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Oberlin History Timeline

1800-1839  1840-1859  1860-1879  1880-1899  1900-1919  1920-1939  1940-1959  1960-1979  1980-Now

1800-1839

  • 1803: Ohio attains statehood.
  • 1805: The land west of the Cuyahoga is ceded by Native Americans to the government, opening that land for settlement.
  • 1824: Lorain County is incorporated.
  • 1833: Oberlin is founded by settlers led by Revs. John Jay Shipherd and Philo Penfield Stewart. The first structure in town is the Peter Pindar Pease cabin, built under the Historic Elm. Oberlin College, then known as Oberlin Collegiate Institute, is founded at the same time. In a move unusual for the time, it commits itself to co-education from its very beginning. Also unusual is the Oberlin Covenant, which all settlers are required to sign before being granted residence in the new town.
  • 1830s-1841: The Graham diet, named for its developer Sylvester Graham, becomes spectacularly popular--at least among the more "puritanical" segments of society. The "diet" proscribed to its practitioners a strict regimen of what to eat, when, where, and how, in order to purify the mind and body, or, some would argue, to "mortify the flesh." The Graham diet was widely followed in Oberlin, and for a while dictated what food might be served in the College dining halls. The "Graham-only" policy of Oberlin College was rescinded in 1841 because of mass student outcry (and after a professor was dismissed for daring to bring his own pepper shaker to the dining hall--spices of any kind being in violation of Graham's principles.)
  • 1834: The first Oberlin Inn--in the form of a public house operated by Brewster Pelton--is constructed.
  • 1834: The Oberlin School District is organized for public education.
  • 1834-35: The Lane Rebels come to Oberlin from the Lane Seminary in Cincinnati. These Rebels push the College to adopt a policy of non-discrimination based on race, which it does in 1835, making Oberlin the first institution of higher learning in the nation to practice "color-blind" admissions.
  • 1835: The term of Oberlin College's first president, Asa Mahan from Lane Seminary, begins. Rev. Charles Finney also arrives in Oberlin, where he directs Oberlin's First Church and serves as president of the Oberlin College's School of Theology and, later, as College President.
  • 1836: The first public school in Oberlin is opened. This building, the Little Red Schoolhouse, still stands and is part of the Oberlin Heritage Center's tour.
  • 1837: Oberlin establishes two volunteer fire companies.
  • 1839: The Amistad incident takes place: A group of newly-arrived slaves in Cuba revolt and attempt to sail back to Africa but are tricked into sailing north, where they eventually are taken ashore in Connecticut.
  • 1839: The last signer of the Oberlin Covenant commits himself to Oberlin's founding ideals. The town continues to grow, but interest in the Covenant is on the wane.

1840-1859

  • 1841: The first four women in the nation to receive their B.A.s do so. Their alma mater? Oberlin College.
  • 1844: The construction of the First Church of Oberlin is completed. It includes what is, at the time, the largest auditorium west of the Alleghenies.
  • 1846: Former Amistad captive Margru (also known as Sarah Kinson) returns to the United States from Africa in order to be educated. She first attends classes at the "Little Red Schoolhouse" in Oberlin, and then, in 1848, in the Ladies' Course of Oberlin College.
  • 1846: According to legend, by this time, Tappan Square, then the center of campus, had been so heavily deforested that there were only two trees standing.
  • 1847: Lucy Stone graduates from Oberlin. She is best known for her work in women’s rights and abolition, as well as for being one of the first women to keep her own last name after her marriage.
  • 1847: Antoinette Brown Blackwell (sister-in-law to Lucy Stone, who did not take the last name "Blackwell") graduates from Oberlin College. She later becomes the first female ordained minister of a recognized denomination in the United States.
  • 1848: Spencer and Rice's System of Business and Ladies' Penmanship is published. This book teaches the method of Spencerian handwriting which was widely taught in Oberlin. Platt R. Spencer, who developed theis system of handwriting, was an Ohio native.
  • 1852: The railroad comes through Oberlin, connecting it with Toledo and Grafton.
  • 1852: The first fire engines for the city are purchased. They are housed in the basement of First Church.
  • 1855: John Mercer Langston, Oberlin College alumnus, is elected clerk of Brownhelm Township (OH), making him one of the first African-Americans in the nation elected to public office. (And this ten years before he could even vote for himself!)
  • 1856: Oberlin is voted "dry."
  • 1858: The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue: Oberlin and Wellington residents rescue a fugitive slave, John Price, who has been recaptured by federal marshals enforcing the Fugitive Slave laws. After the "Rescue," Price escapes to Canada, but many of the "Rescuers" are jailed, spending up to ten months in prison.
  • 1858: Samuel Plum's gas factory opens, powering gas lights for the streets of Oberlin.
  • 1859: John Brown, accompanied by a group of men including three with ties to Oberlin, attacks the arsenal at Harper's Ferry. Of the Oberlin men, one is killed in action and the other two are executed afterward, as is John Brown himself.

1860-1879

  • 1860:  First Church of Oberlin has the largest congregation in the nation.
  • 1860: Oberlin’s "hook and ladder company" wins a firefighters' competition in Sandusky, Ohio.  Little good it does them:  Oberlin’s downtown will suffer serious damage from four major fires before 1900. 
  • 1861: When the Civil War begins, many Oberlin College students join together to form a company called the "Monroe’s Rifles," named after James Monroe.  This company comes to be known as Company C of the 7th Ohio Volunteer infantry, and is led by Oberlin College theology student Giles Shurtleff.
  • c. 1861: The first bank in Oberlin is opened.
  • 1861-1865: During the Civil War, roughly 1000 Oberlin men volunteered to serve.
  • 1862: Mary Jane Patterson receives her B.A. from Oberlin College.  She is the first African-American woman to receive a Bachelor's Degree.
  • 1863: John Mercer Langston organizes the first African American infantry from the state of Ohio, the 127th Ohio Volunteer infantry.  At this time, African-Americans were not allowed to be officers; this troop was commanded by Giles Shurtleff, who had just returned from a Confederate prison via an exchange of prisoners.
  • 1863: Oberlin's old burying ground is moved to Westwood Cemetery, a 47-acre plot further from the town center.
  • 1865: The Oberlin Conservatory of Music, an offshoot of the College’s religious music program, is founded.
  • 1865: The Oberlin fire department resigns because of inadequate equipment.
  • 1865: Munson's saloon is finally forced to quit selling liquor, nine years after Oberlin officially becomes "dry."
  • 1866: A steam fire engine is purchased for the community.
  • 1870: The fire engines are moved to the basement of City Hall from the basement of First Church.
  • 1872: Finney retires from his position of pastor at First Church.
  • 1872: Rust United Methodist Church is founded. It, along with Mount Zion Baptist Church, will provide key leadership for Oberlin's African-American community.
  • 1874: The Union High School, later Westervelt High and now the New Union Center for the Arts, is built.
  • 1875: Charles Finney, long a central figure in Oberlin’s religious life, dies.
  • 1876: Former Oberlin College student Elisha Gray applies for a patent for his invention of the telephone. His patent request is received just two hours after that of Alexander Graham Bell. Incidentally, the apparatus in Bell's application would not have worked; that in Gray's would have. But Bell was later legally named the inventor of the telephone.

1880-1899

  • 1881: Moses Fleetwood Walker, then an Oberlin College student, plays for OC's baseball team. In 1884, he became the first African-American major league baseball player.
  • 1882: A major fire sweeps through Oberlin's downtown district.
  • 1882: The first boulder is moved by students into Tappan Square.
  • 1882: The year of Oberlin's "Great Flood," a severe flash flood that caused much damage to the young town. Newspaper reports list the damage to buildings, bridges, and personal effects, with a particular (and surprising) emphasis on pianos.
  • 1886: Oberlin resident and alumnus Charles Martin Hall discovers a cheap process for extracting aluminum. His process cuts the cost of aluminum production by 90%.
  • 1886: The "Gibson Hose Company" wins a national hose team competition for firefighters.
  • 1887: A second major fire destroys much of Oberlin's downtown district.
  • 1887-1888: Construction of the Oberlin Water Works
  • 1893: The Anti-Saloon League is founded in Oberlin.
  • 1893: The Oberlin Gas and Electric Company begins operating, providing gas and electrical power to the residents of Oberlin.
  • 1893: Oberlin contracts to put in sanitary and storm sewers.
  • 1894: Yet another major fire destroys part of downtown Oberlin.
  • 1894: All major roads in Oberlin are resurfaced in brick, replacing mud, wood, and sandstone.
  • 1895: Alice Swing is elected the first woman on the Oberlin School Board. She is one of the first women in the nation to be elected to a seat on a local school board.
  • 1895: The Oberlin Telephone Company is incorporated.
  • 1897: The traction railway (street line or inter-urban) between Oberlin and Elyria is opened. A round-trip ticket set you back 25 cents.
  • 1897: The Tank Home for Missionary Children is built to house the children of missionaries while their parents are in the field.
  • 1897: A second boulder appears in Tappan Square. This one was moved by the class of 1898.
  • 1898: A fourth major fire burns through part of Oberlin.
  • 1898: A bond issue is approved by local voters for a Lorain County Children's Home.
  • 1899: The first cars in Oberlin are sighted.

1900-1919

  • 1902: A second traction line, leading to Norwalk, is opened in Oberlin.
  • 1903: Oberlin builds a water-softening plant, the first of its kind in the United States.
  • 1903: The Oberlin Council sets the speed limit for Oberlin at 8 miles per hour.
  • 1903: Memorial Arch is erected in Tappan Square to commemorate the American missionaries who died in the Boxer Uprising in China. Of the 18 Americans killed in this event, nine of them were alumni of Oberlin College or Oberlin Seminary.
  • 1903: The Oberlin College Chapel burns down.
  • 1905: Gibson's Bakery moves into the building that it still occupies today.
  • 1906: H.H. Kung, a native of China who later becomes Premier of the Republic of China (1938-1939), graduates from Oberlin.
  • 1907: The Oberlin Hospital Association is incorporated and leases the house at 21 South Cedar Street to serve as the town's first hospital.
  • 1907: A movie theatre, showing silent films, is opened on the second floor of the Gibson block building.
  • 1913: The Oberlin Flood of 1913, followed by the Blizzard of 1913.
  • 1914: The Apollo Theatre, a local movie theatre still operating today, opens.
  • 1917: Oberlin gets its first motorized fire engine.
  • 1917: Construction on the Allen Memorial Art Museum is completed.

1920-1939

  • 1924: The Oberlin Flood of 1924
  • 1925: Allen Memorial Hospital opens.
  • 1927: The last buildings in Tappan Square are removed, making it a "proper" town green as stipulated in inventor Charles Martin Hall's will.
  • 1929: Influenza epidemic sweeps through Oberlin.
  • 1929: Oberlin’s Apollo Theatre plans an "all-talking week"--showing all "talkies."
  • 1930: Janby Gas and Oil, now Midas Muffler, is built: at the time, it is the only canopied gas station between Pittsburgh and Detroit.
  • 1934: Oberlin's Federal Post Office is built (see photo below). Before this, the location of the post office changed with the whims and preferences of each post master.
  • 1935: Daniel Chapin Kinsey, winner of the gold medal in hurdles in the 1924 Paris Olympics, completes his master’s training in physical education at Oberlin.

1940-1959

  • 1944: Oberlin was in the throes of the so-called "barbershop controversy," regarding the integration of barber shops. The issue was resolved when a group of College students and staff purchased and began operating an integrated barber shop.
  • 1945: Stanley Cohen, later 1986 Nobel laureate in medicine and physiology, graduates from Oberlin College.
  • 1948: Dr. Wade Ellis becomes the first African-American faculty member at Oberlin College. [For more on race relations in Oberlin in the 1940s, see this article by former OC Archivist William Bigglestone.]
  • 1950: Oberlin's Weltzheimer-Johnson House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is completed.
  • 1952: William Goldman graduates from Oberlin College. He is best known as the author (and screenwriter) of The Princess Bride, which he published under the pseudonym Simon Morgenstern, the original screenplay Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the adaptation for the screen of All the President’s Men.
  • 1955: The current Oberlin Inn is constructed.
  • 1955: Adlai Stevenson gives the Oberlin College Commencement Address and receives an honorary degree.
  • 1956: Oberlin is officially chartered as a city after attaining a population of 5000 in the 1950 census.
  • 1958: Part of College Street between was turned into a pedestrian-only mall. (Unfortunately, this venture was unsuccessful, and the road was later reinstated.)
  • 1959: The Oberlin College Museum “fades away” with the destruction of its home, the former Second Church.  Today, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, constructed 1961-1964, stands on that site.

1960-1979

  • 1960: The "new" Oberlin High School is completed.
  • 1965: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visits Oberlin and gives the College commencement address. He also receives an honorary degree from Oberlin College.
  • 1965: The present-day Oberlin High School is built.
  • 1965: The Historic Elm is removed after being stricken with Dutch Elm Disease.
  • 1966: Oberlin's graduate-level theological school closes.
  • 1966: Tappan Square is named a National Historic Landmark.
  • 1967: Oberlin students opposed to the Vietnam War surround the car of a Navy recruiter. They refuse to disperse until forced to do so by the use of tear gas. Eventually thirty-six of the participants were fined, though none were jailed.
  • 1970: Robert Thomas becomes the first African-American president of Oberlin City Council.
  • 1972: Folk musician Pete Seeger gives the commencement address and a performance at the request of the graduating Oberlin College seniors.
  • 1973: Richard Haass, later president of the Council on Foreign Affairs and holder of numerous important governmental posts, graduates from Oberlin College. Also graduating in this class was Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, a popular Oberlin staple in these post-Graham diet years.
  • 1974: Julie Taymor graduates from Oberlin College. She goes on to direct the 1998 Broadway musical "The Lion King" and 2002 film "Frida."
  • 1975: Morgan Street is blacktopped. It is the last street in Oberlin to be converted from brick to blacktop.

1980-Present

  • 1983: Maya Angelou gives the Oberlin College Commencement Address and receives an honorary degree.
  • 1984: The bandstand was constructed in Tappan Square. This and the Memorial Arch were the only structures allowed in the Square, as stipulated by Hall's will.
  • 1987: Archbishop Desmond Tutu gives the Oberlin College Commencement Address and receives and honorary degree.
  • 1993: Kendal-at-Oberlin opens.
  • 2003: Oberlin's Main St. district is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • 2004: Oberlin is named one of the "Dozen Distinctive Destinations" nation-wide.