Cheese Workers of Wellington, Unite!

Undated image of workers at a local cheese house. Photo 970539 of "Wellington Family Album" Collection, Herrick Memorial Library. Permission to display generously granted by the library.

Undated image of workers at a local cheese house. Photo 970539 of “Wellington Family Album” Collection, Herrick Memorial Library. Permission to display generously granted by the library.

“Wellington did not dominate the production of cheese during the years in question. Wellington’s claim to fame rested more with its position as the center of trade and market activity” (King of Cheese, pg. 20).

I haven’t posted in a few days because I have been working my way through a dense but very interesting paper about nineteenth-century Wellington. It is an Oberlin student thesis written by Jon Clark in 1992 entitled, King of Cheese: Growth and Modernization in Wellington, Ohio, 1850-1880. I would like to thank the Southern Lorain County Historical Society for allowing me access to their copy of the paper. It is also available through the Oberlin College Archives, if others would like the opportunity to read it.

Clark undertook the monumental task of quantifying four decades of federal census records in a database, capturing personal information for thousands of Wellington residents of the mid-1800s. He then performed various statistical analyses to better understand the demographic trends affecting the village in the period. His goal was to “discover the impact which economic growth and modernization had on the nature and structure of Wellington society between 1850 and 1880” (pg. 9).

Though Clark believed at the beginning of his project that he would be observing a town transformed by agricultural manufacturing, what he found was somewhat different, and surprising to him. “It was not the cheese industry which thrived in Wellington in the nineteenth century (although it certainly had its share of factories) but rather the cheese trade. It was not factories that so much dominated the local landscape as it was warehouses and stores. Consequently, the story that is told in the following pages is not so much a story of the transition from farm to factory as it is of commercial growth in the countryside” (pg. 10).

The federal census data clearly indicates that Wellington was a boom town in this era. A few statistics illustrate the point. From 1850 to 1870, the value of the town’s real estate grew from $460,625 to $1,327,630–almost two hundred percent higher in just twenty years (pg. 25). Residents of the town nearly doubled in the decades from 1860 to 1880; the male labor force alone increased 69% in the same period. Employment seems to have kept pace with population expansion; according to the 1880 census, only seven men out of 533 experienced unemployment for more than five months in the year (pg. 37).

Image taken October 21, 1871 at the Horr, Warner & Co.  barn on South Main Street. Photo 970096 of "Wellington Family Album" Collection, Herrick Memorial Library. Permission to display generously granted by the library.

Image taken October 21, 1871 at the Horr, Warner & Co. barn on South Main Street. Photo 970096 of “Wellington Family Album” Collection, Herrick Memorial Library. Permission to display generously granted by the library.

While I cannot speak to the accuracy of the mathematical models employed, I can say that Clark’s results seem, in the main, to match the evidence I have uncovered through written records of the time. He found that a steady rate of approximately 15% of the population was foreign-born from 1850 to 1880, but could find no evidence of segregation or systemic discrimination. “Those who were native born do not appear to have formed a community apart from those who were foreign born” (pg. 54). There was a relatively high turnover rate for residents from decade to decade; Clark breaks the populace into “persisters” and “non-persisters,” in other words, those who appeared in more than one census and those who disappeared from the records in a single ten-year period. The only significant differences he could find between any groups in the village–in categories such as elected offices held, likelihood of voting, likelihood of being a boarder vs. owning one’s own home–were between these two groups.

Clark notes that both the percentage of the overall population living as boarders, as well as the average number of boarders kept by individual property owners, fell significantly in the years from 1860 to 1880. This makes sense considering the surge in new real estate construction, expressly intended to create inexpensive housing and rental units across the village, which I have mentioned previously.

Those most likely to be “non-persisters” were workers who arrived each time a railroad construction project was underway. Clark writes, “The railroad changed the face of the town…Its very construction made residents aware of the existence and lifestyles of Americans very different from themselves. As 213 railroad workers, most of them Irish immigrants, set to work laying tracks through the town, Wellingtonians were introduced for the first time to an immigrant laboring population. These workers, who lived in shanties on the town’s outskirts and who attended their own Catholic Church, were a different sort than most Wellington residents were used to associating with” (pg. 15). While I understand the point Clark is trying to make, I think his conclusions are somewhat overstated. I don’t believe he is taking into account the fact that in 1850, nearly everyone in the town was an immigrant, either from another region of the United States or another country. Virtually every resident was what might today be termed “working class,” i.e. one dependent on physical labor to produce economic value. As a group, the population was not as homogeneous nor as provincial as Clark seems to suggest. And I have never seen any written references to “shanties” anywhere in the town.

Undated image of workers at the W. R. Santley sawmill on Magyar Street. Photo 970799 of "Wellington Family Album" Collection, Herrick Memorial Library. Permission to display generously granted by the library.

Undated image of workers at the W. R. Santley sawmill on Magyar Street. Photo 970799 of “Wellington Family Album” Collection, Herrick Memorial Library. Permission to display generously granted by the library.

One interesting idea raised by the paper is the suggestion that temperance organizations such as the Murphy Movement–of which Noah Huckins was at one time the local chapter president–were often driven by employers who wanted to create a more reliable (i.e. teetotaling) workforce. The Murphy Movement caught on in Wellington during the Depression of the 1870s. It was promoted in The Wellington Enterprise because the newspaper’s editors, the Houghtons, were committed supporters of temperance. One of the goals of the group was to obtain participants’ signatures on pledges that they would abstain from all drinking. Clark suggests that employers “may have used the Murphy Movement pledge cards to identify non-drinkers” who would then be given preferred status for future employment (pg. 87). Since Huckins was running a large-scale manufacturing operation on behalf of C. W. Horr, it’s an intriguing notion.

While I disagree with some of Clark’s conclusions, I applaud his efforts to get a clearer sense of what life was like for those whose stories are not recorded in Wellington’s written records. He himself concedes that whatever “economic inequality” there was in the village over the three decades of his study, it was “a very narrow gap when compared to the polarization…in contemporary American cities” (pg. 91). He also allows that there was “a growing sense of community” based, at least in part, on a shared pride in the town’s new national reputation as “The Cheese City.” In the end, I don’t believe the overarching story of nineteenth-century Wellington is one of oppression, exclusion, or exploitation. It is a story of diverse groups of people who chose to come together to form a new community, to their mutual benefit and yes, profit.

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