Oberlin Heritage Center Blog


Posts Tagged ‘Oberlin Heritage Center’

Living Through History

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

My name is Michelle Myers, and I am a summer intern at the Oberlin Heritage Center through the Leadership Lorain County Internship Program. This is my second summer here. I was born and raised in Elyria, and I am currently working on my bachelor’s degree in psychology at Swarthmore College. This is why I have come to the Heritage Center for my second summer: because I love learning about and talking to people.

History, as I have come to learn it, is not facts. History is stories. History is the light in someone’s eyes when they recall an event that made headlines. History is a grandfather telling his grandchildren about the war at a family event. The past is what connects us all together. It is all of our stories interwoven in a conversation where people recall the good old days, the not so good days, and feel less alone. History is not the history of individuals, but of a common humanity who has been through and seen it all. History is what makes us live forever.

This is why I love giving tours of the three buildings at the Oberlin Heritage Center. I love when a visitor recognizes an item in one of the historical houses and says, “My grandmother has one of those in her house.” Someone else says, “I used to use one of those when I was a kid.” Then a conversation starts. People talk to each other. A human connection is made. Meaning is made out of washboards and rug beaters.

When a woman and I talk about the hardships a mother with her child could have faced trying to find freedom from slavery, and the visitor is nodding her head, her eyes deeply concerned, I feel as if something beyond our words is being fulfilled. She understands what it means to work hard, to face destitution. Both women understand. It is all three of us in this conversation. We live through each other’s thoughts and words. This is what history looks like.

But history is also the amazement and hilarity that ensues when first graders realize what a chamber pot is. They get on their hands and knees on the wooden, creaky floors; look under the rope-wrung bed; see the white, shiny bowl; and cry “People would poop in that?!” Maybe they imagine a life, long before televisions and video games, without bathrooms. They have something to go home and tell their parents about. They gave me something to remember. They fill these buildings with laughter and excitement. They keep these buildings and the Oberlin Heritage Center alive. Thank you to all of you, past and present, who keep this place alive.

1940 DeSoto Coupe: History Lesson on Wheels!

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

By Mary Anne Cunningham, Assistant to the Director

Last month, OHC staff visited with Michael and Dorene McAndrews of Brooksville, Florida, who traveled to Oberlin as part of a journey to research and document the history of their restored 1940 DeSoto, once hailed as “America’s Family Car.” The couple purchased the car two years ago, and since then have lovingly and painstakingly restored it to its former glory. Mike and Dorene not only are proud of their pristine restoration, but they’ve enjoyed all the history lessons they’ve acquired through their automobile. Early in this process, they discovered gas ration coupons and a tire inspection record that were used during WWII by the automobile’s original owner, Clyde A. Rawson (1879-1974), of Oberlin. The McAndrews began doing research via Ancestry.com. Some months later, they discovered a copy of Mr. Rawson’s WWII Draft Registration card that listed Oberlin College as his place of employment. The couple requested the assistance of the Oberlin College Archives, the Oberlin Heritage Center and most recently have spoken with a few current residents of Oberlin who remember Mr. Rawson proudly driving his 1940 DeSoto through the streets of Oberlin.

1940 DeSoto Coupe

1940 DeSoto Coupe
(Photo courtesy of Mike & Dorene McAndrews)

The couple compiled a biographical sketch about Mr. Rawson as well as the beautiful DeSoto that they are preserving as a piece of American History. Clyde was the athletic equipment manager at Warner Gymnasium on the Oberlin College campus for 37 years and loved his DeSoto so much that after purchasing the car new in 1940, he never purchased another vehicle and drove it until his death in 1974. He kept the car in his garage at his home on Lorain Street and proudly showed it to admirers who came by knocking on his door asking to see the car.

Clyde Rawson

Original Owner Clyde Rawson
(Photo courtesy of the Oberlin College Archives)

Mike and Dorene have also explored the history of the DeSoto Automobile which was part of Chrysler Corporation from 1928 – 1961. Thanks to the record keeping of the Chrysler Historical Society, they learned that the car was shipped to McDonough Motors in Cleveland in December 1939. In old newspaper articles the couple found about Mr. Rawson when they first began their research, there was information about Mr. Rawson visiting his Mother at the Cleveland Clinic and he himself being in the Cleveland Clinic Hospital. The pieces had finally all come together.

Mike and Dorene expanded their research to include materials on gasoline and rubber tire rationing, coupon books and promotional materials that rallied citizens around the wartime efforts as well as learning a great deal about America’s home front during World War II. Not only do they now feel a kinship with the car’s original owner, they are thrilled that they’ve been able to drive the local neighborhood streets upon which their vehicle traveled nearly 75 years ago and walk down the same sidewalks where Mr. Rawson went to work at Oberlin College.

You probably have a treasure of your own that can initiate a fun and fascinating new history lesson for you and your family!

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 Tale of Two Abolitionist Towns

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Earlier this Fall I had an opportunity to visit the little abolitionist town of Ripley, Ohio, on the banks of the Ohio River about 50 miles southeast of Cincinnati. As an avid history buff, this was a visit I really looked forward to. And as a docent on the Oberlin Heritage Center’s “Freedom’s Friends” tour, I couldn’t help but contrast these two very important abolitionist towns. I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some of my thoughts and experiences.

I started out on a tour of the home of Reverend John Rankin, the spiritual leader of the Ripley abolitionist community. It’s believed that most of the estimated 2,000 freedom seekers who came through Ripley found shelter in his house or barn. The house itself is quite small. It certainly would have been cramped quarters for Rankin and his wife, Jean, and their 13 children, their several “foster” children, and whatever freedom seekers happened to be staying with them at the time. The house is a National Historic Landmark. It’s nice to see the meticulous work that’s being done to preserve it and restore its antebellum character.

Rankin House

Rankin House, Ripley, Ohio

The house sits atop a 540 foot high bluff overlooking the Ohio River. Reverend Rankin built a set of stone steps leading all the way down to the riverfront streets below so that freedom seekers could have “easy access” to his house after crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky. One of the highlights of my visit was descending, then climbing, these steps. (What can I say? I get into that kind of thing, lol.) A large section of the steps has since been replaced with a wooden stairwell, which undoubtedly made the climb easier than it would have been back in the day. It certainly would have been a difficult climb at night, possibly carrying a child, after a long hard journey through Kentucky and across the Ohio River to get there in the first place.

Rankin stairs

Rankin stairway overlooking the Ohio River

Rankin stairs

Rankin stairs from the bottom

Reverend Rankin was an “evangelistic abolitionist”, much like Oberlin’s spiritual leader, Reverend Charles Finney. Both believed that slavery could and should be ended through moral reform and prayer. However, where Reverend Finney felt that Underground Railroad activity was a distraction to the real work at hand, Reverend Rankin was one of the most active Underground Railroad conductors in the country. Rankin would also eventually come to take a more political stance, becoming a member of the Liberty Party (an abolitionist political party that would be a precursor to the Republican Party) in 1843. Rankin, however, was only the leader of Ripley’s anti-slavery element, which was only a small minority of Ripley’s overall population. Finney on the other hand was a spiritual leader of Oberlin as a whole, where the vast majority of the population was anti-slavery.

After visiting the Rankin House, I went down the hill for a visit to the John Parker House, on the riverfront street appropriately called Front Street. John Parker was born into slavery in Virginia, but eventually was able to purchase his freedom and move to Ripley, where he became a very successful businessman and industrialist. He was also one of the most daring of all conductors on the Underground Railroad. His house is now a museum. I enjoyed the many fine exhibits there and the informative presentation the staff gave about John Parker and his exploits. Parker has an Oberlin connection in that he sent two of his sons (Hale Giddings Parker and Cassius Clay Parker) to Oberlin College.

John Parker House

John Parker House

What was most unique about Parker is that unlike the other Ripley Underground Railroad conductors, he would actually cross the river into Kentucky to help freedom seekers escape from slavery. In this way he assisted hundreds of people to their freedom. His story brought to mind the story of Calvin Fairbank, an Oberlin College student who went to Kentucky and helped dozens of enslaved people find their way to freedom. Interestingly, both the Oberlin and Ripley abolitionist communities were uncomfortable with these exploits. It was extremely dangerous work, it violated Kentucky law, and many considered it provocative. Fairbank was caught and spent a total of 16 years in Kentucky prisons, enduring numerous beatings and whippings. Fortunately Parker was never caught. Being a black man, he undoubtedly would not have gotten off so “lightly”.

After leaving the Parker House I took a walk along Front Street and read some of the historical markers that line that road. One highlights the journey of an enslaved woman who crossed the thin ice of the Ohio River with her two year old child and became the inspiration for the story of “Eliza” in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This too has an Oberlin connection, for in the book (but not in real life), Eliza was married to a man named George Harris, who also escaped from slavery and joined her in Ohio. The George Harris character is said to have been inspired by Oberlin resident Lewis Clarke, who is buried in Westwood Cemetery.

While in Ripley I bought a book called Beyond the River, by Ann Hagedorn. The book gives an outstanding description of the abolitionist history of Ripley, much like Nat Brandt’s The Town that Started the Civil War does for Oberlin. One of the things that really stuck out for me in reading this book was the detailed accounts of the “Lane Rebels”, who would play such an important role in abolitionizing Oberlin. These were students at the Lane Theological Seminary, in nearby Cincinnati. Some of the Lane students shared a similar background with many of the abolitionist founders of Ripley – Southerners who had been born and raised with slavery, but came to question it and even abhor it. In a series of 18 public debates in 1834, attended by Reverend Rankin and other Ripley abolitionists, a group of Lane students debated the question: “Ought the people of the slaveholding states abolish slavery immediately?” At the end of the debates, their answer was a unanimous YES. But the surrounding community wasn’t happy with this, or with the other anti-slavery/civil rights work the students were involved in. Eventually a mob even threatened to tear the school down. As a result, the trustees of the school prohibited any further anti-slavery activity or discussion, which prompted dozens of the students to quit the school in protest. Many of these so-called “Lane Rebels” would come to Oberlin the following year and become the seed of the abolitionist movement here.

But Ms. Hagedorn’s book also highlighted a major difference between Ripley and Oberlin. In Ripley, like in most abolitionist towns, the abolitionists were a small minority of the overall population, a situation aggravated by its close proximity to Kentucky. Oberlin, however, was quite unique among abolitionist towns in that its abolitionists formed the vast majority of its population ever since the arrival of the Lane Rebels in the second year of its existence. In Ripley, the abolitionists had to operate in top secrecy, and they were frequently subject to raids by mounted posses of slavecatchers who would storm into town, pound on their doors at any time of the day or night, and demand to search the premises, often at gunpoint. In Oberlin, by contrast, the abolitionists could be relatively open about their activities, and it was the slavecatchers who had to operate in secrecy. A freedom seeker coming to Ripley generally could not stay more than a day, for fear of being found in one of the few abolitionist homes. But the estimated 3,000 freedom seekers who came to Oberlin had many more options of where they could stay, and often would stay for months, years, or even “for keeps”. In Ripley and the surrounding area, there were many instances where pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist mobs burned down schools, churches, barns and homes, and even abducted abolitionists and people believed to be fugitives from slavery. In Oberlin, when the mobs gathered, they were mobs of abolitionists (and much less violent). Oberlin mobs might surround a house that was being staked out by slavecatchers and help the inhabitants escape undetected. Or, in the case of the “Oberlin -Wellington Rescue”, an Oberlin/Wellington mob even stormed a hotel to free a man who was being held by slavecatchers.

In closing, I have one final observation that came to me as I was doing some independent research. In an interview in the 1880s, John Parker said of Ripley, “The town in its simple way goes on unheeding its valiant men and their deeds.” In the decades following the Civil War, it would appear that Ripley, like Oberlin, lost sight of its abolitionist heritage. Fortunately both towns have long since rectified that. And thanks to dedicated organizations like Ripley Heritage, Inc., the John P. Parker Historical Society, the Ohio Historical Society, and our own Oberlin Heritage Center, the proud heritage of both towns will continue to thrive and flourish.

Ron Gorman
Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

Sources consulted:

Ann Hagedorn, Beyond the River

Nat Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War

Oberlin Heritage Center “Freedom’s Friends” history walk

Duke University collection of John Parker autobiographical notes

John P. Parker, Stuart Seely Sprague, His Promised Land

Winter Term 2012: Finding Community Through History

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Until my time spent at the Heritage Center, my interest in museum work and cultural heritage management was underwritten by my fascination with the objects involved—Classical archaeology was only as interesting as its statuary and American history was only as interesting as the objects which told its stories. My concept and appreciation of museum work gained another crucial dimension during my month with the Heritage Center: the importance of community. In many ways the Oberlin Heritage Center is a professional institution, but in seemingly as many other ways it is a community club of sorts, relying heavily not only on the monetary support of its members but also their expertise and experience.

Towards the end of January, Prue Richard, the Collections Assistant, invited me to attend a collections committee meeting, which would be held at—to my surprise—Kendal (a local retirement community). On the way to the meeting I remember asking Prue if these meetings were public or private, if the committee was composed of board members or paying members, and who would be attending. The answers to these questions were not at all what I had expected. The committee was composed of an incredible diversity of volunteer talents, each of which was hugely valuable to the Heritage Center. The use of community talent and expertise seems essential to the continued prosperity of the Center.

I also enjoyed and learned quite a bit in my more day-to-day tasks at the Center. Interested in both research and collections management, I was able to spread my time somewhat evenly between these two interests. In terms of research, I was given the task of updating biographies on the previous tenants of Monroe house to go with the new furnishings plan. I focused primarily on the Monroe Children—Emma, Mary, Charles, and William. As far as collections management goes, I was able to help Prue develop a new salvage plan which would be used to evacuate the most important objects in the event of a fire or other major crisis. In performing these two tasks I became very familiar with the museum database program Past Perfect as well as a number of genealogical research databases. I also spent a good deal of time in the College archives poring over old financial and legal documents.

The tasks I was given by the Heritage Center staff were undoubtedly personally valuable—and hopefully valuable to the Center as well; but, the aspect of my time here that I may have enjoyed most was being my friends’ personal Oberlin historian. Dozens of times other Oberlin students would approach me with questions about the age of their home or the previous tenants, and given my access to all the information stored at the Heritage Center, I was more than capable of answering these questions. From finding the building history of my house on East College to finding that my friend’s apartment was previously a Masonic Temple, these small bits of historical knowledge have really brought Oberlin to life for me—breaking out the four year cycles I tend to see Oberlin as being stuck in, and revealing a community with a rich, important history that needs to be told and remembered.

Greg Brown
OC Class of 2012