The history behind our building

The history behind our building

Since its construction in the early 1850s, what was originally known as Milton Kennedy’s Feed Store and City Hall building has become arguably the city’s most historic structure, having played a significant role in the history of the Underground Railroad, the nation’s Civil War, and the origins of Portsmouth’s shoe Industry, all before it housed the city’s first alcohol and opioid addiction treatment facility in the early 1890s.

Built in 1852 by Milton Kennedy, Portsmouth’s most outspoken abolitionist, the building first housed Kennedy’s feed store, which was an auxiliary to his dealings as a grain merchant. Before some major financial reverses in 1855, Kennedy was recognized as “the largest corn dealer in the state,” purchasing tons of Scioto Valley corn for shipment down river to the Cincinnati market. He operated boats on the Ohio & Erie Canal and personally captained steamboats on the Ohio and Big Sandy Rivers, transporting his grain and other goods, while helping facilitate his occasional work as an agent for the Underground Railroad. His brother-in-law, Joseph Ashton, a fellow abolitionist, would partner with Kennedy in his business endeavors, and also work as a conductor, helping transport freedom seekers to their next stop on southern Ohio’s Underground Railroad. 

Milton Kennedy was born on 7 May 1811 on Wolf Creek in Washington County, Ohio, and at the age of eight, he and his parents descended the Ohio on a flatboat and relocated to New Richmond, Claremont County, Ohio. He first learned the tobacconist trade from his father, but switched professions, studying law and establishing a law practice in New Richmond. After Kennedy’s first wife, Rosanna Israel, died in 1848, he decided to relocate to Portsmouth, where he quickly became known for his radical antislavery politics.

Originally a Democrat, Kennedy first voted for James G. Birney on the Liberty Party ticket in 1844. After moving to Portsmouth, he championed the Free Spoil Party, voting for Martin Van Buren, its nominee in 1848, and, again, in 1852, when Kennedy was one of only seventeen county residents that voted for John P. Hale, “the abolition candidate for President.” During this campaign, Kennedy organized Free Soil Meetings in Portsmouth and Lucasville, where he and his small band of brothers “were met with stones and stale eggs.”

In 1855, Milton Kennedy was one of four delegates from Scioto County to the Republican Party Convention in Columbus, Ohio. The other delegates included Wells A. Hutchins, Lucien V. Robinson, and George A. Waller. Among the other delegates at the convention was James Ashley, the former Portsmouth resident, who was there as a delegate from Toledo. Thus, one could argue that both Milton Kennedy and James Ashley ought to be considered founders of the Ohio Republican Party. The next year, in 1856, Milton Kennedy attended the first National Republican Convention, which was held in Philadelphia. Once again, both Kennedy and Ashley attended this convention, and, thus, the two men can be considered founders of both the Ohio and the national Republican parties. 

In Portsmouth, Milton Kennedy, his sister, Matilda Ashton, and his brother-in-law, Joseph Ashton were all members of the Protestant Methodist Church. Known as the “Radical Church on Fifth Street,” the history of this congregation is largely lost to time. In 1857, their larger denomination split over the slavery controversy, with the Portsmouth church joining the abolitionist faction that refused membership and communion to slaveowners. Ashton served as a delegate to the convention in Cincinnati and chaired the committee that drafted its antislavery resolutions.

Joseph Ashton’s committment to abolition can undoubtedly be traced back to his family’s Quaker roots, which connected him to “members of the devoted band that came to the New World under the leadership of the great Quaker [William Penn]. Ashton was born June 1st, 1805, at Cusky Old Town, five miles from Newcastle, Mercer (now Lawrence) county, Pennsylvania. His father was a major in the revolutionary army, and a man of considerable prominence in those stirring times. …. He afterwards participated in the Indian war in Ohio, and was at St. Clair’s Defeat, and also Harmar’s.” In retrospect, it seems his family’s Quaker pacificism did not survive the violent conflict of the American Revolution.

As a young man, Ashton moved to Pittsburg “and apprenticed himself to Samuel Walker, a noted steamboat builder, and learned the trade of ship carpenter. …. While in Pittsburg he married his … excellent wife [in 1831]. She lived in Alleghany City, and her name was Matilda Kennedy, being a sister of Squire Milton Kennedy.” At the time, Matilda was an active member of Pittsburg’s Protestant Methodist Church and Ashton would tell his biographer that “one of the first things he did after getting married was to join the church.”

In 1847, the Ashtons moved to New Richmond, Ohio, where Joseph managed a distillery manufacturing corn whiskey. In December, 1853, they moved to Portsmouth, with Joseph entering a “feed business” partnership with Milton Kennedy. “The firm was Kennedy & Ashton. Their place of business was what is now the Huston stone front, on Second street, though at the time the building stood alone and had a brick front. We believe Mr. Kennedy owned the building. The second story was the principal concert and theatrical hall of the place, and was called the ‘City Hall.’ The third story was the Odd Fellows’ Hall, and used by them for many years.”

Kennedy’s and Ashton’s involvement with the Underground Railroad was documented by Ohio State University history professor Wilbur Siebert, who corresponded with Milton Kennedy in 1896, not long before his death. Kennedy credited Ashton with assisting a larger number of freedom seekers than he had personally helped, but he did provide a detailed account of one instance that illustrated his own involvement and what can be described as the interracial nature of Portsmouth’s Underground Railroad operations.

In 1852, “while employed on a steamboat,” Kennedy assisted a runaway by accompanying him to Portsmouth and arranging with Edward Weaver, an African American confident, “to procure him a ticket” on the stage coach that ran from Portsmouth to Columbus, along what is now US Route 23.

Early in the Civil War, Kennedy “was in the Government service as captain of transports,” commanding the SS Piketon on the Big Sandy River and the SS Patton on the Lower Mississippi.” Ultimately, his work on behalf of the Republican Party paid off with a patronage appointment as Assistant Treasurer of the United States for Vicksburg, Mississippi. 

As for Joseph Ashton, his biographer notes that when the Civil War began, “though far beyond the age for active military service,” Joseph Ashton “obtained the appointment of wagon-master in the Thirty-Third regiment, but owing to objections on the part of his family [he] resigned the position.” In 1864, he would join Milton Kennedy in Vicksburg, taking a position as a “Government clerk.”

During the War, Kennedy’s old “City Hall” (the second floor) was converted into a military hospital, providing care for US soldiers and sailors, whose units or boats passed through the city. In the early 1870s, the building was remodeled and given a stone facade (front) by Capt. Samuel Huston, a prominent local businessman, and his wife, Elizabeth Huston, who helped manage his affairs following the Civil War. Huston’s fortune, in part, had been made in building and operating steamboats on the Ohio. 

In the Gilded Age, at different times, the Huston Stone Front, as it became known, was home to restaurants, law offices, a public hall for hosting concerts, dances, lectures, and other fundraisers. The building’s second floor, what had once been known as the City Hall, and had housed sick and wounded soldiers during the Civil War, served as an event hall, where Amanda Pursell and other Portsmouth women held programs to raise funds for the erection of the soldier’s monument in Tracy Park. The Huston Stone Front, as it was known in the 1870s and 80s would also come to house the first shoe factory of what in time grew into Selby Shoes, Portsmouth’s largest manufacturer of shoes in the early twentieth century. It was here, on the third floor, that Frederick Drew set up his first factory and where George Selby would first join the firm that would eventually take his name. 

Today, thanks to efforts of Jeremy and Maddie Burnside, the building has recently undergone a major renovation and restoration, including the addition of a modern elevator and new steel reinforcements to support the building’s antebellum brick walls. In restoring and updating the building for the 21st Century, Milton Kennedy’s original 19th Century structure and all the history that unfolded within its walls will be preserved, offering visitors a window into the city’s multifaceted past.


“Joseph Ashton. No. 33. Sketches of Representative Men of Portsmouth and Scioto County,” Portsmouth Daily Times (10 July 1886).

“City Hall of the Old Days Interestingly Described. Second Street City Business was Done Fifty Years’ Ago. Hall Was in Building Where Judge Calvert Now Has His Law Office,” Portsmouth Daily Times (3 October 1903).

“Milton Kennedy. No. 38. Sketches of Representative Men of Portsmouth and Scioto County,” Portsmouth Daily Times (14 August 1886).

“Milton Kennedy Account of Abolitionist Activities,” Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection, Ohio History Connection.