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1930 Drought: The Most Critical Situation in Oberlin’s Waterworks History

Tuesday, September 14th, 2021

By Zenobia Calhoun, 2021 Summer OHC Volunteer

A long drought in 1930 tested Oberlinians’ energy and strength along with millions around the nation. It decimated crops and threatened Oberlin’s water supply: “The water shortage really was a serious condition—more serious than most people were inclined to believe,” said Superintendent of the Maintenance Department Doren Lyon in 1931.[1] The drought also created other potential problems, like disease outbreaks and worse fires. The drought was statewide and nationwide, as the results of the dust bowl show. Before 1930, the northern areas of Fulton, Lucas, Ottawa, Erie, and Lorain counties were usually the driest, each having 33 inches of rain or less for the whole year, with the whole state averaging 38.25 inches. However, in 1930, the whole state averaged just 27 inches of rain.

Ohio Rainfall 1930 vs Previous

Data from Straszheim, Robert E, and Falconor, J I. “The Drought in 1930.” Mimeograph Bulletin 37 [of the Department of Rural Economics at Ohio State University] (April 1931).

The main concern of water management in 1930 was having enough safe drinking water for everyone in Oberlin. Other concerns included saving the crops of the year and fire and disease outbreaks. At the beginning of 1930, Oberlin’s water supply was the Vermilion River in South Kipton. By July, the drought was already well-underway and the Oberlin News-Tribune noted that city officials asked citizens not to use water for “unnecessary purposes”, which included washing cars, watering gardens, and maintenance of the golf course.[2] At that time, there was enough water for another 30 days of regular use, which worried the city council as August is usually a dry month. Delaying the start of the college year was also considered as a mitigation strategy. Waterworks Superintendent Harry V. “Vic” Zahm also reported that due to the record-setting high temperatures there was a 25% increase in the amount of water used in comparison to the previous July, mainly in attempts to cool off. In Cleveland, a new high of 97 degrees was recorded for July.

 

Notice to Water Users 8-7-1930

Sears, L A. “Notice To Water Users.” Oberlin News-Tribune. August 7, 1930.

The second major concern was agriculture, both livestock and crops. The Oberlin News-Tribune reported on July 31 that the early corn was a failure and that late corn, potatoes, berries, and small fruit were soon to follow, and that even “should weather conditions become favorable, the crop will be way below the average.” On August 7, it was reported that farmers had been hauling water for their stock, burned pastures, and had no hope for the corn crop.

Usually, drought fears are alleviated by fall; however, in 1930 they remained. A little rain fell in September, but not enough to eradicate the fears of the Oberlin City Council and City Manager Leon Sears. The Oberlin News-Tribune noted on September 11 that there was still “real need of conservation wherever possible” and that the Elyria paper with the heading “No Shortage of Water at Oberlin” was “entirely misleading”. It was decided the college would start on schedule, though village officials worried about the new strain on the water supply. The article went on to explain how the Oberlin Water Department had bought a booster pump to move water from the Morgan Street reservoir to the settling basins, and that the watershed in Kipton now provided a trickle, rather than a stream, with outtake far exceeding intake.

On September 25, the Oberlin News-Tribune noted that there was enough water in the reservoir for 40 days of use. City Manager Sears believed that the worst fears were over and with continued caution the town would get along until normal weather conditions return. There had been light showers, but no heavy rains. The Kipton reservoir and watershed seemed much better off than earlier in the same month, with around 1/3 of the daily consumption running to the reservoir, but the mood was hopeful and city officials believed water restrictions could be lifted after several heavy rains.

In early November 1930, water restraints were still present. The average daily consumption of water was 262,000 gallons, with much less coming down the conduit from Kipton. The autumn rain had not been enough to stop the daily lowering of the reservoir. Luckily, City Manager Sears and City Council had been searching for a new water source and they found one. The Nichols stone quarry located east of Kipton had a large volume of water they pumped out daily which had previously been being wasted. The company agreed to turn the water into a line connected to Oberlin’s water conduit, adding 50,000 gallons of water to Oberlin’s daily water supply. The water, being from under a quarry, was also softer and purer then the regular supply and required less chemical treatment. Oberlin citizens were also working to use less water. The daily average of the week of November 13 was 230,000 gallons. By extreme economizing, city officials believed the town could cut down to 225,000 gallons daily.

It was found that college students were also using less water than in the beginning of the semester. However, one dorm might have been an exception. A story was received at the Oberlin News-Tribune from a college student: the inmates of her dorm were homesick and had been trying to use as much water as possible so that they could go home [3] (assuming that if the drought situation become more dire, the college would be obliged to take a break) [4]. However, besides this stand-out anecdote, most Oberlin residents and college students alike worked to ration their water throughout the drought.

Unfortunately, droughts can have other negative effects besides loss of drinking water. The Ohio Department of Health informed county and local officials that the current weather could result in more outbreaks of typhoid fever due to people seeking new, less safe water supplies, and the eventual rain picking up many pollutants and making more water supplies unsafe. The Lorain County Health Commissioner, Dr. Barrett, recommended immunization against typhoid fever for all who were drinking even possibly unsafe water.[5] Surveys by the health department found that 2/3 of dug wells at the time were not fully protected against pollution, making them vulnerable to typhoid and other germs, especially in the expected first heavy rains.[6]

In August and September, fire precautions were limited to help conserve water. This meant that there was no longer a waiting water supply, and, if there had been a large fire in the year, destruction would have been extreme. Thankfully, there was not. However, a local fire department noted in early 1931 that there was a significant increase in the number of fires in 1930 in comparison to past years, causing $2,760 worth of damage, or around $44,000 in today’s money.

By March 1931, all water supply fears had been reprieved and there was more than enough rain to last until spring. However, the fear of the previous year was still felt. Jacob Berg, an Oberlin resident who kept a diary recording the weather every day, found that the year 1930 was the driest in 60 years, [7] while Superintendent Lyon revealed that in October in 1930 there was a water supply for just 30 days, and that the situation was “the most critical that has ever been in the history of the Oberlin waterworks.” [8]

Since both citizens and city management dealt well with the heavy stress caused by this drought, it can be used as an example for what to do in the case of future climate disasters. It also offers the warning that one challenge often leads to other potential challenges that must be taken seriously, like the fires and possible typhoid outbreaks. Oberlin demonstrated both prudence and flexibility in its response to the 1930 drought.

 

SOURCES CONSULTED:

“Condition of Crops Serious in Vicinity.” Oberlin News-Tribune, July 31, 1930.

“Drought and Heat Wave Hit Farms Throughout Middle West.” Oberlin News-Tribune, August 7, 1930.
Retrieved 5 August 2021

“Citizens Ordered to Reduce All Water Consumption to the Minimum Until Rain Comes.” Oberlin News-Tribune, August 21, 1930.

“Thirty Days Water Supply.” Oberlin News-Tribune, August 21, 1930.

“Danger From Typhoid Fever at This Time.” Oberlin News-Tribune, August 21, 1930.

“Must Conserve Water Supply.” Oberlin News-Tribune, September 11, 1930.

“Water Shows Increase in Conduit Line.” Oberlin News-Tribune, September 25, 1930.

“Water Situation Remains Serious.” Oberlin News-Tribune, November 6, 1930.

“New Supply of Water to Aid Village.” Oberlin News-Tribune, November 13, 1930.

“Has Kept Diary For Last Sixty Years.” Oberlin News-Tribune, January 1, 1931.

“Forty-Four Fires Caused $2,670 Damage.” Oberlin News-Tribune, January 8, 1931.

“Indefinite Supply of Water Now Assured.” Oberlin News-Tribune, March 5, 1931.

Aier. “Cost of Living Calculator: What Is Your Dollar Worth Today?” AIER. American Institute for Economic Research, June 15, 2021. https://www.aier.org/cost-of-living-calculator/

Straszheim, Robert E, and Falconor, J I. “The Drought in 1930.” Mimeograph Bulletin 37 [of the Department of Rural Economics at Ohio State University] (April 1931). Retrieved from https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/159598534.pdf

FOOTNOTES:

[1] “Indefinite Supply of Water Now Assured.” Oberlin News-Tribune, March 5, 1931. 

[2] “Thirty Days Water Supply.” Oberlin News-Tribune, August 21, 1930. 

[3] “New Supply of Water to Aid Village.” Oberlin News-Tribune, November 13, 1930. 

[4] “Must Conserve Water Supply.” Oberlin News-Tribune, September 11, 1930.

[5] “Danger From Typhoid Fever at This Time.” Oberlin News-Tribune, August 21, 1930.

[6] “Danger From Typhoid Fever.” Oberlin News-Tribune.

[7] “Has Kept Diary For Last Sixty Years.” Oberlin News-Tribune, January 1, 1931.

[8] “Indefinite Supply Water Assured.” Oberlin News-Tribune.

Change is the only Constant in Life*

Saturday, November 30th, 2019

By Assistant to the Director Mary Anne Cunningham

Mary Ann Cunningham working at OHC circa 1993

In 1993, Pat Murphy and I took turns working at the computer in a shared front office.
(Notice we used a folding chair at this work station in those early years!)

What a wonderful journey began when I stepped through the Monroe House’s front doors to begin working for the Heritage Center 26 years ago. It was autumn 1993 and I was hired to work 10 hours a week assisting the organization’s new Administrator Pat Murphy. Right away, I could tell from the people I met, from the local history I learned, and from the vision that Pat and the Board had for the organization, that this was going to become a special place.

There has been a remarkable amount of change here over the past quarter-of-a-century, and yet I would say that the essence of the organization remains very much the same. Among the changes:

  • The Organization’s Name: A name change sounds like a quick edit on a piece of paper, but actually can represent years of careful planning, introduction and promotion. The cumbersome “Oberlin Historical & Improvement Organization” with its confusing acronym (O.H.I.O) was changed in 1998 to the more clear-cut “Oberlin Heritage Center,” and gradually through the succeeding years, the new name (along with a new logo) came to better identify the organization’s mission in the community.
  • Buildings & Grounds: The years have seen a changing “footprint” to the site, both conceptually (adding the Jewett House to the historic site tour in 1994) as well as physically (moving the Little Red Schoolhouse across the lawn in 1997 to install two intersecting brick walkways that provide easy and inviting access through the grounds). Other major changes to the organization’s bricks-and-mortar composition included the transfer of ownership of the Burrell-King House to Oberlin College & Conservatory for use as a new Community Music School (2003) and purchasing the Vineway building to develop access and visibility for the Heritage Center from Main Street (2010).
  • Staff Growth: The Heritage Center staff has grown from two part-time jacks-of-all-trades employees (1993) to a balanced team with particular expertise and job responsibilities including a part-time Collections Manager (added in 1998); part-time Business Manager (1998); and full-time Museum Education & Tour Coordinator (2007). The Administrator position became a full-time Executive Director in 1999. My role as part-time Assistant to the Director will be even better defined in my successor’s job title when the new Communications & Development Coordinator joins the staff next month. Meet Veronica Vanden Bout in January’s E-Gazette!
  • Technological Advancement: When I arrived at the Heritage Center, there was one shared computer (and one typewriter!), Pat Murphy and I shared one office (the front reception area), and we walked uptown each day to the Co-Op Bookstore to use its photocopying machine. We didn’t think much of these “limitations,” as this was pretty much the norm at that time. The rapid development of technology since then has vastly increased the organization’s capacity to connect with members and friends through ever-new options in database management and communications methods. Local history is now much more accessible to broader audiences through OHC’s website and Facebook/Instagram pages, while we now also can adapt tours and outreach for different learning preferences, including docent-led tours, self-guided tablet tours, interactive smart phone tours or hands-on-history classroom learning kits. Technology also has provided opportunities for staff to become more knowledgeable about their own work through professional development webinars, online support communities, skyping and more. Workplace changes in general over the past 25 years have been amazing, and have allowed small nonprofits like OHC the ability to do so much more with limited staff and resources.
  • National Accreditation: Those early years passed quickly as staff and volunteers developed policies and procedures in all areas of museum management, created a strategic plan to provide a roadmap for the future, and worked together to document, record, conserve, interpret, and follow best practices of museum operations. In 2005, after a long, rigorous process of self-study and peer review, the Heritage Center was accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. This mark of distinction placed the Oberlin Heritage Center in the top ten percent of museums operating in the United States – this was indeed a pivotal moment in the organization’s history. The accreditation process needs to be re-visited periodically, and in 2020 the Heritage Center will be working through the steps for re-accreditation … stayed tuned for more in coming months.

We’ve all heard the saying the more things change, the more they stay the same. In many ways, the fundamental nature of the organization remains much the same as I found it in 1993:

  • It’s a Membership Organization: Oberlin Heritage Center members have long been the heart of the organization – OHC couldn’t do what it does without the support, participation, encouragement and feedback of its members. Membership in 1993 totaled about a dozen individuals and couples; it has grown a lot since then and in recent years, OHC has maintained a stable membership of about 700 households and businesses. Nothing makes me smile more than welcoming new members to the organization — even after 26 years, I still do a “happy dance” when someone new joins the Heritage Center
  • Tours: Guided tours have been a hallmark of the Heritage Center’s educational offerings even when the organization was an all-volunteer group prior to 1993; tour fees continue to remain very affordable to this day.
  • Educational Programs: The vast majority of public history programs that the Heritage Center presents in the community are free of charge. Programs that require a fee are kept as low-cost as possible, and OHC members typically receive a discount. Children’s camps and outreach activities are further supported by scholarships and grant assistance. Making history education accessible and affordable has been a consistent principle of the organization’s mission.
  • Beautifully preserved historic buildings: The Monroe House, Little Red Schoolhouse and Jewett House are enduring and distinguishing features of the Oberlin Heritage Center. Being able to appropriately care for these buildings and the artifacts within them has been a top priority since day one.
  • Volunteers: If members are the heart of the organization as stated earlier, then volunteers have to be considered the backbone. For nine decades, the organization’s leadership and momentum depended solely on volunteers – a fact I have always appreciated and applauded! Since 1993, when an outside grant to the organization allowed professional staff to be hired for the first time, the dedication and expertise of volunteers continued to be the Heritage Center’s greatest resources. Without a doubt, the Heritage Center would not be the organization it is today without the tremendous commitment of more than a century of volunteer leadership and participation.

I hope you share some of my great love for the Oberlin Heritage Center – as a caring and careful preserver of Oberlin’s past, as an organization that brings people together and instills pride in their community, and as an educational resource that encourages new generations to explore and enjoy local history. Thank you to everyone who has supported the Heritage Center during these past 26 years – you’ve made it an exciting, fun, challenging and unforgettable experience for me every step of the way!

*This contemplative quote is attributed to ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus.

Mary Anne Cunningham working at OHC in 2019

Since 2000, this cozy corner in a second floor office (shared with two other staff members) is what I like to call my “nest.” You can see that I like to line it with plenty of paper and I have a bird’s eye view of the grounds from the beautiful window facing me!

History of the Morgan Street Water Works

Sunday, February 10th, 2019

By OHC Executive Director Liz Schultz

r1996.011.01a3 w

 

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 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 too 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 of 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.

r2016001-2

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 [email protected].

 

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

A Visit to the Norfolk Waterfront

Sunday, May 27th, 2018

By Melva Tolbert, Oberlin Heritage Center Volunteer

In keeping with the theme of freedom and the Underground Railroad, I recently visited Norfolk, Virginia which is rich in history and stories of freedom. After a stop at the Norfolk Visitors Bureau, I set out to find the Norfolk Waterfront. I ventured a couple of blocks to the Elizabeth River and found an Underground Railroad historic marker which denotes the place where many enslaved blacks sought freedom along the waterfront.

Prior to the Civil War, the waterways along the east coast served as a transportation mode that brought enslaved Africans and free blacks to the east coast. It also was the site for a busy commercial activity. This historic marker highlighted the story of George Latimer, an enslaved black man seeking freedom like thousands like him in the North. George and his wife Rebecca escaped by the waterways to Boston and he did not return to his owner.

George_Latimer_lithograph

George Latimer 
Thayer & Co. (Boston, Mass.)–Lithographer
New York Public Library Digital Gallery

Because such a large number of blacks were employed in the shipping industry (shipyards, boats, and steamships) they were able to quietly assist African Americans with securing transportation heading North. Additionally, whites, either for a fee or by aiding the efforts of the Underground Railroad movement, transported enslaved men and women out of the Virginia and North Carolina area. It is believed that thousands of people were able to reach northern cities and Canada through these heroic efforts. Much like the abolitionist of Oberlin, you could find men and women in another part of the country who were committed to the message of freedom and the network of the Underground Railroad (on water).

Link to Waterways to Freedom interactive map and historical information

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.