Oberlin Heritage Center Blog


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New Kid on the Block

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

Hello!  My name is Jen Graham, and I’m the new Local History Corps Americorps volunteer serving at the Oberlin Heritage Center.  I was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, and graduated from Oberlin College in 2012 with an honors degree in early U.S. history.  After graduation, I stayed in Oberlin and spent the past year working at Agave and doing research with Dr. Carol Lasser, Professor of History at Oberlin College.  I enjoyed a lovely summer here in Northeastern Ohio, working at Hale Farm & Village in Peninsula, shuffling around in a hoop skirt and getting a taste of what it was really like to live in Ohio in the 1800s.  When I’m not talking about historical things, you can probably find me Irish dancing, gardening, reading, hiking, stargazing, or singing silly songs.

I am very excited to begin work at the Oberlin Heritage Center.  When I say I’ve fallen madly in love Oberlin’s history, it’s not a figure of speech.  Anyone who knows me will attest: with me at your side, a casual stroll through town quickly becomes a trip back in time.  I can’t help it!  The landscape of Oberlin is a rich tapestry of earth-moving events, inspirational stories, and extraordinary people, and I love to share.  History has always been an interest of mine, but it wasn’t until I came to Oberlin that I truly understood the positive impact it can have on communities.

The African environmentalist Baba Dioum wrote: “In the end, we will only conserve what we love. We will only love what we understand. We will only understand what we are taught.” I most often hear this said with regards to environmentalism–the more we teach people about the natural world, the more likely they are to fight to save it–but I believe its message can be expanded to history as well.  Working with youth across Ohio—in Yellow Springs, Columbus, Cincinnati, Peninsula, and Oberlin—I’ve witnessed how life-changing the historical process can be.  Engaging people in memory-making not only inspires a sense of place and pride in their community, but develops valuable connections across socioeconomic, racial, and gendered lines as well. By making local histories relatable and accessible, we can inspire a generation to care, not only about where they’ve been, or where they are, but all the possibilities of where they have yet to go.

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Digitizing the Oral History Archive: Winter Term 2013

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

For a few years, I have conducted a self-designed research project using oral histories and the Oberlin College Archives. Never before had I considered working on the other side of the archive, or to be the person who preserves these historical documents. After a month of serving as an oral history processing assistant at the Oberlin Heritage Center, I now better understand the process of preserving the history I’ve been studying for so long. I have always viewed historical research as one big puzzle where I find little pieces of a story that seem unrelated, but then I find links that tie them all together. I never saw archiving as a puzzle, or even like research, until I started working at the Heritage Center. One month later, I really regret my dismissive attitude toward the hard work and problem solving that preservation and archiving entail.

My Winter Term project consisted of taking the oldest tapes of Series I of the oral history archive and digitizing them so they can be preserved much longer than they can be on tapes. Over the month, I digitized all of the tapes from 1979 and 1982, as well as some of the 1983 collection and an occasional later tape. I spent each day playing the entire oral histories in a converter that created a digital file from a cassette tape. Afterward, I edited the file to take out large breaks between the sides of the tape and in the beginning of the interview. Some days, this task went smoothly. On other days, I regretted thinking it was so simple. There were a few days that I spent trying to solve a mystery, like tracking down tapes or finding out if an interview was really only 8 minutes long or why a tape stopped playing after so many minutes. I quickly realized that archival work was not just a mundane task that was necessary so that researchers could do their work. It is its own kind of research and problem solving; there are still pieces to fit together.

In addition to better understanding preservation of oral histories not recorded in digital format, I also learned more about Oberlin’s history. Although I have been researching Oberlin for a few years, my topic is very specific. With little time to finish my research project each summer before I must present it, I haven’t had the luxury of learning a lot of historical context, especially about the town. My project has always focused heavily on Oberlin College rather than the town, and only in the 1960s and 70s. I have learned some things about businesses in the town from alumni with whom I’ve spoken, but never about the 1950s or earlier. Listening to the Series I oral histories at the Heritage Center allowed me to learn more about Oberlin life, such as dating, racial tensions, and the depression, which helped me situate how and why the 1960s happened as they did—though perhaps, I’ve gotten even more confused and need to do more research!

A 1982 interviewee, Mildred Haines, said that when she left in 1920 and returned in 1975, one of the biggest changes was the appearance of the students, but that underneath, they were just as smart and dedicated as they were decades before. After only hearing the students’ side to the story, hearing a town impression of Oberlin College students was really interesting and highly relevant to my own interests even before I came to the Heritage Center. My research emphasizes that Oberlin’s history reflects and contributes to American history. After listening to oral histories of about 30 residents, I have a much more holistic—but hardly complete—view of Oberlin’s history. I used to think that an archivist’s job was to aid researchers. Now I realize that there is so much more to archives and places like the Oberlin Heritage Center and that they have a very rightful place next to researchers.

Brittany Craig, OC ’13

A Fond Farewell and Oberlinians’ First Battle of the Civil War

Saturday, August 20th, 2011

It is with great sadness that I write my last Civil War blog post for the Oberlin Heritage Center as the regional  Civil War 150 Leadership Corps volunteer in the AmeriCorps Ohio History Service Program. It has been a most wonderful experience living in the community of Oberlin and working at the Heritage Center; one that I shall not forget! Fear not, I won’t leave before sharing one more story from the war. The end of my service term coincides with the first major battle of the Civil War that a large contingent of Oberlinians participated in. This battle was a small one; one that was more of an ambush than a battle.

The date was August 26, 1861. Oberlin’s first company of men, the Monroe Rifles, Company C of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, were bivouacking with their regiment, under Colonel E.B. Tyler, in western Virginia (now, West Virginia). They’d been ordered by command to return to the area of Kesler’s Cross Lanes, after marching some twenty miles to Gauley bridge a few days before to ward off a possible Confederate attempt to cross. The Confederate General Floyd, whose troops the 7th were sent to repel over at Gauley, had proceeded to direct his troops back towards Carnifex Ferry near Cross Lanes–and so the 7th was sent marching back. On Sunday the 25th of August the 7th set up camp for the night in Kesler’s Cross Lanes; Company C actually quartered in a store and farmhouse for the evening.

What follows are accounts of the battle in the words of those from Oberlin who fought in it:

Leroy Warren in his diary, “Little did I know Sunday night what the morrow was to bring forth—and our officers must have been as ignorant as the men, or else they were guilty of the most awful and wicked carelessness.”

Sergeant E.B. Stiles in his journal, “More crackers & meat for breakfast. While we were eating crack! Crack! Went the guns of our pickets. We were nearly surrounded & attacked by Floyd’s brigade of from 3500 to 4000 men with cavalry & artillery—“

Private Willard Wheeler in his diary, “Co. A and our Co. (Co. C) were ordered onto a high hill about 20 rods from the road and nearest the enemy. Before we left the road, we could see them coming vast numbers, and they immediately opened fire upon us. We ran across the field and up the hill under the tremendous fire from 3 regiments…the bullets flew on all sides and hissed like demons. They cut the trees, the grass, the air, and the ground. They cut our clothes and whistled through our hair.”

Stiles: “[we] made some resistance—fled—had hard times in the woods—were again surprised & taken prisoners by Col. Tompkin[s] & Capt. Barber, others escaped—were led back through the old camp of the enemies and our imprisonment began. They have treated us very kindly thus far.”

Private J.M Ginn: “I dodged into a thick clump of laurels, and hid. They went on both sides of me…I lay concealed until all was quiet, and then got up and looked around. I was all alone.”

Stiles, Wheeler, Warren and twenty-six others were imprisoned; thirty-four were originally captured, but five managed to escape. Ginn and the rest of Company C reunited with the regiment. Burford Jenkins and Joseph Collins, both students of the college, died from wounds in the battle—the first casualties of the war from Oberlin. It was a Confederate victory.

We have many first-hand accounts by men in Company C who spent time in Confederate prisons of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia, Castle Pinckney in Charlestown, South Carolina, and Parish Prison in New Orleans. Twenty of the twenty-nine Oberlin prisoners were from the college; all spent approximately six months to a year in prison. E.W. Morey of the Monroe Rifles, on the idea of being a prisoner, said: “Most of us had realized that we were liable to be sick, wounded or killed, but had not dreamed of the possibility of being captured.”

Life in prison was often a very dull, difficult affair; quarters were cramped, conditions were rough, and food was scarce. On the dullness of day-to-day life, an Oberlin soldier, Willard Wheeler of the Monroe Rifles, lamented in his diary: “One day comes and goes and is followed by another and brings no change of account. The same dreary monotony.”

Prison food was apparently even worse than camp food. Giles Shurtleff, then Captain of Monroe Rifles, relates: “We had been more than twenty-four hours without food…when it came it consisted of raw coffee in the kernel, sea biscuit, and salt pork full of maggots.”

How did Oberlin soldiers break up the monotony and lack of food, space, and shelter? All Oberlinian accounts that we have include works they were reading; books were scarce to come by, but they managed to get a hold of them through various means, sometimes by selling personal items; for example, Giles Shurtleff sold his watch to purchase editions of Livy and Virgil. They also usually held a prayer-service in a jail cell on Sundays.

A fair number of Oberlin prisoners from Company C participated in a Union Lyceum and a newspaper, The Stars and Stripes in Rebeldom. The lyceum was organized in early winter of 1861 in Parish Prison, with the intention to “hold weekly meetings, to participate in readings and declamations, and the reading of our paper [The Stars and Stripes].” The newspaper was a collaborative of different Yankees from around the North, but Oberlinians often contributed articles, and Leroy Warren of the college was editor for two editions. A diary entry from a soldier in the NH 2nd Volunteer Infantry commented on the happenings in Richmond Prison:

“The ‘Stars and Stripes,’ a paper read in the lyceum of the prison, contained the following allusion to our unfortunate condition: ‘A squad of caged Yankees may be found on free exhibition at No. 4, third floor.’ This lyceum was supported mainly by Oberlin College students, of whom there were quite a number in the prison. They also conducted a weekly prayer meeting, and on Sunday, a Bible-class.”

An interesting new trade immerged at Parish Prison in New Orleans, called the “Bone-Dust Trade.” Leroy Warren elaborates:

“The branch of industry chiefly followed by the war-prisoners in New Orleans was the so-called ‘bone-dust trade.’ It consisted of the manufacture of all manner of bone trinkets, such as rings, toothpicks, bodkins, crosses, Bibles, and ornamental pins… Bone too, was plentiful, owing to the highly osseous character of our Texas beef…The citizens of New Orleans who came to visit us bought rings and other articles of bone-work, as mementoes of the Yankees…The guards who were placed over us, traded for bone-work with eagerness.

Attempts were made, on occasion, to escape prison. Giles Shurtleff writes of a complex escape plan that he and another fellow conjured up in Richmond. They managed to procure some citizens’ clothing and then to make a steel saw from a watch’s mainspring. Their plan was to cut a hole through the floor, then through the brick partition separating their room from another which had a widow to the side street. The floor was cut with a pocketknife. They worked on that floor for two hundred and twenty hours. However, upon getting ready to put their plan into action, others attempted escape from the nearby room and a sentry was placed directly outside the wall they were planning to escape from and their plan halted.

The soldiers from Company C eventually were released eventually after spending on average six months to a year in prison.

If you’re interested in learning more about Oberlin during the war, check out the annotated bibliography here: http://www.oberlinheritage.org/researchlearn/bibliographycivilwar for some great primary and secondary sources. Look out for a digital Civil War collection at the Oberlin College Archives in late fall!

Interested in serving in AmeriCorps or know someone else who would be? Find out more about the AmeriCorps position opening at the Oberlin Heritage Center here: AmeriCorps Opening at Heritage Center

-Karyn Norwood, AmeriCorps volunteer (2010-2011) at the Oberlin Heritage Center

Sources consulted:

E.W. Morey, “Prison Life,” in Wilson, Itinerary of the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1864, 330; Willard Wheeler, Civil War Diary: August 1861-February 1862, including time spent in a parish prison, New Orleans, LA (Peoria, IL: Charity G. Monroe, 1995), 7; Giles Shurtleff, “A Year with the Rebels,” in Wilson, Itinerary of the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1864, 39; The Stars and Stripes in Rebeldom. A series of papers written by federal prisoners in Richmond, Tuscaloosa, New Orleans, and Salisbury, N.C, ed. by William Bates, (Boston: T.O.H.P. Burnham, 1862), 7; William H. Jeffrey, Richmond Prisons, 1861-1862 (St. Johnsbury, VT: The Republican Press, 1893), 147; Leroy Warren, in Wilson, Itinerary of the Seventh Ohio Volunteer Infantry, 344-345; Giles Shurtleff, “A Year  with the Rebels,” in Ibid., 323; Leroy Warren, in his war diary 1861-1862, “Oberlin Files,” RG 21, Series X, Box II, Oberlin College Archives; E.B. Stiles, quoted in Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College, 845; J.M. Ginn, in The Lorain County News, 11 Sept 1861, p. 2, c. 4.

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Profile of an Oberlin Soldier: Henry Whipple Chester, 2nd Ohio Cavalry

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Henry Whipple Chester was born on December 25, 1840 in Bainbridge, Ohio. His father was a farmer, innkeeper, and a postmaster, and an ardent abolitionist. Henry assumed many of his father’s traits and was himself a multi-tasking abolitionist. He entered the Preparatory Department of Oberlin College in 1858 and had just completed his course when the Civil War broke out. Like many boys in attendance at the college, he enlisted as a volunteer to fight at the age of twenty-one in the fall of 1861 in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry as a private. For the next four years, Chester fought in thirty-eight battles and skirmishes and travelled over 22,000 miles through thirteen states and territories. Eventually, he rose to captaincy of Company K in the 2nd Ohio. Making it safely through the war, afterward he lived in Kansas doing odd jobs, like selling sewing machines and working at a bank, married, and then moved to Chicago and formed a lumber company.  In the early 1900’s, he wrote a very detailed recollection of the war; it was published a few years before his death in 1918. His recollections display a lively and humorous personality and a war-experience that was at times harrowing, humorous, lively, and bitter-sweet. Below are some stories from his experiences as a soldier.

The 2nd Ohio spent much of the year of 1863 in the state of Kansas. While in Iola, Kansas, Chester recounts observing Native Americans playing “a ball game…called LaCross, I believe.” One of the chiefs would act as Umpire.

In the summer of 1863, Henry and the rest of the 2nd Ohio were charged with the task of helping to chase down the Confederate John Morgan and his close to 2,000 men who were raiding through the southern part of Ohio until the Battle of Buffington Island, in which the Confederate forces were defeated and many of them imprisoned. Chester received a furlough for his services and headed home to Oberlin. Dusty, weary, and not in uniform, Henry rode into town at sunset in July of 1863. The Lorain CountyNews, Oberlin’s local paper published an article on his arrival:

“On Wednesday of last week, just as the shadows of the evening were beginning to make objects obscure, a Cavalryman, armed and equipped a la regulation, and mounted on a beast which looked as if he had been either one of Morgan’s raiders or of the chase after Morgan, came into the town from the south. There was something in the lone horsemen’s style which excited suspicion, and as he rode directly through the village without pausing or conferring with anybody, it was surmised that he might be one of Morgan’s spies. Accordingly, there was a “mounting in hot haste” and hot pursuit. But the scare soon ended by the discovery that the worn and dusty dragoon was no other than our young townsman, Henry W. Chester.”

Chester was afterward warmly greeted by his parents and the rest of the town. He was also rewarded with his first bath in over a month.

Henry Chester during the 1862 Kansas and Indian Territory Campaigns. Apparently, his parents did not even recognize him in the photo.

In November of 1864, Chester was almost captured by Confederates in a skirmish in Virginia, which he described in a letter to his mother, “I found myself surrounded and a revolver on each side of my bared, hatless head.” Chester was asked to run alongside his Confederate captor’s horse; however, thanks to a charge by some of the rest of the 2nd Ohio, amid action Chester was able to grab a rock “the size of a coconut” and throw it at his captor’s side and escape. Stumbling along the road without a horse or weapons, he then ran into a Confederate in a similar situation.

“I stepped right in front him with my empty holster in my right hand and stuck it in his face so near that he could not see that it was not a revolver…it certainly looked like a gun. I ordered the man to surrender and give me his carbines. He did so at once. I then stepped back and began to laugh at him and showed him that I had no gun until I had secured his.”

He then proceeded to take the Confederate soldier prisoner and make his way back to camp. Luman Harris Tenney, another Oberlinian in the 2nd Ohio, wrote to The Lorain County News about the whole event and said of Chester, “Chester thinks it ‘better to be born lucky, than rich.’”

Five months later, Chester and the rest of the 2nd Ohio were at Appomattox Courthouse when the Confederate Lee surrendered to Grant—he wrote to his aunt a few days later in 1865: “My Dear Aunt: PEACE ON EARTH: GOOD WILL TO (NEARLY) ALL MEN! WHAT GLORIOUS NEWS! THE GREAT REBELLION CRUSHED!! SOUTHERN CONFEDERACY PLAYED OUT!!!”

Comments? Questions?

Email Karyn Norwood, AmeriCorps CW150 Leadership Corps volunteer at cw150@oberlinheritage.org.

Sources consulted:

Chester, H.W. Recollections of the War of the Rebellion: A Story of the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, 1861-1865. Wheaton, IL.: Wheaton History Center, 1996; Tenney, Luman Harris. War Diary of Luman Harris Tenney, 1861-1865. Cleveland, OH: Evangelical Publishing House, 1914. Image from Chester’s Recollections of the War of the Rebellion.

“Lorain on Fire!! War Spirit at Oberlin!!!” Oberlin Responds in the Wake of Sumter’s Fall

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

“Since our last the Southern rebels have fully inaugurated civil war,” The Lorain County News of Oberlin and Wellington editors wrote bleakly. (The Lorain County News, 17 April 1861)

A hundred and fifty years ago this week, Fort Sumter fell to a Confederate attack and the Civil War commenced. Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to fight for the Union—10,000 from Ohio.

“TREASON AND REBELLION ARE IN LEAGUE AGAINST THE GOVERNMENT,” the then Mayor of Oberlin, Samuel Hendry stated in a proclamation. He urged a mass meeting at First Church on Wednesday the 17th of April to address the “foul conspiracy,” which threatened “Liberty and the hope of man.”

The Lorain County News, 17 April 1861

At the meeting, Oberlin College Professors Henry Peck and James Fairchild, along with John Mercer Langston spoke moderately on the situation, and a “Vigilance Committee” was founded to take charge of decisions.

Meanwhile, Oberlin students met with the faculty stating their desire to enlist on Friday night, and a resolution passed to create a company. On Saturday, James Monroe, college professor and representative in the state senate, came to Oberlin with a proposition and papers to form at least two companies. That evening, a meeting was called to raise a company and the funds to support them; the church was filled to the brim and the atmosphere was of excitement. Lucien Warner, a student at Oberlin College, in a letter to his brother wrote of the events, “It is in the midst of the intense and most alarming excitement that I address you along these lines. WAR! And volunteers are the only topics of conversation or thought. The lessons today have been a mere form. I cannot study, I cannot sleep, and I don’t know as I can write.”

A sum of four thousand dollars was donated that evening—there were accounts of citizens giving $100, no small amount at that time. The roll opened up after speeches by Brigadier General Sheldon and James Monroe, among others. Forty-eight men signed the roll that evening—and by Monday evening, one company of men had formed, with another roll of fifty names for a second.

“They are mostly students, and the very flower of the College has been taken.” – The Lorain County News, 24 April 1861

Giles Shurtleff, Oberlin College teacher, was elected Captain of the first company, and virtually all of the rest were students of the College. J.F. Harmon, editor of The Lorain County News, also enlisted. Both companies spent the following days drilling on Tappan Square. Numbers were cut down to one hundred by a request from college faculty to keep those underage  and in poor health in Oberlin.

The Lorain County News, 24 April 1861

Those who did not enlist supported the war effort in other ways. Five hundred women formed the “Florence Nightingale Association, charging themselves with preparing clothing for the soldiers; the Citizens Brass Band offered to serve as musicians; a woman begged to become a nurse for the companies; and a landlady offered to cancel debt to her boarders who enlisted.

On April 25,  the volunteers departed from Oberlin to Camp Taylor in Cleveland, where they became Company C of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry—affectionately dubbed the “Monroe Rifles” after James Monroe.

Sergeant E.B. Stiles, Oberlin College theology student and member of Company C, reflected in his journal from camp in Cleveland on the recent events:

“The last few days have been filled with excitement in the usually quite village of Oberlin. The drum has been beating to arms—great crowds assembling to listen to exciting speeches & enrol companies…Oberlin turned out en masse to us farewell. It was hard to leave those fine experiences…” (Quoted in Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College, 847-848)


Sources Consulted:

The Lorain County News, 17 April 1861, p.2, c. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5; The Lorain County News, 24 April 1861, p.2, c. 1, 2, 3, 4; Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College: From Its Foundation through the Civil War, Vol. II., (Oberlin College: Oberlin, OH, 1943), 843-847.

Questions? Comments? Please email cw150@oberlinheritage.org.