Wednesday, December 01, 1999

Homey issue: West Chester or Union Twp.?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Three long months must pass before the March 7 primary. But already, battle lines are quietly being drawn in Butler County. Residents are taking sides over changing the name of Union Township to West Chester.

        Newcomers in subdivisions favor West Chester. The name sounds more citified, more homey to these citizens. And there are of lots of them. Thirty-one percent of the township's 20,995 homes have been built since 1990.

        “You can get your arms around that name,” Dennis Dunwoodie recently told me. He moved here from Cleveland two years ago. “West Chester sounds more like a place where someone would live.”

        The Union Township supporters come from deep-rooted farm families. Their ancestors first plowed what today are fields of houses. The farmers raised hay and corn, cattle and hogs in what is now, thanks to the newcomers, the fastest-growing township in Butler County.

        “Union Township is home,” said Eileen Stander, whose family has farmed the same acres in the township for three generations. “West Chester is city.”

        The decision on a name is a big deal. On one level, for an outsider like me, it's the latest version of suburbanites vs. farmers, development vs. the way things used to be. But for most of the people I talked to while nosing around the township recently, this is an election about deciding what to call home.

Confusion abounds
        Action to change the township's name formally began in 1998. But the change had been bantered about for decades because of the amount of confusion, both official and unofficial, attached to the name Union.

        When she applied to run for trustee in 1993, Catherine Stoker thought she was running in West Chester Township. The San Francisco Bay area native moved to the township in 1987.

        After she was elected, Union Township's new trustee learned about the official confusion. Ohio has 28 Union townships, including three in Greater Cincinnati. The state's various Union Townships mistakenly receive one another's mail, bills and lawsuits. Police calls are often mixed up. “One of our fire chiefs, a very good employee, received a termination notice in the mail,” she said. “But it was from another Union Township.”

        Pat Hoelscher works the polls on Election Day in Union Township. She's done this for 15 years.

        “People try to vote for Cincinnati's mayor and Hamilton County issues like the stadium tax,” she said. “They don't have a clue where they live.”

        Pat Hoelscher does. Her family has farmed in Union Township for three generations.

        “The name should remain Union Township,” she said. “The people who want it to change haven't lived here long enough to know the history or to care.”

        Bob McMaken knows the history. “Union Township is the youngest township in Butler County,” said the volunteer researcher for the county's Records Center and Archives. “It was formed on June 2, 1823.”

        He cares about the township's name because of his family ties.

        “My third great-grand-uncle, Joseph J. McMaken, was the first white settler in the area in 1795.”

        The researcher sees the proposed name change as “an attempt to satisfy developers who want a more salable name to fill the entire township with upscale housing.”

        West Chester was not coined by some go-go real estate agent in the 1990s. The name first appeared on documents in Oct. 6, 1826. West Chester, then as now, was an unincorporated, undefined spot on the map.

        In 1826, the spot sat west of the post office near the village of Chester. Next year, West Chester could stand for the name of a 35-square mile township with a population of 59,000 and still growing.

        Learning about the long histories of Union Township and West Chester was highly educational. Even better was hearing the pride come through the strong opinions on both sides of the name-change issue. It made me realize that home is where the heart is, no matter how it's named.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.