Kaleidoscope: Lots of neat artifacts, buildings to view at Portage historical group's site

by KEN LAHMERS | EDITOR Published:

After living in Portage County for the past 26 1/2 years and driving past the Portage County Historical Society's property and museum on North Chestnut Street in Ravenna many times, I finally got the opportunity to check out what the premises have to offer.

On June 15, the society conducted an open house at the site just south of the Ravenna High School campus. It also is a stone's throw away from Maple Grove Cemetery, which is across the street from the high school. The open house celebrated the society's 62nd anniversary.

The historical society was incorporated in 1951 after a donation of property from John and Alta Lowrie at 111 Clinton St. in Ravenna. Several other contributions have enabled the society to grow into a 16-acre campus with eight buildings, each of which houses hundreds of donated artifacts and antique items.

The main museum and two century homes facing North Chestnut Street are easily visible to passersby, but many folks might not be aware that other interesting attractions are further back on the property. I was one of those until I strolled the grounds and discovered the hidden gems.

SOCIETY'S MAIN MUSEUM

A two-story building on the north edge of the property houses the main museum, library and society offices. The top floor is called the Lowrie-Beatty Museum and was built in 1968. The society and Portage County Genealogy Society jointly operate the reference library.

The cathedral-style stained glass window on the building's west side came from the old Portage County Courthouse, which stood from 1882 to 1960 on the site of the present courthouse. The museum also houses other items from the old courthouse, including the bronze Lady Justice statue which topped the building.

Among the most impressive items in the museum are a Riddle hearse and Riddle brougham carriage, both made by the Riddle Coach and Hearse Co. of Ravenna. The horse-drawn vehicles date from about 1900. The hearse has glass sides which make a casket visible to those looking on.

The Riddle Coach and Hearse Co. got its start in 1831 as the Clark Carriage Co. In 1861, it was bought by brothers-in-law Charles Merts and Henry W. Riddle and renamed the Merts and Riddle Coach and Hearse Co. Merts sold his interest to Riddle in 1891 and the firm's name was shortened.

Motorized hearses and ambulances were made starting in 1911. The factory faced the challenge of changing from hand-crafted production to assembly line techniques to keep up with competition, but after some family in-fighting the change was deemed too costly and the factory closed in 1926.

Henry Riddle, who died in 1920, reportedly did not trust banks, so he spent a lot of his money building "Riddle blocks" in downtown Ravenna. The finest of them is Riddle Block 1, completed in 1890 on the east side of the courthouse grounds.

Other old Portage County businesses from which items are displayed at the museum are glass and pottery from the Ravenna, Mantua and Atwater areas and a factory bench and tools used in casting iron and molds from the A.C. Williams Co.

A one-horse sleigh owned by Marvin Kent of the family famous for founding the city of Kent is on display, as are surgical instruments from the 18th and 19th centuries, children's toys and clothing, dolls and dollhouses, military clothing and soldiers' items and antique furniture, musical instruments and household items.

There also are men's and women's clothing -- including a wedding dress that's more than 100 years old -- jewelry, tools used for manufacturing glass objects, postcards featuring Ravenna memories from 1832-1940 and irons used in the home for clothing and hair.

One display briefly tells the story of Frederick Loudin (1836-1904), who grew up in Ravenna. He became a world renown singer, and was known as one of the most politically outspoken black entertainers of the 19th century. He was recruited into the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1874.

OLD HOMES ON GROUNDS

The society's property features two old homes -- the Salmon Carter House, a Greek revival farmhouse built in 1835 by one of the first generation settlers in the West Reserve, and the Strickland House, built in 1869 by George Strickland and acquired by the society in the 1970s.

Three additions were made to the two-story Carter house -- a side porch in 1847, a single-story structure to the rear in 1860 and a second story to the rear addition in 1912. Willis Strickland purchased the home in 1854 after Carter's death. He was George's father.

The historical society bought the Carter house and dairy farm property in 1962 from Charlotte Strickland. Many original portions of the two homes remain, while some alterations have been made to walls, mantels and fireplaces. Farmhands once lived in the back portion of the Carter house.

The Strickland house has a Victorian flavor, with 10-foot ceilings and front and rear staircases. George died in 1903 and his wife Lucretra in 1907.

When the society first acquired the Strickland house, it had been converted into three apartments, which continued to be rented out. In 2000, the society ceased renting and renovated the house closer to the original layout. Both homes contain donated antique furnishings.

MAHAN NEW ENGLAND BARN

Behind the Strickland house is a New England "Yankee-style" barn built in 1810 and moved to the property in 1974 from Dawley Road in Ravenna Township. Dr. Alfred C. Mahan provided funding for the move and reconstruction, thus the barn is named in his honor.

Amish men from Burton disassembled the barn, and it took three days to move all the wood to Ravenna. It took nearly two years to reconstruct the 40-by-30-foot barn. A shed was added behind the barn, which is used for storage of wagons and other antique farm implements.

Some of the farm equipment are a large Case steam traction engine, hayrake, wooden and metal threshing machines, grain planter, Conestoga wagon and "caisson and limber" (ammunition wagon) from 1916, which once stood in front of the old county courthouse.

The latter reportedly was never used in combat, and its only military purpose was to carry the casket of Ravenna's last living Civil War veteran, who died in 1938 at age 91. It was donated to the society by Ravenna American Legion Post 331 in 1953 and moved to the society's property in 1962.

GROUNDS' OTHER AMENITIES

The society acquired a 1820s hand-hewn log cabin in 2004, and reconstructed it on the property. It is furnished with mostly primitive county antiques. The society hopes to eventually create a recreation of an early herb, perennial and medicinal garden beside it.

A tiny building relocated from South Street in Garrettsville, which once housed a photographer's studio, was moved to the grounds in 1976, and houses the Ford Seed Co. collection. It was used as a workshop before being moved.

The building contained the original backdrop used by the photographer. Opposite the backdrop is a large window which allowed ample light inside.

The Ford Seed Co. was located on North Chestnut Street in Ravenna and started up in the 1880s. The business was known worldwide for its catalog seed sales. It survived into the late 1940s, and when its last owner retired, he donated the building to the historical society.

The collection, set up in a general store atmosphere, includes catalogs from 1894 to 1945, ledger books, an old cash register, a wall telephone, potbellied stove and thermometer on a metal sign advertising Whistle soda pop. The sign reads "Thirsty? Just Whistle."

The John Campbell Land Office is a 20-by-14-foot, two-story brick building built in 1810-11 by a colonel in the Ohio Militia and a land officer. It originally stood near Route 14 in the West Branch State Park area. It has a fireplace and a loft.

It reportedly was the first land office in the Western Reserve, and during the War of 1812 was used as a mustering headquarters and hospital. When the state created West Branch State Park, it was moved to the society's grounds.

At the entrance to the grounds along North Chestnut Street stands the 40-foot tall Proehl and Kline Clock Tower, which is topped by the clock from the old county courthouse. It was acquired from a man who bought it when the courthouse was razed. Restoration started in 1970 and was completed in 1973.

The tower's bricks came from buildings that were torn down to make way for parking lots and new structures. Many bricks came from the demolished Poe home on North Meridian Street in Ravenna and the Kent block in Kent, which burned down in 1972.

The 8-inch fancy tile in the tower's cross was part of the Ravenna City Bandstand, and the wooden bell rope wheel is from the original 1830 Portage County Courthouse.

Other buildings on the grounds are a milkhouse used on the original dairy farm, a red barn moved from across the street about 60 years ago, wooden outhouse with heart-shaped designs cut into the side walls, amphitheater which hosts vocal and instrumental music groups and the new Workman pavilion for picnics.

Items exhibited in the barn include balls, pins, ball return channel, benches, score sheets and scoring table from the former Ravenna Army Ammunition Plant's bowling alley.

In a wooded back section of the property, Robert F. Kunst has constructed a pre-Columbian period Indian village, with a large round house made of grass, a wigwam made of bark, cooking areas with fire pits and a weaving rack.

Kunst is the historical society's anthropologist and retired commissioner of outdoor education at Summit Academy, which provides tuition-free, non-profit community schools for alternative learners and specifically designed for students with AD/HD, autism spectrum disorders and related challenges.

A final interesting item on the grounds is a 14-foot high and about 4-foot wide tree stump carved with images of a man, woodland animals and an eagle on top.

The Portage County Historical Society is a fun and educational place to learn about the past. And it is just minutes away from Aurora. The museum and library are open Thursdays and Saturdays from 2 to 6 p.m. Group tours of the premises can be arranged by calling 330-296-3523 or 330-297-7658.

Email: klahmers@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-5412-9400 ext. 4189

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