Significant sites in Ohio have become mere history

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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Patrick Susmilch works at the birthplace of Rutherford B. Hayes, our nation’s 19th president, in Delaware, O.

He sells beef jerky, cheap cigarette lighters, and cassettes of The Best of Conway Twitty.

Souvenirs on-site come in Regular, Premium, and Super Unleaded.

The Hayes birthplace is now a BP gas station.

“People come by and ask, `Where’s the monument?”‘ Mr. Susmilch, 22, said between customers. “I point out the window” – at the tiny stump of a monument 20 feet away – “and say, `That’s it.”‘

“We always hang our head in shame,” said George Cryder, assistant curator for the Delaware County Historical Society. “People come by and say, `You mean you didn’t save it?’ Well, the community went all out and tried, but there really wasn’t enough interest.”

Back in 1928, Delaware citizens fell about $5,000 short of the amount they needed to buy the house the future president grew up in. All that remains is a small plaque, and the occasional Hayes groupie who drops by.

That plaque stands as a mute reminder of the challenges that face those who want to preserve historic sites. Sometimes it’s because of a lack of money; sometimes it’s because of a lack of interest. But many of Ohio’s most important sites have either been lost over the years, or were saved by the skin of their teeth.

Just south of Toledo is a historic site scholars consider one of the country’s most threatened: the location of the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the 1794 conflict that opened up much of the Midwest to the expanding United States.

While dozens of other important battlefields have been preserved across the country, Fallen Timbers advocates have faced an uphill battle, both in convincing the land’s owner, the city of Toledo, that it needs preservation and in raising the millions of dollars it will take to purchase the land.

Getting together all the money and the necessary forces will take some doing. And if it doesn’t work out, and the land where men died is turned into an office park or strip mall, it won’t be the first time that a critical historic site in Ohio has disappeared.

“There are many important places that have been lost over the years,” said Franco Ruffini, the state’s deputy historic preservation officer. “A lot of the time, there just isn’t the money.”
One of the biggest difficulties, experts say, is that Ohioans are taught to believe that their history simply isn’t that important. They’re taught that history happened back East, not here.

“Ohio sort of gets jumped over,” said Dan Thorp, an associate history professor at Virginia Tech University, who specializes in seeing how American historians treat different parts of the country. “Much of history prior to the American Revolution is taught as if it all happened on the East Coast. And then the next thing taught is slavery.”

Professor Thorp traces the anti-midwestern bias to the late 1800s, when the profession of historian was introduced at the nation’s graduate schools. Those schools – places like Yale, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins – were all on the East Coast, and they taught a view of American history that centered on the Atlantic seaboard.

Being first in the field, those early historians wrote the first history textbooks, and from those hoary, century-old texts descends the bias evident today.

“Ohio and many Ohioans have almost an inferiority complex about their history,” said W. Ray Luce, a former state historic preservation officer, who now has a similar position in Georgia. “Ohio has as much in terms of historic resources as any state in the nation.”

Indeed, Ohio ranks third among states in the number of properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, behind New York and Massachusetts. But that fact, and Ohio’s historic abundance, don’t do much to change the opinions ingrained in people’s minds since grade school.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if there is some collective feeling of inferiority in the Midwest,” Dr. Thorp said. “In the history books, all that’s important happened in the East, then everyone got on wagon trains and headed for California.”

Take the Battle of Fallen Timbers, Mr. Luce said. “In Georgia, we’re very concerned about preserving all our Civil War battle sites,” he said. “Fallen Timbers was as important as any of those battles. It’s a major, major site in American history.”

But until Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner’s change of heart last month, the battlefield was stuck in limbo as the city tried to draw industrial and commercial development to the field where dozens of American soldiers and Native Americans died on Aug. 20, 1794.

The mayor last week advanced a new plan to use $5.5 million in state capital improvement money to buy the Fallen Timbers battlefield site. The mayor had said repeatedly that making money was more important to the city’s interests than its historic significance.

Contrast that with Dr. Thorp’s home state of Virginia: “Virginians are hit over the head with history from the minute they’re born. You can’t throw a cat in Virginia without hitting a Civil War site or a Revolutionary War battleground.”

In Ohio, “you’re just taught about all those presidents and the Wright Brothers,” Dr. Thorp said.

Ah, those presidents. The only state that can lay claim to as many homegrown presidents as Ohio (eight) is Virginia. But Virginia can offer up names like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe: revered names all. Ohio can only offer up mediocrities like Hayes, Ulysses Grant, William Howard Taft, James Garfield, and Warren Harding.

Calling Harding mediocre would be one of the biggest compliments he’s received in recent decades. In a 1995 survey of historians, Harding was named the worst president in American history. The main historical debate on his term in office revolves around whether he was corrupt, stupid, or both.

A mere three notches ahead of Harding in the rankings stands Grant; only one Ohioan, McKinley, finished in the top half of the rankings, at 18.

So, at some level, presidential sites in Ohio could be said to be celebrating mediocrity, and some have decided not much is worth celebrating.

Take North Bend, O., near Cincinnati. It’s one of the few places in America that can claim it was home to two presidents: William Henry Harrison and his grandson, Benjamin Harrison.

You might think the village would play up that fact. Nope – all there is to commemorate them is William’s grave and a marker where Benjamin was born. The home was torn down long ago.

Normally, presidents’ homes are preserved simply because a president used to live there. But in Canton, the home of President William McKinley played a role in American history itself. When McKinley ran for president in 1896, he ran his campaign from his home on North Market Street.

Thousands of Americans rode special express trains into Canton from around the nation to listen to McKinley deliver speeches from his front porch, leading to the term Front Porch Campaign.

So, what happened to this home, one of the most historic in Ohio? After Mrs. McKinley’s death in 1907, it was turned into a hospital. When hospital officials wanted to build a new facility on the same spot in the 1920s, they moved the McKinley house to a park.

By the time it was moved, it had fallen into disrepair, and no one in town wanted to pay for its upkeep. In 1935, the city declared it a health hazard, and it was razed.

On the home’s site now sits the monstrous Stark County Public Library, a white modernist building in disrepair only 20 years since its construction. A small plaque at a church next to the library mentions that McKinley once lived nearby.

“You don’t win ’em all,” said Ron Sterling, executive director of the Canton Preservation Society. “It was a matter of public economics. It’s something that shouldn’t have happened, but it did.”

Roger Bridges, director of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, counts the loss of Hayes’s birthplace – now that BP station in Delaware – as one of the greatest in Ohio. But he’s not sure things would be any different if it needed saving today.

“Historic homes are terribly expensive to preserve,” he said. “What I’m saying is that there’s no economic justification for saving a site. It’s worth saving for the educational value.”

The biggest concern for anyone trying to save a piece of Ohio’s history is usually money, though, and Ohio doesn’t fare as well as some other states on that count.

In some respects, Ohio’s institutional support is great, preservationists say. Individuals have given plenty of support; Ohio has more National Trust for Historic Preservation members than any other midwestern state. The Ohio Historic Society runs the largest state-supported network of historic sites in the country.

But money isn’t as forthcoming as some say it could be. Ohio ranks fourth in the number of federal dollars received for preservation, but in the 30s in the number of state dollars.

“We’re definitely way behind our surrounding states” in state-level funding, Mr. Ruffini said.

His office receives federal money to look into the historic impact of any project that receives federal funding. If a project plans to tear down a building and gets even one federal dollar, his office must check the project first.

Most other states, including Michigan, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, have a similar program for projects that receive state money. Not Ohio, though, and Mr. Ruffini said that has led to the demolition of some historic structures that did not apply for federal money.

“There have been some really fine turn-of-the-century buildings that have come down, and our office could not be involved,” he said.

Other states, like Mr. Luce’s Georgia, have programs to provide incentives for historic preservation, including tax credits, easements, and freezing appraisal values. Ohio doesn’t.

“There’s very little in the way of state-based legislation to protect sites. For a state that has as much history as Ohio, it’s certainly behind,” said Amos Loveday, Ohio’s state historic preservation officer.

“We get calls every day from people who would like to rehabilitate a historic property but don’t have the money,” Mr. Ruffini said. “We would like to be able to help, but we don’t have the money.”

But even if money weren’t a factor, other reasons exist why certain sites don’t get preserved. Sometimes, there are reasons some people would like to forget history.

At Kent State University, people have been debating for almost 30 years how to commemorate the events of May 4, 1970, when four students were killed by National Guard troops during a peace protest. The four were shot in a campus parking lot, and cars have continued to park where the bodies fell.

It took a march on the president’s office, 2,000 signatures on a petition, and letters from all four families for the university, earlier this summer, to announce it would close off those four parking spots and commemorate them.

Mr. Bridges said preserved sites related to African-Americans, the labor movement, and industrial history are comparatively rare.

“It’s easier to imagine saving a site where some great white male has lived, a great person by the way we’ve always judged people,” he said.

For example, nothing prominent in Toledo reminds people that the first black major league baseball player played here. Moses “Fleet” Walker was a bare-handed catcher when Toledo had a major league team in 1894. After his career ended, baseball instituted the color barrier Jackie Robinson broke in 1947. But there is no Fleet Walker Stadium, or anything else to remember him.

At the site of Toledo’s Auto-Lite strike in 1934, two people were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard, called in to fight the plant’s union. But only this year have plans moved forward for a statue to commemorate the event.

In Cleveland, a group of preservationists has been working for several years to save Cleveland’s Hulett ore unloaders, the massive iron dinosaurs that once unloaded cargo from Lake Erie ships.

The 1,600-ton Huletts, invented by a Cleveland native, played an enormous part in the industrial development of the entire Great Lakes region by vastly reducing the time and manpower it took to unload iron ore from ships.

Their owners want to tear them down, and some downtown developers argue that the unloaders – which look like giant praying mantises – won’t fit with the entertainment paradise they’d like to see on the lakefront.

That battle is going on, although Clevelanders may need to settle for the new Browns stadium, whose steel framework is designed to evoke the Huletts.

But the battle over the Huletts shows that preservationists no longer focus simply on old homes.

“It used to be, `We’re going to save this building where George Washington slept, and little old ladies will throw tea parties and give tours,”‘ said Sarah Goss Norman, past president of the Ohio Preservation Alliance. “Now, there’s more maintaining of things that have made life pleasant.”

Preservationists in Ohio have plenty of good news, however. When developers threatened the Serpent Mound, one of the greatest prehistoric sites in the country, preservationists battled back with a legal and public relations campaign and stopped condos from being built near the site.

The renovation of buildings like the Valentine Theatre in downtown Toledo shows the ability of state and local governments to form partnerships and put together the huge financial packages often needed to save a site.

In Cincinnati, the grand old train station, Union Terminal, was empty for decades as the city tried in vain to give the Art Deco structure away when it wasn’t considering tearing it down. But in 1988, preservationists convinced Hamilton County voters to approve a $33 million levy for renovations. Together with private money, that funded an enormous fix-up.

Today, the stunning building houses the the city’s historical museum, its natural history museum, and several smaller collections. Next month, a children’s museum opens.

“It was a white elephant for many, many years,” said Chris Bell-Puckett, who works for the Cincinnati Historical Society Library, housed in the building. “Fortunately, someone saw the historic value.”

Earlier this summer, officials reopened Lawnfield, the home of President Garfield in Mentor, O. After decades of disrepair, the estate has been the subject of extensive renovations.

Evidence suggests that these efforts have the support of Ohioans. In a poll done by the University of Cincinnati and released last month, 823 state residents were asked if Civil War and Indian War battlefields should be developed if it would create jobs.

Only 37 per cent said they should be developed, no matter how many jobs they create. Almost 61 per cent said they should not be touched “if the historic character of sites is threatened.”

For Margaret Parker that’s heartening. Ms. Parker, the head of the Meigs County Historical Society, is locked in a battle to save the site of Ohio’s only Civil War clash, the Battle of Buffington Island. In that 1863 conflict, Union troops defeated Morgan’s Raiders, a renegade Confederate band that had run roughshod into Union territory.

But the land the battle was fought on is owned by a private company, Shelly Materials of Thornville, O. The company wants to turn the site into a gravel mine. Ms. Parker, along with a coalition including U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.) and local townspeople, has been fighting the company through a permit appeals process. The state has received more than 3,000 letters asking the mining to be stopped. But their appeals are coming to an end; mining could begin next month.