This modest little clapboard building at 56 Public Square seems like an unlikely witness to history. It has stood on this spot since 1830, when the  commercial district of the village of Medina consisted almost entirely of such little wooden structures.  It survived two devastating fires in the nineteenth century and has housed law offices, stores, a dental office, and currently, an insurance agency.

However, after the attack on Ft. Sumter on April 12, 1861, this little building served its  most dramatic purpose.  This was where young men from the village of Medina and the surrounding townships came to volunteer for military service in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for troops to put down the “War of Rebellion.”

Initially, there was great enthusiasm for the war.  But when the Army of the Potomac, under the leadership of General George B. McClellan fared poorly against Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia during that first year and a half of the war — enthusiasm waned. Casualties were high,  the Confederates continued to present a serious threat, and confidence in General McClellan dwindled.

So, unfortunately, did the number of volunteers appearing at the recruitment center at 56 Public Square. This prompted Medina’s two term Congressman, Harrison G. Blake (1859-63) to write the following plea to Abraham Lincoln on July 28, 1862:

Dear Sir,

As one of the representatives from the State of Ohio, I regard it as my duty to say to you that I shall sustain you in all measures you deem proper to take to put down this rebellion… It is proper, however, that I should say to you that there is great dissatisfaction among your friends about the manner that Gen. McClellan has manage the army under his command — most men here doubt his ability, and very many question his loyalty.

…We find it very difficult to to get men to enlist here, they say they will be put to guarding rebel property or digging ditches in some swamp instead of fighting the enemy. We shall do all we can to get the men to enlist, and we are offering from $25 to $50 in addition to all the bounty that Government pays, but it goes hard.

If the people could know for a certainty that a more vigorous prosecution of the war would obtain, and that our men would be placed under competent commanders who desire to put down the rebellion, I have no doubt we could get any number of men to enlist.

I trust you will receive these suggestions in the kind spirit they are dictated….

Yours truly,

H.G. Blake

(Later that year, after the Battle of Antietam in September of 1862, Lincoln did indeed relieve General McClellan of his command of the Army of the Potomac.)

*This letter (portions of which are quoted here) is from the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois.

On a rainy October afternoon during the administration of President William McKinley, fourteen ladies gathered at the 314 East Washington St. home of Mary Griesinger, wife of a prominent businessman in Medina, to found a literary society.

The house —  which had achieved some level of fame  before the Civil War as the home of Congressman H.G. Blake and, as a stop on the Underground Railroad —  had eventually passed into the ownership of the Griesinger family.  On October 21, 1898, it  became the birthplace of the Friday Afternoon Club, a ladies’ literary group that is still in existence today. (The name was later shortened to “Afternoon Club”.)

The end of the nineteenth century was not  an era that offered women many outlets. They had their assigned roles in the kitchen or the schoolroom, and little else.  But these fourteen women — some of them teachers and all of them educated — decided to create for themselves an opportunity to grow intellectually.

The club was the brainchild of Bessie McDowell Hewes (standing in the center in this 1886 photo) who had known of a similar group called the Boston Saturday Club when she attended the Musical and Art Conservatory in that city as a young woman. She enlisted the aid of her life-long best friend, Mary Shepard Griesinger (seated beside her husband, Christian Griesinger) who offered her home for the initial meeting. The rules they set up for the club were simple, austere and rigorously enforced.

And so they remain to this day.

The group meets every Friday from November to April – excluding, of course, Christmas and Easter and allowing for one snow day.

Meetings begin promptly at 3:30 and end promptly at 5:00 P.M.

Each  meeting consists of a book review presented by a member. A brief discussion follows.

No refreshments are provided — except for a glass of water on request.

Membership is by invitation only and is limited to 25. (Until recent decades, the ladies were very secretive about the membership. Before the 1960’s, the only way to know for sure if a lady was in the club was when you read it listed in her obituary.)

Program booklets stored at the Medina County Historical Society attest to the intellectual liveliness of the group. In that first year, 1898-1899, the program reads like a college seminar: Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton were read and discussed.

While WWI raged in Europe during the 1914-1915 year, the ladies read the plays of George Bernard Shaw.  But in 1917, when the U.S. entered the war, the programs included “The  Russian Revolution in the Making” and “Women’s Economic Service in the Time of War.”

The terrible influenza epidemic that killed thousands in the wake of WWI is briefly alluded to in the club notes. Six weeks of meetings were canceled due to the influenza quarantine.

By the 1930’s, the club had committed itself to the format of contemporary literature, which continues to this day. The advent of the Book of the Month Club made it possible for members to obtain the latest books quickly and easily. (Today, members consult the “New York Times Review of Books” and order their selections  from Amazon.)

Old timers are fond of relating that one always knew that it was Friday in Medina because suddenly, groups of formally dressed ladies in hats and gloves would be seen scurrying across Public Square on their way to a meeting.  On the other hand, ladies who were not fortunate enough to be offered an invitation hid in their homes. Since the membership was kept secret, they did not wish it to be know that they were NOT members. The small town pecking order being what it was,  usually, only the wives of the most socially prominent citizens were asked to join.

Usually. Not always. Unfortunately, there was the cruel issue of the blackball. One “no” vote could permanently block a lady’s entrance into the Afternoon Club, no matter how socially prominent she was.  This was done away with in the 1960’s.

These days, although the structure remains basically unchanged, there has been some progress. Afternoon Club is far more democratic in its invitations — a majority of two votes will get you in.  Some people actually decline the invitation — something that would  have been UNHEARD OF decades ago. And wine is actually served at the Fall Dinner and Winter Picnic !

And so, as the Afternoon Club moves through its 113th year, the machinery set in motion by its feisty Yankee founders still operates steadily and punctually.  The members continue to be faithful, the books interesting, and the environment stimulating.

The weather on the weekend of the 17th annual Key Bank Ice Festival was weird and unpredictable — as it has been all winter.

After bitter cold all week, suddenly on Friday the temperature shot up to fifty degrees. The ice carvers, who were scheduled to carve on Friday evening, couldn’t work.  They had to wait until 3:00 A.M. Saturday morning to put their 300 pound  blocks of ice outside, for fear that they would melt.

On Saturday the temperature dropped below freezing again — and the carvers were back in business, ferociously wielding  power saws and carving phantasmagorical creations of great beauty and delicacy.

Twelve ice artists participated in Saturday’s exhibition and fourteen participated on Sunday.

Local businesses and organizations sponsored ice sculptures like this artist’s palette from the ceramic studio,  All Fired Up (below, left) and the old fashioned sleigh from the Medina Community Design Committee (below, right).

Despite the bitter cold, the crowds (which included many small children and large dogs), came out in great numbers.  They admired the artistry, sipped hot chocolate and enjoyed yet another event in Medina’s elegant Public Square Park.

Saturday's first place winner.

Elizabeth Blake McDowell was born in 1842 in the first frame house built in Medina, in the days when the village was making its transition from log cabins and the hardships of the frontier to clapboard homes and an easier, more civilized way of life.

She died in 1932, a few months shy of her 90th birthday in the grand Victorian home that she and her husband built during the Gilded Age, and where her descendants still live.  As a young woman, she experienced firsthand some of the great events of the mid-nineteenth century –  the Underground Railroad and the Civil War.

Her father was Harrison Gray Blake — lawyer, Congressman, founder of the Old Phoenix Bank, and Medina’s most celebrated citizen. An abolitionist, he was active in the very risky enterprise of giving shelter to runaway slaves and smuggling them to other stations on the Underground Railroad

One of Elizabeth’s most vivid childhood memories was of  seeing slaves in the family home. It has become, of course, the stuff of family legend.  Her great-granddaughter, the late Betsy Whitmore, described the event  in her 1988 reminiscences:

Mrs. Whitmore wrote, “Her [Elizabeth's] father said, ‘Come with me. I want to show you something that will make you hate slavery forever.’

“He took her up into the attic where there were two terror-stricken runaway slaves.  One was almost white, the other black.  Her father showed the back of the black slave.  It was covered with great raw ridges where he had been whipped and where salt had been rubbed as a disinfectant.  It seemed that he had run away once before, been caught, returned to his owner and given a whipping.”

That picture of horror, shown to Elizabeth Blake McDowell on that eerie night, never faded from her memory.

In 1861, Elizabeth and her mother had a brief, but memorable encounter with Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln at the Weddell House — an elegant,  long-gone hotel in downtown Cleveland.  She described the event in a 1932 Plain Dealer interview given three months before her death. Lincoln was on his way to Washington to be inaugurated, and, despite threats of assassination, he stopped in many cities on his journey east.

“Mother and I were on the portico,” Elizabeth recalled. “Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln came down the hotel steps.  He looked around, saw us and lifted his hat and smiled — oh, the sweetest smile.  I’m sure it was to mother and me that he bowed. There was no one else there.

“Then he handed Mrs. Lincoln into the barouche, and Mrs. Lincoln had on the black stockings everyone said she wore.  Ladies were expected to wear white.  And you didn’t see as much of stockings then as you do now.

“His guards got in with them. Then the president turned to us again, lifted up that old stove-pipe hat and waved to us and smiled again.”

Elizabeth’s father, H.G. Blake was serving in Congress when Lincoln was elected and his daughter joined him in Washington. “We had entree to about every affair. I didn’t miss many opportunities,”  she recalled in the Plain Dealer interview. As a result, she was a witness to the resignation of Lincoln’s Confederate counterpart, Jefferson Davis,  from the U.S. Senate.  (Governor Dennison of Ohio had given her his seat in the gallery of the Capitol.)

She recalled 71 years later that, “Jefferson Davis was a remarkable figure, handsome with a West Point carriage and the manners of a southern aristocrat.”

After Davis gave his speech outlining his reasons for secession, she recalled that he lingered at his desk.

“He rearranged his papers, then put his hands  around the edge of his desk regretfully.  He got up and slowly walked to the door.  Then he came back, patted the desk … as he would an old dog, Then…he walked to the portals.  He paused, then, erect, turned and looked all around at the Senate chambers, at the flag, at the now empty desks, at the gallery, with a look of inexpressible sadness.  His head dropped, he turned on his heel and went out.”

She recalls the atmosphere in wartime Washington as fraught with danger. “My father always went armed,” she recalled in the interview. “All the legislators carried pistols and came close to using them. It was also common for members of Congress to practice pistol shooting. Father considered it necessary. Hardly a man in Congress but practiced at least once a week.”

Elizabeth married Lieutenant R.M. McDowell in 1863. Two years later, when Lincoln was assassinated, Lt. McDowell was stationed near Baltimore, at the railroad aqueduct over which all northern troops and supplies passed. Elizabeth, pregnant with their first child, was living nearby at the old Relay House south of Baltimore.The search for the conspirators in the assassination plot took place in this area, and one of them, George Atzerodt, was captured there.

Lieutenant McDowell was given charge of the prisoner. He ordered the regimental blacksmith to weld Atzerodt in irons and then asked his wife if she wanted to see him.

She declined.

At the turn of the 20th century, this home  stood on the southeast corner of  Public Square, today the location of the Medina County District Library. Built by pork dealer and merchant, David King in 1833, it must have been a dazzling sight in the tiny village which was just evolving from log cabins to little clapboard structures.  King, a man who obviously dreamed big, modeled it after the White House.

Today, still dazzling, the structure stands on a corner one half mile away, on North Broadway Street, amid rows of newer, more modest homes.  This grand dame of a house had  a near death experience in the 1990’s when a previous owner passed away after letting it deteriorate badly.  Fortunately, the new owner, whose family had lived there in 1940’s and 50’s,  was in a position to restore it to its previous grandeur.

Around 1900, the house was owned by Fremont Phillips, a leading citizen in the village.  A self-made man, Phillips started out as a teacher and eventually became a lawyer, mayor of the village, U.S. Congressman and probate judge. He was so prosperous that when electricity came to Medina, he owned the power plant.  Obviously a man who liked to be in charge — he had the switch to power the four new arc lights on Public Square installed in his living room.  He then decided when to illuminate the Square.

In 1905, Phillips decided to leave the Square — but not necessarily his beautiful, stately home.  His reasons are not known.  Perhaps the Square had gotten too noisy and commercial. At any rate, he sold the prime lot to a local cattle dealer, Franklin Sylvester, who wanted to achieve immortality by building a library for Medina that would bear his name.

Phillips then got busy and moved his entire household — lock stock and mansion.

His daughter, Florence Phillips, provided a vivid description of the event in a talk she gave to the Medina County Historical Society in 1952.

“The second week in June we prepared to move,” she wrote.  “The back part was cut first and taken onto North Broadway St. where it was turned and headed north.  The main part, 72 feet across, was taken and in the same way it was turned into the street.  Small rollers on railroad track ties were used to move the building.  In five days time, it was up and on a new foundation.”

The house arrived in its new location — a dirt road in what was still a rural area — without any damage.  In fact, the family continued to live in it during the move.  The only complaint came from the youngest member of the family, Tom, who claimed that he “lost his marbles.”

It’s time to give Austin Badger his due.

We all enjoy Public Square during the various festivals and celebrations that take place  almost continually during the year.  We revel in its picturesque beauty during all four seasons and think how lucky we are to live in such a lovely, historic community.

But no one ever thinks to thank Captain Austin Badger, the young pioneer who single-handedly whacked his way through three acres of primeval forest to create a village green in 1819 when the community was still in its infancy.

Austin Badger was born in Green, Chenango County, New York in 1793.  He volunteered for the militia when the War if 1812 began and was present when the British burned Buffalo.

Six years later, he folded all his  worldly possessions into a knapsack and walked from Buffalo to Cleveland, and thence to the area that would become Medina County. Rufus Ferris, land agent for Medina’s founder, Elijah Boardman, hired him as a surveyor and gave him a contract to clear the Public Square area. Badger sharpened his axe and went to work.

Captain Badger was also the first resident on the Square.  He built the first building — a two story log cabin on the northwest corner, presently the location of Cool Beans Coffee Shop.  The ground floor served as a tavern (and his dwelling) and the second story was used as a court room.

Not only did Badger clear and  survey Public Square — he also assisted in naming the first streets in the village.  This also happened in 1819, during the first Fourth of July celebration.

Here is his account of that memorable day from the 1881 History of Medina County:  “The Fourth of July had come…and it was resolved that it should be celebrated with appropriate honors.  In the morning, a long pole was cut and stuck in a hollow beech stump where the old courthouse now stands, and on its top, streamed gloriously …a bandanna handkerchief, being the best facsimile of the nation’s flag that could be found.”

He goes on to say, “Good whiskey, being one of the necessary articles on such a day, was bountifully furnished and plentifully drank as a beverage.  Sentimental toasts were drank… Whiskey, sweetened with home-made sugar constituted the drink that was handed around in fashionable circles in those days.”

Badger adds, “We, on that day, gave names to all the streets or main roads that then centered in the village, by which names they are still called.”

(This, no doubt accounts for such mellow and “sentimental”  names as Friendship and Harmony.)

The hard work did not appear to do Captain Austin Badger any harm.  He lived to the venerable age of 90 and is buried in the Old Town Cemetery.

So, the next time you walk across Medina’s picturesque Public Square, think of the man who wielded such a ferocious axe.  And say thank you.

Happy New Year.  And a special thanks to my lovely daughter Jess for inspiring me to create this blog.

The traditions of Christmas that we take for granted today — lavishly decorated trees, pine swags, gaily wrapped gifts and Christmas cards–  became universally popular during the Victorian age. Therefore it is very fitting that the 1886 John Smart house, a grand Victorian Eastlake structure located at  206 North Elmwood Street, and headquarters  of the Medina County Historical Society (MCHS)- would host a house tour extolling that fabled era.

Main parlor of the John Smart house.

The event, brainchild of  MCHS board member Barbara Dzur, and probably the most ambitious fund raising project ever taken on by the MCHS, raised a “substantial” amount of money for the organization. The nonprofit organization, which is both a museum and a research center, lost its major source of funding this year. In past years, the Medina County Commissioners allocated $20,000 annually to the MCHS. However, due to the current, gloomy financial outlook,  the organization did not receive any funding this year — and will not any time soon.

Barbara Dzur

“We hope to replace some of the funding lost by the Medina County Board of Commissioners’ budget cuts with this event,” Barbara Dzur said. “But the tour is also designed to show off the beauty of the house. Many of our visitors have never been here before and they are amazed by what they see.”

Each room was decorated for the holidays by a different local decorator — including The Interior Design Studio, Astin/Muckinsturm Interiors, White Leaf Design, House of Flowers, Erinteriors, Jean Lydon Company and Boyert’s Greenhouse and Farm.

Docents stationed in every room, described Victorian Christmas customs and told stories about the history of the home and its former residents.

Funding for the house tour was provided by such sponsors as Summa Health, Armstrong Cable, Westfield Bank, Chippewa Stone and Monarch Carpet One.

The house tour lasted four Sundays — from November 28 to December 19 and admission was $10.00 for adults and $5.00 for youth under sixteen.

Here are some of the sights the ticket buyers saw:

Lavishly decorated tree in the main parlor. Victorians were fond of decorating with peacock feathers.

Stockings are hung in a child's bedroom

Play room is decked for the holidays.

The family's best china awaits the Christmas feast.

Stairs and railings were lavishly decorated

Victorians believed that greenery in the house at Christmas brought good luck and chased away the evil spirits.

Medina has played a small but active role in the history of aviation — from the Wright brothers to Apollo 13.

Who knew?

Miles Reed, Director of Operations for Medina Cable Access (MCA), the local cable channel, has  pulled together a variety of widely disparate strands from a variety of sources, and now tells the story in the newly opened Aviation Museum at the Medina Municipal Airport. The museum is housed in a new terminal which opened in August, 2010 and consists of  a collection of historic photographs which tell this remarkable story.

Reed also created a documentary about Medina’s role in aviation history titled, “The Sky’s the Limit”,  and composed the background music. The film can be viewed on MCA’s website, <>

Miles Reed

Medina’s aviation story begins in the early 20th century.  Medina businessman Amos Ives Root, founder of the A.I Root Company, became intrigued by stories about two Dayton brothers who were experimenting with flying.  He went to Dayton and introduced himself to Orville and Wilbur Wright.  Eventually, he played a role in one of their most important flights.

In 1904, Root rented a meadow — the Hoffman Prairie — near Dayton for a secret flight that turned out to be more significant than the Wrights’ first flight at Kitty Hawk.  At the North Carolina beach, the Wrights became airborne but had no control over where they landed.  On this flight, however, the Wrights, having perfected the rudder, were able to steer the plane, which gave them control.  It allowed them to land wherever they chose.

Photo of Wright Brothers at the Medina Aviation Museum

A.I Root described this ground-breaking flight in his company magazine “Gleanings in Bee Culture”.  (He originally submitted the story to “Scientific American” but it was rejected. The editors  called it “far-fetched.”)

A copy of that January 1905 issue  of “Gleanings in Bee Culture” is preserved in the Smithsonian.

Here’s a sampling of some other aviation history makers.

During World War II, Army pilot and Medina native Joe Zarney ferried General George Patton around Europe in his plane, “The Spirit of Medina”.

Bruce Hallock -- Medina Aviation Museum

Former WWII aviator, Bruce Hallock, became Lyndon Johnson’s private pilot and flew LBJ and other political notables around the country during John Kennedy’s presidential campaign,

Hallock fell in love with aviation when he first saw an airplane at a county fair.  As an engineering student at Case Institute of Technology (Now Case Western Reserve University) he flew one of his tailless models in a national contest and won first place in the category of original design.

After the War, he worked as an executive pilot and an aeronautical consultant and and designed several tailless planes, including the Road Wing and the Pterodactyl.

Medina’s glamorous James Bond connection came with a plane called the Acrostar, created at the Medina-based Bede Aircraft Corporation. In the film “Octopussy”, Bond flees from captivity by flying the sleek little Acrostar BD-5J  through the rapidly closing doors of a hangar. (The scene can be viewed on You Tube.)

Jim Bede, an aeronautical engineer, founded Bede Aircraft Corporation in 1961, after he left a position at North American Aviation.  His goal was to develop low cost plane kits for the home built market.  The Acrostar was designed so that the wings could be folded up, allowing it to be hauled in a trailer behind a car.

The Acrostar  BD-5J makes a brief appearance in another Bond film — “Die another Day” with Pierce Brosnan as Bond.  The plane also served as the Bud Lite jet for a number of years and appeared in television commercials.

Finally we come to Fred Haise Jr., the astronaut who flew as the lunar module pilot in the aborted Apollo 13 lunar mission in 1970. Haise was assigned to NASA’s Lewis Research Center in Cleveland from 1959 to 1963, during which time he lived in the Medina County area and made friends in the local aviation community.

These are only a few of the stories found within the museum. They present an aspect of Medina history not generally known outside the relatively small circle of aviation enthusiasts.

Medina Municipal Airport is located four miles east of the city on Rt. 18 —   and it is well worth a visit.

Whipple and Sipher's old pulley

Every restored Victorian building surrounding the greensward of Medina’s Public Square has its story.  And occasionally, some remnant, some souvenier from the past, hidden away in an attic or a dusty corner finds the light of day, and it too has a story to tell.

Gramercy Gallery

There is, for example, Gramercy Gallery at 221 South Court Street, one of a row of buildings erected in the aftermath of the devastating 1870 fire.  It is a chic and elegant shop decorated in lush Victorian style and filled with gifts, original art and antiques.  Most of the well-heeled customers who shop here have probably never seen the huge wheel pictured above.  But  proprietor Pam Miller might take you up the the attic — if she’s of a mind to — and show you the large pulley with rope and hook still intact, still ready to raise and lower boxes of glassware and crockery through the trapdoor in the ceiling, as it did the the late 1800’s when the store belonged to a couple of local merchants named Whipple and Sipher.

Their shop was a Medina institution and it supported the Whipple and Sipher families quite handsomely.  (Mr. Sipher’s very large safe remains in the back room — although it is no longer filled with money.) Both men built imposing Victorian homes during those heady days of the Gilded Age when growth and prosperity abounded in the village of Medina.

Pam Miller points out another remembrance of the past — a white fireplace surround in the main room of the shop. “I was told that it came from Doc Strong’s house on the Square, where the new courthouse stands today,” she says. The elaborate wood piece is distinctly Victorian in style — but the house it came from was built before the Civil War.  It was one of several gracious, Western Reserve-style homes that stood on the eastern side of  Public Square before the leading citizens chose to move to quieter, less commercial neighborhoods. As a result, the homes were torn down or moved.

Around the turn of the century, the Whipple and Sipher store was acquired by the Cannon family who sold groceries for two generations. The Cannons left something behind as well — several display cases (like the ones pictured below) that sit forlornly on the floor of the attic, surrounded by seasonal decorations and boxes of wrapping paper.

Ida Cannon stands at the counter.

Ida Cannon was the daughter of the family and an iconic figure in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. Senior citizens who grew up in Medina remember her presiding behind the counter like a crusty deity, wrapping purchases in old-fashioned brown paper and tying them neatly with string.

Cannon’s grocery store also delivered.  Ida owned a 1930’s-era station wagon with wood-paneled doors dubbed the “Cannonball” by irreverent delivery boys who, (unbeknownst to Ida), raced it up and down the village streets.

Those were the days when — if a family was not at home — the delivery boy walked into the kitchen and left the groceries on the table, taking care to put the perishables into the ice-box.  (Doors were never locked and “refrigerator” was still an unknown term.)

Today the shop — founded in 1984 and owned by Pam Miller since 1989 — is filled with original art by noted Medina artist Cindy Allman, cards and stationary, jewelry, pillows and throws, Byers Choice Christmas carolers, and framed inspirational quotations. However, like Whipple and Sipher, Pam Miller also  sells “crockery” — that is, hand-made platters and vases by local artists Elaine Lamb and Bonnie Gordon. And, like Ida Cannon, she sells groceries too — the kind that cater to more modern tastes, like gourmet jellies and chipotle dip mixes.

So, to paraphrase a worldly French quotation, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Victorian elegance

South Court Street in days of yore. Note Whipple and Sipher sign on far right.


I will be out of the country for the remaining three weeks in September. Check this blog again in early October.