Piatt family opens their historic homes
Story by Jane Beathard
Photos courtesy of the Piatt family
Daffodils will soon be popping up around Mac-A-Cheek Castle in Logan County — a sign that spring is at hand and visitors will prowl its historic halls.
Those visitors take a step back in time at Mac-A-Cheek and its nearby sister institution Mac-O-Chee Castle. They return to the late 19th Century and America’s Gilded Age when prominent and wealthy landowners built homes that symbolized the tenacity and achievements of their families.
One of those was the Piatt family of Logan County.
True pioneers, Benjamin and Elizabeth Piatt were East Coast natives who migrated to Cincinnati in 1803 when the city’s population numbered only 750. They settled on land that included what is now an area between Seventh and Eleventh streets.
Benjamin developed a flatboat trade on the Ohio River and practiced law. He was so successful that he eventually bought what is now Garfield Park and donated it to the city.
He also bought 1,700 acres in Logan County — a part of western Ohio that was just then being settled, Margaret Piatt said.
Margaret is the sixth generation of her family to oversee Piatt interests in Logan County.
She recounted how Benjamin and Elizabeth missed farm life so much they eventually moved to their Logan County property and began homesteading. Accompanied by the youngest of their 10 children, Abram and Donn, they built a log cabin near what is now Mac-A-Cheek Castle.
“The boys, then 6 and 8, had a frontier type of childhood,” Margaret noted.
Benjamin farmed, practiced law and built a grain mill and a sawmill. The family traveled between Cincinnati in the winter — where the boys attended school — and their Logan County home in the summer.
Their lives and life in Logan County changed dramatically when the railroad arrived in 1837. It opened new markets for Piatt farm products and made travel easier.
“Trains brought people from all over the U.S. into the county. It also brought news from the state, country and world,” according to the Logan County Historical Society.
Before he died, Benjamin began dividing his holdings among his surviving children. Nine hundred acres went to Abram, who loved rural life. Another 100 or so went to Donn, who had become the family “rebel,” rejecting both farm life and the practice of law.
“Donn and his wife led a ‘bohemian” lifestyle,” Margaret said.
Outbreak of the Civil War unified the brothers in a single purpose. Both were widowers by the time fighting broke out. Abram formed a regiment to support the Union cause, and Donn joined up.
Once the war ended, Abram returned to Ohio and remarried a woman from the socially and politically prominent Worthington family.
In 1864, he began building Mac-A-Cheek, naming it for local Shawnee villages. Construction of the house took seven years, using stone from local quarries and wood from the family’s own sawmill.
Donn also remarried, but remained in Washington D.C. for 15 years, becoming a politically prominent publisher of a newspaper called The Capital.
“He became a national figure,” Margaret said.
Having achieved success in his own right, Donn returned to Logan County and with the financial help of his second wife, Ella, began building Mac-O-Chee in 1879 by adding a stone extension to a pre-existing wooden structure.
The houses were so grand that locals began referring to them as “castles.” That moniker remains to this day.
Donn died in 1891, and Ella moved on to build other homes in the area.
Mac-O-Chee eventually became a sanitarium, then a museum. It passed through several more owners and was even empty for a while before the Piatt family reacquired it at auction in 1957.
Mac-A-Cheek and 80 acres passed to one of Abram’s sons, William, a well-known inventor of farm equipment. It has never left the Piatt family, Margaret said proudly.
William was the first to realize the architectural and cultural value of his ancestral home and opened portions to tours in 1912.
That tradition continues today.
Regular tours of both Piatt Castles begin this year on Saturday, April 14. The castles will be open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends through May 20.
From Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, the castles are open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The weekend schedule returns after Labor Day and continues through Oct. 28. Both castles are closed in winter.
With the help of others, Margaret formed the Mac-A-Cheek Foundation for the Humanities in the late 1990s. Beginning in 2002, the castles began sponsoring a broad selection of programs, plays, school tours and summer day camps. Many are based on late 1800s and early 1900s traditions.
A popular Halloween event features ghost stories by famous writers, autumn games and the poetry of James Whitcomb Riley. Easter Sunday activities include games, card making, an egg roll and a history of the popular White House egg roll.
“We put programs in a cultural context,” Margaret said.
Mac-A-Cheek Castle is located a mile east of West Liberty, just off State Route 245, at 10051 Township Road 47. Mac-O-Chee is located about a mile farther east at 2319 State Route 287. For tour information, visit piattcastles.org.
Easter at Mac-A-Cheek
Celebrate Easter Sunday at Mac-A-Cheek Castle with a special family program that begins at 3:30 p.m. and lasts for 90 minutes.
Activities will include an Easter egg roll, hunt and hands-on games from The American Girls and Boys Handy Books, published in 1880s.
Inside, children will be invited to make an Easter card similar to that pictured in the 19th century Handy Books and to color another from the Piatt family collection. An exhibit of 19th and 20th century Easter cards will be on view.
In the drawing room, families can share their own holiday customs and learn about the role spring-time stories have played in Piatt family celebrations.
Indoors and outdoors, children can play historical egg games from other countries including the German basket toss and the Irish bunching game with rhyme.
Outside, all can enjoy an Easter egg roll like the one first held at the White House when Rutherford B. Hayes was president.
No one will leave without an egg or treats.
In case of rain, outdoor games will be adapted for inside play.
Admission is $10 for adults (age 15 and older) and $5 for children (age 5-14). Proceeds support interactive educational programs at Piatt Castles.
Reservations are recommended by calling 937-844-3902 or visiting piattcastles.org.