“The right of the people peaceably to assemble:” it is a democratic empowerment so fundamental to the essence of our nation that it is inscribed prominently into the very first Amendment to the Constitution.
As a core value so central to defining our American personality, it is significant that when folks in Richland County practice this right they do so in the most central location in the heart of the community: the public Square. That’s why it’s called Central Park.
That’s the way it happened in 1900, when a sea of angry Richland County residents flooded into the Square to have their voices heard.
They said it was the largest crowd ever assembled in the Square. It was an epic use of the First Amendment, and it all started, simply enough, with horse manure.
Piles of it
We don’t think about it today because everyone drives cars, and cars have exhaust, but back then everyone had a horse and the exhaust they left behind was horse dung.
It piled up in the streets, particularly streets around the Square where farmers hitched their teams for hours at a time while they were off doing business.
In the wet months it steamed and smelled; in the summer months it turned to dust and blew into all the shops surrounding Central Park. There was no air conditioning then and they had to leave the doors wide open.
Through the years, over the decades, slowly the county seat became saturated with the smell of old stinking road apples.
By 1900 all the other major urban centers of Ohio and the U.S. had already designated their downtown curbs as horse-free parking zones. Every metropolis had a fleet of streetcars — including Mansfield — so folks were encouraged to visit downtown without their horses.
This arrangement didn’t really accommodate farmers however, who came into town from the surrounding countryside in wagons and carriages. So every city had a number of sites in the business district that were ‘parking garages’ for horses. They were called livery stables.
Also known as the “Dime Barns,” they were the landmarks where farmers were directed when they drove their teams into the city.
There were two of these liveries located within a block of the Square, and by 1900 half of the city council was very vocal about how it was time Mansfield joined the modern age by keeping horses from tying up around Central Park.
It was only half of the city council who felt this way however, and the other half aligned themselves with shopkeepers around the square who all believed their businesses would suffer drastically if farmers weren’t allowed to park outside their stores.
A dozen years before, in 1888, the businessmen had all pooled their resources and paid to have Central Park surrounded with hitching posts and hitching rails in order to make farmers feel welcome.
It was the hitching posts in downtown Mansfield that became the spark of controversy in 1900, and the city council was so mired in partisan posturing that it was unable to decide the issue.
But then one night when, unaccountably, there weren’t any officers of the law around, a crew of vandals drove onto the Square and started ripping out the hitching posts.
It wasn’t an easy task — the shafts were firmly set in concrete and it took chains and horses to crank them out of the ground. There were 15 men with two wagons so it was not an uncoordinated attack.
The men knew what they were doing though, and within an hour all the hitching posts and rails were plucked and gone.
Next morning at first light when shopkeepers and attorneys and hotel maids and courthouse clerks all showed up for work at the Square, there rose a horrified cry.
The outrage got louder as the day went on, and reached an indignant fever pitch by afternoon. Accusations were flung, and fingers were pointed, and angry stalwarts stalked about the public grounds staring in disbelief at holes in the dirt around the sidewalks.
There were many conspiracy theories. Of course everyone glared at half the city council. But it was pretty much assumed that, following the trail of who stood to profit most from the crime, the livery owners had to be in on it too.
And it seemed awfully suspicious that on that one night of the year there just happened to be no policemen on the square deterring crime.
The hitching posts disappeared late Wednesday night. Thursday morning the fires of indignation were ignited. Friday the flames were fanned with outrage and by Saturday there was a wildfire of response.
The First Amendment
Before the story goes on it is important to know that in the end it turned out the hitching posts on the Square were gone for good. There was simply no replacing them. Ultimately the whole conflagration served best only to remove from the agenda of city council an issue that it was unable to resolve.
Its not like the protest and the immense show of numbers actually reversed the situation. And it can be said that had the crowd forced its will somehow, it could only be construed as mob rule. That wasn’t really the point.
The point is that everyone has a voice and everyone who needs to speak must be heard. That is what our Republic is all about, and how Democracy works.
That day in the Square, when a record-breaking crowd of citizens gathered in protest, was an epic victory for Democracy. No one was hurt, everyone had a say, and the steam was allowed to rise.
There was a slate of speakers orating angrily. There was shouting and singing and praying. The voices raised came from city folk and country folk alike, uniting in common cause for a moment.
The many diverse people spoke. It was classic ‘E Pluribus Unum:’ from the many, one.
In the end they all went home different, stronger.
There was a happy postscript to this after all. Within a very few weeks city council acted to designate Walnut Street as a horse-friendly zone, and erected new hitching posts there.