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History of the Morgan Street Water Works

Sunday, February 10th, 2019

By OHC Executive Director Liz Schultz

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The complex of structures on Morgan Street known as the Water Works tells the history of Oberlin’s growth as a city, continuous efforts to problem-solve through science and engineering, and leadership in civic improvements when it installed the first municipal lime and soda water softening plant in the nation.

Early Water History of Oberlin

Prior to the construction of the Morgan Street Water Works most home owners and businesses obtained water through private and shared wells, cisterns, or even Plum Creek. While perhaps adequate, such sources were susceptible to contamination and could more easily spread waterborne diseases such as typhoid and dysentery. They also limited the town’s ability to fight fires, including the disastrous fire that burned through downtown in 1882. Despite strong advocacy by Judge John Steele, some residents continued to prefer the “bucket brigade” to a high-pressure hydrant system. Just as the city was contemplating borrowing money to build a city water system in spring of 1886, another fire blazed across the southwest block of downtown.

Voters passed a $50,000 bond in April 1886 and after testing various sources it was agreed that the Vermilion River supply be adopted. Oberlin College also contributed over $5,000 toward the costs. Permission was obtained from Kipton property owners to lay line to transport the water, much of which was installed by Italian immigrants from Pittsburgh. The city also built a reservoir and pump station and purchased boilers and pumps. Local leaders in these efforts included Judge Steele, Edwin Regal, Professor Albert A. Wright, Professor Frank F. Jewett and Engineers H. F. Dunham and W. B. Gerrish. By September of 1887 there was enough water in the system to impress townspeople with a demonstration of shooting water from a hydrant up and over the 110 foot flag pole in front of the Union School on South Main Street. Service was inaugurated on December 23, 1887 and by spring of 1888 construction was complete.

1888 Sanborn map

1888 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map showing the early layout of the water works near the corner of Morgan and Cedar Streets, including a pump station on the left, circular well, and 1 million gallon reservoir to the south.

By 1900 Oberlin was pumping 36,560,000 gallons of water a year.  (According to a report from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, in 2002 Oberlin averaged 640,000 gallons a day). Water was provided free in horse troughs and sprinkler systems that kept the road dust at bay. Businesses and industries generally connected earlier with the new water supply while home owners gradually tapped in, by their own choice. Additional water mains were added by street and block over the years. Some less affluent areas, which were also often predominately black residential areas, went far longer without access to the city supply.

In August 1893 a 66,000 gallon steel tank was set on a 40 foot stone tower – the tower many residents recognize today. Water shortages in the 1890s prompted the construction of an additional 15,000,000 gallon reservoir. Early engineers or superintendents at the water works included Henry Braithwaite, Doren E. Lyon, and H. V. Zahm.

 

1903 map from America's 1st Mun article by Fuller & Cosens

Diagram of the 1903 water works from the paper
“America’s First Municipal Lime-Soda Softening Plant is Replaced”
by Raymond Fuller and Kenneth Cosens

Nation’s First Municipal Water Softening Plant

The water that supplied Oberlin’s public water system was hard, containing dissolved calcium and magnesium. In 1927 W. H. Chapin reported that the hardness of Oberlin’s natural supply, measured in calcium carbonate, averaged 270 parts per million. According to the USGS, this number today is classified as “very hard.” While that level was safe to drink, it was not be to everyone’s taste and because soap does not lather well in hard water it was not ideal for washing or bathing. Even after connecting to the public water supply some Oberlin residents continued to use rainwater from their cistern for washing.

Not content with the water quality, the village of Oberlin set about investigating the possibility of softening their supply and in 1903 it installed the first municipal lime-soda water softening plant in America.

C. Arthur Brown, a chemist and bacteriologist from Lorain who was consulted on the project, related the following.

All in all, the water was one that would have satisfied most cities. But Oberlin is different… The public-spirited and progressive city fathers decided that the best they could get was none to good for the city. While the water was satisfactory in most respects, it was a hard water and many of the citizens refused to use it for bath, laundry and cooking purposes, and it was feared at some time or other possible contamination of the water might occur and Oberlin have the same experience as Cornell University did with a typhoid epidemic.

In addition to Brown and city officials, Professors Wright and Jewett, William B. Gerrish, and W. B. Bedortha were involved in this next stage of development.

The softening process itself involved dissolving soda ash and lime with water in the pumping station, adding that mixture to the water coming in from the reservoirs, letting the water mix through a series of baffles in settling basins, allowing adequate time for the chemical reactions to occur (nearly a week), treating the water for purity, pumping it up to the water tower/standpipe, and then dropping it through sand filters and into the city’s mains. While successful, the process needed to be monitored for the greater processing time required during cold weather, the high amounts of silt that resulted, and the side effect of precipitates making it into the mains and clogging them.

Word began to spread about Oberlin’s new plant. City Engineer William Gerrish published the paper “The Municipal Water-Softening Plant at Oberlin, Ohio” in the Journal of the New England Water Works Association and responded in print to questions about the process. C. Arthur Brown presented a paper to a club of professional men in Joliet, Illinois, which was also reprinted in the Oberlin News. According to the Oberlin News, Gerrish even received a request from Moscow, Russia for information on the water-softening process.

Rise and Fall of the Morgan Street Water Works

Over the years the city implemented many improvements at the Morgan Street Water Works, including replacing the original sand filters with excelsior filters, adding more water sources after significant droughts, increasing the settling period to reduce incrustations in the water mains by adding a 10,000,000 reservoir in 1916, chlorinating the water, adding a recarbonation process, and even replacing the entire conduit line to Kipton in the 1930s.

But some issues persisted, including the continual build-up sediments from the process, aging equipment, and increasing demands for water. By the time of the 1916 Annual Report of the Village of Oberlin there were concerns about the increased cost of soda ash and the new “Eight Hour Law” limiting the work day of engineers at the plant. The largest costs listed in the report included coal, salaries, chemicals, and construction. Coal consumed for the year: 684,000 lbs. Total pumpage for the year: 104,373,000 gallons.

 

Front view Annual Report of the City of Oberlin w

Photograph from the 1916 Annual Report of the Village of Oberlin

1960 map from America's 1st Mun article by Fuller & Cosens

Diagram of the 1960 water works, just before production moved to the Parson Road facility, from the paper”America’s First Municipal Lime-Soda Softening Plant is Replaced”

Nation-wide water shortages around the 1950s and dwindling water flow from the Kipton Reservoir prompted the construction of the newer reservoir and pumping system on Parsons Road in 1960, sourced from the Black River.

 

Recreation

Photographs indicate that the water works and reservoirs were enjoyed recreationally from the very beginning. While fishing and (prohibited) swimming, may be popular now, residents likely enjoyed the reservoirs with their eyes alone while they were the city water supply.

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Copy of a photograph showing Carol Kohut as a toddler at the reservoir.

John Elder recalled rolling down the rare hills as a young boy and then as a college student borrowing trays from the dining hall to go sledding.  He also recalled ice skating there, as did others, until they were shooed off.

In an oral history interview Charles Peterson recalled the Fourth of July in 2001, when fireworks were still launched behind the City Manager’s House near the water works.

The bowl by the reservoir was just packed with people and there were vendors and food, and there was music and everybody was smiling and the children were playing. And I just remember sort of standing on the street looking over the bowl thinking, “Oh my god, this is absolutely amazing!” That this town has so much spirit and the intimacy of it and everyone knew each other and were old friends and were open to new people coming. And I thought, this is, you know, I think that was the first time I really began to realize what a special place Oberlin is, and that’s a memory.

 

Legacy

Every year the Oberlin third graders are introduced to the history of the Morgan Street Water Works on their annual bus tour of Oberlin, but for many residents the stone tower, brick gabled pumping station, and grassy basin are mysterious remnants of an earlier time. The tower, without its original metal tank on top, is designated as a City of Oberlin Landmark, which means any proposed exterior alterations must be approved by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. The older 1887 brick pump station was not included on the landmark designation renewal form of 2001. Years of disuse and neglect have taken their toll on the building and perhaps it is doubly sad that a fire in 2011 damaged the rear part of this building, which was constructed in very large part to combat that exact menace. Ideally this building will continue to be part of Oberlin’s natural and historic landscape and continue to tell this locally- and nationally-significant history.

 

If you have more to add to this story, please contact history@oberlinheritage.org.

 

Sources

Annual Report of The Village of Oberlin, Fiscal Year 1916. Oberlin: Press of the News, 1917 [Copy held in the collections of the Oberlin Heritage Center]

Blodgett, Geoffrey. Oberlin Architecture, College and Town. Oberlin: Oberlin College, 1990.

Chapin, W. H. “Water-Softening as Practiced at Oberlin, Ohio.” Industrial and Engineering Chemistry 19 (1927): 1182-1187.

Cosens, Kenneth W. and Raymond Fuller. “America’s First Municipal Lime-Soda Softening Plant is Replaced.” No date. [Copy held in the collections of the Oberlin Heritage Center.]

Gerrish, William. “The Municipal Water-Softening Plan at Oberlin, Ohio.” Journal of the New England Water Works Association 19 (1905): 422-436.

Jones, George T., “The History of Utilities in Oberlin,” in Oberlin Community History, edited by Allan Patterson, 52-58. State College, PA: Josten’s Publications, 1981.

Oberlin News. “Paper on Oberlin’s Water Works System.” January 2, 1906.

Oberlin News-Tribune. “Water Plant Monument to John Steele.” March 29, 1935.

Oberlin Weekly News. “Information About the Water Works.” September 8, 1887.

Oberlin Weekly News. “A Partial Exhibition…” September 8, 1887.

Oral History Interview with John Elder by Rachel Hood and Haley Johnson, 5 April 2017. Oberlin Oral History Project and Environmental Studies 101 Community Engagement Project, held by the Oberlin Heritage Center, Oberlin, Ohio.

Oral History Interview with Frank Zavodsky by Rob McLean, 19 January 1987. Oberlin Oral History Project, held by the Oberlin Heritage Center, Oberlin, Ohio.

Oral History Interview with Charles Peterson by Jeanne McKibben, 13 June 2009. Oberlin Oral History Project, held by the Oberlin Heritage Center, Oberlin, Ohio.

Paynter, Braden. “Mud, Fire, and Telephones: Oberlin College and the Modernization of Oberlin 1870-1907.” Honors Thesis, Oberlin College History Department, 2005.

Phillips, Wilbur. Oberlin Colony: The Story of a Century. Oberlin: Press of the Oberlin Printing Company, 1933.

Report of the Oberlin Water Works Board. No date.

Photographic Image Sources,

William Annable

Kathy DeRuyter

The Lost Streets of Oberlin

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

by Officer Bashshar Wiley,Oberlin Police Department

As a police officer with the City of Oberlin Police Department, I spend a lot of time patrolling the streets and neighborhoods. Although I’m not sure of the exact number of miles driven or hours spent on patrol during the past seven years, I do know that it’s probably a significant number. Any good cop will tell you the key to patrolling the streets, is knowing the streets. What makes Oberlin unique in this aspect is that while doing research for another topic, I came across maps which showed streets that have drastically changed over time, no longer exist, and in some cases, “kinda-sorta” still exist. It caught my interest and I decided to document and write about it while working overtime on a particularly quiet Sunday dayshift.

Please click on an image to view it in a larger format.

 

FRANKFORT STREET

Frankfort 1896

Atlas and Directory of Lorain County Ohio, The American Atlas Company, Cleveland, Ohio, 1896

Frankfort 1912

Atlas of Lorain County Ohio, C.H. Lawrence and L.W. Griffin, Elyria Ohio, 1912

 

Frankfort Street ran eastbound & westbound between Water Street, which is modern day South Park Street, and Spring Street. These maps show the location of Frankfort Street just to the south of Groveland Street.

 

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Photo by Bashshar Wiley, 2018

 

Although Frankfort Street still appears on some maps, today it’s essentially a private driveway for the residents at 173 South Park Street.

 

RAILROAD STREET

Railroad Street

Atlas of Lorain County Ohio, D. J. Lake and Co., 1874

Railroad Street was located north of the old railroad tracks, with Sumner Street to the south. Railroad Street ran parallel with the railroad tracks and was accessed by Water Street (South Park) and the intersection of Mechanic Street and Spring Street. Mechanic Street to the west of Water Street would become Locust Street and to the east would become Frankfort Street. An interesting fact about Railroad Street is that on October 25, 1926, a homicide took place at the Chester Durham residence located on the corner of Railroad Street and Spring Street when he was shot and killed by William Whiteside after a drunken disagreement following money owed during a card game.

 

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Photo by Bashshar Wiley, 2018

This photo shows the intersection of Groveland Street and Spring Street looking southbound to the Spring Street Extension. Further south would’ve been the intersection of Spring Street, Frankfort Street and Railroad Street. Today, it’s used to access the bike path and Oberlin Community Garden located behind Groveland Street.

 

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Photo by Bashshar Wiley, 2018

Today, Railroad Street no longer exists and cannot be seen from South Park Street or the bike path which has replaced the old railroad tracks. This private driveway of 225 South Park Street would’ve been the approximate location of the west side access to Railroad Street.

 

SOUTH PROSPECT STREET & SOUTH CEDAR STREET

South Prospect

Atlas of Lorain County Ohio, D. J. Lake and Co., 1874

At one time, South Prospect Street continued, or was envisioned to continue, south of Morgan Street, over the railroad tracks, past Follett (Lincoln) Street and ended at what is today West Hamilton Street.  Additionally, prior to the construction of the Morgan Street Reservoir, South Cedar Street, then known as West Street and later Cedar Avenue, continued south of Morgan Street and ended at Follett (Lincoln) Street.

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Photos by Bashshar Wiley, 2018

Today, South Prospect Street ends at Morgan Street other than a gravel driveway which leads to private residences. Going south past the gravel driveway leads to Ladies Grove, which is a series of walking paths connecting to The Arboretum.

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Photos by Bashshar Wiley, 2018

PENFIELD STREET

Penfield Street

Atlas and Directory of Lorain County Ohio, The American Atlas Company, Cleveland, Ohio, 1896

Penfield Street was accessed just to the south of Johnson House on South Professor Street. It also connected to Cedar Avenue, which stopped at Morgan Street but then continued on the south side of the Morgan Street Reservoir to Follett (Lincoln) Street. Another interesting note about this map is that it also shows Culvert Street and Catherine Street between the railroad tracks and Follett (Lincoln) Street which both no longer exist. Additionally, South Prospect Street has been changed to a “Vacated Street.”

Penfield2

Atlas of Lorain County Ohio, C.H. Lawrence and L.W. Griffin, Elyria Ohio, 1912

By 1912, Penfield Street still existed although the sections of South Professor and South Cedar Streets which ran south of Morgan Street have been removed.

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Photos by Bashshar Wiley, 2018

In 2018, Penfield Street is simply a gravel driveway access to The Arboretum located behind a locked gate which can only be accessed by Oberlin College Campus Safety. The Arboretum is accessible to the public from Morgan Street.

 

HOVEY LANE

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Photos by Bashshar Wiley, 2018

Hovey Lane is partially a gravel driveway access for the private residence of 234 East Lorain Street and continues northbound to the Oberlin High School football field. My experience with Hovey Lane occurred while training a new officer on the midnight shift. At approximately 6:00am, I instructed my trainee to drive up Hovey Lane and use it as a cut-through to patrol the Oberlin High School football field. As we continued northbound up the drive, we could feel our patrol vehicle sinking in the mud. I instructed my trainee to “gun it” and informed him I would take the blame if we got stuck. Thankfully, our all-wheel drive Ford Explorer with the police interceptor package was able to power through the thick, muddy terrain. At shift change, one of the sergeants coming on duty noticed our cruiser in the parking lot, now covered in mud, and asked us “who went mudding?” I immediately pointed at my trainee and stated “he did it.” My sergeant then rolled his eyes in disappointment, instructed us to wash off the mud-caked cruiser and went into his office.

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Oberlin Weekly News, May 6, 1881

Another interesting piece of Oberlin history is that Frank Hovey served as the Oberlin Village Marshal during the 1800s prior to his sudden resignation during a council meeting on May 6, 1881. Frank Hovey would then be replaced by Constable Franklin Stone.

Thank you for reading.

If you are interested in viewing any of the atlases used in this post, please contact the Oberlin Heritage Center, at (440) 774-1700 or history@oberlinheritage.org,  to set up a research appointment.

It Happened in Oberlin

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017

by Officer Bashshar Wiley,Oberlin Police Department

For the past 5 1/2 years I’ve been a police officer with the Oberlin Police Department. Prior to being employed by the city, I lived in Oberlin until the age of 11 when I moved to the Village of Grafton. Growing up, I became enamored with history due to an exceptional teacher I had while attending Open Door Christian School in Elyria. At the same time, I had a strong interest in law enforcement and investigations due to the fact my father worked as a detective after retiring at the rank of sergeant.

Wiley Photograph

Officer Bashshar Wiley (Right) and his father, retired Oberlin Police Sergeant and current Oberlin Municipal Court Deputy Bailiff, Bill Wiley.

 

My father, Bill Wiley, has seen just about everything there is during his law enforcement career which spans decades. This includes murders, arsons, sexual assaults, robberies, shootings and suicides. What is surprising about this fact is that my dad didn’t work for a police department in Cleveland, Akron, Lorain or Elyria. My dad spent 27 years as a police officer in Oberlin, Ohio from 1968-1995.

The quote “it happened in Oberlin” is something I heard many times over the years when my dad would share stories from his career. It’s important to note that while Oberlin is a very safe community, there have been incidents where some dangerous and even deadly occurrences have taken place. Although some of these incidents have been forgotten over time, it’s important to remember there is no such thing as a “crime free” community. In fact, cities and villages, no matter the size, do not have the ability to commit crimes. The unfortunate act of committing a crime is left to the resident or individual “passing through” the city or village to commit such an act.

As a 29 year-old man with interest in history and law enforcement, imagine my surprise when my father emailed me a month ago about an officer who was shot and killed in the line of duty way back in 1881 and completely forgotten about over time. This officer was Constable Franklin Stone, and he was shot and killed in Oberlin, Ohio.

The information provided to me by my dad began when retired Elyria Police Detective Alan Leiby was having a conversation with Oberlin author, Don Hilton, about police officers in Lorain County who had lost their lives in the line of duty. One of these officers, Constable Franklin Stone, was believed to be from Oberlin. Constable Stone’s name was not engraved on any memorial walls, nor was he acknowledged at any police memorials for fallen officers. There were no streets named after him or buildings constructed in his memory. In fact, there was no information at all about Constable Stone. At that point, the three of us were “all in” with conducting our own investigation into the life and unfortunate death of Constable Stone.

From three separate locations, my father, Alan Leiby and I each conducted our own investigation into the Constable Stone case. I don’t know how many times his name was typed into the “Google machine”, in a variety of ways, but anytime information was located, it was shared within our group. Although never in the same room together, we each found clues leading to just what took place back in 1881 on the streets of the “Village of Oberlin” with only a population of 3,242 according to the U.S. Census of 1880.

These “clues” consisted of old newspaper articles from The Oberlin Weekly News, book articles, Lorain County court records, gravesite information and even a map of Oberlin dated from 1876. Nothing was more exciting or rewarding than finding an old newspaper article describing the event. In fact, investigations are my favorite part of my job. Using the information we collected over the course of a two-week investigation, we were able to determine just what exactly took place.

Franklin Stone was born in Pittsfield Township on August 15, 1835. Stone lived there until 1866, when he moved to Iowa, where he remained for three years until relocating to Oberlin on South Professor Street. Stone worked as an agent for the United States Express Company and also owned/operated a carriage and transfer line. In the spring of 1881, Stone was elected marshal (constable) of Oberlin and New Russia Township.

Constable Franklin Stone succumbed to a gunshot wound sustained on May 12th, 1881, after a foot pursuit of a subject whom he was attempting to arrest at approximately 7:00 pm. Stone had arrested a man the previous day in an attempt to serve an assault warrant. The man initially cooperated with Constable Stone and agreed to accompany him to the police station, but then hesitated as they passed a blacksmith shop where his father and brother were working. The family members exited the shop and attacked Constable Stone, allowing the prisoner to escape. Constable Stone swore out warrants for the father and brother and then attempted to serve them the following day. As he attempted to arrest the brother, the man fled on foot with Constable Stone firing at him as he ran southbound on South Main Street. One of the rounds wounded the man, who ran to his home on Mechanic Street (modern day Locust Street). As Constable Stone reached the home, the man’s father stood in the doorway and shot him in the chest with a rifle, causing a serious wound. Constable Stone was taken to his home where he remained until passing away on June 4th, 1881. The man who shot Constable Stone was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He was pardoned in 1891 due to his old age and frail condition. Franklin Stone is buried with his family at Westwood Cemetery.

Constable Stone is one of two Oberlin officers to lose their life in the line of duty. The other being Patrol Officer Robert Woodwall who died in a motor vehicle crash on March 10, 1971 when his patrol vehicle slid off the icy roadway and crashed into a tree on East Hamilton Street. Constable Franklin Stone will now be added to the Lorain County Police Memorial, Greater Cleveland Peace Officers Memorial and his name will be engraved at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington D.C.

Unfortunately, Constable Stone’s memory could’ve been lost over the course of time if it wasn’t for the dedication and research of those involved. This includes the work of Maren McKee from the Oberlin Heritage Center who was able to provide me with additional articles describing the incident and even locating Constable Stone’s obituary.

Not only is this incident important to the history of Oberlin, but also Lorain County as Constable Stone is now the first recorded law enforcement death in the history of Lorain County.

I am very proud of the work which led to the rediscovery of Constable Stone and it will be one of the highlights of my career here in Oberlin. Although Constable Stone’s story was “lost” for 136 years, he can now be remembered and his life celebrated for his dedication to the safety of the citizens of Oberlin. Please share the story of Constable Stone, and when people ask, you can tell them “it happened in Oberlin.”

Constable Franklin Stone

1835-1881

Gone…but NOT FORGOTTEN

A Visit to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House

Friday, September 8th, 2017

by Melva Tolbert, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer

As my husband and I recently traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio for a family reunion, it was a great opportunity to spend time visiting some historic sites in a city that was so active in the struggle for freedom. My brief time at the Oberlin Heritage Center (OHC) has helped me gain a greater appreciation of not only the local history of Oberlin, but the history that encapsulates some other communities in Ohio. I became curious of Cincinnati’s local history after touring the OHC Freedom Friend’s History Walk that touched on the connection between the seminary in Cincinnati and the early settlers of Oberlin.

After a few word searches, I found information on the Harriet Beecher Stowe House. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the classic novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, which depicts the horrors of slavery in the south. Additionally, I found information on the former location of the Lane Seminary which held debates on the issues of slavery. A historical marker sits in front of a Cadillac dealership that was the former site of the seminary. It is in walking distance of the Beecher House. As our visit to Cincinnati was winding down, I made my way towards Madison Avenue in Cincinnati to seek out the only remaining building that documents a turbulent time in Cincinnati’s history as well as our nation.

Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Cincinnati

Harriet Beecher Stowe House. Photographer: Nora Pritchett

The Beecher House is located in the historic Walnut Hills neighborhood of Cincinnati and served as the residence of Harriet Beecher Stowe and her father, Rev. Lyman Beecher, the president of Lane Seminary. When I arrived at the house, a number of adults and children were touring the first and second floors. Once you enter the house, you find yourself in a large foyer and facing a long hallway which stretches into the back addition. I was told that the first three rooms were the original structure of the house. The front room to the right, which may have served as the parlor, had a poster board presentation on the Rev. Lyman Beecher, the Lane Seminary, and individuals in the community including local abolitionists. Our tour guide spoke of a community that was benefiting economically from the commercial activity along the Ohio River and the conflict over not viewing slaves as equals. Many students at the seminary and local abolitionists found the conditions unacceptable and sought immediate emancipation for those enslaved. Lyman Beecher was portrayed as part of the former, which resulted in the turmoil at the seminary. A fourteen day debate on the issues of slavery ensued over the merits of emancipation versus slavery.

In the room that was considered the family dining room, a large timeline depicted the activities of the family, the Lane Seminary, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work and family, including her husband and children. Harriet had her own personal struggles with the issue of slavery which led to her writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She felt it was important to document the difficulties of slavery particularly as
people left the south for Ohio. In 1835, the timeline indicated that many students left Lane Seminary and traveled to nearby Cumminsville, Ohio and then unto Oberlin, Ohio to continue their studies and work towards emancipation.

My visit to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House led full-circle to another guided tour by the Oberlin Heritage Center entitled Scholars and Settlers, which led us through the early settling and growth of Oberlin College. This tour began at the corner of College and Main Streets in Oberlin and proceeded along the brick and paved walkway around Tappan Square. As our small group walked along College Street near the  Oberlin Conservatory of Music, I was pleasantly surprised to see the former location of the large wood dormitory that housed those early settlers from Cincinnati.

A Visit to Whitney Plantation

Saturday, September 19th, 2015

By Melva Tolbert, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer

September 9, 2015

Melva Tolbert portrait

 

While recently visiting my daughter, who resides in New Orleans, Louisiana, we decided to spend an afternoon at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, LA.  Jessica is a history major and an elementary school teacher.  She had been to the plantation before and was pleasantly surprised with the approach that was taken that distinguished it from other plantation tours.  The focus was not on the owners of the plantation, but on the enslaved people.

We drove almost an hour away from the city and passed by other plantations on our way.  As we pulled into the large gravel parking lot you could see the large white “big house”.  We entered the welcoming center which sold tickets, books and displayed the journey that people from western African had taken  from their homeland to the Caribbean Islands, the Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico to work the land.  The display also illustrates the involvement of the early Catholic popes and the British monarchies involvement in the early slave trade.

Our tour guide gathered together me, my daughter and four young women from Europe on an hour and fifteen minute walk through life in Louisiana in the early 1800s.  Our first stop was Antioch Baptist Church where we watched a video about the plantation and were introduced to some of the children that worked the land.  The plantation was purchased in 1752 by Ambroise Heidel, a German emigrant and he became wealthy producing indigo.  In the early 1800s, his son transitioned the plantation to sugar which was a much more physically demanding product and required many enslaved people.

Antioch Baptist Church

The Antioch Baptist Church (seen here at a distance behind the slave memorial) was founded by former slaves in 1868.  Originally located about 8 miles from the plantation, it was moved to the Whitney in 1999.  Photo courtesy of Whitney Plantation.

We then visited an outdoor memorial that recorded the words and honored the former enslaved children and families.  These words were captured through the Federal Writers Project (FWP) that was a part of the Works Progress Administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  The FWP supported writers during the Great Depression and interviewed former enslaved people from the South.

 

The Allees Gwendolyn Midlo Hall

The Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall is the name of the slave memorial on the property that is dedicated to the 107,000 people enslaved in Louisiana in the antebellum era.  Photo courtesy of Whitney Plantation.

Wall of Honor

The Wall of Honor honors all the people who were enslaved on the Whitney Plantation. Their names and the information related to them (origin, age, skills) were retrieved from original archives and engraved on granite slabs.  Photo courtesy of Whitney Plantation.

We continued our walk of the plantation that included the slave quarters, blacksmith shop, overseers home, a jail for runaway slaves, the kitchen and finally the owner’s house.   It was interesting to note that the kitchen resembled the slave quarters, but was actually a part of the owner’s house.  Their food was prepared and then transported to the pantry in the owner’s house.  During this time, our guide detailed the conditions that the enslaved were working under including starvation, castrations, imprisonment, separation from family and mixing with the owner’s family.

Slave Cabins

Before the Civil War, the Whitney Plantation counted 22 slave cabins on its site.  The large iron cauldrons dotting the plantation landscape were used in refining sugar cane harvested from the fields.  Photo courtesy of Whitney Plantation.

After 1865, the slaves were free, but they had no education, large families and still felt tied to the land.  The former enslaved became sharecroppers and continued to work the land up until it was outlawed in 1965.  The Whitney Plantation was purchased by another owner, preserved and is a part of the National Register of Historic Places.  The new owner wants to educate the public by telling the story of the enslaved.  Additionally, he wants to help people understand some of the challenges we continue to face today is of plantation life.

On my way out, I purchased,  Chained to the Land, Voices of Cotton & Cane Plantations by Lynette Ater Tanner.  I summarized a few of the stories and they are as follows:

Story 1 –  Julia Woodrich was interviewed on May 13, 1940 at the age of 89.  When the master died, her family was sold.  She never saw her brothers or sisters again and because she was so young she remained with her mother.  Her mother had fifteen children and never by the same man.  Each time her mother was sold she had to take on another man, even the master.  She was considered a good breeder.

After the master and misses died, the younger master took over and split up the money and property. Julia remembers when they were freed because the master could no longer take care of them so they lived off of fish and berries.  She remembers that the master would come get her sister and take her to his quarters and then inquired the following day how she felt.

Story 2 – Mrs.  Webb was interviewed August 17, 1940, but unsure of her age.  She remembers her master being the cruelest in St. John the Baptist Parish.  If an enslaved person was disobedient, he would place him in a box and they could not move.  This master was known for having very attractive slaves.  He heard about a slave with a fine physique so he bought him.  Because this enslaved person had been raised with the master’s children he was not used to harsh work, so he refused the hard work.  The master day after day directed him to work in the fields and each time he refused.  He was then told by the master to dig a hole, which he did.  The next day he was told by the master to get into the hole and the master shot him and he fell down in the hole.

Story 3 – Peter Barber was interviewed August 23, 1940 and estimated his age to be 96 years old.  He was proud in describing his life as eventful.  He acknowledges that he was born into slavery on a farm in Charlottesville, Virginia.  He refers to his master as ‘good’ as long as you were working.  He remembers being sold to another master who was a tobacco farmer for $900.00 using both union and confederate money.  Because there was talk of sending him to the Blue Mountains to fight he ran away.   Peter did not talk a lot, but he listened and he knew what the fighting was all about.  Peter and a friend, Jimmie, jumped on a boat that was headed for Cincinnati.  Both of them were put off of the boat since they knew Peter and Jimmie were not passengers.  They walked the remainder of the way.  While in Cincinnati, his friend joined the Army, but they delayed taking Peter.  Now separated from his friend, he took a job on a boat that traveled up and down the Ohio River then another boat to New Orleans.  He never joined the army and traveled the Mississippi for fifty-six years as a loner.  He is proud that his travels allowed him to see 13 presidents, but he never got to see Abe Lincoln.

OHC Note:  In 2014, the Whitney Plantation opened its doors to the public for the first time in its 262 year history as the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery.  For more information, visit www.whitneyplantation.com.