Category Archives: History

“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.

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“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.”

Out of Time

Clock front

Nineteenth-century clock with cast-iron painted front and attached wooden case. Original object (accession #938) is the property of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, “The Spirit of ’76” Museum. Photo by author, used by permission of the museum.

My father-in-law is a lover of local history. Not long ago, he was paging through old issues of the Wellington Enterprise, and came across a notice he thought would interest me:

“Museum Recipient of Clock From Home of Alonson Howks. Three guests Friday at Wellington’s museum were Mr. and Mrs. Orville Knapp of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Grace Prosser Kesser of 138 Union st, bearing family heirlooms that will be highly prized by the Historical Society. The Knapps presented a clock that arrived in Wellington more than 150 years ago with Mr. and Mrs. Alonson Howk, one of the first families to settle here. They owned a mile square tract–the entire Southeast section of the town, running south to Jones-rd; east to Hawley; north to Route 18 and west to the center of town. The Howks donated the land that became the village commons (public square) and the park adjoining on the south with the provision that it always be used for these purposes. HISTORIAN EDWARD WELLS reports that Mr. Howk died in 1860. The Howk ‘farm’ home then was the residence at 308 East Herrick-av, which in recent years became the property of Mrs. Belden Cowles who sold it to the present owners, the Steven Kirbys. It definitely is among Wellington’s oldest residences. The Howks’ daughter, Electa, became the wife of Horace Mead and to this union six children were born: Fannie Clodwick, Frank Mead, Mrs. George (Theodosia) Whitehead, Sadie McQuiston, Nellie Bassett and Katie Prosser. Orville Knapp married Minerva, daughter of the George Whiteheads, and it was she who inherited the clock that now rests in the museum. OF ADDED INTEREST is the fact that the clock was taken to Florida in 1920 by the Knapps when they established a winter home there. The highways ran from poor to terrible and the trip took two weeks. By contrast, when Orville and the second Mrs. Knapp came by plane last month, carefully bearing the clock, the trip was made to Cleveland in two hours and fifteen minutes” (9/9/1971, pg. 3).

Regular readers of the blog will know that I have done a great deal of research into the Howk family that emigrated in 1818 from Lee, Massachusetts to the area we now call Wellington. You may have seen the lecture I presented to kick off the village’s 2018 bicentennial celebrations. So reading this small notice was quite exciting, as I was not previously aware of any such clock. A few small discrepancies caught my eye, however. Alanson Howk was a teenager when he traveled to Ohio with his immediate family. He did not marry Theadocia Clifford until 1828, a full decade after he emigrated. Alanson died in 1850, rather than 1860. Small points to be sure, but they made me approach the rest of the information with a bit more caution.

I contacted the Spirit of ’76 Museum and asked if they were aware of any such clock? Yes, they certainly were. It is currently on display on the mezzanine level, in a small exhibit of materials relating to the Howk family. I asked if it would be possible for me to visit and see the timepiece in person, and they very graciously agreed.

Clock sideview

Side view of nineteenth-century clock with cast-iron painted front and attached wooden case. Original object (accession #938) is the property of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, “The Spirit of ’76” Museum. Photo by author, used by permission of the museum.

I found the clock straight away. And what a marvelous object it is! The front section is made of iron cast in an ornate, curvilinear mold. It retains a strong reddish tone in places, suggesting it was painted entirely red when first made. There is a hand-painted landscape depicting buildings with red (presumably tile) roofs, next to a body of water and trees. The scene is enhanced by a few pieces of applied mother-of-pearl. The iron front is screwed to a very simple rectangular wooden case. I know virtually nothing about clocks, but I do know something about the decorative arts of early America. What struck me immediately about this object, as interesting as it is, is that it did not look like a New England clock of the eighteenth or early nineteenth century ought to look. My initial guess, based purely on examining the exterior, was a date of manufacture in the 1850s or later. I decided to seek outside counsel.

I reached out to Mr. Tim Simonson, Wellington’s resident horologist. Mr. Simonson has a beautiful clock repair shop in an outbuilding on his South Main Street property. I explained my initial impressions and asked his opinion. He mentioned that he had been called in to restore the clock to working order when it was donated to the museum in 1971. Its surface was blackened with soot, after years of sitting on a mantel over wood or coal fires, and it was his cleaning that revealed the painted scene. He also believed it to be of a later time period than 1818. I asked if he would be willing to revisit the clock, with the museum’s permission, and allow me to observe. He generously agreed.

Prior to our appointment, I began conducting research to see if I could learn more about cast-iron clocks of that construction. I was able to find a dozen examples, none definitively dated, but all estimated to have been made in 1850 or later. More interestingly, I found two examples of cast-iron front clocks said to have been purchased from the American Clock Company of New York that had painted scenes identical to the clock in Wellington’s museum, namely red-roofed buildings next to a body of water surrounded by trees, topped with applied pieces of mother-of-pearl. One of these examples was estimated to have been made in 1855, the other in 1870. (I subsequently learned that the American Clock Company began operation in 1864, so if that attribution is correct, both clocks must date after that time.)

I joined Mr. Simonson at the museum with a working hypothesis that the clock we were to examine dated to the second half of the nineteenth century and–based on its painted decoration–had possibly been purchased from the American Clock Company of New York. Mr. Simonson carefully disassembled the piece, unscrewing the cast-iron front from the wooden case. The movement is made of brass, which by itself dates the object post-1840, the period in which the transition from wooden movements to metal ones occurred. A close examination of the clock face revealed a small notation impressed into the top of the brass bezel, “Pat[ented] May 10, 1859.” But the clearest evidence of the clock’s origins was the paper label pasted inside the case.

IMG_1285

Inside of clock case, showing brass movement and paper label of Wm. L. Gilbert & Co. of Winchester, Connecticut. Original object (accession #938) is the property of the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, “The Spirit of ’76” Museum. Photo by author, used by permission of the museum.

William L. Gilbert & Co. was a clock manufacturer based in Winchester, Connecticut. The southernmost New England state was a nationally renowned center of fine clock construction, and many pieces were sold via New York City markets. The American Clock Company of New York, said to have sold the two painted examples I featured above, acquired their inventory from factories in Connecticut. In fact, Mr. Simonson indicated that decorative work was sometimes hired out to local artisans, which could account for the same painted scene appearing on clocks sold by multiple companies.

Gilbert first moved his business to Winchester in the autumn of 1841. The company operated under several names and with various partners, but was not called Wm. L. Gilbert & Co. until 1851. It was then renamed in 1866. So the clock donated by the descendants of the Howk family was apparently created sometime between 1859 (the patent date on the bezel) and 1866 (the year the factory became the Gilbert Manufacturing Company).

Without further documentation, it is not possible to know precisely when and how the clock came into the Howk family’s possession. The Enterprise notice claimed it was inherited by Alanson and Theadocia Howk’s great-granddaughter, Minerva Whitehead Knapp. I could find no listing for Minerva in the published family genealogy, Howk in America, 1600s-1982, but I did find her mother, Theadocia Mead Whitehead (1867-1940). We now know that Theadocia Mead was born after this clock was likely made, so perhaps Minerva inherited the object from her maternal grandmother, Electa Howk Mead (1838-1913). Electa was Alanson and Theadocia’s daughter, born in Wellington two decades after her father’s 1818 emigration from Massachusetts. It is perfectly understandable that later generations might have become confused about the clock’s provenance.

Though it did not travel from Massachusetts to Ohio in 1818, this clock is still a lovely object that is at least one hundred and fifty years old. And it could have belonged to the Howk family for over a century prior to their donation in 1971. The next time you visit the Spirit of ’76 Museum, be sure to stop in the mezzanine and see this fascinating family heirloom in person.

Celebrating Wellington’s Female History

2018 #1

Wellington’s bicentennial is proving to be even busier than I had imagined, dear readers! Can you believe that we are already one-sixth of the way through our year of celebrations? It is now March, and that means that it is Women’s History Month. Just as we did in February to honor the village’s citizens of color, Wellington Genealogy Group president Marilyn Wainio and I installed a window display on the north side of East Herrick Avenue to honor our female residents. A duplicate set of panels is on display inside the Herrick Memorial Library, as well.

The panels feature women from the nineteenth century to today. Included are Mary Hayes Houghton, journalist and co-editor of the Wellington Enterprise; Dr. Harriet Warren, who practiced medicine here in the late 1800s; longtime library director Pat Lindley; and Wellington’s longest serving mayor, Barb O’Keefe. Sprinkled in amongst the biographical sketches are evocative images of women from the Herrick Memorial Library’s Wellington Family Album collection. We are grateful to the library for the use of these photographs.

Thanks also to Main Street Wellington, for allowing us to install these two history displays in such a prominent location. If you happen to be in the downtown area, please stop and take a look.

Celebrating Wellington’s Black History

IMG_1228

Since America’s bicentennial year of 1976, every February has been designated as Black History Month, a time set aside to remember and honor the accomplishments of American citizens of color. The originator of the idea was noted African-American historian, scholar and educator Carter G. Woodson, who first proposed the commemoration of “Negro History Week” in 1926.

For the past several years, Wellington Genealogy Group president Marilyn Wainio has prepared and installed an exhibit on notable figures of color from Wellington’s past and present, based on her own extensive research. I have been honored to make one or two small contributions of my own, based on things I have learned while writing this blog.

Since this year is Wellington’s bicentennial, Marilyn and I volunteered to install a window exhibit in honor of Black History Month, under the auspices of Main Street Wellington. It is now on display on the north side of East Herrick Avenue, right at the center of the village. If your daily travels take you in that direction, please stop by and take a look. A duplicate set of the same panels is also currently showing inside Wellington’s Herrick Memorial Library, with a multi-page color handout that you may take home for further reading.

In March, we will be putting up a similar display in the same location to commemorate Women’s History Month. Watch this space for further details. Finally, I am currently working on a post about Frederick Douglass and his oration in the village in 1868, which I plan to post next month in honor of the 150th anniversary of that visit.