I had an unexpected opportunity today to visit the Huntington Township Historical Society. It was a wonderfully typical small-town museum, full of black and white photos and newspapers commemorating important dates in history. What I was looking for, however, was in the back room, tucked away under an early voting booth. I am sure most people do not notice it; if they do, they perhaps do not realize how significant an artifact it is to the town’s past.
This small, wooden box might be mistaken for a hat box or a Shaker storage box. But it was built to hold cheese, manufactured in Huntington, then shipped to Wellington for transport via rail to purchasers across this country and even Europe.
You cannot understand the history of Wellington without learning something about Huntington. Many of Wellington’s most prominent citizens, men and women whose fortunes were made selling dairy products, moved to the town from Huntington after the Civil War. It may be a slight overstatement to say that cheese “built” Wellington–it was, after all, already established and did have a coveted railroad line running through as early as 1850–but it is fair to argue that whatever fame and fortune Wellington attained in the 19th century, it undoubtedly owed to cheese…and therefore to Huntington.
Frank Chapman Van Cleef, born in Wellington in 1881, wrote extensively about his life and his familial connections to the cheese industry. His Chapman grandparents were from Huntington, and in his 1976 autobiographical trilogy of books, he notes, “One by one, these resourceful neighbors left their Huntington homes and built larger and varied Wellington homes. Practically all of these New England transplants were located on both sides of South Main Street in the southerly section of Wellington” (Ninety-Nine Bottles: Recollections and Episodes Since 1896 Originating in Lorain County, Ohio, pg. 19). Van Cleef spent part of his childhood living in a brick Italianate still found at 344 South Main Street, built by his maternal grandfather and called in his honor the John Austen Chapman House.
Van Cleef also wrote a wonderful article called, “The Rise and Decline of the Cheese Industry in Lorain County,” (1960) which is available full-text from the Ohio Historical Society website. For those not wishing to read nearly thirty pages on the subject, Van Cleef argues that a confluence of circumstances created an ideal environment for success in Wellington after the Civil War. “The combination of good railroad facilities, the strategic location at a central point about twenty miles distant from Elyria on the north, Medina on the east, Ashland on the south, and Norwalk on the west, in the midst of sixteen hundred square miles of excellent dairy country, settled by highly intelligent, energetic farmers, naturally attracted the dealers, merchants, and facilities that were rapidly to make Wellington the capital of ‘Cheesedom’ for over a quarter of a century” (pg. 39).
At that same historical moment, the First National Bank of Wellington was chartered, introducing more credit and capital into the system. And two brothers from Huntington by the name of Horr decided to try an experiment and in 1866 opened the first cheese “factory,” a new concept in an era when small-scale cheese production was done on virtually every home farm. Charles William Horr, whom I will profile in a later post, co-founded a company that eventually owned nearly half of the more than forty cheese factories in the region, and also introduced the first registered Holstein cows into Ohio. Holsteins produce vastly more milk than the cows commonly kept by dairy operations previously, and are still one of the breeds most widely raised on dairy farms in the United States today.
I debated whether to call this post, “The Town That Cheese Built…And The One It Left Behind.” Wellington’s growth arguably came at Huntington’s expense. So many people, and even buildings, relocated five miles north that the population of the township in 1910 was nearly 50% lower than it had been in 1860. Van Cleef observed, “As soon as the first train passed through the center of Wellington, Huntington almost literally started rolling on wheels to Wellington” (Ninety-Nine Bottles, pg. 19). There is hardly any evidence of the economic explosion that ended here just one hundred years ago. The image I used at the top of the post is the only one I have been able to find of an active Lorain County cheese factory, but it was located in Wellington Township, not Huntington. I have not yet been able to uncover any images nor extant business records from any of the forty-plus cheese manufacturers that created so much prosperity for my town. Only objects like the cheese box remain, and this sign: