to the abolitionist movement. Hanby, who lazily only served as a newspaper editor, licensed preacher, vocal instructor, and music producer during his lengthy career, was an Otterbein grad and still rests in eternally in grounds of the Otterbein Cemetery.
• Westerville is, of course, home to current Ohio governor and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, who became just the first sitting Ohio governor since 1955 to decline a move into the official mansion designated for the family of the state’s top executive. To accommodate his preference, the Kasich family home was outfitted with top-of-the-line security equipment and is protected around the clock by the State Highway Patrol, which has a base of operations located on the property.
• Not to be outdone, fellow Westerville resident and current Westerville North High School history teacher Dr. Benjamin Hartnell was officially certified by Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted as a write-in candidate for United States president, earning a spot among 17 other official write-ins eligible to have votes counted in the formal tabulations certified by Husted. Hartnell, who fell just short of capturing his home state by a margin of 2,841,005 to 589, has not revealed his plans for 2020 as of press time.