Of all the remote, spooky places in Ashtabula County that conjure up images of headless beings, macabre happenings and historical legend, none is as blessed with such nonsense as Tinker’s Hollow in Monroe Township.
The privately owned property is located along Conneaut Creek, where Horton Road dead ends at the barricaded bridge. Depending upon the eye of the beholder, it is a remote, haunted place; a beautiful, wild area; the perfect location to dump some trash, party or engage in furtive sexual activity; or the site of historically significant events.
All of the above have been part of this hollow’s heritage, but we will consider only the latter and briefly the first of these diverse views.
Searching the Internet for “Tinker’s Hollow” turns up several paranormal websites that discuss the legends and namesake family associated with this land. Essentially, they center upon the accidental death of Silas Tinker on Dec. 16, 1839. Silas was allegedly thrown from his carriage as he traveled through the hollow. A more plausible explanation for Silas’ demise is old age. Silas was 91 when he passed, and whether the agent of his passing was a horse or Father Time seems irrelevant to the haunting.
Nevertheless, legends state that his ghost continues to haunt his hollow — just look for his green eyes in the darkness. Some say they’ve heard old Silas saying “go away.” Others claim that Silas hid gold in this hollow and doesn’t care to share his fortune with intruders.
Born Nov. 25, 1748, at Lyme, New Connecticut, Silas was the son of Amos and Hannah Minor Tinker. The first reference to Silas in Ashtabula County history books is 1806, at which time he moved here from Mantua and took up residence on the South Ridge in Kingsville Township.
Silas and Lois (Wade) had 16 children, all of them born prior to their parents’ migration to Ashtabula County. Sylvester, their 11th child, was born on Christmas Eve 1774, and it was he and his offspring who would become associated with this hollow.
The 1820 Census suggests that of Silas’ 16 children, only Chauncey, Guy and Silas Jr. adopted Ashtabula County as their home. However, local legend places the senior Sylvester in the county later that year, for it is said that he drowned in a vat of hot mash while working at a Conneaut distillery in December 1820. Such a demise conjures the bittersweet scenario envisioned by W.C. Fields, when he pondered the prospect: “Died in a cold vat of whiskey. Death, where is thy sting?”
Sylvester married Sally Riley on Jan. 6, 1799, in Chester, Mass. They had at least five children: Levi, Sylvester, William, Chauncey and Riley.
Chauncey, and Sylvester (Jr.), along with their grandfather, Silas, are listed on the 1840 census for Kingsville Township.
The younger Sylvester married Orpha (Orthie) Jane Gilman on Oct. 10, 1833, in Kingsville. They had two sons: Austin and Julius.
Bog iron was discovered in the region, which led Sylvester and William to open a carriage shop. When they found a way to harness Conneaut Creek’s water flow to operate the shop’s machinery, the brothers relocated the operation to the hollow. The Tinkers erected the first iron cupola furnace in 1839. It made use of the local bog iron deposits and abundance of hardwood trees, which were used to produce the charcoal for making cast iron. Later, with the development of Conneaut Harbor, iron ore for their operation arrived via lake vessels.
The 1850 Census shows the residency of at least 21 Tinker family members, all of them in Kingsville. Although history often acknowledges him as a partner in the local foundry operation, William is not listed as a county resident.
It was in the mid-1850s that the Tinker family hit upon its first mechanical success, a mowing machine that was probably inspired by Cyrus Hall McCormick’s famous reaper. The Tinker incarnation of this concept used a single drive wheel, some 40 inches high. The wheel transferred the energy of the beast pulling the contraption to the cutter bar set on a triangular frame.
No examples of this machinery are known to have survived, but historian Walter Jack wrote an account of the design in 1927:
“The driver was seated behind the wheel. A ‘S’ shaped track was cast just inside the rim of the large drive wheel, and a ball at the end of the level followed this track as the wheel turned. The in and out movement in the ‘S’ imparted the horizontal motion to the section bar. The bar and the cam motion was noisy, but as noisy as many (other machines) of the time. It pulled easier than the early machines, but not as easily as the Champion, Wood, or Buckeye that came in general use after the Civil War. The motion of the section bar was slower, yet the swath was much wider than the machine of those early years. The Tinker mower cut a four and one-half foot swath, while other machines cut four feet.”
William bet his 15-acre farm on the invention. Neighbors thought he was crazy, but within a year he’d paid off his debts and was investing the profits in their foundry, machine shop and power-delivery system.
Much of the success was due to the Sylvester’s practical approach to marketing. He would load a half-dozen machines on a long wagon, hitch his team to it and head to the farms of Ashtabula and Trumbull counties. He’d locate a field where men were laboring with scythes, unhitch his team and hook it to one of the mowers. Sylvester would then drive the team around the meadow several times, return to the starting point and prepare to load the mower back on the wagon.
The demonstration would invariably attract a large crowd of exhausted workers, who would pay just about any price for the opportunity to retire their scythes. Sylvester rarely left without making a sale, a considerable accomplishment considering that a Tinker mower cost between $100 and $125 in an era when a well-paid farm hand earned $40 a month.
The machines were limited to regional distribution, but demand kept between 20 and 65 workers busy at the foundry, where they earned wages of $2 to $3 a day. Every worker was required to know every step of the manufacturing process, from making the metal to tightening the last bolt. Every part of the mower, even the iron nuts, was cast in the Tinker foundry.
The Civil War brought boom times to the foundry as a shortage of male labor on Yankee farms enhanced the market for productive machinery. A sales figure of 500 units has been quoted for the war years.
The Tinker foundry also produced a small, stationary threshing machine called the Tinker Pepper Mill that was powered by a horse-powered apparatus, also manufactured by the Tinkers. Drag saws that could be operated by a “single, well-trained docile horse” were part of the Tinker product line, as well.
Hard as steel
The Tinkers invested their profits in what would become part of the legend, the Tinker home. The 12-room house was built of stone hauled from the creek and brick made from nearby clay deposits. The house stood until 1953, when it was razed.
Investment also was made in equipment and the foundry buildings. But competition from other, and better mowers, eventually led to a decline in sales. By 1870 the Tinker mowing machine was obsolete, although the foundry continued to manufacture replacement parts.
Sylvester purchased William’s interest in the business in the early 1870s. Julius, one of Sylvester’s sons, gradually took over the business from his father. The diverse product line included plow points, skillets, oxen shoes and apple slicers.
What differentiated the Tinker castings from those of myriad other small foundries was the hardness of the cast iron. It was said to be as hard as steel. This iron was particularly valuable for plow points, which are subject to intense wear as a result of constantly coming in contact with rocks and soil.
One newspaper article claimed that a Tinker plow point was good for 250 acres, whereas the competition’s would be worn out after 70 acres. The Tinker’s point was less expensive and had a distinctive ring, compared to that of a “fine-toned bell.”
The secret to Tinker metal was never revealed, which provided fuel for speculation. A man who worked at the foundry on occasion spread the story that a secret ingredient was kept in a brown bag carefully guarded by the foundry owner. When no one was looking, the owner would take a pinch of the substance and add it to the mix.
The late Fred Tinker, the son of William Tinker, dismissed that as a myth in a 1998 interview. William, quoted in a 1929 newspaper story, told the reporter that he enjoyed teasing people who visited the foundry in hopes of finding the secret ingredient or process.
“One man came in here from the X— Plow Co., one of the largest. He was dressed up, diamonds on his fingers. I knew he didn’t belong around here.
“He asked if he could come in. I told him ‘sure’: ... He watched for a long time. Finally he said, ‘I’d like to know how you do that.’
“I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you. I pour from this side of the ladle, then from the other side. The iron that comes out of this side is just ordinary, but the other side is hard as steel.’
“He said, ‘Ah, what causes that?’ So I told him, ‘Well, you see, that side of the ladle is cold.’”
By 1929 the Tinker foundry and furnace had reached the end of their service. When William Tinker died in 1937, he took with him the Tinker secret formula. The foundry, work shop and home fell into disrepair — and legend.
One of the legends, perpetuated in local history books, was that the cast iron they produced did not rust. This legend is traced to the Tinker family’s “white bronze” memorial in Lulu Falls Cemetery, Kingsville.
White bronze markers were actually made of zinc. They were coated with a chemical to impart the blue-gray patina. But they are not cast iron, and there is no evidence the Tinker family ever engaged in producing products from this alloy.
Monumental Bronze, a New England company, sold the memorials from Maine to Hawaii. White bronze was an economical alternative to stone and, because they were cast in sand, could be quite detailed in their lettering and embellishments.
The memorials first went on sale in the late 1870s and their popularity peaked in the 1880s. But consumers were slow to embrace the markers, which were perceived as a cheap and therefore unfitting memorials for a loved one. Nevertheless, most 19th-century cemeteries have at least one of these memorials, just enough to spark all kinds of speculation about the mysterious metal.
There is about as much fact behind the hauntings as there is to the story of corrosion-proof grave markers. On this Halloween weekend, visitors willing to travel the narrow Horton Road to this fabled valley are more likely to be greeted by the lens of a security camera than Silas Tinker’s piercing green eyes.
The hollow, which retains only faint traces of the industry that once resonated here, reveals no secrets and settles no legends these days. But as long as we are on the subject of legends associated with this place, we might as well reiterate one more, which was shared by the late Fred Tinker in a 1998 interview.
“John Dillinger came through the hollow one day. He came up to the house and bought a couple quarts of milk from Mom. Then we went down to the creek and fished. She said he was dressed kind of odd. He had some kind of vest on,” Fred said.
Industrial valley produced legends of strong metal and weak knees
Nativity exhibit to open in Kirtland
Volunteers are still busy putting up more than 600 Nativity scenes for the nationally acclaimed exhibit at Historic Kirtland in preparation for the formal opening on Friday. A lighting celebration and musical program will begin 6 p.m. Friday. Nativity sets representing countries and cultures from around the world will fill the Visitors Center and the one-room schoolhouse located next to the center. The theme of the 11th annual exhibit is “Unto Us A Son Is Given.” Admission is free and open to the public. Historic Kirtland is located at 7800 Kirtland-Chardon Road, just off Route 306 south of I-90.
Odd Tales of Ashtabula County
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Guilty of treason!
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