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January 2007
So What's a Buckeye?

   Ohio has several nicknames, but the most common is the Buckeye State. There are buckeye streets all over and businesses named after Buckeyes and, of course, The Ohio State University sports teams. So what's a Buckeye?

   Well, it's a tree of the horse chestnut family, native throughout the Midwest, but not usually found further east. When white settlers arrived, they used these trees extensively for building log cabins and other structures. The actual name buckeye comes from the tree's large brown nuts. Native Americans thought they looked like the brown eyes of a male deer. Hence, the name: buck eye. Today, buckeye trees aren't as common in Ohio as they once were. One reason is that the settlers cut them down. Another reason is that they aren't a great tree to have in your backyard. Sure, they're big and beautiful and stately. But they're also a lot of trouble, precisely because of those buckeyes, encased in a large, heavy, leathery coat. They fill up a yard and leave the home-owner with the task of keeping them picked up. After a few seasons of buckeye gathering, you think about moving to, maybe, Michigan, where the state tree is the eastern white pine, or Illinois where the state tree is the white oak—both a lot easier to live with than a buckeye tree.

   The term Buckeye as a nickname for Ohioans dates to the presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison in 1840. Harrison had been born in Virginia but moved to Ohio where he made his home. His campaign is notable because it marks the beginning of modern political campaigns based more on image than substance. Harrison was advised by his managers, "Don't say a single word about what you believe, about what you’ll do as president." Instead they sought to create an image—Harrison was portrayed as a hardy man of the people in what was called a "log cabin and hard cider" campaign. His campaign manager, Horace Greeley, had log cabins built all over the country to make the point. Since Ohio log cabins were often made of buckeye wood, the term came to be applied to Harrison and all other Ohioans: Buckeyes.

   Now in fact, Harrison wouldn't have felt much more at home in a log cabin than you or I. He had been born into privileged family that owned a plantation in Virginia and was accustomed to walking in the halls of power. But, no matter, the campaign gambit worked and Harrison won the election.

   As president, William Henry Harrison is remembered for having given the longest inauguration speech in American history: one hour and 45 minutes. Moreover, he gave this speech outdoors on a frigid day without a coat and in the process caught a cold which developed into pneumonia. He never recovered, died a month later. The longest inaugural speech was followed by the shortest presidential term, possibly a reason why none of his successors have ever repeated that trick.

   But the term Buckeye stuck, describing the log cabin existence of modern Ohioans just as inaccurately as it did that of William Henry Harrison.

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