The Civil War was still nine years away when Hamilton County’s oldest continuing court case was filed in 1852 on behalf of a blind Cincinnati banker looking to commemorate his wife and his beliefs.
Now, 160 years later, the Probate Court case involving the estate of Ethan Stone is likely coming to a close.
And with the case’s end comes a surprising revelation: Some Cincinnati residents, it turns out, don’t own their own land.
“My guess is it’s the oldest case in the state of Ohio, possibly in the country, where paperwork has been continuously filed,” Hamilton County Probate Court Judge Jim Cissell said. The case “goes right back to the beginning of the Probate Court itself.”
The case is loaded with local history, including connections to two U.S. presidents, the creation of what became the University of Cincinnati and the establishment of 16 parcels of land where today’s residents, who think they own the land on which their homes sit, could be in for a surprise.
“The practical effect is … current occupants of the properties who think they got ownership, didn’t,” said Steve Black, an attorney for Fifth Third Bank, a trustee of Stone’s estate.
Ohio Supreme Court officials said there was no way to determine if Stone’s case is the oldest active court case in Ohio.
In a clash of ancient and modern, Cissell has placed the case online where a trip through history is just a click away.
Marguerite “Maggie” Brunner doesn’t have to go online to see that history. She lived part of it.
Brunner, 79, bought her Lower Price Hill house in 1956 and paid monthly ground rent of $1.50 that went to Stone’s trust.
“They told us when we bought the house that somebody else owned the land,” Brunner said.
She and her husband, Louis, bought the two-family house at 2454 Galvin Ave. for $5,000. They refurbished it into a single-family home where they raised seven children and received visits from some of their 26 grandchildren and 40 great-grandchildren.
She sold the house in 2007 and moved next door. The house was torn down earlier this summer.
“We only paid them (ground rent) for a few years, and then we quit because they told us we didn’t have to any more,” Brunner said.
Attorneys representing Stone’s trust aren’t looking to collect unpaid rent. They’re seeking to have the trust dissolved – its assets are about $100 plus the 16 parcels of land that generate no income – and the court case ended.
The goal, Black said, is to give the homeowners the ground on which their homes sit. The 16 parcels are on River Road in Sedamsville, Galvin Avenue in Lower Price Hill and Elberon Avenue in East Price Hill.
Stone came here in a covered wagon
Stone, born in 1767 and nine years older than the United States, moved to Cincinnati in 1802 at age 35, arriving from Massachusetts in a covered wagon. A lawyer, Stone lost his sight and turned to banking, becoming president of the Bank of Cincinnati in 1814 at the same time he was a member of Ohio’s Fifth General Assembly.
In the next few years, he donated money to help found what now is the University of Cincinnati and Downtown’s Christ Church Cathedral and became active in the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio. He was well-known in the area as the owner of a large house and property that included a portion of what today is Fountain Square.
Stone became so successful politically and as an investor that he persuaded Ohio lawmakers to rent him a large portion of what is now Queensgate, Sedamsville, Lower Price Hill and East Price Hill.
The property originally was part of the 1794 Symmes Purchase, made by John Cleves Symmes, father-in-law to President William Henry Harrison. That land was divided into 36 plots, including Section 29, which was reserved for “ministerial use,” meaning any income derived from the sale or lease of land in Section 29 had to be distributed to area churches.
Section 29 was bound on the east by Mill Creek, on the north by what was essentially the southern edge of today’s Sixth Street Downtown, then known as Lower River Road. That extended west to East Price Hill near Grand and Hawthorne avenues and then directly south to the Ohio River. It was located in what was known as Storrs Township, named after Abigail Storrs, the maiden name of Stone’s wife.
In 1810, Ohio rented Section 29 to Stone, who sublet some properties for income. In 1821, Ohio altered the original lease, allowing Stone to rent Section 29 for $40 per year. He was given a 99-year lease, “renewable forever.”
Storrs Township was annexed into Cincinnati in 1869, but courts later ruled Stone’s estate still owned the ground lease rights to Section 29.
That proved to be a wise investment for Stone and his estate.
“Cincinnati is in a growth mode at that time,” Black said. “The value of that property grows.”
Estate helps family, orphans, elderly
When Stone died in 1850, his will noted he paid $40 per year rent on Section 29 while earning $1,200 per year subletting its parcels. In today’s dollars, that means he paid $1,114 per year to rent the land but made $33,408 on rents – earning an annual profit of $32,295. And he likely made similar profits for the 29 years he was alive under that lease arrangement. He invested in railroads and other companies through the years.
The Section 29 rental agreement that was so beneficial to Stone was drawn up by his lawyer, Alphonso Taft, father of future President William Howard Taft.
From those proceeds, Stone’s will called for money to be given annually to the Cincinnati Orphan Asylum, an entity that became partnered with what now is Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and the Society for the Relief of Aged and Indigent Females, now known as Maple Knoll Communities. The rest was to be divided among churches in Section 29 and, initially, to the College of Cincinnati to endow scholarships for the needy who wanted to become Episcopal priests.
Because the college later wasn’t interested, that portion of Stone’s estate went to the Episcopal Church and has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars for its Bishops Fund over the past 160 years.
The money that was to go to the churches and religious schools of Section 29 was to be decided by its residents. Every 10 years, Stone’s will required a vote to determine which church received the money. A vote was held every 10 years, Black said, the last in 1993. Price Hill United Methodist won that election, winning 79 of the 148 votes cast, but closed its doors in the next decade. No elections were held after that because there was too little money left in the trust.
During those elections, eligible voters had to be at least 15 years old who “had the right to partake in Communion in a Protestant Church,” court documents note. An 1893 court decree detailed how the elections were to be held. It allowed women to vote in them – 27 years before the United States gave women the right to vote in government elections.
Now, Black is asking that the Stone trust be terminated because it has about $100 remaining in it and the useless 16 parcels. If that happens, the estate’s trustees will ask the court to declare those now listed as owners of the 16 parcels to be recognized as their legal owners, “free and clear of the ground leases once held by the trust,” Black said.
Cissell, a pioneer in placing public documents online, has found many of the original documents in the case and has spent months getting them on the Probate Court’s website.
“This is a beta case where some of the paper is disintegrating. You can’t digitize it” because it’s in such deteriorating shape, so his office is copying the originals and scanning the copies to the court’s website.
The hearing to determine if Stone’s case can be terminated is Oct. 30.
“Probably no one has had the direct and continuing contact with the city of Cincinnati as this guy has,” Cissell said of Stone’s 210-year history with the area.
Stone died in 1852. He and his wife are buried in Spring Grove Cemetery.
Cold case: 1852 probate claim finally being closed
ENQUIRER EXCLUSIVE: According to 160-year-old will, 16 city homeowners don’t really own their land
October 23, 2012