The story of Mrs. Winnemore's chairs

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

In a nice-looking house on Mohawk Street in German Village, there's a shop called Helen Winnemore's. Who's Helen, and how did she start this business?

It all started with little chairs. Late in 1937, Helen Winnemore was a Sunday school teacher who needed proper seating for her small, fidgety students. She found them in Berea, Kentucky, at Berea College. Both that area and the college were, and still are, known for their excellent handcrafted products. Asked by the college to help sell some of its students' work, Helen took the challenge and opened a small shop in her Grandview Heights living room and quickly gained a following. Part of the magic of a visit there was that she encouraged visitors to open the dresser drawers in which she displayed many products; and part of the charm was Helen's offering of coffee or tea to each guest. Approached by additional artists and craftspeople to help market their work, she soon moved to a shop at the corner of East Broad Street and Parsons Avenue and then, in 1966, to the store's current home at Kossuth and Mohawk streets. German Village had been designated a historic district not long before that but did not have a large number of retailers to interest visitors. Fifty years of success in that location seem to have proven the wisdom of that move. Since Helen's retirement, and subsequent passing in 1996, two successive owners have kept the shop true to its roots: a place for fine, well-crafted, handmade goods-and yes, coffee or tea is still offered.

In flying in and out of Columbus, I've noticed that the surrounding farmland looks different east and west of the Scioto River. East of the river it's laid out in orderly squares and rectangles, but to the west the fields are all kinds of odd shapes. Why is this?

The answer goes back to pre-statehood days. At the time of the American Revolution, Virginia claimed western land well beyond its current borders, including much of Ohio. The newly independent states were persuaded to drop these western claims, Virginia among them, but it reserved an area between the Scioto and Miami rivers to reward war veterans for their service, known as the Virginia Military District. As former soldiers claimed their land to homestead, it was surveyed under an "indiscriminate" system of "metes and bounds" that relied on trees, barns, large rocks and other perishable landmarks to define boundaries. As settlers hurried to claim the most desirable lands, all sorts of odd-shaped parcels were formed, often leading to ownership and boundary disputes. In the meantime, Congress passed the Land Ordinance of 1785, making for a more orderly western settlement that avoided the problems of the haphazard old system. This law created the Rectangular Survey System, which divided land parcels by a series of fixed markers, forming "townships" of 36 one-mile-square "sections" that could be further subdivided into quarter-sections and even smaller units. All of this was based on fixed east-west and north-south survey lines and was tested in northeast Ohio. Most of our state was surveyed using the Rectangular system, and so were most of the states westward to the Pacific Coast. That's why, when you fly west, you see a distinct "checkerboard" pattern of farms and fields, except between the Scioto and the Miami and in a few other areas where the old survey system was used.

Jeff Darbee is a preservationist, historian and author in Columbus. Send your questions to, and the answer might appear in a future column.

Sources: Thomas H. Smith, The Mapping of Ohio; Shop staff; John M. Clark, German Village Stories Behind the Bricks.