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How old? Just take a pick

By Henry Timman • Jul 12, 2019 at 12:00 PM

Very often in my research I encounter the story of someone who was considered a centenarian.

That is, they had lived more than a century. Their story always needs much verification, since folks born before the American Civil War seldom had any birth record and had to rely on what their parents had told them. 

You see, many of these alleged centenarians were born on the American frontier long before civil registration of births was required. And, many parents were unable to write so a written family record could not be kept. These factors confuse genealogists because many people as they aged made themselves older for two reasons. One reason was that they didn’t know their exact age, and they realized that the older they were, the more respect they had in the community as a relic of olden times.

A case in point is a man named Richard Brewer who died at his home near Birmingham in Erie County on May 6, 1890, aged perhaps 108, 102, 101 or maybe only 98. It all depends on what source one uses. His 1820 census reading avers he was born in 1794 or later, his 1830 census readings places him born between 1790 and 1800 — and after that he ages rapidly in the federal census every 10 years.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it can’t be argued with that he served in the New York Militia in the War of 1812, and married in Huron County in 1818, so we know he was well into adulthood early in the 19th century. Actually, there also is some dispute as to his place of birth. One source says his birth took place at Greenbush, across the Hudson River from Albany; his newspaper obituary gives his place of birth as a town called Vanesbush, south of Albany.

No matter where Richard originated, it is clear that he always enjoyed being out in the woods and hunting. Soon after the War of 1812 we find him in the Florence Township area, hunting and trapping the abundance of “critters” in the Ohio wilderness. In later years he claimed to have killed 12 bears, perhaps 1,000 deer, and scores of smaller animals including 16 panthers.

One outstanding hunting incident involved a bear he scared up near Florence village. The bear was chased west to “The Huron Marsh” from where it started east again toward Vermilion. Brewer caught up with it eventually, but his gun wouldn’t fire so he attacked the bear with a hatchet and killed the animal with his second hatchet blow. It was a big bear, weighing 114 pounds to the quarter. It is a fact that there were numerous bears in our area when the American settlers came, and they were eliminated for safety, for the main course of a good meal and for the warm hide and the extra grease provided by the fat meat.

Richard Brewer eventually settled down to farming at the corner of Ohio 113 and Harrison Road, where he died May 6, 1890. He and his wife Nancy are buried in the Birmingham Cemetery.

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REMEMBER: My “Just Like Old Times” books are on sale at New Directions Design, 20 W. Main St., in downtown Norwalk. These contain my earlier columns fully indexed and in permanent book form.

Henry Timman, an authority on Firelands history, resides in rural Norwalk.

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