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Why Is Dayton Called The “Gem City”? WYSO Curious Goes On A Treasure Hunt

Sep 11, 2014

“Gem City” — that phrase should sound familiar to most people in the Miami Valley.

A quick glance into the Yellow Pages, or a quick Google search, reveals a list of several dozen Dayton-area groups and businesses that use the name. But what’s that nickname for Dayton all about? Two WYSO listeners, Dot Schnering and Gary Honnert, recently asked the question:

Why do they call Dayton the Gem City?

WYSO Curious took a treasure hunt to try to find out, starting with a visit to one of those dozens of projects that use the name: the Gem City Chorus.

"A gem sparkles, it shines, it has many facets, and our members have many facets," says Anne Boyd with the chorus. Boyd stands with a group of women on risers in a large open room. They’re swaying with big smiles on their faces. There’s a picture of a woman’s profile within a gemstone on the wall behind them, and the words “Gem City” across the top.

Boyd has been in Dayton for 55 years, and she’s been singing with Gem City for decades.

“I like the name,” she says. “We are the Gem City.”

Gem-like though the ladies of the chorus may be, when it comes to Dayton itself, what’s “gem” got to do with it?

The historians weigh in

In anticipation of this frequently asked question, Mary Oliver, director of collections at Carillon Historical Park, keeps an answer hanging over her desk: an excerpt from an Aug. 18, 1845 article from the Cincinnati Chronicle, authored by a reporter known to history only as "T." In the article, titled "Dayton Improvements," the city receives glowing praise from T, as he or she writes:

Mary Oliver is the director of collections at Carillon Historical Park in Dayton.
Credit Lauren Shows / WYSO

The most indifferent observer will not fail to notice Dayton. The wide streets, kept in excellent order, the noble blocks of stores, filled with choice, and of course, cheap goods, and more than all, the exceeding beauty and neatness of the dwellings, you at once mark with a 'white stone,' in a small bend of the Great Miami River, with canals on the east and south, it may be fairly said that Dayton is the gem of all our interior towns; it possesses wealth, refinement, enterprise and a beautiful country.

According to Oliver, this article is one of the earliest known connections between the word “gem” and the city of Dayton, and if you ask any local historian the “Gem City” question, you’ll probably be handed a copy of this article. But in the same breath, you’ll also probably hear that, in fact, there is no definitive answer to the question.

Still, a few possible answers lie in wait for the curious. Nancy Horlacher, the local history specialist at Dayton Metro Library, keeps a card catalog full of answers to questions about local history. The card addressing the question of Dayton's nickname touts several answers, some more likely valid than others. It could be that that passing mention from "T" in the Cincinnati Chronicle article caught people’s attention. Or maybe Dayton is the Gem City because a local man named George H. Focht owned a racehorse named “Gem” that trained on West 1st street, which is what an article in the Dec. 29, 1930 issue of the Dayton Herald postulates. Horlacher says it’s also possible, though perhaps unlikely, that Daytonians were really concerned 

Nancy Horlacher looks through her files at the Dayton Metro Library.
Credit Lauren Shows / WYSO

about strikes going on in South African diamond mines in the 1880s, and wanted to call Dayton the “Gem City” in solidarity with strikers there. This sparkling answer, appeared in the Dayton Daily News in the 1980s, after columnist Millie B. was asked about Dayton’s nickname. (Millie B. answered the question about a decade after another Dayton Daily News columnist, Roz Young, who gives the same answers, but takes all of them with a sizable grain of salt.)

Horlacher says wherever the name came from, at some point, “Gem City” got an advocate.

"There was no mention made of Dayton as the Gem City until 1882," says Horlacher, "[when] William Bickham, he was the editor of the Dayton Journal, campaigned editorially for that title for Dayton.”

The name didn’t stick until at least a few years later. In 1885, the Gem City Stove Co. became the first to officially adopt it. In 1887, the Dayton Board of Trade took on the name, and “Gem City” kept picking up steam over the years.

“Demented Damsel” in the Gem City

Today organizations and businesses across the region use the name. Take, for example, Dayton’s roller derby team, the Gem City Rollergirls.

They’re a group that knows a thing or two about nicknames, with members sporting names like "Cashligula," "Racey Rocker" and "Demented Damsel."

Demented Damsel, née Emily Suter, says picking a roller derby name is a sacred part of becoming a member of the team, and that each woman’s choice of name is distinctly personal. "It is a nickname type thing [for a lot of people], or something that triggers a good feeling for them or a strength," she says.

The Gem City Rollergirls hold weekly practices at the Orbit Fun Center in Huber Heights.
Credit Lauren Shows / WYSO

When it came to deciding the team’s name, Demented Damsel says the roller girls used the same basic criteria that they use for their own nicknames: they needed a name that was unique, and that had a good ring to it. "We are the Dayton team," she says, "and we really wanted to set ourselves apart and not just be ‘The Dayton Team.’ So it was something that would trigger people to think about Dayton, and ‘Oh, I know where that is.’”

Like a lot of folks from Dayton, Demented Damsel says she's not sure about the origin of Dayton's nickname: "I don’t know," she says. "I’m like, 'Where are the gems?'"

Moreover, she's not sure she thinks that "Gem City" is the best descriptor for Dayton. "But I do think that it’s getting better," she says. "I think that it had a really good time in history, probably a while back, and it went downhill. And I think all the things like the Riverscape and all of that has really been to get the revenue up and make it a safe, clean city, and I think they’re really going in that direction."

Maybe the Rollergirls’ method of choosing a name can offer a simple answer to the question at hand. Why is Dayton called the Gem City? Because it just fits, like any good nickname. And Dayton’s been through a lot—and lost a lot—so maybe calling itself the Gem City just feels good, too.

The logo of the Gem City Chorus
Credit Lauren Shows / WYSO

WYSO Curious is our series driven by your questions and curiosities about the Miami Valley. Is there something you’ve always wondered about the Miami Valley’s history, people, culture, economy, politics or environment? Send in a question now, and check back to see which questions we’re considering.

WYSO Curious is a partner of WBEZ's Curious City, which was founded by Jennifer Brandel and is one of ten Localore productions brought to life by AIR.

Lauren Shows is a graduate of WYSO's Community Voices class. She occasionally uses the Yellow Springs News website as her own personal parenting blog at www.ysnews.com.