The Firelands and Beyond

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February 1, 2016 by tomneel

In the lower storage cabinet of a glass corner cupboard in my dining room, I have a complete collection of The Fire Lands Pioneer, a periodical that has been published in Norwalk, Huron Co., Ohio since June, 1858. The Honorary Eleutheros Cooke (1787-1864), the father of Civil War financier Jay Cooke, addressed the audience gathered on July 4th, 1857 at the “Pioneer Celebration” in Norwalk, the first official activity of the newly formed Fire Lands Historical Society. He first welcomed the “last of the old warriors of the Revolution,” stating that “we commemorate the wisdom and valor that broke our chains.” He also gave credit to the “ephemeral wandering race,” that is, Native Americans, “their names and their deeds, for the most part, have passed away, like the sound of their rifles in the forest, or their own footprints on the sands of the lake.”

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My Personal Fire Lands Pioneer Library

Can you imagine historians gathering here in Ohio just before the Civil War when one or two local Revolutionary War soldier were still alive? They didn’t show, but many War of 1812 veterans did and told their stories. The editors of that periodical, The Fire Lands Pioneer, solicited a history of each township in Huron and Erie County, an area set aside at the western edge of the Western Reserve for families of Connecticut who lost their homes and property during the Revolutionary War. They called for paragraphs on the origin of the township name, natural appearances, ancient remains, Indian settlements, first birth-marriage-death, mills and manufactories, merchants and traders, organization and history, educational, religious and benevolent institutions, towns and villages, veteran survivors, and general items. Platt Benedict (1775-1866) of Norwalk chaired the project and a committee of two from each township responded with many township articles. Honorary John Sherman (1823-1900) addressed the meeting at Milan, Erie County, in September 1858, and reminded the audience of the importance of history in a community. In issues for 1858-59, several women told their stories about trips to Ohio and hardships on the frontier in a column called “Fire Lands Reminiscences.” Polly Bull, Rebecca Bostwick, Fannie Smith, Elizabeth Minn, and Cornelia Mason were all immortalized as early storytellers. A long tradition of printing obituaries of Society members began in 1859 with the death of Jemima Keeler (died 24 Jun 1859, age 84 years, 10 months, 24 days). What a treasure in these 150-plus years of local history journals.

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Platt Benedict – Floor to Ceiling Masonic Painting at Firelands Museum

In 1857, the Fire Lands Historical Society began accepting donations of artifacts from the audience at each of their meetings. Many items are described in detail with the names of the donors given in the meeting minutes. In such cases, a physical museum becomes necessary in short order, and this example is no different. The Firelands Museum [“fire” and “lands” is now combined in usage], 4 Case Avenue, and Laning-Young Research Center, 9 Case Avenue, Norwalk, still entertain visitors and historical/genealogical researchers. There are, in fact, twenty-six (26) local history groups that participate in the Firelands Council of Historical Societies [firelandsohio.ericebinger.com], an umbrella organization that serves Huron and Erie County today, as well as small bits of Ashland and Ottawa counties that were also part of that Firelands reserve.

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That ancient 1857 Firelands Museum has begun entering its holdings into PastPerfect, but the catalog isn’t online yet. And yes, they do have to go through those old Fire Lands Pioneer issues sometimes to figure out the donors. I live in the Firelands and have visited most of the twenty-six smaller facilities and many – perhaps most – do not even have a catalog. But they do have real treasures and are worth a visit! I am guilty myself. I was one of the founders of the New London Area Historical Society in 1985 but have been too busy with my career to be able to find time to enter the metadata needed on each item on two floors of our little downtown museum.

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Map of the “Fire Land” – Huron and Erie Co OH with Danbury in Ottawa Co and Ruggles in Ashland Co OH

Thinking beyond the Firelands, Ohio has other historical collections that are just as old or older. Honorary Elisha Whittlesey (1783-1863) told the Norwalk group in November, 1857, that “at the 1st session of the 20th General Assembly of this State, I reported a bill which became law on the 1st of February 1822, entitled An Act to Incorporate the Historical Society of Ohio.” Whittlesey must have been a politician! The first meeting was held in Columbus in September 1822, said Whittlesey, with Governor Jeremiah Morrow, Duncan McArthur, and other prominent officials in attendance. But the group separated before forming an organization. The Ohio History Connection , Columbus, dates itself to an 1885 charter, according to their web site, and the Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, gives its birth date as 1867, but claims to be the historical branch of the Cleveland Library Association, which dates to 1848. Another Act of the Ohio Legislature, in 1831, incorporated the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, in Columbus, but it merged in 1849 with the Cincinnati Historical Society (formed 1844), and the Cincinnati group today uses this 1831 date of origin.

Do we know how many local groups there are in Ohio that claim to be historical or genealogically-related? If one takes the 26 groups in the Firelands (Huron/Erie counties) and multiplies that number by 44 (there are 88 Ohio counties), the result is 1144. Could we have 1000 organizations out there that have some type of archival collection? Perhaps our goal as professionals should be to adopt one of these when we retire and have the time – and get their collections organized and on the map!

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Firelands Museum, Norwalk

The Firelands Museum, PO Box 572, Norwalk OH 44857, phone 419-668-6038, with the main entrance at 4 Case Avenue, Norwalk, is open June through August, 10 to 3, Tuesday through Saturday; and in May, September, and October, has weekend hours only, Saturday 10 to 3, and Sunday 12 to 4. The museum and library are closed during the winter months. General admission is $5.00 per person. The Firelands Historical Society meets on the third Wednesday of each month at 7 PM in the Laning-Young Research Center at 9 Case Avenue. Their web site is: http://www.firelandsmuseum.com

Tom Neel, Library Director, Ohio Genealogical Society
(Life Member of the Firelands Historical Society)

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