As the city of Mason celebrates its 200th birthday, much will be made of the city’s history.
Tales will be told of the Warren County community’s settlers and statesmen, entrepreneurs and industrialists, national rankings among the best small cities in the country and world-class entertainment venues that have put the vibrant city of 32,000 residents on the world map.
It’s the city’s quirky tales, though, that are among its most interesting. From federal posses and vigilante rangers, outlandish ordinances and runaway baboons, technological marvels and mysterious lights, we remember the odd history of Mason.
A posse comes to Mason
In mid-1807, a knock came at the door of town founder William Mason’s home along the Muddy Creek. It was a “hunting party” on the search for Mason’s brother-in-law, John Smith, the large and gregarious farmer, lawyer, minister and statesman who had married his sister, Elizabeth.
One of Ohio’s first two senators, Smith, who lived in Columbia just east of Cincinnati, had been indicted along with none other than Aaron Burr, the former U.S. vice president who was accused of plotting to wage war against the U.S. as part of a conspiracy to establish a separate empire in the Southwest and Mexico.
Smith had reportedly entertained Burr in his home and, at Burr’s request, organized a military expedition against Spanish Florida in 1805. Smith was accused of conspiring with the accused traitor. Flora Wikoff Tetrick, a grandniece of Smith’s and a Mason historian, wrote in a journal that she often heard her grandmother Sarah — William Mason’s youngest daughter — speak of the day the trial of the century came to Mason.
“Grandfather (William Mason) gave them pitchforks and told them to handle every bit of haymow stuff and if they found him to stick him through with the pitchfork,” she wrote. “He was bitter against Smith until after his trial and nothing was proven.”
The charges against Smith were dropped after the court acquitted Burr on treason charges, but, after the Senate convened later that year, members opened an investigation into Smith’s conduct. While a vote to expel Smith failed by one vote, Smith resigned in disgrace and lived out his remaining years in poverty in Louisiana.
Overseers of the Poor
In 1826, Deerfield Township trustees formed the Overseers of the Poor to deal with those it deemed undesirable or burdensome to the township and the village of Mason. The committee essentially sold paupers as indentured servants to more affluent residents.
For example, in 1829, the overseers agreed to pay Mary Scofield her bid of $46.75 to provide 11 months of room and board for Thomas W. Clark. In turn, Scofield would benefit “by his labor at her command,” according to Mason historian Rose Marie Springman.
When whole families were deemed unable to care for themselves, the overseers simply ordered the town constable to remove them from the township. In July 1826, John Lewis, a black man who had purchased 132 acres in Mason in 1818, and his family were evicted from Mason. The Lewises would soon return to the area, however, and their land would remain within Mason’s small black population for more than 75 years, according to Springman.
Mason’s men endured a different sort of servitude. As the fledgling city grew, it struggled for decades with rutted streets and nearly impassable sidewalks. The city’s Main Street was often referred to as the “Mason Jars” by its more good-humored residents for the jarring rides its conditions imposed.
In 1842, Charles Dickens and his wife passed through Mason on their way from Cincinnati to Lebanon. The famed British novelist later wrote critically of his first visit to the U.S. “Mason, with its unimpressive houses, its muddy streets in the spring, its pathways in lieu of sidewalks with only an occasional stone for footing, its complete lack of culture, could not have added a positive note to Dickens’ thoughts,” Springman wryly noted.
To try to keep the streets maintained, a city law required all men in the town to donate two days’ labor per year for road improvement. It wasn’t until 1923 that Main Street was macadamized — that is, paved — an occasion that prompted celebratory parades, games and picnics throughout Mason.
Early residents of Mason faced a host of other loony laws, but no ordinances were as outlandish or curmudgeonly as those targeted at the village’s children. An 1851 ordinance made it unlawful to fly kites, throw any fireball, roll hoops or throw stones on any village street or alley. Parents of children who violated these rules faced fines of 25 cents to $5.
In 1883, Main Street resident John McClung — an affluent man known for his miserly ways and who would later face trial for the murder of his wife — rallied city leaders to prohibit the throwing and catching of balls on village streets, with fines set at $2 or 24 hours of imprisonment for violations.
Horse thievery ranked among the most reprehensible of crimes in the 19th century. Early state legislatures imposed severe punishments for the dastardly act: In 1809, an act called for 50-100 lashes on a first violation and 100-200 lashes for second violations. Repeat violators were subject to having both ears cropped and a two-year imprisonment.
After a gang of horse thieves plagued the village of Mason, townspeople in 1849 banded together to form a protective society they called the Mason Horse Rangers. The group operated as a de facto police force, with the goal to ensure “the maintenance of laws of our land by detecting villainy and outlawry in various forms.” Members of the honorary organization posted large rectangular blue and white signs on their properties to serve as a warning to would-be horse thieves.
In 1882, county historian J. Morrow noted that the organization never lost a horse and, in most cases, got their man — even though the cost to recover a horse was often 10 times the horse’s value. The rangers, which at one time boasted more than 160 members, disbanded in 1920 when the automobile displaced horses.
In 1928, Powel Crosley Jr. erected the towering 50,000 watt WLW-AM transmitter that would, as one newspaper reported, put Mason “on the map of the world.” Crowds flocked from miles around to the diamond-shaped Blaw-Knox tower on Tylersville Road to listen to the musical acts, prize fights and other programming.
In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt in the White House pushed a ceremonial button that increased that power tenfold, making the station the most powerful in the country and earning it the title the Nation’s Station.
At 500,000 watts, Mason’s superstation operated at 10 times the power of its competitors. With the ability to reach most of the nation and beyond — during World War II, Adolph Hitler would later refer to the “Cincinnati liars” — the 831-foot tower broadcast its popular programs round the clock. People living near the transmitter never experienced brownouts with the constant supply of free electricity. Neighbors reported hearing WLW through downspouts, radiators and barbed wire fencing.
After other radio stations — some as far as Canada — began complaining that WLW interfered with their signals, the Federal Communications Commission began to think that maybe this was too much power. In 1939, regulators chose not to renew WLW’s experimental permit to broadcast at super-strength and limited the station back to 50 kilowatts. The Crosley Corp. appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it was denied. AM radio signals today remain capped at 50,000 watts.
In the fall of 1960, Lynne Calvert and friends were traveling Mason’s back roads in search of adventure They found it on Brewer Road, then a rural road dotted by few homes. After hitting a pothole, the eight high school friends piled out of the 1954 turquoise Chevy convertible to check the damage.
“Suddenly someone started screaming, ‘Get in the car!’ There was a light coming toward us. It was like a big headlight almost, coming down the road at us,” remembered Calvert, now the curator of the Mason Historical Society’s Alverta Green Museum.
The mystified group later returned to investigate the light, which Calvert says changed direction and intensity. Word of the mystery soon spread and captured the attention of local TV and radio news stations, she said.
“You’d go out there, and cars would be backed up for a mile to see the light. We tried everything to catch it, but it always disappeared before you got to it,” said Calvert. “We never knew what it was — swamp gas, lights reflecting on the road. Years later, people were still talking about it.”
The Great Baboon Escape
Ten days before Kings Island opened in 1976, park officials were left in a “baboon standoff.” The park had sought to introduce 50 olive baboons that year to its Lion Country Safari, a 100-acre animal attraction that included lions, elephants, hippos, zebras and giraffes, among other animals.
Shortly after their arrival however, the 15-pound simians escaped over a 12-foot so-called “escape-proof” fence. Animal handlers eventually rounded up most of the escapees with tranquilizer-laced fruit and wooden traps, except for one intrepid baboon that resisted capture 20 miles from the park and was shot. The animals were shipped back to the Michigan company that sold them.
Ghostly legends and lore
Mason is home to several stories of spooky supernatural sightings. Among the oldest is the tragic tale of Rebecca McClung, wife of one of the town’s most prominent and wealthy farmers. She was found brutally murdered in her bed the spring morning of April 12, 1901.
The McClungs, who lived in what’s now the Banana Leaf Modern Thai restaurant, were among Mason’s most eccentric residents, newspaper reports claimed, and the couple was rarely seen in public in the 22 years they lived in their “mysterious mansion” at 101 E. Main St.
John told police he found Rebecca that morning in a pool of blood on her bed, her head so badly beaten that the coroner later testified that only her jaw remained unbroken. When asked if he killed his wife, John — who was found to have bloodstains on his trousers, coat and vest — replied: “If I killed her, I must have done it in my sleep.”
John McClung’s subsequent trial and acquittal for the brutal death of his wife would come to rivet residents in Warren County and beyond, leaving behind one of Mason’s most infamous unsolved mysteries.
In 2011, paranormal investigators from the Syfy Channel’s “Ghost Hunters” show spent a week at Kings Island exploring spooky happenings reported at the park since it opened in 1972. Investigators were left on their own overnight to investigate tales of pots and pans rattling in an unoccupied kitchen at the International Restaurant; unexplained footsteps after the lights go down; claims of hauntings arising from the 1890 explosion at the nearby King Powder Co., which killed 11 people; and, perhaps most enduring of all, sightings of a ghostly girl in a blue dress.
Investigators said they were able to capture what some would say are voices of the dead with the help of sensitive recording devices that can capture low-frequency sounds not detectable by the human ear. In a recording played by investigators, a disembodied voice of a young child can be heard inside the International Restaurant pleadingly searching for “my mom.” Depending on what and whom you believe, it’s either a voice from beyond or a product of creative editing.