The first Van Wert County Jail sits in Willshire. (DHI Media/Jim Langham)
The first Van Wert County Jail sits in Willshire. (DHI Media/Jim Langham)
WILLSHIRE – The name of Capt. James Riley is synonymous with the naming of Willshire, according to the Van Wert History book published through the efforts of the county’s historical society. These days the town is best known for Becky’s Restaurant, the annual Memorial Day veteran’s display, ice cream, corner mini-mart and well-established fire department.

Later this week, the community’s annual community festival will bring plenty of vendors, local activities to the park and Saturday afternoon’s annual parade to the western Van Wert, Ohio community.

Capt. Riley’s feet first stood on the west banks of the St. Marys River on Aug. 1, 1821, when the well-known sea navigator made the first survey of the United States and the Maumee Valley.

“Capt. Riley selected this beautiful site on the west bank of the St. Marys River as an appropriate place to found a great inland city,” stated the history book.

Prior to that, Riley’s vessel had crashed on the shores of northwest Africa and he was captured and held in captivity for months, nearly perishing from starvation and the hot and dry weather of the area. Finally, he was ransomed by a British counsel at Magdor, William Willshire.

Ready to start a new life, Riley came to the United States where he envisioned he was going to start a new large city and name it in honor of his benefactor.

“He selected this site on the St. Marys because it appeared the St. Marys afforded the only feasible route for the proposed Miami and Erie Canal which Gov. Dewitt Clinton of New York was then rushing to completion,” stated the history book.

“In the name year he laid off the original plat of his projected town which he dream would become a great metropolis and named Willshire,” add the history.

With the help of his son, James Watson Riley, Riley survey and mapped out the town of Willshire, complete with public square, church lots and other necessary properties. Typical of the wilderness of the times, the nearest habitation was 12 miles away while the nearest walking path was four miles away.

In 1832, however, the captain had become bankrupt and eventually returned to New York where he took command of a sailing vessel for the east Indians. Unfortunately, he died at sea.

Still, the groundwork had been laid for the settlement of Willshire. Many pioneers followed the footsteps of the community’s first school teacher, Ansel Blossom. Willshire Reichard became the first child born in the community and was therefore named, “Willshire.”

Initially the original settlers depended on natural products, a natural fit since game of every kind was available, especially wild hogs. The forests were full of animals that provided furs for clothing and trade.

However, the business of the town grew rapidly and soon it was on its way with two large hardware establishments, two drug stores, clothing store, boots and shoes store, two bakeries, two hotels, three blacksmith shops, a stave and heading factory, harness shop and two churches.

These days, a monument to the first Van Wert County Jail and the town’s early legacy sits in the park which will be surrounded this weekend by the annual fun and frolic of the town’s residents, who continue to enjoy their little town on the west bank of the St. Marys River nearly 200 years later.