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Massillon History: James Duncan

The Story of James Duncan

For information on Jean-Baptise Massillon and the Massillon Museum's 2015 book Massillon Connection: A Pioneer Woman, a French Bishop, and a Village on a River, click here!

Taken from the Massillon Museum's 1963 Winter Bulletin. Written by Helen Henley.

The man who built the house and lived in what is now known as our museum was undoubtedly more responsible for the establishment of Massillon than anyone who came to this frontier in the early 19th century to explore and possibly settle. Due to his indomitable energy, initiative and perseverance this once swampy land became a thriving and successful town. James Duncan, born in 1789 in Concord, New Hampshire, took to the sea at an early age, as did many of his contemporaries, and rose to the command of a merchant ship. Like many of his contemporaries he gave up seafaring and took to exploring and establishing the West. At that time, Kendal, as we have mentioned in a previous article, was settled by Quakers, the most famous of whom was Thomas Rotch. Although Mr. Duncan and his friends were complete strangers when they came here, they were soon made to feel at home by Mayhew Folger, another retired sea captain. They apparently were impressed with the situation for within three days they concluded to make a number of purchases. Where Massillon now stands east of the canal was part of Duncan’s purchase. The Estramadura Farm, or what is known as the “Plains,” south of Massillon to Navarre, was a joint purchase of the group. Mr. Duncan subsequently acquired the title to the entire tract and with other purchases became one of the largest landholders in the county.

Having made a beginning in the “western country,” his active mind could not rest. He took time off from his enterprises, however, to return to Wellsville, West Virginia (then Virginia) and married Miss Eliza T. Villette. The following spring Mr. and Mrs. Duncan went to Estramadura Farm and in 1821 moved to Kendal and lived in the brick house on Front Street (now Wales Road) built in 1816 by Alexander Skinner and known as the first brick building west of Canton.

While he lived on the farm he began improvements on the Massillon tract by building a sawmill and gristmill, and in 1822 he put in a full set of machinery for the manufacturing of woolen cloth. Mr. Duncan seemed to have the imagination and daring to make something out of anything. For example, there was a serious business depression. Wheat was worth 25 cents per bushel and there was no market for it. Some were persuaded to distill it into whiskey. He determined to try the Southern market and employed the Quaker, Charles Coffin, to build a flat boat which was launched on the Tuscarawas River, and loaded it with wheat and a good deal of whiskey along with other produce. On arriving at Cincinnati he sold the boat and the cargo for a large advance and walked home because “the coach was going at too slow a pace.”

When, in 1824, the legislature of Ohio enacted what is known as the Internal Improvement Law, he foresaw that whenever a canal was built in Ohio, it would be in the Tuscarawas Valley. The canal, after much maneuvering, was located in that valley due largely to Mr. Duncan’s untiring energy. With his usual shrewdness and foresight he suggested to the Commissioner of Ohio that he lay out a village on the east side of the river and convey to the State of Ohio an undivided third of the town plat. Under that arrangement Massillon was laid out. Mrs. Duncan, a noted French scholar, was responsible for naming Massillon after a celebrated French Bishop in the court of Louis XIV.

Duncan’s section of the canal, which extended from Summit Lake, now Summit County, to what was once the Jarvis Estate on South Erie Street, opened a new and successful era. Navigation was open between Massillon and the outside world. Warehouses were erected; a system of warehousing in the nature of a forwarding and commission business was inaugurated; all kinds of enterprises were begun. The firm of H.B. Wellman established a store and offered “cash for wheat.” That was really the beginning of the prosperity of Massillon, soon known as the “Wheat City.” For twenty-five years Massillon knew no competition nor did it allow any. She purchased and stored wheat, paid the largest prices, and grew more rapidly than any commercial point on the navigable waters of the interior of the state. This stopped, of course, when the railroads entered the picture.

Had James Duncan been an avaricious and grasping person he would have died an extremely wealthy man. He was fond of speculating, but once he acquired money, he spent it with a free and open hand to bring about improvements to our town. He and his sister, Mrs. Upham, gave generously towards the establishment of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church. He was mainly instrumental in obtaining a charter of the Bank of Massillon and the old Massillon Rolling Mill, and was the first president of both. In 1834 in conjunction with C.K. Skinner and Arvine Wales he purchased land for the establishment of a school known as the Union School on North Street where Longfellow School recently stood.

In 1841 a financial crisis again occurred and since Mr. Duncan had over-extended himself, he was forced into bankruptcy. After settling everything to his satisfaction he started for the Northwest and the shores of Lake Superior. Being the kind of person he was, he became involved in iron, copper and other products of that region, and formed a business under the name of Isle Royal Mining Company. This was in the real wilderness and he hoped to conquer it even though it involved constructing a plank road. It was completed, and Mr. Duncan lost money on it. It is said that he contributed largely to the settlement of that region and the advancement of the iron interests of Lake Superior. James Duncan’s energy, strength and unselfish devotion to the development of our country and resources were admirable. He exhausted himself and his money in his devotion to these causes. We are indeed fortunate to have had this selfless man as one of the founders of Massillon.


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