It might seem amusing today to refer to Wellington as a city, but by the late nineteenth century, its residents and its newspaper were calling it just that. And indeed, compared to the farmlands surrounding the town, Wellington must have appeared quite bustling and industrial by the end of the 1800s. In this post, I want to describe some of the features of that urban landscape that gave it a modern feel even more than a century ago.
Streetlights were introduced to Wellington in late 1863. The Lorain County News crowed, “LIGHT! MORE LIGHT! The literal darkness that has prevailed around the centre of our beautiful village ever since its creation, (i. e., on dark nights) has at last given way before the erection of four lamp posts, from the top of which, light, brilliant light streams out upon the darkness, imparting a cheerfulness hitherto unknown” (12-2-1863, pg. 3).
These first lights burned kerosene, called “coal oil” at the time, and they were manually lit and extinguished by the town’s street lamp lighter. He filled the reservoir, trimmed the wick, and scrubbed the accumulated soot off of each lamp daily; a wheelbarrow containing a can of kerosene and a step stool were the tools of his trade. By order of the town council, street lamps were not lit on nights with full moons (Robert Walden Notebook, #A154, #A156, #A169).
In 1877, The Wellington Enterprise reported that local hardware salesman John Watson Wilbur (former business partner of Noah Huckins) had “placed on trial street lamps on Mr. Rininger’s, and Baldwin, Laundon & Co’s corners. They are made on the same principle as the tubular lantern, each of the four corners having a hollow tube, with which air is furnished to the burner, which is twice the usual width and is without chimney. It gives a very bright light, and is claimed to be economical by reason of the saving of chimneys” (12-13-1877, pg. 3).
Street lamps made foot traffic possible at all hours of the day. In the nineteenth century, the sidewalks in the commercial area were pine planks nailed together to form a floating walkway. There was ongoing commentary about their state of repair, which actually provides evidence that residents expected a safe, clean and relatively attractive public arena. In 1865, the Wellington correspondent to the Lorain County News reported, “We would call the attention of our Town Council to the very bad condition of the side walks on both sides of North Main Street. The one on the east side, past the site of the old store of Foot & Barnard, is particularly in need of attention, as the planks are badly charred and black, and many of them are burned through, making it not only dirty but dangerous for those who pass over it. The one on the west side is also badly out of repair” (8-16-1865, pg. 3).
Nearly fifteen years later, the Enterprise was still making similar protests: “The walk on the East side of North Main Street ought to be replaced with a new one and the walk on the north side of Taylor St., also needs repairs. Many other places are badly out of order and we have waited long and patiently expecting to see them fixed up, and still we wait” (3-27-1879, pg. 3). In 1882, the paper reported that a little boy had “crawled under” the sidewalk on Mechanics Street, now East Herrick Avenue, in front of grocers Bowlby & Hall. He was trying to retrieve a tin whistle, but became trapped under the planks. “He could not move and scarcely breathe, and was nearly suffocated when he was taken out by tearing up the walk” (3-22-1882, pg. 3).
The sidewalks may have been costly and problematic for business owners to maintain, but they were essential in encouraging patrons to visit the shops lining Wellington’s two main streets. Most of the businesses also provided exterior wooden canopies for protection from the elements, and some enhanced their canopies by installing fabric shades that could be lowered during the brightest, hottest times of the day. The striped awnings in front of dry goods store Laundon, Windecker & Co. are clearly visible in the image at the top of the post. Today, only a single building in downtown Wellington still possesses an extant wooden canopy.
Paving was a technological development not brought to Wellington until well into the 1900s. Initially roads were simply packed earth, later faced with large stones toward the end of the nineteenth century. The heavy traffic of carriages and wagons pulled by teams of animals could create a great deal of dust. Beginning in 1880, the town employed a street sprinkler to keep air pollution to a minimum. The vehicle was comprised of “21 barrels, mounted on a two-horse wagon, and fitted up with a sprinkler procured in Cleveland.” The cost of this state-of-the-art machine was $40.50, the equivalent of about a year’s rent for the average skilled craftsman. For the first decade of the sprinkler’s use, a man named Charles Currier was its operator and paid $15 per week for his efforts (The Wellington Enterprise, 6-3-1880, pg. 3). Again, the fact that local business people–who subscribed to a fund to cover the cost of the endeavor–felt this was a justifiable expense speaks to the community’s desire for comfortable living and working conditions.
An automobile was not introduced into the town until about 1902. I have already mentioned that bicycles were in use in the business district, to the consternation of the shop owners. People most frequently traveled on foot, or if longer trips were necessary, they might use a personal carriage or wagon. There were two major carriage factories in town, Doland’s and Tripp’s, where customers could procure both new and used vehicles. Those financially able would have a barn or carriage house constructed on their property.
To secure animals and vehicles, businesses provided stables and hitching posts on their properties. The newspaper noted that builder Hiram Allyn had at his residence “the most substantial hitching-post and horse block in one to be found anywhere in the town. It was originally designed and cut for the capstone of one of the [Congregational] church gables, but they concluded to use one of lighter material. It is in no danger of toppling over, decaying, being run against and broken off, and boys will not play Hallowe’en with it or embellish it with the work of their jack-knives” (The Wellington Enterprise, 12-5-1878, pg. 3). If one looks carefully today, there are still large stone blocks sprinkled around the tree lawns of the village, once used for mounting carriages and work carts.
People could also hire vehicles or buy a ticket on any one of several public conveyances. In 1877, the Enterprise reported, “The Stage on its trips from Wellington to Oberlin, is of late well loaded with trunks and students returning to school. A year ago so heavy with mud were the wheels, the spokes were scarcely visible, and the contrast is agreeable to travelers” (3-1-1877, pg. 3). The journey between the two towns, which today takes approximately ten minutes by car, could take anywhere from 45 minutes to three hours, depending on weather and road conditions and how eager the traveler was to arrive.
In 1883, Enterprise readers were informed, “The Wellington hack is out again for business this week, having been laid up for repairs and a new coat of paint, which makes it look as good as new. It will meet all trains and carry passengers to and from all points in the village” (5-9-1883, pg. 3). Smith’s Omnibus and Transfer Line offered passenger service, as well as package delivery. In 1890, Smith reported carrying nearly 5,000 passengers in the preceding twelve months (4-9-1890, pg. 5).
The ultimate purpose of all of these civic improvements–building a reliable transportation infrastructure and creating a welcoming environment of clean and safe public spaces–was to encourage commerce and thereby grow the town. In 1876, the newspaper tallied all the businesses operating in Wellington and reported 157 different enterprises. The categories included: bank; bakery and grocery; barber-shops; billiards; boarding-houses; confectionery and fruits; carpenters; dentist; doctors’ offices; dress-makers; green-houses; ice-dealers; jewelers; milliners; marble works; painters; photograph galleries; restaurants; tailor; and wood tinker (5-25-1876, pg. 3). I have written about several manufacturers in this period, but will be looking more closely at some of the downtown shops and their proprietors in upcoming posts. Suffice to say, there was a lot more going on in Wellington, and of perhaps more modern a nature, than we might expect.
I have mentioned before what outspoken advocates of the community were Enterprise editors John and Mary Hayes Houghton. Here is a typical editorial comment: “Every cool day which suggests the need of winter clothing and supplies brings to Wellington a crowd of people, and it is coming to be known that this is an excellent place to trade. With three large well-filled dry goods stores, two where new stoves can be selected, plenty of clothing, boot and shoe, and millinery establishments, drug and grocery stores, harness and carriage shops, and places where everything from a diamond ring to a sewing machine can be bought, there is no need of going elsewhere for supplying either the luxuries or the necessaries of life. And now consult our advertising columns to learn where to find these” (10-25-1882, pg. 3).
The town had a substantial international population, adding to its cosmopolitan aura. There were groups of immigrants from Ireland and Italy living in Wellington to work on the railroad. By the 1890s, a community of Swedes was farming just west of the village. I have already profiled residents who came from England, the Turleys and the Crabtrees. Canada was well represented by men like Noah Huckins and John Wilbur. There were multiple individuals from China making their home in the village, including a man called Wah Sing who ran a laundry operation in the basement of the building next to The American House. The newspaper advertised private foreign language instruction, and there was even a recreational group called the Deutscher Schueler Verein, i.e. German Student Club, which met monthly at private residences for “music, declamation and conversation all in German” (Wellington Enterprise, 4-18-1883, pg. 3).
I have not yet touched on the cultural activities, which were many. Musical recitals, lecture series, and theater performances were routinely offered, and on occasion traveling entertainments such as circuses came to town. I hope to write about Wellington’s Opera House in a future installment. Less highbrow amusements included billiard halls, several bars, and even a skating rink. And churches and civic organizations frequently organized member “socials” and public celebrations of many types.
Perhaps it is less far-fetched to call the Wellington of the 1800s a city than it would be to speak of it that way today.