I always wondered about the reasoning behind John Bryan’s controversial clause in his will regarding the land that he left to the State of Ohio (John Bryan State Park). Just in case you’re not familiar with the clause….John Bryan specified in his will that the state should never permit the establishment of any religious institution or permit any public religious services be held upon the land that he was leaving to the state. If the state could not honor this stipulation, the land would then be offered to Greene County. One additional stipulation was that whoever the recipient of the land was, they were not to exclude from the premises “well-behaved” people of any race or color.” These were also the same terms for Bryan’s donation of fifteen acres to the Village of Yellow Springs, the current site of the Bryan Center, in 1916. For the time period, these seemed like such strange terms…even in Yellow Springs. I had heard that perhaps Bryan was an atheist and that is why he added the clause to his will. Somehow that explanation just didn’t seem good enough for me. Clearly, Bryan was against organized religion….had something happened in his life to turn him against religion? Little did I know that behind his atheist views was a story of a white dove, a young girl, and lost love.
An excerpt from “John Bryan’s Blighted Romance Given as Reason for Clause in his Will”, published in the Springfield Daily News on July 22, 1923.
Yellow Springs, O., July 21, –Just outside of the quiet village of Yellow Springs lies a farm of 700 acres of gorges, cliffs and woodland that has worried three governors of the state of Ohio, and is at the present time causing state-wide comment. By the will of the late John Bryan, manufacturer, author and man of many eccentricities, this piece of land became the property of the state, upon one condition–that no religious ceremonies should be held within its boundaries. And in that clause lies an interesting story, for it sums up John Bryan’s reason for leading the life of an atheist.
Years ago, when Bryan was but twenty years old, he was walking along a country road in Switzerland, so the story goes. Suddenly a white dove flew down on his shoulder, dropping a note at his feet. Following the dove with his eyes as it resumed its flight, Bryan perceived that it returned to a little girl of about fourteen, who stood on a hill a quarter of a mile away.
In a gentlemanly manner he lifted his hat and bowed, and she responded with a wave of her handkerchief.
On opening the envelope, the young American found a note written in French:
“I know thee not, But yet I love thee.”
Resuming his walk, Bryan in time reached the station of his destination where he found dispatches which made his immediate return to America imperative. Before leaving, however, he inquired of the village master as to the identity of the little girl who lived in the pretty hillside cottage. From the villager he learned that she was the daughter of a French officer banished during the reign of Napoleon. This little girl, according to the Swiss, had trained the dove to deliver a message to the nearest human being in sight, which caused Bryan to believe that his receipt of the note had not been by chance. And the now love stricken young man heard her name for the first time: Eliza DeVere, Vevay, Environne….
[Bryan returned to Cincinnati and resumed his life. Jump forward about six years…..]
…One day as he sat thinking that Swiss scene flashed in his mind: fresh June meadows; pretty hillside cottage; and the little country girl with her white dove.
He was but twenty-five, at the age of sentiment and romance, and the realization came that she must be nearly twenty. Sitting down he wrote a short letter, one which in later years he described as being so worded that a Platonic construction could have been put on it had Eliza forgotten him in the intervening years.
Then followed days of anxious waiting when every hour was counted.
Finally it came–a cable message. It read: “My father dead, leaving great wealth. Jesuits will conceal me in a cloister to secure it. I have waited so long for you. I love you. Will try to escape tonight and sail for America. On earth and in heaven I am yours. Eliza De Vere.”
Bryan immediately cabled the burgomaster of Vevay as follows: “Help Eliza DeVere. Notify her I am coming.”
In the morning he took a train for New York, and the next day set sail for Liverpool. From England he went to the continent of then Switzerland.
Arriving in Vevay he sought the burgomaster who told him that nothing but ashes remained of the place where Eliza once lived. Hastening to the spot, Bryan found that this was true. Not even a clue remained of the girl he loved. Only an ignorant peasant could be found who knew anything at all of the tragedy. He stated that some strange doctors had taken her away the night following her father’s death and that she had never returned.
Offering his entire fortune for a clue as to her whereabouts, Bryan spent a year in Europe making a fruitless search. Nothing was ever learned.
Returning to Cincinnati, he resumed his business always hoping for some information of the little Swiss girl with the dove, according to the story he told years later. Always he insisted that her disappearance was caused by the avarice of some priests, bringing him to assume his unusual attitude toward religions of all kinds.
Reaching the age of sixty, Bryan finally married. His wife was a girl of eighteen, whom he had raised from a baby. They lived together with more or less happy connubial relations until Mr. Bryan’s death, five years ago…..