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The area that is now Richland County, so named for the fertility of its soil, and the City of Mansfield were first settled in 1800. The city was named after the Surveyor General of the United States, Col. Jared Mansfield. Originally platted as a square whose center was Central Park, the city grew towards the north and the west. The first courthouse in the country was one of two blockhouses erected on the public square during the war of 1812.

Mansfield associates itself with many famous names such as John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed; as well as Pulitzer Prize winning author, Louis Bromfield. Chapman found the fertile land of Ohio ideal for his nurseries. The heartland of Chapman's nurseries was located along the stream valleys between Mansfield and Loudonville, just east of Interstate 71. Many of his orchards and nurseries are still found in Mansfield and the surrounding county. As a child, author Louis Bromfield played at his aunt's house, Oak Hill, in a neighborhood of Mansfield. The gothic house, built in 1847, served as the inspiration for "Shane's Castle" in his 1924 novel The Green Bay Tree.

The coming of the railroads in 1846 ushered in Mansfield's greatest period of industrial expansion led by the city's nascent farm equipment and stove manufacturing industries, including the Tappan Company. By the late 1920's, Westinghouse became the City's largest employer, specializing in electric lighting and home appliances. However, like many Rust Belt cities, the City of Mansfield saw a precipitous decline in its manufacturing and retail sectors as heavy industry sought cheaper overseas labor markets, and downtown retail gradually moved to the suburbs.