Category Archives: Cleveland and Ohio history

The trailer

My nephew Nicholas Gebben put together an awesome book trailer for me. I hope you like it:

The Last of the Blacksmiths trailer

Wine trails and a delightful surprise

When I visited the Pfalz region of Germany, I especially enjoyed the wines. The Rieslings are crisp, not cloying, the Spätburgunder is as fine as a good Pinot Noir, and the sparkling Sekt is equal in quality to French champagne.

19th century sparkling wineWine-making is so ubiquitous to the culture and lifestyle of the Pfalz, the entire cellar of the Bad Dürkheim Heimatsmuseum is dedicated to a viticulture exhibit. The rack shown here is an example of the traditional method of fermenting champagne. According to the Heimatsmuseum curator, it was an iffy proposition — 10- to 20-percent of the bottles could be counted on to explode, the champagne wasted.

Wines from the Bad Dürkheim region were exported to Cleveland in the 19th century, thanks to the Dürkheimer wine-makers George and John Fitz and a Cleveland wine importer named Leick of Kirchheimbolanden. (Apparently Leick and his brother married the Hege sisters from Dürkheim, so a connection was made.)

In particular, the Fitz brothers produced the 1848 Dürkheimer Firemountain label especially for export. Records show the wine was also exported to New York City, Cleveland and New York City being areas with high Palatine immigrant populations. While the year on a label normally indicates the vintage, in this case, all wines carried this year. The year 1848 was a reference to the 1848 Revolution for democracy, the Fitz brothers reaching out in solidarity to exiles forced to immigrate to America after the revolution was crushed. It’s not clear how long the 1848 label lasted. But wine exports continued until Prohibition  brought an end to the once lucrative trade.

These days, the Mosel region seems to dominate German wine imports to the U.S. However, I recently stumbled on a delightful surprise. The Fitz wine-makers of Bad Dürkheim are still in business. Now called the Fitz-Ritter Winery, the history of their revolutionary 19th century activities is even posted proudly on their website:


In 1837, the Fitz estate founded the first “Champagne“ Production in the Palatinate (second in all of Germany). Johannes Fitz, known as “the Red Fitz,” had imported the necessary know-how from the Champagne region of France which had been his exile home following his activity for the German Democracy movement at the Hambach Festival in 1832.

Five years later the first „Palatine Champagne“ emerged from the Bad Dürkheim winery.  …Just as it was back then, today the Sektkellerei Fitz (Sekt is the German word for sparkling wine) still produces “Sekt” from Burgundy and Riesling wines by traditional bottle fermentation.

No wonder the Fitz wine-makers reached out to those suffering exile in 1848–John Fitz had been an exile himself in 1832. I checked into it, and the Fitz-Ritter wines are again being exported to the U.S. Oh happy day!

Heimatsmuseum viticulture display

Dawn of petroleum

I love old city directories — they have the coolest ads revealing the zeitgeist of the age. In this 1864 Cleveland directory, I snapped a photo of a page about the oil industry of Civil War days.
1864 Baker's Directory, Cleveland

Okay, first, Neat’s Foot Oil? Apparently, it comes from the bones of cattle, used to soften leather. (Wikipedia) While we grieve for the cow’s shin bones and feet, from which the oil is extracted, in fact for millenia, most oil was derived from animals. In the Morehouse and Meriam add it lists the following:
Sperm, seal, whale, elephant, and lard oils.

But topping the Morehouse and Meriam list in 1864 are the dawn of the new petroleum age, that is, Carbon and Mecca oils. Carbon oil was no doubt kerosene, refined from the newly discovered petroleum. But Mecca oil? That one leaves me mystified. Here’s one reference that might offer a clue. A write-up in this Oil and Gas Fields of Ohio Map by the DNR. It starts out by stating:

Ohio has a rich history of oil-and-gas production that began nearly 150 years ago. The first well drilled in the state for the specific purpose of producing petroleum was completed in Mecca Township of Trumbull County in late 1859, just a few months after Colonel Edwin Drake’s famous oil well was completed near Titusville, Pennsylvania. Within a few years, several hundred wells had been “dug” in and around Mecca. This new industry attracted thousands of tourists to Mecca as well as many prospectors hoping to strike it rich.

Teaching Cleveland

It’s happened before. I’ve spent months and months googling and researching, then suddenly a new port of call materializes from the Internet fog.

The first time, I was browsing the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. I’d visited numerous times already, especially in search of historical information about carriage manufactories, scrolling down the list of subject headings under “c”, where nothing turned up. Then one day, while looking up Jeptha Wade, telegraph pioneer, I discovered it: “Wagon and Carriage Industry.” Under W. Duh.

This week it happened again. Clicking around in search of maps of the Ohio and Erie Canal (which began close to the mouth of the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland), I happened upon the Teaching Cleveland website, “a repository of writing, pictures and videos to support the teaching of Cleveland history and policy education.” A go-to for teachers and students of Cleveland history. I’d somehow not come across it before. In three years of researching Cleveland history.

At this site, Letterman-esque links abound: “10 Greatest Clevelanders,” “12 Most Significant Events,” a very thorough compendium of links to articles and sites. My favorite so far is a link (under “The Best of Teaching Cleveland”) — to Cleveland Memory Project — about the pioneer history of the settlement, Survival – A Man and Boy. This early account of Lorenzo Carter and Seth Doan is riveting (and makes me grieve, once again, for the inexcusable way settlers treated the Seneca, Ottawa and Chippewa natives).

The account reminds me of this painting of Cleveland I happened upon recently at a blog called “Cleveland Area History,” supposedly a “first” rendering of Cleveland’s earliest days:

A wilderness scene worthy of James Fenimore Cooper.

Men of Ohio

My family has saved a book called Men of Ohio in Nineteen Hundred because our great grandfather William F. Hoppensack is pictured there.

Men of Ohio william hoppensack

Quite a few historic Ohio men are listed there. It can be found on Google Books here. William F. Hoppensack ran for office as bank commissioner several times, but never succeeded. His political career was not as esteemed as a few other Ohio greats.

william McKinleyWilliam McKinley appears on page 1 of Men of Ohio, as he was then serving his term as President of the United States (1897-1905). Wait, 1905? Right, that’s how long his term would have lasted — if he had lived. Sadly, he was assassinated at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY in 1901. Links to articles about that tragic time are found here. McKinley was not the first Ohio man to lose his life as president.

James A. Garfield was another. Garfield was born in Moreland Hills, Ohio, where a replica log cabin now stands in tribute to the place of his birth. Garfield worked on the side of the new Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln in the 1850s. After all, he too was a rags-to-riches kind of guy. His bid for the White House was an attempt to rid a by-then entrenched system of patronage, which had taken hold during the administrations of Johnson, Grant and Hayes. Here’s one of his more intriguing quotes:

Whoever controls the volume of money in our country is absolute master of all industry and commerce…when you realize that the entire system is very easily controlled, one way or another, by a few powerful men at the top, you will not have to be told how periods of inflation and depression originate.

Read about some of his other visionary ideas at Wikipedia. Garfield was president for 200 days — he took office in March of 1881, was shot in July by an attorney who did not get an expected governmental post, and died of the bullet wound in September of that same year. The following is an epitaph I came across recently:

garfield 1879

Brewing in Cleveland

I own a book called Brewing in Cleveland, part of the “Images Of America” series. About lager beer, the introduction notes the following:

A huge influx of German immigrants arrived in Cleveland between the 1840s and the 1880s, bringing much of their culture with them. The particular process for the production of lager beer was one aspect, and it would revolutionize the American beer industry within a fairly short time. The first lager beer in America is thought to have been brewed around 1840, and it is believed that it was first brewed in Cleveland in either the late 1840s or the early 1850s.

An early Cleveland breweryThis picture is in the book, a lithograph of one of the first breweries “located atop a steep bluff overlooking Lake Erie.” This would make sense. Unlike ale (the type of beer commonly brewed in the U.S.  until then), lager beer required fermentation in ice-cold temperatures over a period of several months, so it was only available in the cold season. But with Cleveland situated on the shores of Lake Erie, it had the advantage of an abundant supply of ice (or at least, lager brewers would see the frozen tundra that way).

In the early years of lager beer brewing, before refrigeration had made it onto the scene (around the 1880s), huge blocks of ice were sawed out of Lake Erie in the winter, then stuffed in underground caverns to make it possible for year round lager beer production. So no doubt the brewers dug out caves in this “steep bluff” to store their barrels. To learn more about this process, check out Greg A. Brick’s article “Stahlman’s Cellars: The Cave Under the Castle” about German immigrant brewers in St. Paul, Minnesota around the same era.

In general in those years, beer was coming into its own. Until the mid-nineteenth century, Americans had been gulping hard liquor, but the strong movement toward temperance made beer a more acceptable option.

The Germans imported not only their beer, but also their custom of beer gardens. I’ve been thinking about this because summer is just around the corner, so beer garden commercials will soon be on the radio again. In nineteenth century German towns across the U.S., the German beer garden was a typical sight.

The most idyllic depiction of summer beer gardens I’ve come across in my history browsings is this image, found in the Atlas of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, from actual surveys by and under the directions of D. J. Lake, C. E., available online at the Cleveland Memory Project.

Sommer Garten of G. F. Krauss

It seems summer beer gardens are once again gaining popularity across the U.S. (read more at Lautering). And why not? Count me in!

“The Next Big Thing” interview

Mary Biddinger, author of Prairie Fever, St. Monica, and O Holy Insurgency, has started a self-interview series called The Next Big Thing. I’ve been tagged to participate by the awesome memoirist and writing teacher Janet Buttenwieser, author of Guts.

Michael Harm, circa 1862What is the working title of your book?
The Last of the Blacksmiths.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
Originally, I wanted to write a book based on several dozen letters in my family dating back to 1840, written by German immigrant blacksmiths and wagon-makers in Cleveland. The letter writers lived at a time when the city population was approximately one-third German. Since I had unique primary source material, I pondered making the book non-fiction. But every time I researched a clue in the letters, it led me to new layers of history – the “mean-spirited” monarchies of Europe, the recurrent bank failures in the U.S., the short-lived era of travel by canal, the apprenticeship system that had faded to non-existence by the twentieth century. I came to understand that my great-great-grandfather lived at a key point in the nineteenth century, when Cleveland was on the cutting edge of worldwide trade, westward expansion, the advent of modern technology, and the discovery of oil.

What genre does your book fall under?
In the end, I chose to write historical fiction, in order to create characters and scenes and dialogue, to flesh out history into three-dimensions. Even so, The Last of the Blacksmiths is based on a true story and real events.

What actors would you choose to play the parts of the characters in your book?
The German men would all have to be bearded and wear suspenders, like the Amish guys in the movie “Witness.” They would need to be broad-shouldered, too, what with all the blacksmith hammering.
James Marsden — protagonist Michael Harm.
Ron Perlman — Singely, Michael’s fellow blacksmith apprentice. Or possibly Sean Astin, since Singely has no neck.
Bernard Hill — Johann Rapparlie, Michael’s master and antagonist.
Bradley Cooper — Charles Rauch, Michael’s rival in carriage-making and in love.
Jodie Foster – as a young actress, Jodie would have made an excellent Elizabeth Crolly, with her piercing eyes and strong set to her jaw. Hilary Swank would be a good choice, too.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
In 1857, Michael Harm leaves behind his family farm in the German Palatinate dreaming of wilderness, prosperity and freedom, to apprentice as a blacksmith in Cleveland, Ohio, wholly unprepared for what he finds—-strong prohibitionist and anti-immigrant sentiment, civil war, and an accelerating machine age that will wipe out his livelihood forever.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
About 18 months. I spent over a year in research alone. I had much to learn about history, like blacksmithing for instance. I took a four-day beginning blacksmithing workshop, which gave me a profound respect for this ancient artisan craft (and I forged a fireplace poker, besides). I wrote the first 150 pages or so in the first year, then had the opportunity to spend a month in Germany. My “research trip” (which involved much wine-tasting) was graciously hosted by my German relatives. They escorted me to museums and castles and on bicycle tours to Roman ruins, and also translated for me during meetings with German historians. It was awesome, and a humbling experience. When I returned, with so many new insights, I realized that despite my best efforts I’d been incredibly naive. So I tossed everything out and started over on page one, cranking out a full first draft in five months.

What inspired you to write the book?
With the discovery of the letters, previous assumptions about Cleveland (where I grew up), about my family’s past, about my understanding of the nineteenth century, all took on new meaning. To hear in the letters from the people who actually lived it was inspiring. I felt compelled to tell their stories. We live now in such a technological, material age. How did we get here? Much of it began back in the nineteenth century, a pre-petroleum era we know so little about.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
My protagonist, Michael Harm, witnessed some amazing moments in history: When he was only seven, his rural village in the Palatinate was occupied by Prussian troops who had come to crush a democratic rebellion against the feudal monarchies. At age 15, Michael arrived in New York City as a major riot broke out between the Irish and the police in the Five Points Slum. Almost as soon as he reached Cleveland, a financial crisis sank the country into a deep depression. He saw the new Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln rise to power, the onset of the Civil War with its tragic loss of life. Then came Cleveland’s “Gilded Age.” The book explores not just my ancestors, but the German American immigrant experience.

Will your book be self-published or are you being represented by an agency?
My book will be published in the coming year by Coffeetown Press. My release date is February 15, 2014 — I’m really excited for that day to arrive.

My tagged writers for THE NEXT BIG THING are Connie Hampton Connally, Don Crawley, and Sandra Sarr.

Telltale signs

Blacksmith SignWe can stare at old photos, such as this picture of my great-great grandfather’s Cleveland carriage works, for a long time without grasping the signficance of what we see.

The horseshoe above the door here is a bit blurry, but I assume the immediate significance of such a symbol meant it was the entrance to the smithy (since blacksmiths were sometimes also farriers who shoed horses). At “Horse Quotations and What They Mean” I found the following in item #2: “Hang a horseshoe over the door for good luck.”

There is … a legend from the middle ages about a blacksmith named Dunstan. Dunstan was visited by the devil in his blacksmith shop. The devil wanted Dunstan to make him shoes, but Dunstan refused and beat the devil, making him promise never to enter a place where a horseshoe hung over the door. To prevent luck from running out, the horseshoe must hang toe down.

Hmm, the blacksmith reference fits, but this horseshoe hangs toe-up. Also, I remember my daughter returning from horse camp with a horseshoe, and the assertion that it must be hung toe down as it held luck, and if it was upside down, the luck would run out.

After a good bit of searching, which elicited superstitions about how horseshoes over a stable door prevented witches from riding the horses furiously all night, how in Germany, finding a horseshoe is considered good luck, etc., etc., my eureka came at ‘The Lucky W’ Amulet Archive.

The use of worn-out horseshoes as magically protective amulets — especially hung above or next to doorways — originated in Europe, where one can still find them nailed onto houses, barns, and stables from Italy through Germany and up into Britain and Scandinavia. …

There is good reason to suppose that the crescent form of the horseshoe links the symbol to pagan Moon goddesses of ancient Europe such as Artemis and Diana, and that the protection invoked is that of the goddess herself, or, more particularly, of her sacred vulva. As such, the horseshoe is related to other magically protective doorway-goddesses, such as the Irish sheela-na-gig, and to lunar protectresses such as the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is often shown standing on a crescent moon and placed within a vulval mandorla or vesica pisces.

In most of Europe, the Middle-East, and Spanish-colonial Latin America protective horseshoes are placed in a downward facing or vulval position, as shown here, but in some parts of Ireland and Britain people believe that the shoes must be turned upward or “the luck will run out.” Americans of English and Irish descent prefer to display horseshoes upward; those of German, Austrian, Italian, Spanish, and Balkan descent generally hang them downward.

Hence, to the mid-nineteenth century eye, this sign on my ancestor’s shop also meant most likely a blacksmith of German descent hammered within.

Letterheads of yore

To be historically correct, the term letterhead did not appear until 1890. Before then, it was called “letter paper.” (Yes, there is actually a History of Letterhead on the web.) I went searching for information on this subject because letterheads of the 19th century can be especially eye-catching.

Some are dry, business-style designs.
Union Bank and Savings, Cleveland, Ohio
Harm & Schuster business letterhead

Others can be show-stoppers.
Harm & Schuster letterhead
Deutscher Gedenktag

(“Deutscher Gedenktag” means German Memorial Day–perhaps this elaborate letterhead has to do with an organization or event through the German Concordia Lodge of Cleveland?)

Apparently, before radio, TV and the Internet entered the scene, “letter paper” was a chief form of advertising, something businesses offered free to make themselves known. Over time, it seems to have grown into a cultural phenomenon, designers aiming to make as big an impact as TV advertisers on Superbowl Sunday.

I am particularly amazed by this one, from Bremen. Drawn before airplanes, the bird’s-eye view is striking.
mid-19th century bird's-eye view of Bremen

It’s unclear what business the letter paper is supposed to be touting, but since Bremen was then a major port of departure for German emigrants, I have a hunch it was a travel agency.

Just across the river in 1854

Recently, I saw the movie Lincoln, which shows a time near the end of the Civil War when the deep divide between the North and South is at its most painful and tragic. The movie covers the philosophical and political differences between free and slave states, spending much less time on economic considerations. When the Englishwoman Isabella Bird traveled through Cincinnati, Ohio to Covington, Kentucky in 1854, her foreigner’s account dwells more heavily on what the system of slavery was doing to the Southern economy:

Cincinnati circa 1850“Cincinnati is the outpost of manufacturing civilization … It has regular freight steamers to New Orleans, St. Louis, and other places on the Missouri and Mississippi; to Wheeling and Pittsburgh, and thence by railway to the great Atlantic cities, Philadelphia and Baltimore, while it is connected with the Canadian lakes by railway and canal to Cleveland. … vast establishments for the production of household goods arrest the attention of the visitor to the Queen City. At the [furniture] factory of Mitchell and Rammelsberg common chairs are the principal manufacture … Rocking-chairs, which are only made in perfection in the States, are fabricated here, also chests of drawers … The workmen at this factory (most of whom are native Americans and Germans, the English and Scotch being rejected on account of their intemperance) earn from 12 to 14 dollars a week. … There are vast boot and shoe factories, which would have shod our whole Crimean army in a week … The manufactories of locks and guns, tools, and carriages, with countless other appliances of civilized life, are on a similarly large scale. … Cincinnati is famous for its public libraries and reading-rooms. The Young Men’s Mercantile Library Association has a very handsome suite of rooms opened as libraries and reading-rooms, the number of books amount to 16,000, with upwards of 100 newspapers. … But after describing the beauty of her streets, her astonishing progress, and the splendour of her shops, I must not close this chapter without stating that the Queen City bears the less elegant name of Porkopolis; … Cincinnati is the city of pigs. … At a particular time of year they arrive by the thousands–brought in droves and steamers to the number of 500,000–to meet their doom. … There are huge slaughter-houses behind the town … the ‘hog crop’ is as much a subject of discussion and speculation as the cotton crop of Alabama, the hop-picking of Kent, or the harvest in England.

Kentucky, the land, by reputation, of “red horses, bowie-knives, and gouging,” is only separated from Ohio by the river Ohio; and on a day when the thermometer stood at 103 degrees in the shade I went to the town of Covington. Marked, wide, and almost inestimable, is the difference between the free state of Ohio and the slave-state of Kentucky. They have the same soil, the same climate, and precisely the same natural advantages, yet the total absence of progress, if not the appearance of retrogression and decay, the loungers in the streets, and the peculiar appearance of the slaves, afford a contrast to the bustle on the opposite side of the river, which would strike the most unobservant. I was credibly informed that property of the same real value was worth 300 dollars in Kentucky and 3000 in Ohio! Free emigrants and workmen will not settle in Kentucky, where they would be brought into contact with compulsory slave-labour; thus the development of industry is retarded, and the difference will become more apparent every year, till possibly some great changes will be forced upon the legislature.” –Isabella Bird, My First Travels in North America, pp. 94-98

Indeed. Watching Lincoln in living color, the heart-rending portrayal of how many lost their lives for freedom, I was reminded again that we become complacent about freedom at our peril.