Cincinnati’s Beloved Myth Of Washerwoman Ida Martin

It is a lovely myth, but it is, like many myths, unsupported by facts. While Mount Adams was once called Mount Ida, it’s unlikely that the prior name had anything to do with an anonymous washerwoman living in a hollow tree.

From a dense forest of tall dark pinewood,

Mount Ida rises like an island.

Genesis, “The Fountain of Salmacis”

It is among Cincinnati’s most treasured myths, a tale passed down the generations as gospel truth for almost 80 years. Here is the original version as published in the 1943 WPA Guide, formally known as “Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and Its Neighbors” [page 253]:

“Sitting quietly alone, with traffic whizzing round its feet, Mount Adams has the ascetic majesty associated with spiritual things. . . In the early days the eminence was called Mount Ida. Some say it was named for Ida Martin, a washerwoman who lived in the hollow of an old sycamore on the steep hillside ‘a little north of Fox’s sawmill, east of Deer Creek.’ An architectural detail of the Martin establishment is recalled in one account: ‘a broken hollow limb, much smoke-blackened, served for a chimney.’”

This myth is perpetuated at 1136 St. Gregory Street in one of the city’s wonderful Artworks murals entitled “The Roots of Vision.” Presented here are images of people associated with Mount Adams: Nicholas Longworth, Maria Longworth, a bishop, an astronomer, and “pioneer woman” Ida Martin.

A mural titled “The Roots Of Vision” graces 1136 St. Gregory St. in Mount Adams and memorializes “pioneer woman” Ida Martin, framed by the boughs of the legendary sycamore tree.

Photograph by Greg Hand

It is a lovely myth, but it is, like many myths, unsupported by facts. Among these facts, amalgamated into the accepted myth are the following:

There actually was a washerwoman who lived in a hollow sycamore tree on the slopes of the hill that was later named Mount Adams.

There actually was a woman named Ida Martin, who was not a washerwoman, but who did have something to do with Mount Adams.

Mount Adams was formerly known as Mount Ida, among other names.

Somewhere along the way, these three facts bumped into one another and created a satisfying and enduring myth.

Let us address the “washerwoman” first. She first appears in the recollections of one Samuel Stitt, an early settler, as published in Charles Cist’s “Sketches and Statistics of Cincinnati in 1859,” where Stitt recalls:

“We all had our pasture-lots; mine was on Deercreek, a little north of Fox’s sawmill. On this lot was a large hollow sycamore tree, which was occupied as a dwelling by a woman who washed for the garrison. A large limb had been broken off, and the stump of it left, served for a chimney. It was as much blacked by the smoke as any brick chimney I have seen since.”

Stitt’s memory was repeated by Robert Ralston Jones, in his “Fort Washington at Cincinnati Ohio” (1902):

“Fort Washington stood upon the second terrace, which extended back from the upper edge of the second bank, at an elevation of between eighty and ninety feet above low water in the Ohio River. The lower terrace was originally covered by a growth of white walnut, water maples, hickory, and ash trees; with a few very large sycamores. One of these sycamores, situated near Deer Creek a little above its mouth, was hollow and of such a great size, that a woman who acted as laundress (about 1796), for the garrison at Fort Washington, occupied it as a dwelling; the broken end of a hollow limb which projected from the trunk being utilized as a chimney.”

Note that this woman is not named in either of these sources. One might also inquire why a woman would set up her laundry in a burned-out sycamore tree on an otherwise unoccupied hill when there was a perfectly good little village named Cincinnati on the other side of Fort Washington. It is not unreasonable to suspect that this laundress or washerwoman provided “services” in addition to laundry for the soldiers stationed at the Fort. Contemporary records list “washerwomen” among the various “camp followers” attached to the armies of the day, and a hollow tree across the creek from a fort filled with potential customers might escape the scrutiny of righteous townfolk.

Reliable sources claim a washerwoman lived in a hollow tree on the slope of Mount Adams around 1796, but her name has not been preserved.

From Robert Ralston Jones, “Fort Washington at Cincinnati Ohio” (1902). Image digitized by Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County

At one time Mount Adams was pretty much owned by Nicholas Longworth, who had purchased “Belmont,” the building we now know as the Taft Museum, at a bargain when the original owner, Martin Baum, went bankrupt. What is now Eden Park constituted Longworth’s grape vineyards. It was Longworth who donated land at the peak of Mount Adams for the original Cincinnati Observatory.

Longworth installed several generations of his family in Belmont, where, according to Rose Angela Boehle, in her biography of Maria Longworth, the lot of them were fed by a certain cook:

“[Longworth] could look across his garden, down the little Deer Creek at the bottom of the valley, and beyond to the first hill, named Mt. Ida by the children after the Longworth cook, Ida Martin, who lived in a rustic cabin on its lower slope.”

Well, perhaps.

The hill we call Mount Adams has had any number of names over the years. Around 1800, it was known as Lytle’s Hill and somewhat later as Waterworks Hill. Mount Ida was certainly one of its names. The Family Magazine of 1841, published in Cincinnati, offers this description as part of a caption to an engraving of our city:

“We offer our readers this month a view of Cincinnati from the hill north-east of the city, vulgarly known as the water-works’ hill, classically called Mount Ida.”

Note that word, “classically.” The pioneers who settled Cincinnati may have been buckskin-clad frontiersmen intent on colonizing the backwoods, but they were far from illiterate or unlettered. Most would immediately have recognized Mount Ida from classical mythology as mentioned in Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid. Even in the 1970s, Mount Ida was familiar to the public school toffs who formed the rock group Genesis and memorialized the original Grecian Mount Ida in their song, “The Fountain of Salmacis.”

In other words, Mount Ida might or might not have been named for the Longworth family cook, but the reference would surely have incorporated an allusion to classical mythology.

The bottom line is, Mount Adams was once called Mount Ida, but it is unlikely that the prior name had anything to do with an anonymous washerwoman living in a hollow tree.

[I am indebted to Valerie Niemi for pointing me to the real Ida Martin in Rose Angela Boehle’s biography of Maria Longworth.]

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