Kaleidoscope: Many attractions to see when visiting Meadville

by KEN LAHMERS | EDITOR Published:

Just after July 4, I ventured for the fourth time this year over the Ohio border into Pennsylvania to explore sites in Crawford County and Meadville, its 13,200-resident seat of government.

Meadville was settled in 1788 by pioneers led by David Mead. When Indians occupied the area, it was known as Cussewago after a creek which flowed through. The town started to boom in 1837, when the French Creek feeder canal opened and connected to the Beaver and Erie Canal at Conneaut Lake.

Meadville was famous for the Talon Zipper Co. (originally the Universal Fastener Co.), which began in 1893 in Chicago, but moved to Meadville in the 1920s. It ceased operations in the 1980s, and only a few of its rundown buildings remain.

The Erie Railroad was a major employer for many years and maintained shops and a large yard. Its mainline through Meadville ran west to Leavittsburg, where it split into a line running through Kent and one through Aurora to Cleveland.

The railroad line, first known as the Atlantic and Great Western, came through Meadville in 1862, and ceased operation in 1972. The Kent depot (now Pufferbelly Restaurant) was built by the A&GW in 1875.

Between 1898 and 1927, trolley lines were popular in Meadville, connecting to Conneaut Lake, Erie and other not-too-distance towns.

American Viscose (later Avtex Fibers), now gone, was another leading business in Meadville, while Channellock Tools and Dad's Pet Food still operate there.

When several tool and die machine shops located in town after World War II, the city earned the title of "Tool City USA." Its peak population was about 19,000 in the 1940s.

In 1880, Meadville led the way in the desegregation of Pennsylvania's schools when Elias Allen appealed to the Crawford County courts after an elementary school refused to admit his children. The court decreed segregation unconstitutional in 1881.

The Unitarian Meadville Theological School was established in 1844 and moved to Chicago in 1926.

Meadville was the first city after New York to use arc lights to illuminate its streets. Also there, John Wilkes Booth allegedly forecast the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by scratching words on his hotel window. Odd Fellows established the nation's first fraternal orphanage there in 1874.

STEREOSCOPIC MUSEUM

Meadville is the home of the very unique Johnson-Shaw Stereoscopic Museum on Chestnut Street. The building was erected in 1856 and first used as a land sales office. In 1929, it was taken over by the First Church of Christ, Scientist, and eventually became the museum.

It houses an extensive collection of stereoviews and lantern slides showing natural history, world events, tragedy and whimsy, plus historic documents, books and equipment manufactured by the Keystone View Co.,which was the largest maker of stereoscopic views in the U.S. and once located in Meadville.

Keystone View Co. originated in 1892 and continued in the stereoscopic industry in Meadville until 1976, then moved to Davenport, Iowa.

A common family pastime before the advent of moving pictures was looking at photo cards through stereoscopic 3-D viewers. The industry expanded into the realms of institutional education, military training as a means to recognize enemy and friendly aircraft and optometry.

When Keystone entered the optical field, it sold equipment to state police agencies for driver's license vision testing.

By the time the company moved to Iowa, it possessed the largest collection of stereographic negatives and negative contract prints in the world. Many are at the Meadville museum and a huge collection also is in the University of California-Riverside's Museum of Photography.

BALDWIN-REYNOLDS HOUSE

Since 1963, the Crawford County Historical Society has operated the Baldwin-Reynold House Museum, built in 1842-43 by Henry Baldwin, who was a major player in Andrew Jackson's winning the 1828 presidential election in Pennsylvania.

After Baldwin death, his widow leased the property in 1844 to the Meadville Female Seminary for use as a girls finishing school, and in 1847 she deeded it to her nephew William Reynolds, an attorney. He and his wife lived there for more than 60 years. It remained in the Reynolds family until the historical group acquired it.

The house, patterned after a Tennessee plantation house, contains 19th century furnishings, and the grounds include an ice house, tannery, garden, springfed pond and turn-of-the-century country doctor's office.

MEAD LOG CABIN

Another interesting place to visit in Meadville is the David Mead Log Cabin, a replica of the cabin built by Mead in 1787. The current cabin is in Bicentennial Park and has one room for living quarters and one for storage. Mead's second wife began teaching students in the original cabin shortly after their marriage.

THE MARKET HOUSE

In downtown Meadville is Pennsylvania's oldest market house in continuous use. It has operated since 1870. It is a smaller version of Cleveland's West Side Market, and similar to Wheeling, W.Va.'s Centre Market.

The venue has many vendors inside and out selling local products, and is a meeting place and link between city residents and out-of-town farmers. It is open year-round and features baked goods, maple syrup, crafts, fresh meat, cheese, fruits and vegetables.

A second floor was added to the original building in 1917, which now houses the Meadville Council for the Arts, an art gallery, dance studio and small theater.

THE ACADEMY THEATER

Meadville boasts a 129-year-old theater called the Academy. Newspaperman Ernest P. Hempstead built it in 1885, calling it the Academy of Music.

It was first used as an opera house, then hosted vaudeville shows and the first "talkie" movies in Meadville. From the 1950s to 1980s, it was a movie theater, but was shut down after a fire caused major damage.

The Academy Theater Foundation raised nearly $1 million for restoration, and it was reopened in 1992.

JOHN BROWN FARM

Located about 11 miles northeast of Meadville off Route 77 is the site of abolitionist John Brown's former leather tannery, home and farm, at which a small museum has been in existence since 1951.

The foundation walls of the tannery and home can be seen at the half-acre site. Brown lived there from 1826-35, after moving from Hudson and operating a tannery in Kent. The latter, which was situated just a few hundred feet from my house, was demolished in the early 1970s.

Brown is famous for his failed raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, W.Va. in 1859, after which he was hanged in Charlestown. He and other anti-slavery proponents were active in Underground Railroad circles in Meadville.

A John Brown Freedom Day picnic has taken place at the farm for many years.

THE RIVERSIDE INN

The beautiful Riverside Inn graces the landscape at Cambridge Springs (population 2,400), northeast of Meadville. It was built in 1885 after the popularity of mineral water therapy transformed the town into a bustling resort center patronized by wealthy visitors from all over the world.

By the early 1900s, 40 hotels, spring houses and rooming houses had risen there, and eight trains a day brought visitors to the still-standing depot. The Riverside Inn survived and was restored to its original grandeur in 1985. There are 75 guest rooms, a restaurant and 200-seat dinner theater.

Email: klahmers@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189

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