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The Hotel de Foote

Hotel de Foote built 1881

The Santley house, later the Hotel de Foote. Construction on the house began in 1881, though the Santley family did not move into the property until March 1882. Photo courtesy of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, “The Spirit of ’76” Museum.

Immediately south of Farm and Home Hardware, on the western side of South Main Street, sits a lovely old brick home. Hemmed in as it is today by neighbors and trees, the house might escape the notice of casual visitors to the village. Little might they suspect that this was once Wellington’s foremost luxury hotel, and before that, the broken home at the center of a local scandal.

William R. Santley was born in New London, Ohio in 1839. He attended Baldwin University (as did Noah Huckins, born the same year); it was perhaps during his stay in Berea that he first met Mary McDermott (1842-1921). She was an immigrant whose family had come to Ohio (as had Huckins and John Watson Wilbur) from Whitby, Ontario, Canada. The couple were married on February 27, 1868 in Maumee, Ohio, when William was nearly thirty years old.

The Santleys moved to Wellington around 1870 and William opened a lumber mill and cheese box factory on the western end of Maygar Street in partnership with R.A. Horr. W.R. Santley & Co. was highly successful, soon operating mills in other states including Kentucky and Tennessee, and the mill owner became one of the wealthiest citizens of the village. He served on the Board of Education, the village council, and both William and Mary were prominent and active members of the Methodist Church. Santley pledged $5,000 to the church to construct an addition in the 1880s.

W.R. Santley Sawmill on W end of Magyar St

W. R. Santley & Co. sawmill on Magyar Street, undated image. Photo 970800 of “Wellington Family Album” Collection, Herrick Memorial Library. Permission to display generously granted by the library.

It was during this period of financial prosperity that the couple began to build a magnificent new house on South Main Street, “one of the most costly residences in town” (Wellington Enterprise, 9-7-1892, pg. 5) just across the street from their church. The newspaper reported on the steady progress of the project, from the family purchasing a new piano from local vendor William Vischer over Christmas 1880; to the installation of the slate roof in September 1881; to the completion of the landscape gardener’s work in summer 1882, which resulted in a “very artistic and beautiful appearance” to the grounds (8-23-1882, pg. 3). The family moved into the house in March 1882, and tax records show that by 1883, the property–listed under Mary Santley’s name, as was customary–was valued at $4,500, a huge sum. Also in 1883, the Santley house was one of the first private residences in the village to have a telephone line installed.

WR Santley ordering card

Printed order card for W.R. Santley & Co. dated for the 1870s. Author’s collection.

But the good times were not to last. Just five years after first occupying the house, Mary sold it to her brother, Michael McDermott. This was likely a protective legal move, intended to keep the house from being lost outright. We do not know precisely what happened to William Santley’s businesses, as there are no remaining issues of The Wellington Enterprise from mid-1886 until 1889. But we know from later writings that he suffered bankruptcy, and had to endure a very public and humiliating default on his pledge to the Methodist Church. Despite their efforts, the family did lose their beautiful home, which was sold in July 1888 to G.D. Foote.

William Santley began again, restarting his lumber business in 1888. The family erected a smaller, “less pretentious” house and William went into partnership with his brother-in-law Michael, under the name Santley Lumber Company (Enterprise, 9-7-1892, pg. 5). That enterprise eventually opened mills in Missouri and Arkansas, and Santley slowly began to rebuild his fortune and restore his reputation in the village.

In the fall of 1892, Wellington was shocked to learn that Mary McDermott Santley had filed for divorce from her husband of twenty-four years, on the grounds of infidelity. The revelation was especially jarring because while Mary Santley was considered “happy and friendly” by her neighbors, William “seems unapproachable and would be picked out by a stranger in a crowd as a clergyman, who looked upon all kinds of worldly amusements as wicked.” The Santleys were apparently already living apart, as Mary filed from her residence in Ashtabula County, while William allegedly committed his transgression at a residence in Cleveland, though he continued to officially reside in Wellington. The newspaper observed, “No one ever had a suspicion of discord in the family” (ibid).

The Santleys had two children, both marked in the 1880 federal census as “adopted.” Daughter Netta, born ca. 1869, married in the family’s “less pretentious” house in 1889. Son Fredrick, born ca. 1874, had several brushes with the law, including dismissed assault charges. Fred was later part of a gang that robbed seven stores in Oberlin in 1896 and spent several years in the Mansfield Reformatory as a result. Mary McDermett Santley attested in her divorce petition that she had no living children, but that is simply because Netta and Fred were not her biological offspring. (She also opted to describe herself as a “widow” on all future federal censuses, rather than the more shameful option of “divorced.”)

In February 1893, a judge dismissed the Santley divorce suit “without prejudice.” But the proceedings must have been finalized soon thereafter, because by the fall of 1894 William Santley remarried Ruth Poer or Poore in Indiana. He brought the new Mrs. Santley back to Wellington in November. (The former Mrs. Santley, meanwhile, moved to Maryland to work for the Women’s College of Baltimore.) Four years later, in 1898, William Santley and his second wife relocated to Columbus, Ohio, where he died and was buried in 1922.

WE, 4-13-1898, pg. 6

Advertisement for the Hotel de Foote. “The Wellington Enterprise,” 4-13-1898, pg. 6.

But what of the beautiful house? We briefly encountered George Dellraine “Dell” Foote (1836-1904) in a previous post. He operated a stable on Liberty Street–today’s West Herrick Avenue–from at least the late 1870s. Dell purchased the Santley house in July 1888, as we have seen. The extended Foote and Santley families had a long history of working in each other businesses and engaging in real estate transactions; in this instance, the relationship may have been even closer, as Dell Foote’s daughter married into the McDermott family. The first mention I have located for Hotel de Foote, the business he opened within the Santley house, is September 1892. The hotel continued to operate under that name until Foote’s death in 1904.

The Hotel de Foote was the premier, even luxury, hotel of the bustling village. Its arrivals list was routinely published in the Enterprise, and all visiting dignitaries stayed there. (Remember that the American House was six decades old when Hotel de Foote opened, and reportedly showing every year of its advanced age.) The facility boasted “water and gas supply, although there is neither system in the town–in fact, it is essentially a metropolitan hotel” (Commemorative Biographical Record, pg. 753). It also served as a local function space, hosting banquets, club meetings, and receptions. Numerous traveling physicians advertised when they were visiting Wellington that services could be obtained by application to the Hotel de Foote.

Hotel De Foote

Unmailed postcard, “Wellington, O. Hotel de Foote and Annex.” Printed for A.H. Binder and made in Germany. Author’s collection.

In 1897, a review of the hotel was published in the Enterprise that is worth quoting at length: “I found but one hotel really entitled to rank under the nomenclature of ‘first-class.’ This house is the Hotel De Foote. It is a modern structure fronting the park square, stands removed from the street walk, in the center of pleasant grounds, beautified with grass lawns and flower beds. The prospective to the house is charming. A wide walk and roadway leads up to the front entrances, where a broad flight of steps is the approach to the veranda, which extends from the office door. The lawn and walks are shaded by fine trees and the whole aspect is most inviting and restful. The house is elegantly furnished throughout and is fitted with modern conveniences. The dining room is a well appointed apartment, pleasant to dine in and seating all who come. All the rooms in this house are modern, large, well ventilated and supplied with every convenience. Nothing is lacking which refined and cultured people consider necessary for comfort and correct living. Commercial men who come to Wellington patronize this hotel, for as a rule they are a luxury loving class of men, well dressed and well-bred, and they demand the best hotel accommodations. Nothing less will satisfy them. Said a prominent traveling man to me, whom I met in Cincinnati a short time ago: ‘When you go to Wellington, stop at the ‘Foote.’ Its [sic] the only place–everything the best and right up-to-date.’ Mr. G.D. Foote, the proprietor, is an ideal host, one of the old regime of gentlemen bonifaces” (6-30-1897, pg. 6).

Dell Foote certainly understood his clientele. He maintained a widespread reputation for being a generous and gregarious host, while catering to his guests’ every need. In 1894, for example, he opened a railroad ticket broker’s office inside the hotel, to “buy, sell and exchange tickets…quite an accommodation to the traveling public” (Enterprise, 11-28-1894, pg. 5). As late as the summer of 1897, he continued to personally manage the livery stable while also running the hotel. When he died in 1904, his front-page obituary noted that he “was known far and wide as a genial landlord and an energetic, big hearted fellow citizen. He was an eccentric character and a man of versatile talents” (Enterprise, 1-13-1904).

In 2010, I submitted a nomination to This Old House Magazine and was delighted when they selected Wellington as the Best Old-House Neighborhood in the state of Ohio for that year. Out of the dozens of images I sent, the one they elected to use to represent Wellington was a photograph of the Santley house. Divided into multiple apartments over the course of the twentieth-century, since 1990 it has once again been used as a single-family private residence. Time may have roughened its edges a bit, but its former grandeur is evident even now.

Whatever Happened to the Old Free Church?

Old Free Church 8-28-1901 p. 2

“The Old Free Church, Built in 1852.” Engraving featured in “The Wellington Enterprise,” 8-28-1901, pg. 2.

If you have followed this blog since the beginning, you are probably aware of my ongoing battle to untangle the histories of both Wellington’s Town Halls and its Congregational Churches. Numerous buildings have served as each–and a few have served as both. As evidence has surfaced over the years, I have gone back and amended earlier writings to clarify the timelines. Every time I think I have it all sorted out, some new document comes along and remuddies the waters.

One of the unresolved mysteries is the fate of the building known as the Old Free Church. This wooden structure was erected on South Main Street, approximately where today’s Congregational Church stands, in 1852. I have pieced together an outline of what happened to it over the decades that followed, though its ultimate fate is still unclear. I am hoping that perhaps someone reading this might be able to shed some light on the answer. Here is what I know:

1852-Built on South Main Street.
“[T]he Free Church received two hundred dollars’ assistance in building its house” (Barton, History of the First Congregational Church of Wellington, Ohio, pg. 20).
“[1852] Steps were taken to secure a pastor, and a committee was appointed to secure a site for a building” (Ibid, pg. 22).

1857-Archibald Willard painted Village of Wellington and depicted the Free Church.

Detail of old free church

Detail of the Free Church in “Village of Wellington” (1857) by Archibald Willard. Original painting owned by Herrick Memorial Library. Permission to display generously granted by the library.

1860-The two split factions of Wellington’s Congregational Church reunited (Ibid, pg. 24).

1863-Free Church became the Town Hall.
“An exchange has been effected by the Board of Education, so that the building known as the ‘Free Church’ has now become the Town Hall…” (Lorain County News, 9-9-1863, pg. 3).

1874-Building was recorded on map of the village as “Town Hall.”

1874 Town Hall

Detail of Wellington Village map showing a structure labelled “Town Hall” on the west side of South Main Street. From “Atlas of Lorain County, Ohio. 1874.” Pg. 61. Photo by author.

1879-Conjectural date at which Free Church stopped serving as Town Hall; at some point it was sold and relocated to make way for a brick church on the same South Main Street site–which burned to the ground in 1895.

1892-Free Church was in use as a wagon shop.
“The Free Church built the large structure which is now used by Christie & Bennett as a wagon shop” (Barton, pg. 25).

WE 2-19-1890, pg. 1

Advertisement for Christie & Bennett. “The Wellington Enterprise,” 2-19-1890, pg. 1.

1894-Christie & Bennett dissolved their partnership; Bennett continued the business alone (The Wellington Enterprise, 8-22-1894, pg. 8).

1901-Image of the Free Church used in Homecoming Week special publication (above) noted “now used as a wagon shop.” (Ibid, 8-28-1901, pg. 2).

1902-“The Old Congregational Church Now a Wagon Shop.”
“The old wagon shop that fronts the railroad track south of West Main street and now occupied by Mr. Harry Bennett, was once the Congregational church of this place…The old belfry has been removed but the wide panel corner boards and cornice are still in evidence and the building bears the appearance of better days” (Ibid, 8-16-1902, pg. 1).

And that is where the mystery stood until very recently. I began to dig into Harry Bennett’s taxes, bearing in mind the clue from the above story that the wagon shop “fronts the railroad track south of West Main street,” i.e. today’s West Herrick Avenue. Bennett did indeed own two lots of land on the diagonally-oriented Rail Road Street, though an 1896 map indicates no buildings on either of his holdings. I then took a look at Sanborn fire maps for the period, and found that a structure labelled “Wagon Shop” did stand on that corner of Rail Road and West Main (also called Liberty Street) on maps for 1889, 1899, and 1904.

Sanborn June 1904

Sanborn Fire Insurance map for Wellington, Ohio dated July, 1904 showing the intersection of Rail Road Street and West Main (or Liberty) Streets. Wagon shop is circled. OhioLINK Digital Resource Commons. Accessed 3-22-2017.

The same structure remained on block 1, lot 73 for at least three more decades. It appeared on Sanborn maps in 1911, 1922, and 1933; each time it was labelled “Agricultural Implements” or “Farm Implements.”

Harry Bennett did not own the lot nor the building on it. In the 1902 Enterprise story cited above, he was said to occupy the wagon shop but was not named its owner. The two lots that Bennett did own were the empty space just southwest of the wagon shop on the Sanborn map above. Perhaps he rented the building for his business, then bought nearby land as a place to park the carriages, wagons and sleighs his shop serviced.

In a rather remarkable coincidence, just yesterday Mr. Alan Leiby, the creator and moderator of the Memory Lane Wellington Facebook page, sent me two historic photographs of West Herrick Avenue, for a completely unrelated topic I was researching. When I looked at the Sanborn maps and realized the area of town in which the Free Church might have been relocated, I quickly reexamined those images.

west liberty st post-1904

Post-1904 image of West Main or Liberty Street, at its intersection with Rail Road Street. Is the wood-frame building at the far right the Old Free Church? Photo courtesy of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, “The Spirit of ’76” Museum.

Is the wood-frame structure that appears in this photograph the wagon shop that was once the Old Free Church? It seems to be the correct dimensions and bears a strong resemblance to the engraving at the top of the post. “The wide panel corner boards and cornice” noted in the 1902 Enterprise article are found in the image, as well.

So, dear readers, I am putting the question to all of you. This building was still standing in Wellington as late as 1933, perhaps far longer. Does anyone remember this structure? Was it demolished or relocated yet again? How marvelous if we could locate it during the Bicentennial commemorations, perhaps hiding in plain sight and serving as someone’s home. Please comment if you can shed any more light on the mystery.

UPDATE: Mr. Leiby comes through again! After reading my post on the Old Free Church, he located another image–spectacular all by itself–that shows a bit more of the building. My guess is that this photograph is earlier than the post-1904 image above, though it is difficult to date the clothing styles as most of the subjects are in costume. The building clearly said “CARRIAGES” at some point, and the window appears to read in part, “CARRIAGES, BUGGIES AND WAGONS.”

Old Free Church as Wagon Shop

Undated image of the buildings situated at the junction of Liberty Street (now West Herrick Avenue) and Rail Road Street (now Depot Street). Photograph courtesy of Mr. Alan L. Leiby.

“Novelties in Art”

Trade card for Hoyt & Peters, Wellington, Ohio. Possibly ca. 1886. Author’s collection.

I have written on several occasions of my love of nineteenth-century trade cards. These small, paper advertisements were distributed by businesses of the time, and were often brightly colored and sometimes humorous. As a result, they were collected by consumers, and a large number of them have survived. I once worked in a special collections department at Harvard that had a magnificent collection of trade cards.

Over the years, I have amassed a very small batch of Wellington-related trade cards, and I thought it would be fun to share them in a single post. The image above is a card promoting Pioneer Prepared Paints, sold in the village by business partners Norton G. Hoyt and David J. Peters. I explained in a post in 2014 why I believe this card to date sometime around 1886.

In 2015, I relayed the life story of Freeman Battle (1850-1897). He was a merchant who sold sewing machines, and coincidentally worked in Hoyt & Peters building on Mechanics Street–now East Herrick Avenue–which still stands today. While Hoyt & Peters went to the expense of having their business name professionally printed on their trade cards, Freeman Battle merely ink-stamped his information on the reverse of a card likely printed in Cleveland.

Another local merchant about whom I have written rather extensively is John Watson Wilbur (1839-1936). Originally from Canada, Wilbur settled in the village as a young man and operated a hardware store, both with partners and alone, for thirty years. Wilbur had his trade card for stoves, tinware and dairy apparatus professionally printed, and the slapstick roller skating scene from this  particular example is copyrighted 1883.

JWWilbur

Trade card for J.W. Wilbur, Wellington, Ohio. Post-1883. Author’s collection.

Just steps away, on Liberty Street (today West Herrick Avenue) William Vischer had his piano and organ selling business. If one looks very carefully at the tallest brick building on the south side of the street–129 West Herrick–the ghostly remnants of the painted words, “Vischer & Sons Pianos” are still visible on the mansard roof today. At some point in the late nineteenth century, Vischer was the local agent for McCammon piano fortes, imported from Albany. He had his name printed on their cheerful card.

WmVischerFrontVischerBack

On the ground level of that same Liberty Street building, Erwin Wright Adams operated a pharmacy for more than thirty years. In addition to pills, powders and tonics of all sorts, Adams also served as the ticket vendor for the nearby Opera House, after it opened in 1886. Adams ink-stamped his authorization to serve as “sole agent” for a medicine called Cas-Car-Ria on this trade card. I presume Cas-Car-Ria is a concoction made from cascara, the bark of a tree native to the Pacific coastal region still used in supplement form today as a mild laxative.

The final card I would like to share with you is a bit of a cheat, in that it is not for a Wellington business. It is a beautiful printed business card for James Fitzallan Ryder (1826-1904), a photographer in Cleveland who served as Archibald Willard’s business partner. It was Ryder who made Willard famous in the city by featuring some of Willard’s early work in his gallery windows and selling inexpensive chromolithograph versions for sale. It was Ryder who encouraged Willard to paint a large work for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which we have come to know as “The Spirit of ’76.”

Interestingly, this card is stamped “Mastai Collection” in very tiny letters on the lower left corner of the obverse. I did some research and determined that the card must once have belonged to Boleslaw Mastai and his wife Marie-Louise d’Otrange Mastai, famous connoisseurs of Americana from New York. The Mastais spent more than forty years collecting and researching, eventually amassing one of the most highly regarded groupings of early American flags ever gathered, and publishing a 1973 reference book still considered a classic in the field. The bulk of their “Patriotic Materials” estate seems to have been auctioned off by Sotheby’s in 2002. How this lovely little item traveled from Cleveland, to New York, and now back to Ohio, is a wonderful mystery.

Freeman Battle (1850-1897)

Trade card for Standard Sewing Machine Co., Cleveland, Ohio. Stamped

Trade card for Standard Sewing Machine Co., Cleveland, Ohio. Stamped “FREE BATTLE, AGENT, WELLINGTON, O.” on reverse. Though the background of the image appears grey, it is a metallic silver that reflects light as the card is turned. Author’s collection.

Regular readers of the blog will know of my affection for both trade cards and objects that lead to stories. This lovely polychromatic trade card, which measures approximately three by five-and-one-quarter inches, represents a sewing machine company from Cleveland, Ohio. But the reverse of the card is stamped on the diagonal, “FREE BATTLE, AGENT, WELLINGTON, O.,” and that leads us to a little story.

Freeman Battle was born on September 2, 1850 in Brighton. His grandfather, Ithiel Battle, was an early settler of Wellington township; his name was recorded in an 1827 census of the white male inhabitants of Lorain County. On November 6, 1880, Freeman married Alice E. Sage. She was the daughter of Samuel L. Sage, a grocer on North Main Street in Wellington. In 1890, when Sage was fatally shot by his own shop clerk, it was to his son-in-law’s house on Mechanics Street that he was carried, dying there three hours later.

Advertisement for

Advertisement for “The Domestic” sewing machine, sold locally by Free Battle. “The Wellington Enterprise,” 3-18-1891, pg. 4.

Battle was employed as a retail agent selling sewing machines. According to his advertisements, his office was in the building erected in 1890 by Hoyt & Peters, also on Mechanics Street and still standing today. When his father died in September 1896, Freeman rented out his house and moved his family back to Brighton to care for his aging stepmother. He was apparently already in ill health himself; as early as 1885, reports in The Wellington Enterprise described him as “sick with congestion of the liver,” (2-11-1885, pg. 5). Even so, he continued on in business and promotions for his Wellington operation appeared in the newspaper for several months after he no longer resided in the village.

Freeman Battle died in Brighton on October 18, 1897. His obituary reported that he was “in the hope of going to some climate which would prove beneficial to his already failing health, but the disease which had so firm a hold upon him developed so rapidly that he was obliged to abandon the trip toward which he had looked forward with so much hope. His illness was protracted and painful, alternating with hope and fear, but when he at last realized that although he was just in the prime of life, the summons had come to him to come up higher he said to his faithful wife, the Lords [sic] will, not mine be done” (Enterprise, 11-3-1897, pg. 5).

Battle was just forty-seven years old when he died. His widow, Alice, survived him by four decades, dying in 1936 at the age of eighty-five. Both are interred in Greenwood Cemetery, though for unknown reasons, Alice’s name is not recorded on the stone. If the couple had any children, I have found no record of them. Only the little girl on the card remains.

Headstone of Freeman Battle, Greenwood Cemetery, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

Headstone of Freeman Battle, Greenwood Cemetery, Wellington, Ohio. Photo by author.

Foote & Barnard

Advertisement of the new firm Foote & Barnard.

Detail of advertisement for new firm Foote & Barnard. “Lorain County News,” 5-3-1865, pg. 3. Photo by author.

Being an entrepreneur in the nineteenth century was no easier than it is today. An oft-quoted modern statistic is that only about half of all small businesses survive their first five years. The dry goods store known as Foote & Barnard lasted barely eight months over the course of the year 1865, before catastrophe closed its doors forever.

I came across this story while I was conducting research in the Lorain County News on another topic. The Oberlin College Archives holds three ledger volumes once belonging to Wellington and Pittsfield merchants called Foote & Locke, composed between 1837 and 1846, so the name caught my attention. The short and unfortunate history of Foote & Barnard unfolded across just ten short notices and advertisements.

In March 1865, the dry goods firm Clarke & Foote announced its formal dissolution. C. S. Foote,  junior partner in the operation, published his intention to continue on “at the old stand” and became the senior partner in his new venture by bringing in one William Barnard, Esq. Less than two months later, the News reported, “We are sorry to hear that our friends and patrons, Messrs. Foote and Barnard, Merchants, were burned out last Thursday night, losing their entire stock of goods, and but partially insured, supposed the work of incendiaries” (5-10-1865, pg. 2).

A much longer description of the blaze appeared in the Wellington section of the following week’s paper. Fire was first discovered near “the butter room” and was believed to have been started by arsonists. Despite the lack of wind on the night of the fire, “the buildings being of wood and the contents so combustible, the fire rushed through it with great rapidity.” Adjacent structures were also in danger of being consumed. The stove and tinware shop owned by Orrin Sage, and the hardware store of Ethel Benedict, were both “greatly periled,” which provides strong evidence that Foote & Barnard operated out of the business block at the intersection of the village, the northeast corner of what is today Main Street and Herrick Avenue.

Formal dissolution of partnership notice for Foote & Barnard.

Formal dissolution of partnership notice for Foote & Barnard. “Lorain County News,” 1-24-1866, pg. 3. Photo by author.

Foote & Barnard’s overall financial loss was estimated to be as much as twenty-five thousand dollars, on which they had approximately seventeen thousand dollars insurance. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the two men moved first to the basement of Benedict’s hardware store, just across Main Street, but soon after relocated to “the large building lately occupied by Belding & Harris as a shoe and grocery store.” (I believe this was on the north side of what is now West Herrick Avenue.) So much of their stock had been destroyed that they pleaded for time to “visit the eastern cities for more goods” so they could resume operations (5-17-1865, pg. 3).

But circumstances continued to worsen. The reconstruction of Foote & Barnard’s store had to be abandoned for the year because “brick for the purpose could not be obtained” (7-12-1865, pg. 3). By late October, the men began to weekly promote a going-out-of-business sale, noting in the advertisement that their old stock had burned and they had “determined to close” (11-22-1865, pg. 3). A formal dissolution of partnership was published in January, 1866, printed over a card of thanks from C. S. Foote to his former customers. He was retiring from business after more than twenty-five years.

Announcement of new firm, Rininger & Barnard.

Detail of announcement of new firm Rininger & Barnard. “Lorain County News,” 1-24-1866, pg. 3). Photo by author.

Mr. Foote had one more role to play in the history of Wellington. Upon retiring, he sold both his “fine residence” and his interest in the defunct dry goods store to William Rininger of Attica, Ohio. I have written about Rininger before. One of the village’s wealthiest and most irascible residents, he eventually owned the massive brick Italianate block erected on the site of Foote & Barnard’s burned wooden shop, selling it in 1882. But brick ultimately proved no more impervious to fire than wood. A half-century after Foote & Barnard lost everything in a single spring night, the so-called Rininger block also burned to the ground in 1915.

Death of a Stranger

Cleveland Daily Leader, 2-27-1866, pg. 4.

Cleveland Daily Leader, 2-27-1866, pg. 4.

There once was a girl called Lepha. She was born into a farming family in a small, rural settlement in western Massachusetts. Like every other human being, she must have had hopes, dreams, and wishes for her future. I can tell you nothing about these. Sadly, the event that I can tell you about in the most detail is Lepha’s tragic death. I could tell you a great deal, too, about the man whose actions ended her life, his family history, his accomplishments in the thirty years that he went on to enjoy, years she did not have. But I am not going to do that. This is Lepha’s story, and out of respect for her, that is where my focus will remain.

Lepha Irene Sherman entered the world in 1843. She was born to Kelley and Susan Sherman, farmers in the tiny northern Berkshire County community of Florida, Massachusetts. Lepha appears to have been the youngest of eight children. The details of her early life are lost to us. Like another woman I once wrote about, even her name has not come down to us clearly. She appeared in birth, marriage and census records as: Leafy, Liefa, Leapha and Lepha. After her life was cut short, she appeared in print as Sepha, Aletha and Alepha; one paper claimed that she was “familiarly called LENA” (Elyria Democrat, 1-10-1866, pg. 2).

Massachusetts conducted a state census every decade on the five-year mark, i. e. between federal census decades. We can therefore see that sometime between 1850 and 1855, Lepha’s uncle and paternal aunt, William Towner and Phebe L. Sherman Houghton, moved from Pownal, Vermont to Florida, Massachusetts. They took up residence very close, possibly next door, to the Sherman family. They brought two sons. The eldest, Isaac, was five years older than his cousin, Lepha. By the Fourth of July, 1861, Isaac and Lepha were married. She had just turned eighteen.

Massachusetts, Birth Records, 1840-1915; Town of Clarksburg, 1862, pg. 38.

October 10, 1862 entry recording the birth of Carlton L. Houghton to Isaac R. and Lepha I. Houghton, nee Sherman. Massachusetts, Birth Records, 1840-1915; Town of Clarksburg, 1862, pg. 38.

Fifteen months later, Carlton L. Houghton was born. The baby survived only ten months. The Pittsfield Sun reported that the death of the “son of Isaac Houghton” occurred August 20th, 1863. In the documentation bookending his boy’s brief existence, Isaac was identified as both a farmer and carpenter. (In 1855, there were fourteen saw mills in Florida, a good option for employment during the off-season.) I can find no record of Isaac serving in the Civil War, though The History of Berkshire County, Volume One noted that forty-five local men served and of those, eleven did not come back (pg. 700).

By the 1865 Massachusetts census, both Lepha and Isaac disappear from the rolls. Their respective families continued to farm side-by-side in Florida, but I can find no mention of either of them in all of Berkshire County. According to testimony offered after Lepha’s death, she relocated to Ohio early that year “for the purpose of procuring a divorce from her husband” (Elyria Democrat, 1-10-1866, pg. 2). If this statement is accurate, it obviously suggests that Isaac remained alive. But I can locate no further trace of him in the historical record.

Why did Lepha leave her husband? It is impossible to say. We can conjecture about her youth–she was barely twenty-two–and whether she had ever wanted to be married to her first cousin. Perhaps she did not wish to be a farmer’s wife. Her choice of comparatively urban Wellington as a new home is an interesting one. I was very curious to learn how she came to settle so far from her birthplace. Regular readers of the blog will no doubt be thinking of the many other families who emigrated from Berkshire to Lorain County. Given that Lepha’s married name was Houghton, I initially suspected she was related to the Houghtons of Wellington. But research revealed what I believe to be the more likely scenario, namely familial networks on her mother’s side.

Two clues survive in the testimony offered after Lepha’s death. Elyria papers reported that her body was taken to New London “by a relative” for interment. The Cleveland Daily Leader wrote, “The evidence given by Charles Hannenway, cousin of deceased, revealed no new facts” (2-27-1866, pg. 4). I could find no evidence of such a person as Charles Hannenway. It then struck me that the name in the testimony was reminiscent of ‘Hemenway,’ a family I have written about before. The Hemenways came from New London, and one of brothers was, in fact, called Charles. Further digging revealed that they originally emigrated from Berkshire County and at least two of the Hemenway siblings were born in Florida. Lepha’s mother’s maiden name is recorded in her marriage documents as “Hemingway.” Susan Hemenway Sherman died in October 1863, just weeks after her infant grandson, Carlton. Perhaps the loss of both her mother and child drove Lepha to leave Massachusetts behind and start over in Ohio with help from her maternal cousins.

Advertisement for Levi Bowman's clothing shop, still in operation nearly twenty years after Lepha Sherman Houghton's death. "The Wellington Enterprise," 5-21-1884, pg. 4.

Advertisement for Levi Bowman’s clothing shop, still in operation nearly two decades after Lepha Sherman Houghton’s death. “The Wellington Enterprise,” 5-21-1884, pg. 4.

Lepha boarded in Wellington and “ran a sewing machine” in Levi Bowman’s clothing shop on the west side of South Main Street. She lived in the village for a year, as the Civil War drew to a close. Did she attend the memorial service when President Lincoln was assassinated in April? Did she get up in the middle of the night to watch his funeral train pass by the depot in a driving rain? Did she stroll through the fairgrounds with friends that September? We have no way of knowing. The obliquest of mentions appeared in the Lorain County News, in a description of her workplace: “A look through the clothing establishment of L. Bowman, of this place, will satisfy any one that some things can be done in Wellington, as well as others. Mr. B. is manufacturing all his own clothing, and at the present time giving employment to four men and eight or ten women. He has a very large stock of clothes and gentlemen’s furnishing goods, which will be sold as low as similar goods can be bought in the state. Give him a call, and satisfy yourselves” (8-30-1865, pg. 3).

Among those “four men and eight or ten women” employed at Bowman’s were both Lepha and A. J. Brown. He is referred to as “Asa” and “Andrew” Brown in later reports, while the Lorain County News dismissed him as “one ‘Jack’ Brown” (1-10-1866, pg. 3). Jack was allegedly separated from his own wife by 1865. In examining the 1860 federal census for Wellington, I found three J. Browns. Two were named John, a thirty-eight-year-old unmarried shoemaker and a forty-six-year-old laborer with a wife and five children. The third man, Jackson Brown of New York, was a twenty-four-year-old tailor with a young wife (Marion, 22) and small daughter (Emma, 3). His name, age and profession lead me to believe that he is the person at the center of the calamity that followed.

1860 Federal Census for Wellington, Ohio showing Jackson Brown, tailor, and his family. Pg. 102, family #794.

1860 federal census for Wellington, Ohio showing Jackson Brown, tailor, and his dependents. Pg. 102, #794.

The two co-workers began a relationship and by early winter, Lepha was pregnant. Was the affair secret? The woman with whom Lepha boarded, Mrs. Amelia R. Herrick, claimed that she knew Lepha was expecting as she “had had morning sickness and had symptoms of approaching maternity” (Cleveland Daily Leader, 2-27-1866, pg. 4). As a side-note, I have been unable to find Amelia R. Herrick in Wellington records. There was an unmarried educator in town named Armenia Herrick; she was sister to Charlotte Herrick Howk. In 1860, Armenia was sixty years old and fostering a nine-year-old niece. By 1870, she had moved in with another sister and nieces–five unmarried women in a single household. Widely respected in the community, Herrick was the subject of a lengthy 1879 obituary in The Wellington Enterprise by co-editor Mary Hayes Houghton; not surprisingly, it says nothing about Armenia keeping boarders, nor hints at any connection to the 1866 scandal.

Trial documents tell the rest of the story. Jack approached Mary Mason, who resided in Wellington more-or-less continuously from 1853 until her death in 1903, but had moved for a brief period to Elyria that September. She later testified that she had known Lepha for nearly a year prior to the latter’s death. Did the girl send her lover to Mrs. Mason to ask for help or did he know, and apparently trust, Mrs. Mason on his own? There is a vague reference in the court transcript which suggests that Mary Mason had visited the same doctor on several previous occasions; it may be that she was known as an individual who would discreetly assist women “in trouble.” Regardless, it was eventually arranged that Mrs. Mason would meet Lepha in Cleveland after Christmas and escort her to a clandestine, illegal abortion.

On December 30th, the two women went to the office of “Doctor” Hosea W. Libbey. I will spare you, dear reader, the gruesome details included in the subsequent indictment. Suffice to say that Libbey had no degree nor formal medical training of any kind, and was a charlatan even by the standards of his own century. The injuries he inflicted on Lepha in a locked office, away from Mary Mason’s eyes, led to the younger woman suffering severe internal hemorrhaging on the return train to Elyria. Mary brought Lepha to her house, where the girl was put to bed and never recovered. She died on January 4th, 1866. As mentioned, her body was taken to New London for interment. I have not been able to locate her grave, but I suspect she is resting among her Hemenway relations in the Grove Street Cemetery.

Ironically, the only person for whom this story’s ending is clear is the one who encountered Lepha Sherman Houghton for just ten minutes of her entire life. Jack Brown, father of the child, and Mary Mason, the woman who risked her own reputation to help, were both arrested for their complicity in the crime. I do not know anything further about Jack Brown’s fate; if I am correct in believing him to be “Jackson Brown” from the 1860 federal census, I also know nothing of what happened to the spurned Marion Brown or their daughter, Emma. Mary Mason continued on in Wellington until her death in 1903 and is buried with her husband in Greenwood Cemetery. What impact the scandal had on her interactions with her neighbors, we can only guess. (It is interesting to note that all mentions of the trial featured in the Lorain County News were submitted by the Elyria correspondent; not a single line was ever printed in the Wellington column, as if the village were trying to disavow any association with the shameful episode.) Hosea W. Libbey, just thirty-two years old at the time, was tried and convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years of hard labor; later documents show he served six weeks of that sentence before being released by the Pardon Board. He went right back to medicine. Though he periodically resurfaced in newspaper accounts of lawsuits, arrests for theft, and even the auction of his home and goods to settle debts, he continued with what seem to have been profitable practices in Cleveland and Boston. He secured patents and produced several publications. When he died in 1900, it was covered in both Ohio and Massachusetts newspapers; no allusion was made to his manslaughter conviction.

Hosea Wait Libbey (1834-1900). From "The Libby Family in America, 1602-1881," B. Thurston & Co: Portland, ME (1882), opposite pg. 254.

Hosea Wait Libbey (1834-1900). From “The Libby Family in America, 1602-1881,” B. Thurston & Co: Portland, ME (1882), opposite pg. 254.

How unjust that we should have a portrait of Libbey, but not of Lepha. She was “of attractive form and features, and…deported herself in a manner that indicated a good character and industrious habits,” we are told. Her landlady, even after Lepha’s public disgrace, characterized her as “steady, industrious, healthy, robust.” Whatever her sins, if sins they were, surely she did not deserve the excruciating, isolated death she received, surrounded only by acquaintances terrified that her end meant the beginning of their legal troubles. It is unclear whether even Jack was present when she passed. An editorial decried “the almost inhuman neglect of her body after life was extinct,” and indeed, we can only speculate as to where her body ended its journey.

That editorial, in the Elyria Democrat, delivered this scathing summation of the affair: “In all such cases, when woman yields to the more powerful influences of men, there is abundant cause for the exercise of two eminent virtues–pity, and contempt. Pity for the weaker and fallen one, and loathing and contempt for him who compassed her ruin by artful wiles, and then with cowardly instinct, seeks to hide his own shame by urging his victim to pursue a course that puts her life in peril” (1-10-1866, pg. 2). The assumption that Lepha was “weak” and seduced or coerced by Brown belittles her and negates her agency as a thinking, feeling person. In reality, we can have no idea of the true nature of the relationship between the two. Were they in love or lust, both or neither? Did they hope to marry or was the intimacy of a more casual nature? Did Lepha prefer to be independent, free of a father and husband’s control for the first time, or was she perchance hoping that sex would bind Brown more closely to her? It is possible she was entirely relieved to learn that an abortion was available in nearby Cleveland; but maybe, instead, she remembered little Carlton on the long train ride north and mourned the loss of a second, unmet baby. “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” the saying goes. Equally important to remember is that the simplified history we think we know rarely bears any resemblance to the complex and confused experience of actually living it.

 

One Hundred Years Ago Today…

Fire destroying the building known as the Rininger Block or the Horr Block, 1915. Photo courtesy of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, "The Spirit of '76" Museum.

Fire destroying the building known as the Rininger Block or the Horr Block, 1915. Photo courtesy of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, “The Spirit of ’76” Museum.

I’ve often joked on this blog that I stay as far away from the twentieth century as possible, but given the anniversary nature of this event, I felt safe. A century ago this very day, the three-story Italianate building known as both the Rininger Block and the Horr Block burned to the ground over the night of Wednesday, February 24th and into the early morning hours of Thursday, February 25th, 1915. It was one of the largest fires in the history of the village.

Papers in nearby Elyria and Medina reported breathlessly on the catastrophic occurrence. “WELLINGTON VILLAGE VISITED BY A DISASTROUS FIRE IN ITS BUSINESS SECTION” shouted the front page of The Elyria Chronicle on Thursday morning. The Chronicle noted that in addition to the destruction of the massive structures, “The wall of the Horr building fell into the street and heavily damaged the cable and wires of the Wellington Telephone Co., putting a large part of the village out of telephone service.” By the day after the fire, the front page of the Elyria Evening Telegram was dominated by photographs of the conflagration in progress, including the image at the top of this post.

Building known as both the Rininger block and the Horr block, which burned in 1915. Formerly located on the northern corner of Main Street and Mechanics Street (now East Herrick Avenue). Image must have been taken after 1882, as the tin cornice of the second Rininger store is visible on the right side. Photo courtesy of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, "The Spirit of '76" Museum.

Building known as both the Rininger block and the Horr block, which burned in 1915. Formerly located on the northern corner of Main Street and Mechanics Street (now East Herrick Avenue). Image must have been taken after 1882, as the tin cornice of the second Rininger store is visible on the right side. Photo courtesy of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, “The Spirit of ’76” Museum.

The Wellington Enterprise had published its weekly edition as normal on Wednesday, so it was seven days before the next issue featured local coverage of the fire. Given the passage of time, the reporting was a bit more subdued. An entire column of “Fire Notes,” published in the March 3rd edition, was simply a list of one-line observations on the scene. It feels rather stream-of-consciousness, as if the writer–or the town–was in shock. “For a day or so after the fire, East Main street as far as the postoffice [sic] resembled a foggy day in London as far as atmospheric conditions were concerned,” read one note. Another mentioned the truant officer pulling “fascinated school youngsters” away from the scene. A third line reflected on what might have happened had the fire occurred while the water supply was low. And so forth.

The damage was immense. In addition to the loss of the three-story block itself–as well as the inventories of the multiple stores that filled it–the wooden buildings on the east side of North Main Street were condemned, including the “old laundry building” formerly occupied by Wah Sing. Many nearby glass windows were shattered from the heat of the blaze. The telephone lines were damaged as noted, leaving the town without communication. Dynamite, and eventually the Interurban street car, was used to pull down the dangerously teetering brick walls still standing after the blaze. The work of cleaning up the downtown began immediately and the Enterprise was already reporting by March 3rd that “from its ashes there will arise a modern block of two stories in the near future” (pg. 2).

The two-story building that replaces the Rininger or Horr Block, currently standing on the northeast corner of Main Street and Herrick Avenue. Photo by author.

The two-story building that replaced the Rininger or Horr Block, currently standing on the northeast corner of Main Street and Herrick Avenue. Photo by author.

In the months that followed, the cause of the disaster became clearer. A local merchant, F. C. Bixler, confessed to starting the fire and was indicted in mid-April. He owned a store fifty miles to the southeast in Dalton, Ohio, that he was finding impossible to sell, and his Wellington store–located in the destroyed block–was not proving profitable. Early reports noted that Bixler had very little insurance, so his motive seems to have been to free himself from his legal obligations to the Wellington venture and return to his family and work in Dalton. It is likely that his intention was only to damage his own shop beyond repair. By early May, Bixler was convicted of arson and sentenced to “an indefinite term in the Ohio penitentary [sic]. If he behaves well, possibly he may be paroled or pardoned at the end of a few years servitude” (Enterprise, 5-5-1915, pg. 4).

The life of the village went on. The debris was eventually cleared away and plans were drafted for a new edifice. E. E. Watters was a businessman who suffered the heaviest losses in the fire, estimated at nearly $35,000. He had insufficient insurance to cover at least one-third of the reserve stock of his dry goods and general store, and had just received a new shipment of items for the spring selling season that was totally uncovered. But he vowed to reopen on the same site and by April 21st, the newspaper announced that he had leased the entire lot for twenty-five years, with an option to buy. From then on, the site became known as the Watters Block.

Detail of an advertisement for E.E. Watters' store, featuring a cartoon depiction of the Horr Block burning as firemen rush to save valuable Hoosier Kitchen Cabinets (the items being promoted). "The Wellington Enterprise," 6-9-1915, pg. 1. Photo by author.

Detail of an advertisement for E. E. Watters’ store, featuring a cartoon depiction of the Horr Block burning as firemen rush to save Hoosier Kitchen Cabinets (the items being promoted). “The Wellington Enterprise,” 6-9-1915, pg. 1. Photo by author.