Threads of History

On January 27, 1876, the Wellington Enterprise reported on the village’s American centennial celebrations: “A goodly number of antique relics and curiosities have already been promised for the Museum, and it is thought that enough will be gathered to make this department a decided success” (pg. 3). I was recently offered the opportunity to examine a small box containing an absolute treasure trove. Inside, more than a dozen paper labels each have an item attached, with a hand-written description that provides us insight as to its connection to Wellington’s history. The owners of the box believe that most of these items were assembled for that very centennial display.

Just as we are now commemorating our own town bicentennial with speakers and events, Wellington’s plans for the country’s one hundredth birthday were elaborate. Noah Huckins, the Canadian businessman who built my former home, was in charge of both historic characters (what we might today call “reenactors”) and an art gallery. W. F. Herrick was chairman of the above-mentioned museum. There was a musical committee, headed by W. H. Fisher, a decoration committee run by J. H. Hood, and a group managing “Rooms,” led by H. Wadsworth. Two groups were headed by women; Mrs. L. B. Lane was responsible for “Tables, &c.” while Mrs. R. Craddock was in charge of quilting-related activities. There was even a plan to stage something called the “New England Kitchen,” in which visitors could experience “the old style furniture, and ladies in frocks and caps–such as were worn so long ago–busy, ‘a carding and spinning, and quilting,’ and in various occupations of this kind.”

Americans of the late nineteenth century were particularly fascinated by the textiles and textile production techniques of the colonial period. A spinning wheel was usually featured in historic tableaux such as the “New England Kitchen” or in prints or illustrations depicting the earlier period, even when they were not historically accurate. There were no spinning wheels on the Mayflower, for example, nor were they present during the first decades of Plymouth Colony, but in the 1800s they were almost always included in representations of the so-called Pilgrims. Most of the items in the box are textiles.

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The first piece is a checked linen. The card reads, “Spun and woven by Betsey Manly in 1822. Flax grown by her husband, Butler Manly, one of the first settlers of Wellington. Presented by Ann Hoke.” Josiah Butler Manly, who went by his middle name, was the first person to die in Wellington. He has two headstones, one in the Pioneer Cemetery on West Herrick Avenue, and one in Greenwood Cemetery. It is unclear whether his body was moved upon the death of his wife, Betsey, or if she simply wished his name included on her stone. Josiah died in 1824, apparently of malarial fever, when he was still a young man; Betsey much later remarried local temperance crusader Mathew DeWolf.

The checks on this cloth may have originally been red, and have only faded to brown over the centuries. It is also important to note that although the donor, Ann Hoke, had reason to believe (see below) that Betsey Manly manufactured this cloth herself, all sorts of cloth was readily available for purchase in Wellington at least as early as the 1830s, as surviving store inventories demonstrate.

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Ann Hoke also donated this second piece of cloth, attributed to Hannah Post Webster and her daughter, Betsey. Hoke believed the piece to have been woven in 1812 at Bethlehem, “now Otis, Mass.” Regular readers of this blog will remember that many of Wellington’s earliest residents emigrated from the Berkshire region of Massachusetts during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Ann Eliza Manly Hoke was the wife of David Hoke, who murdered his employer and committed suicide in the year 1890. She was born in 1824, the same year her father, Josiah Manly, died in Wellington. Hannah Post Webster was therefore Ann’s maternal grandmother, and “daughter Betsey” was Ann’s own mother. Betsey died in 1879. If these cards were indeed prepared in 1876, Betsey may have personally verified the information about these fabrics that Ann Hoke chose to include on their cards.

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I do not know who Mrs. Kate Bitner of Milwaukee, Wisconsin was, nor the nature of her connection to Wellington. I also have no idea how she came to be in possession of a piece of President John Quincy Adams’s floral print bed hangings. I do know that I grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts and the Adams mansion, Peace field (now part of the National Park Service), was a place I frequently visited in my youth.

UPDATE: With the incredible sleuthing assistance of Wellington Genealogy Group president Marilyn Wainio, we were able to untangle the life history of Mrs. Kate Bitner, née Kate M. Ladd. She was the daughter of George Ladd, born in Illinois in 1856. In 1878, she married Thomas Frederick Bitner. The family lived in Illinois until at least 1894, but were residents of Milwaukee, Wisconsin by the time of the 1900 census. They remained in Milwaukee for at least twelve years, before relocating to Arizona sometime before 1920. Kate died in 1952 and is buried in Prescott, Arizona.

Kate Ladd Bitner visited Wellington at least once. The Enterprise reported that “Mrs. Thos. Bitner and daughter Lora, of Englewood, Ill., are visiting at E. Benedict’s and other relatives here” (7-27-1892, pg. 5). What the research into Kate further reveals is that Arminda Ladd Benedict, Flora Ladd Webster, and Mary Harvey Ladd (see below) were all sisters, and Kate Bitner was their niece. Kate’s contribution to the collection of fabric samples must have been made sometime between the late 1890s and the nineteen-teens, when her family left Milwaukee for the southwestern United States.

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The card attached to this piece reads, “Home-spun and woven. Belonged to Mrs. Grosvenor. Date earlier than 1794. L. C. Ladd.” I do not presently know the identity of L. C. Ladd. There are a number of Ladds that populate Wellington history. Arminda Ladd was born in Vermont and later married businessman Ethel Benedict and settled in the village in the early 1860s. In that same period, Mary H. Ladd taught a school in Wellington. Flora Ladd married Edward F. Webster, future head of Horr-Warner, in 1870. Elizabeth Alberta Ladd was a compositor, or type setter, for the Wellington Enterprise for two years in the early 1880s. (During her tenure, other employees included printing foreman Frank Ladd–probably her father–and his nephew, John Ladd.) Perhaps cloth donor L. C. is a relative of one of these women.

UPDATE: As noted in the update above, Arminda Ladd Benedict, Flora Ladd Webster, and Mary Harvey Ladd were all sisters. L.C. Ladd was their sister-in-law (wife of their brother, William). Her given name was Lewellen Clapp, born in Massachusetts in 1840. In the fall of 1881, the Enterprise reported that Mrs. Benedict, Mrs. Webster, and Mrs. William Ladd were all setting out on a tour of the New England states together, presumably to visit the places of their births and perhaps visit relatives.

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Flora Ladd Webster. Photo 970679 of “Wellington Family Album” Collection, Herrick Memorial Library. Permission to display generously granted by the library.

In 1897, Mary Harvey Ladd was declared “a lunatic” and her brother-in-law, Edward Webster, was appointed her guardian. Edward had also been named guardian of photographer William Sawtell, overseeing the family finances after Sawtell committed himself to an asylum in Cleveland. Webster and Sawtell served together in the Civil War and remained lifelong friends; a little painting I own by Sawtell was painted for Flora Ladd Webster.

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This vibrant red fabric feels like velvet, but I think it may be somewhat tattered broadcloth, or plain-woven wool. Red wool cloaks were very popular working-class garments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but more finely tailored cuts were also worn by the upper classes. (Note the cover of this clothing reference book published by Colonial Williamsburg.) The construction of this particular cloak coincidentally dates to the time of American independence and it is said to have belonged to Ella Wadsworth’s great-great-grandmother. Ella served as Wellington’s librarian in the 1870s.

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This checked linen swatch was said to have been taken from a “sheet made by slaves” confiscated during the Civil War at a house in Cumberland Gap, Tennessee. Many Wellington men served during the war. Archibald Willard enlisted in the 86th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in June 1863; his tour of duty took him to Cumberland Gap, which he painted around 1864.

“G. Hemenway” was likely George Hemenway, whose family came from a tiny farming community in the Berkshires called Florida, Massachusetts.

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This small square, which measures approximately 8 1/2″ by 9″, was cut from a larger plain woven piece of “ticking.” A straw tick was a heavy, course linen mattress bag meant to be stuffed with straw (or corn husks, or more labor-intensive feathers, etc.) before being slept on. The contents of the mattress could be replaced as necessary, and the bag infrequently laundered. This souvenir square has been hemmed with a pale blue thread around all four edges. It was contributed by William F. Sawtell (or “Sawtelle,” as he spelled it later in life) local photographer and amateur artist.

The last item of interest is a tiny piece of jewelry contained in a lightweight paper box. I believe that the pendent is a piece of mourning jewelry, likely woven of human hair from a deceased loved one. The owner wore it in remembrance of the person lost. This pendent is engraved on the back. It is very small, less than 3/4″ in length overall, and the tiny initials have somewhat softened with time and wearing, making them difficult to read. I believe it is inscribed “M. H. H.” Could this have belonged to Mary Hayes Houghton, co-editor of the Wellington Enterprise for nearly a decade? Mary’s step-daughter, Flora, died in 1879 at the tender age of fourteen.

There are a few other miscellaneous articles in the box. Two buttons are recorded as being part of the “Justice Collection,” likely referring to local antiquarian Alex Justice. A piece of olive wood allegedly from Jerusalem–this card is actually annotated “Centennial 1876”–was donated by Mrs. E. F. W., perhaps the same Flora Ladd who married Edward Webster, mentioned above. One card is pierced by a small knife and heavy metal pin.

A final, tantalizing card has no object attached, but claims to have once held “wood from building erected by R. B. Webster [Russell Bidwell Webster, brother of Betsey Webster Manly] in 1824, the first frame house in Wellington, now standing on the farm of H. B. Manly.” Betsey’s obituary in the Wellington Enterprise describes this earliest frame house at some length: “Russell Webster, a brother of Mrs. Manly, had a log cabin nearly completed, which was to be the future home of this family.…The cabin had some extra furnishings which had been brought from the East. There was one chair, a small stand, some sheep skin mats spread upon the white puncheon [i.e. split log] floors, a candle stick, with snuffers and tray, and a tallow candle burning in the socket, an article the other settlers had not seen in use since leaving their homes in the East” (5-15-1879, pg. 3).

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Frederick B. Manley, from “Commemorative Biographical Record of the Counties of Huron and Lorain, Ohio” (1894), opposite pg. 694.

The bottom corner of the empty card is initialed “F. B. M.” and dated 1899. Frederick B. Manley–as he sometimes styled the family name–was the son of Betsey Manly, and older brother of Ann Manly Hoke. He died in 1900. His entry in Commemorative Biographical Record of the Counties of Huron and Lorain, Ohio lamented, “Ofttimes he ruminates upon the changes that have taken place, in his midst, since the days of the stick chimney and puncheon floor, and the twang of the thread as the good mother faithfully plied her needle, by the dim light of a tallow candle…” (697). The Manly family is clearly the common denominator between many of these objects, though it is curious that they were apparently gathered together over such a long period of time–at least twenty-three years.

I am so grateful to the owners of this marvelous little cabinet of curiosities, for allowing me to have a peak inside, and for permitting me to share with all of you the wonders contained within it.

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An Unexpected Gift

American House postcard

Unmailed postcard with image depicting the American House hotel in Wellington, Ohio. Author’s collection.

I received the loveliest piece of mail this week. A person whom I have never met, who does not even live in Wellington, sent me a beautiful handwritten letter and enclosed a gift: an unmailed postcard depicting the American House hotel. The sender explained that he had very much enjoyed reading the recent bicentennial insert published by the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram, particularly the article on the Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue of 1858, one hundred and sixty years ago this September. He enclosed the postcard as a thank you for my work on preserving local history.

The hotel was first built around 1833, owned and operated by the Wadsworth family. It had numerous proprietors and was known by multiple names over the years, most famously as the American House in the late nineteenth century. It closed its doors for good and was quickly demolished in April 1902. Purchased by soon-to-be governor of Ohio, Myron T. Herrick, the hotel was removed to make way for a new town library, which was dedicated and opened to the public on the same site in January 1904. Initial plans for the construction of the library called for the reuse of some 150,000 bricks from the hotel; perhaps there is yet some part of the American House still standing in Wellington’s Public Square to this day.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Hocking Sentinel 7.24.1890 pg. 1

The Hocking [Ohio] Sentinel, July 24, 1890, pg. 1.

In the summer of 1890, newspapers across the country ran similar notices about an unusual situation. Readers in Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin and even far-away Texas were informed that a woman had recently become a railroad contractor, and would soon be grading miles of track outside of Wellington, Ohio. At least nine separate publications printed the story in a six-week period. It is a wonderful story. The only problem? I cannot find a single piece of corroborating evidence to prove that it is true.

In the nineteenth century, before the widespread use of wire services, it was common practice for editors to exchange copies of their newspapers with publishers in other areas. These traded papers were mined for content to fill empty column space. So it is not surprising to see an atypical notice turn up in multiple places, often identically worded. Taken together, theses particular notices provide a detailed story, full of facts that, at first glance, seem easily verifiable.

A woman named Lavina Williams–familiarly known as Fannie or Fanny–was the recent widow of railroad contractor John Williams. John had been killed in Bedford, Indiana (the couple lived in nearby Columbus) in the fall of 1889, as he was finishing a job on the Evansville and Richmond Railroad for D. J. Mackey. Mrs. Williams intended to assume John’s role and complete a contract for twenty-five miles of grading work on the “Cleveland and Wellington road” outside Wellington, Ohio.

I am often asked by readers, how do you find so much information about a given topic? How do you know where to look? This post is a good example of something that should have been easy to research, but ultimately was not. I have been looking unsuccessfully for weeks for any evidence that John and Fannie Williams existed. I can find no genealogical records, nor any notices about John’s alleged accidental death in Indiana in the fall of 1889. I can find no burial records in Indiana for a John Williams who died in that location and period, nor for a Lavina/Fanny/Fannie Williams married to a man called John. Other than this batch of newspaper notices in June and July of 1890, I can find nothing further published about female railroad contractor Lavina Williams. I even searched through all the issues of the Wellington Enterprise for the summer of 1890, and found no mention of any such person or grading work going on in or around the village. (There is some activity noted around Litchfield, but that village is ten miles east of Wellington and does not fall on the rail line between Wellington and Cleveland.) D. J. Mackey was the president of both the Evansville & Terre Haute and Peoria, Decatur & Evansville railroad lines, but I cannot establish that John Williams or his widow ever worked for the man.

Was the female railroad builder a real person? I want her to be real. But as the song says, you can’t always get what you want.

UPDATE: The Bartholomew County [Indiana] Historical Society, where Columbus is located, have been undertaking an archival search at my request. They recently reported back to me that they have been unable to locate any reference to Lavina Wiliams or this story in their collections.

Park Place

Village of Wellington 1857

Detail of Archibald Willard’s painting, “Village of Wellington, 1857,” showing the area of town now known as Park Place. Original painting owned by Herrick Memorial Library. Permission to display generously granted by the library.

As you likely know by now, dear reader, 2018 is Wellington’s bicentennial year. There is a whole calendar of events planned in commemoration. One of the upcoming offerings is an historic house tour in the fall. My own 1883 carriage house will be one of the featured properties. Another home that will be on the tour is a white wood-frame beauty that sits at 139 Park Place, right at the center of town. It is owned by a dear friend of mine, Mrs. Linda Hatton, and she asked for my help in tracing its history. The Hatton family also owns the adjacent 135 Park Place–used as a rental property for decades–so we decided that I would research both homes. Mrs. Hatton has generously agreed that I might share with you the fascinating stories I uncovered.

I am often asked how one goes about researching the history of a house. First, start with what you know (or think you know). I asked Linda to provide me, to the best of her recollection, the year her family had acquired each property, and the name of the previous owner. She also told me all the stories she had heard about each house over the years. This creates a jumping off point for research, as you attempt to verify or disprove each story by looking at the existing documentary evidence.

I spent several days tracing each house backward in time via Wellington corporation tax records. The ledger volumes have been digitized and are publicly accessible, free of charge, via the Lorain County Records Retention Center. Depending on the specific locality you are investigating, the records go as far back as the early nineteenth century, and are available through the 1940s. You can look for the name of a specific person (the volumes are alphabetical by taxpayer) or, though it is more labor intensive, you can also search for the block and lot number of each taxable plot of land in the village.

 

I knew by looking at both contemporary records of the Lorain County Auditor’s office, as well as village maps dating from 1857 and 1874 (shown above, left and right respectively) that the Hatton residence at 139 Park Place sits on block 4, lot 13, while the rental property at 135 Park Place is on block 4, lot 12. The eagle-eyed among you will note that in the nineteenth century, lot 13 was subdivided and had two small buildings on it. Those structures predate the house that exists today, as we shall see.

I next visited the Lorain County Recorder’s office in Elyria, to compile what is called a “chain of deed” or “chain of title.” This is a process by which one traces a house backward in time through the official recording of property transactions. Using the information provided to me by the Hattons, the information I had compiled from tax records, and a few key biographical facts about some of the previous homeowners–principally their dates of death–I was able to craft a pretty clear timeline of ownership for each property.

Wall of Indexes

The wall of indexes at the Lorain County Recorder’s office, Elyria, Ohio. Photo by author.

The Hattons were uncertain when, or by whom, their residence had been constructed. Tax records clearly showed that block 4, lot 13 had been subdivided into two lots prior to 1910, each with a modest structure on it. (Those two structures are very likely the same two small brick buildings depicted on the right of Willard’s 1857 painting, shown at the top of this post.) Each half-lot and building was owned by a different individual. But in 1910, both lots were purchased by a single person, and in 1911, that person was shown as owning a single lot with a single structure, assessed for taxation at the impressive sum of $2,500. My working hypothesis, then, was that 1910 was the year of construction. In order to confirm that, I decided to look through the Wellington Enterprise for that period. Since the newspaper is not digitized after 1900, that meant checking individual issues on reels of microfilm.

I found what I was looking for in February 1910. “Mr. N. G. Hoyt Will Build. Mr. N. G. Hoyt has purchased the two brick houses and lot just south of Mr. George Robishaw’s home [135 Park Place], and will erect a new and modern residence upon the site, utilizing the brick from the two buildings in the foundation. This will add much to the appearance of the town” (2-2-1910, pg. 1). Eight additional notices over the course of the spring and summer charted the progress of construction, by local businessman Norton G. Hoyt and his second wife, Josephine. The final notice announced that the residence would be “ready for occupancy by the 1st of October” (9-14-1910, pg. 5).

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139 Park Place. Official photograph of the property from the Lorain County Auditor’s office.

The Hoyts occupied the house at 139 Park Place for twelve years. In 1922, they sold it to Lawrence G. Stemple. Stemple’s tenure is verified not only by deeds and tax records, but also by Wellington city directories and telephone directories that confirm the house as his family’s primary residence. After Lawrence died in 1961, his son Sidney D. Stemple purchased the house, and Sidney also lived in it until his death in 1992. The Hattons have resided at 139 Park Place ever since, only the fourth owners–and third family–to call it home in more than a century.

The history of the adjacent property is both longer and more complex. It has had at least ten recorded owners since the mid-nineteenth century, some of them not personally residing in the house but rather using it as a rental property–which it remains today. I will highlight just a few of the more interesting stories:

Blanche A. Sutliff was the young widow of local businessman George M. Sutliff, who died suddenly of typhoid fever in 1909. George seems to have left Blanche financially comfortable–he was described as “a man of affairs, a money maker” in one obituary–but also with two small daughters to raise, Marion (8) and Maxine (2). A third daughter, Mildred, died in infancy. Blanche purchased the house at 135 Park Place in 1911, does not appear to have ever remarried, and lived there until she died in 1942.

Ethel Benedict was the brother of Jerusha Benedict Reed, wife of local dry goods merchant John S. Reed. When John Reed drowned while bathing in the Black River in 1855, Ethel Benedict relocated from Connecticut to Wellington to assume responsibility for his sister’s financial affairs. He eventually erected the three-story brick business block at the center of town that bears his name to this day. The Benedict family lived in the house at 135 Park Place from 1872 until 1906, though Ethel himself died in 1893.

Dr. Charles Beach and his wife Ann, or Anna, lived in the house while Archibald Willard created Village of Wellington, 1857. Ann Jackson Beach was from Belleville, Ohio. The family moved to Wellington in 1846, purchasing what we now call 135 Park Place from Isaac Bennett in 1850. They lived in the house for nine years, spending their later life in Pittsfield. Both are buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

1857 Map of Lorain Cty residence key detail

Key to an oversize 1857 hanging map (detail shown above) which lists “Dr. C. H. Beach” as having his residence on “Main Street”–later renamed Park Place–block 4, lot 12.

Just as with 139 Park, the final piece of the puzzle to lock into place was the name of the person who built the house, and the year in which it was built. Though Wellington tax records are available this far into the past, the block and lot numbers were not recorded so precisely prior to 1850, which forces us to make educated guesses using things like property values as tools. Using this method, I hypothesized that Dr. and Mrs. Beach had purchased the house from Isaac Bennett around 1850. One year Bennett owned one of the few houses in the southwest quadrant of the village valued at $546; the next year he did not, but the Beaches now owned a property in the correct location valued at $550. I guessed the properties were one-in-the-same.

On the trip to the Lorain County Recorder’s office, I was able to prove that theory correct, when I located an 1850 deed transferring ownership of the following lot, from Isaac Bennett to Anna Beach for $200: “…Bounded on the West by the Public Square on the South by John H. Wooley Lot [the northern half of block 4, lot 13] on the east by Land owned by Alanson Howk heirs on the north on land owned by me…Being part of Original Lot 22…” This is the correct location for 135 Park Place. The fact that the tax assessment of the property remains relatively unchanged over the entire course of Bennett’s ownership and that of the Beach family (i.e from at least 1847 until 1859), suggests that the Beaches purchased a lot on which a house was already constructed.

135 Park Place

135 Park Place. Official photograph of the property from the Lorain County Auditor’s office.

The house was certainly standing when Willard composed his painting of the village in 1857. A careful comparison of the architectural details of the house today with the white, wood-frame building in the painting (fourth structure from the right in the detail at the top of this post) shows them to be nearly identical. Looking at Isaac Bennett’s tax records, I believe he is the most likely person to have constructed the house, sometime around 1846/47.

Bennett was born in Guildford, Vermont on June 16, 1801. He married Esther Childs (1801/2-1891) of nearby Deerfield, Massachusetts. The couple moved to Wellington in February 1834. Bennett later asserted–in a reminiscence offered on his sixtieth wedding anniversary–that when the family arrived, “there were but eight frame houses in the whole township” (Wellington Enterprise, 12-26-1883, pg. 3). He also claimed to have manufactured the bricks for the first Methodist Church erected in Wellington. He served as township clerk from 1843 to 1845, and again from 1847 to 1849. Isaac and Esther Bennett are recorded as being interred at Greenwood Cemetery, but their graves are unmarked.

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First page of Lorain County deed transferring land in original lot 22 from Isaac Bennett to Anna Beach for $200. Book 5, pg. 446-447 (1850). Photo by author.

I do hope that all of you will attend the historic house tour on October 14th. All proceeds from the event will benefit Main Street Wellington, which keeps our downtown vibrant not only through beautification efforts, but also by promoting the growth of our local businesses. Many thanks to the Hatton family, both for volunteering their home for the tour and also for allowing me to share the histories of their properties with all of you.

“The Spirit of Frederick Douglass”

Frederick Douglass ca. 1866

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) photographed ca. 1866. Original image is held in the collections of the New-York Historical Society. Accessed via Wikipedia Commons.

One hundred and fifty years ago–on March 27, 1868–one of the most famous public speakers in the world came to Wellington, Ohio. Frederick Douglass, abolitionist and equal rights activist, was invited to lecture on behalf of the Wellington Reading Room Association.

In honor of the sesquicentennial of his visit, and the bicentennial of both Douglass AND Wellington itself, Wellington Masonic Lodge #127 and the Wellington Exempted Village Schools have invited performer and Douglass scholar Michael E. Crutcher, Sr. to offer a program he calls, “The Spirit of Frederick Douglass.”

Please join us at the Patricia Lindley Center for the Performing Arts at 7PM on Monday, May 21st, to hear this moving and informative historical oration. Admission is FREE and open to the public.

For additional information about Douglass’s 1868 visit to Wellington, click here. To see Mr. Crutcher perform, click here.

“It’s A Major Award!”*

OGS LogoI am very proud to announce that the Ohio Genealogical Society today named my book, Fully Equal to the Situation: Nineteenth-Century Women of Wellington, Ohio, as the 2018 recipient of the Governor Thomas Worthington Award for best Ohio biography. I am honored and grateful to all of you for your ongoing support.

*I confess that the first thing that crossed my mind when I heard the news was the famous line from the 1983 holiday classic, A Christmas Story, filmed in nearby Cleveland.

“The Colored Orator of World Wide Reputation”

Frederick Douglass ca. 1866

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) photographed ca. 1866. Original image is held in the collections of the New-York Historical Society. Accessed via Wikipedia Commons.

The year 1818 may be notable locally as the year in which Wellington was first settled, but it was also the year in which a renowned nineteenth-century American entered the world. Frederick Douglass (née Bailey) was born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in February of that year. 2018 therefore marks the bicentennial celebrations of our small village and also arguably the greatest orator our country has ever produced.

The story of Frederick Douglass’s early life is well documented in his three autobiographies. He escaped enslavement with the help, and financial assistance, of a free black woman named Anna Murray, whom he later married. The two made their way up the east coast, eventually settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts when Douglass was twenty. The young man became active in local abolitionist circles and quickly developed a reputation as a powerful public speaker. The growing family (Frederick and Anna eventually had five children) later moved to Rochester, New York, where Douglass launched an abolitionist newspaper he called the North Star, a reference to the guiding light by which those escaping from slavery charted their course to freedom.

Over the course of the 1840s and 1850s–the decades immediately preceding the Civil War–Douglass traveled all over the northern United States and Europe speaking out in favor of immediate emancipation and civil rights for black Americans. He reportedly made over one hundred speeches per year in the 1840s alone. Douglass rejected outright the assertion that people of color living in America were not its citizens, as well as the racist assumption that they were not capable of full participation in its democracy. The orator was also a strong proponent of equal rights for women and advocated in favor of female suffrage at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.

Douglass was a regular visitor to Ohio. He was offering speeches in the state at least as early as 1843. In the summer of 1847, he toured Ohio and Pennsylvania with abolitionist and newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879); during that tour, Douglass spoke at First Church, in Oberlin. He attended the first National Convention of Colored Citizens, held in Cleveland in 1848. His daughter, Rosetta, attended the Oberlin College Ladies Preparatory Department in 1854. Douglass wrote approvingly in the North Star that the black community of Ohio was “stemming the current of the most raging floods, combating every opposition, resisting every obstacle until at length they have forced the dominant class in their own state to notice and respect their efforts” (6-29-1849).

R.J. Robinson

Robert Jonathan Robinson (1818-1890) was born a freeman in Winchester, Virginia. A Baptist preacher, entrepreneur, and vocal advocate for black educational opportunities and civil rights, Robinson lived in Wellington for thirty years. Original image courtesy of Robinson family descendants still living in Virginia today.

During his travels, Douglass met a minister, entrepreneur and civil rights activist called R.J. Robinson. The two men served on the Equal Rights League together in 1865, and both attended the Colored Men Conventions mentioned above. Robinson was born free in Virginia–coincidentally, also in 1818–and had moved in the fall of 1860 from his home in Illinois to a little village in Ohio called Wellington. It may be that R.J. Robinson was responsible for inviting Frederick Douglass to come speak in his adopted home, as the nation struggled to come to terms with the meaning and consequences of the war it had recently waged.

The Wellington correspondent for the Lorain County News first reported in early 1868, “We understand that Frederick Douglass has been engaged to deliver a lecture in this place sometime in March next, notice of which will be given in due time” (1-29-1868, pg. 3). On March 18th, the paper reminded its readers that “the Colored Orator of world wide reputation will lecture in this place on Friday evening of next week–under the auspices [of] the Wellington Reading Room Association. Don’t fail to hear him” (pg. 3). The following week, locals were again urged to attend the lecture, as “we do not often have an opportunity of hearing as distinguished a man as Fred” (3-25-1868, pg. 3). After Douglass’s “well attended” presentation, the correspondent concluded, “All were well satisfied, and speak of it in the highest praise” (4-1-1868, pg. 3).

Douglass was officially invited to come to Wellington by the Reading Room Association, an exclusively male club first formed in the summer of 1866. Its membership rented space over Levi Bowman’s clothing store on the western side of South Main Street. (Regular readers of the blog may remember the Bavarian-born Bowman as the Freemason who brought painter Archibald Willard into Wellington Lodge #127, or as the employer of a young woman who died tragically after a botched medical procedure.) The Lorain County News printed a reader-submitted description of the room when it first opened: “Its files and tables are supplied with a large selection of the first class periodicals, dailies, weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies, both domestic and foreign, of literary, political, fictitious, and religious characters, such as are suited to all tastes in all moods. The room is open for the resort of members at all hours of the day, and until ten or after in the evening.” The group’s aim was to offer a regular schedule of “public lectures and literary entertainments” (8-8-1866, pg. 2). It is not clear whether women were intended to be part of the audience.

South Main 1869-1882

Based on the business names and buildings shown in this image, it most likely dates to the 1870s or early 1880s. In the mid-1860s, the Wellington Reading Room Association occupied a rented room over Levi Bowman’s clothing shop on Public Square. The circled area indicates what I believe to be its location. The building still stands today. Image used courtesy of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, “The Spirit of ’76” Museum.

When the Wellington Enterprise commenced publication on September 19, 1867, its very first front page also sang the praises of the reading room, “a feature of Wellington seldom found in towns three times as large and often not in cities.” The room was by that time open not only to its male membership, but also to “persons here for a short period,” presumably referring to gentlemen passing through town on business via the railway. “Strangers and persons in the place, transiently, are entitled to the privileges of the Reading Room on payment of fifty cents per month[.] A small fee, indeed.” The presence of such an amenity in the village demonstrated, in the publisher’s opinion, “the progressive spirit of our citizens and their appreciation of the beneficial.”

There were multiple literary and library associations convened in Wellington during the nineteenth century. In fact, a literary society open to men and woman formed in the village just three months after the reading room opened; it met weekly at the town hall. (At that time, the town hall was the wood-framed “Old Free Church” located on the western side of South Main Street, near the present location of the Congregational Church.) It is difficult to parse the relationships between these various groups, if any. A library association that existed in the 1880s seems to be the one which eventually turned its holdings over to the Wellington Township trustees, a collection which then formed the nucleus of the Herrick Memorial Library when it opened in 1904. At present, I do not know if that library association had any connection to the Reading Room Association of the mid-1860s.

South Main early 20th century?

Early-twentieth-century image of the west side of South Main Street. The circled area indicates what I believe to be the location of the Wellington Reading Room Association in the late 1860s. The building still stands today. Photo courtesy of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, “The Spirit of ’76” Museum.

No issues of the Wellington Enterprise survive from the period of Douglass’s visit, and published accounts of the address do not mention where it was held. While those notices characterize his oration as “well attended,” it is not clear what that means. We do not know if the Reading Room Association usually invited speakers to appear in its own, members-only, space. Just after Christmas in 1866 (and again the following year), the association advertised a “grand entertainment to be held in Franks’ new Hall.” Perhaps the use of the hall was necessitated by the “elegant supper” accompanying the entertainment, which was to be served by “the ladies.” No mention was made as to whether ladies would be permitted to attend the event, or simply to cook the food afterward (Lorain County News, 12-19-1866, pg. 3 and 12-4-1867, pg. 3). The third floor of H.B. Franks’s lovely Italianate commercial building had a permanent stage and was used for public performances in the decades prior to the construction of the Opera House. It was erected at the town center in 1866, but burned down in 1915. If my theory about the location of the Reading Room Association’s headquarters is correct, that building survives to this day.

E Herrick before fire

Italianate commercial building erected by H. B. Franks in 1866. Later known as both the Rininger block and the Horr block, it burned in 1915. Formerly located on the northern corner of Main Street and Mechanics Street (now East Herrick Avenue). The third floor of the building was used as a public performance space from its earliest days. Photo courtesy of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, “The Spirit of ’76” Museum.

It feels fitting to close this post with some of Frederick Douglass’s own words, a flavor of what his Wellington audience was treated to one hundred and fifty years ago this very night. In 1867, he published “An Appeal to Congress for Impartial Suffrage,” in which he demanded the right to vote for citizens of color. “Man is the only government-making animal in the world. His right to a participation in the production and operation of government is an inference from his nature, as direct and self-evident as is his right to acquire property or education. It is no less a crime against the manhood of a man, to declare that he shall not share in the making and directing of the government under which he lives, than to say that he shall not acquire property and education. The fundamental and unanswerable argument in favor of the enfranchisement of the negro is found in the undisputed fact of his manhood. He is a man, and by every fact and argument by which any man can sustain his right to vote, the negro can sustain his right equally. It is plain that, if the right belongs to any, it belongs to all.”