THE GRASS ROOTS OF DEMOCRACY
By Dorothy McKee Buswell
Of the various governmental institutions under which we live, the oldest is the township. Before our German ancestors invaded England in AD 449, they lived on the Continent of Europe, in Denmark and the neighboring countries to the south. Here the families of kinsfolk built their houses close together on the banks of a river or near a spring. For defense, they would surround their houses with a crude fence or hedge, which they called a tun (toon) whence we derive the word town, and they name called tun-scipe or township was given to the village and the surrounding countryside.
The villagers of ancient townships of England held their meeting out of doors and transacted business common to all. They adopted by-laws for the government of the township. New members were admitted into the township and disputes between townsmen were settled. Minor offenses were punished and lots of land was distributed to the various families for the year's tillage.
The Pilgrim fathers brought the township form of government to America. From the New England states, where this form of government is referred to as a town, this governmental unit spread as far west as the Rocky Mountains. Today, twenty-two states have the township for of government.
In the colonial times, land was distributed according to how it was going to be sued and the motives of the land policy. New England land policy originally was formed with the intentions of creating a compact Christian commonwealth. Land was distributed in such a way to establish many small towns of church going free-holders. The towns were approximately thirty-six square miles of area, a figure that later influenced the rectangular township surveys of public lands of the west.
Town planning was based on religious, cultural, military and economic considerations. The division of land was frequently determined by lottery. Church and school lands were set aside and the village green, the meadows and the woodlots were held in common. In the division of the tillable land, it was arranged that each proprietor should get a fair share of the richest and poorest of soil, with the result that strips allotted to single families were usually scattered throughout the town.
The New England legislative bodies intended that only church members are included among the original proprietors of the town. This preserved the religious and cultural unity, which they had intended to secure by coming to America.
When the pioneer came here to settle and were not admitted into the towns, isolated frontier farms sprung up on the outskirts of a town.
At the turn of the century, Surveyor Thomas Hutchins was appointed official geographer of United States. It was he who was credited with originally setting up the plan for laying out the territory, using parallels and meridians for boundary lines. The Western Reserve was divided into township five-mile squares.
As the territory became populated it was only natural that the surveyed township should become the basic unit of local government. After a great number of changes in the boundary lines of the county and townships, twenty-one townships were located within the boundaries of Lorain County. The townships are listed below with the year each was organized, not to be confused with the data of settlement:
During the years, three townships, Black River, Avon and Ridgeville have been absorbed by the cities of Lorain, Ridgeville, Avon and Avon Lake. With the expansion of the cities, no doubt other townships will fall in the development of the county. Each township of Lorain County has it's own history to tell in the development of the county as it is today.
Today, township government is administered by three trustees and a clerk who are elected by the people to serve a term of four years. The position of Zoning Inspector, Road Supervisor, Cemetery Sexton and Fire Chief are appointed by the trustee, as well as the people who serve on the fire, police, ambulance and other departments.
In the development of Lorain County, the townships have played an important role. The township officials are neighbors of the residents, known personally by nearly everyone in the community. Although they are part-time officials, they are available, ready to talk over the smallest problem, face to face, and try to work out a solution to the problem.
The territories outside the cities and villages are dependent on township government for its local governing and this will continue as long as the township officials are alert and respond to the growing needs of the residents today and in the future.
La Grange Township is township number four, range seventeen in the Connecticut Western Reserve. The original property owners were Henry Champion and Lemuel Storrs. In 1825, Champion conveyed his portion of land to his son-in-law, Elizur Goodrich. Goodrich began exchanging the land for property in New York. Many of the early settlers of La Grange Township migrated from Jefferson County, New York, mainly in the Champion area.
Nathan Clark and his family were the first permanent settlers, arriving on November 14, 1825. Nathan, his brother-in-law, James Pelten and two other men, who cam with the party, erected a log cabin to house the family.
When the spring came in 1826, the families of Disbro, Graves, Holcomb, Merriam, Pelton, Johnson, Hastings, Rounds, Robbins, Townsend, and Rockwood arrived to settle the township. Fairchild Hubbard arrived from Brighton Township. It was a Yankee Exodus into the Western Reserve territory!
In June 1824, the township was attached to Carlisle Township for judicial and civil purposes. In April 1827, it was detached and separated and organized as La Grange Township. The township was named by Dr. Eber Ward Hubbard, who admired General Marquis La Fayette. His country estate in France was named La Grange.
During the first election, twenty-nine votes were cast. Officials elected were: Trustee- Noah Holcomb, Noah Kellogg and Fairchild Hubbard; Clerk- Eber W. Hubbard; Treasurer- James Disbrow; Overseers of the Poor- Joseph Graves and Nathan Clark; Fence Viewers- James Disbrow and Henry Townsend; Constable- Henry Hubbard; Justice of the Peace- Eber W. Hubbard.
By the end of 1826, there were sixty people living in the township. Although families were scattered throughout the township, they were neighbors ready to lend a helping hand. The helped each other clear the land, build cabins and reap the harvest. Every pioneer who entered the Western Reserve was a hero and should be remembered by all whom live here today. There was everything to overcome and very little material possessions to help them.
When the 1830 census was taken, there were forty-eight families living in the township. By 1840, the number had increased to one hundred and thirty-four families. Families from many parts of New England migrated into the township. The H.C. Hastings family came in 1830. In 1832, the families of Gott, Lincoln, Lamoure and Olmstead arrived. Phineas and Harvey Powers and William Ormsby came in 1832-1833. In 1833, the families named Johnson, Pelton, Sanders and Knowles settled here. Minor Noble, Peter Crowner and the Freeman family came in 1834.
One small group came from Weston, Vermont during 1835-1836 and settled along the east branch of the Black River on a road they named Vermont Street. There were families of Abbott Dale, Addison Foster, Benjamin Cragin and Silas Wilkens.
Several interesting events occurred in the early years. The first marriage took place on March 8, 1827, when Calvin Wilcox and Harriet Hubbard were wed. Reverend Alfred Betts traveled from Brownhelm Township, by horseback to perform the ceremony.
Other event were the births of George H., son of Joseph and Mehitable Robins on September 25, 1826; Eliza Townsend, daughter of Henry, born in November of 1826; Esther P., daughter of David Clark, daughter of Nathan and Anna was born on October 21, 1827. Twin boys were born on June 20, 1827 to Curtis and Patty Hastings. They were named Elijah Hubbard and Elizur Goodrich.
The community was saddened by the death of Roby Rockwood, wife of David on November 7, 1827. Being no preacher available, the service was performed by Deacon Joseph Robbins. Her remains were buried in a small clearing on the Robbins Farm. Years later, her remains were reinterred in Rockwood Cemetery on Diagonal Road.
Two other cemeteries are located in the township. The La Grange Cemetery located on the west edge of the village and the River Road Cemetery, which is located on Indian Hollow Road. Marshall Merriam and Jesse Morgan, two Revolutionary War Veteran are buried in the old section of River Road Cemetery. Charles Rounds, another pioneer settler and Revolutionary War Veteran is buried in the Jackson Cemetery, Pittsfield Township.
Reverend Julius Beeman came from New York in 1827. Goodrich promised his fifty acres of land if he would come and preach in the township for ten years. He fulfilled his promise and also preached in neighboring communities. The Baptist Church was organized in 1828 under his leadership. Services were held in the homes until a church was built. Later a beautiful church was built in 1896 in the Village of La Grange.
The Methodist Church was formed in 1833 and services were held in Mr. Munger's home at the Center. In 1867, the church reorganized with the Congregationalists and the present church was dedicated in 1874.
The Seven-Day Adventists organized in 1885 were strong in the community. They had a church and school in the village. Later they built a stone church on Forest Street. Other churches were organized but slowly disbanded. Today, several denominations have organized, built churches and are thriving.
The first log schoolhouses were erected in 1828. One was located in the east section of the township and the other in the western part. They were twelve feet square with a log burning stove. The floors were of split logs and the only door was hung with leather hinges. They were used for religious services and other meetings. Several buildings were remodeled for a school. In 1869, the Union School was built. By 1874, there were eleven schools in the township. Slowly each one was closed and by 1915, the last one closed its doors and the students attended school in the village. Today the schools are in the Keystone School District.
The first doctor to live in the township was Eber W. Hubbard, who came with the group in 1826. Other early doctors were Dr. Spencer, Julius Beeman, Jonathon Gibbs, George Underhill, James R. Pelton and E.D. Merriam. The township claims many citizens who were prominent in their professions. There were too many to list.
Many enterprises flourished during the early years. Saw and gristmills were built along the Black River. Four cheese factories and a cheese box factory were in operation.
The most unusual business was established by Phineas Powers. He had visions of great wealth as he cleared the land and planted 20,000 mulberry bushes, built a silk house and purchased silk worms from Ashland. All went well the first year, but the silk worms died and the business folded. Noah Holcomb also tried to establish a silk industry, but he had the same troubles as Phineas Powers.
The railroad came through La Grange Township in 1850. The Cleveland- Columbus- Cincinnati- Railroad was built diagonally across the township. Three depots were built in the Center. Two burned down and the third was torn down when the trains no longer made a stop. A double track was laid down in 1905 and farm produce and passengers were taken to Cleveland daily. Calvin Wilcox, Hubbard Wilcox and John Holcomb worked many years as operators. Today, the trains are making a comeback. The tracks are being upgraded and more trains are enroute.
Roads within the township were scarce and the ones that existed were mere tracks. Daniel M. Adams was an enterprising man, a promoter and stockholder in the Lorain Plank Road Company. Through his efforts, a plank road, seven and one-half miles long were built from La Grange to Elyria. A tollgate was located near Parsons Road. The toll was twenty-five cents. Later, the plank road was extended into Penfield Township. Roads improved throughout the township around 1906, when stone from the sandstone quarry was hauled by farmers an their teams of horses. In this manner, the farmers could pay for their part of the road improvements. Today, the township road department, Lorain County, maintains the roads and Ohio State crews.
In the northwest corner of the township, a small community called Nickle Plant sprang up overnight in the mid-1870s. The section of Diagonal-Nickle Plate Road from State Route 301 to Parsons Road and the same area of Whitehead Road made up the community. Among the early settlers we find the names of Sanders, Busby, Richmond, Buswell, Billings, Gott, Butler, Rockwood, Round and Kelner.
The great industry that transformed this settlement came when the Kelners, in laying the foundation for a barn, discovered sandstone laying close to the surface. Frank sold his holding to the Atlantic Company. James Nichols, Superintendent of the company named the community Nickle Plate. Ten quarry houses and boarding houses were available to the workers and their families.
The quarry became famous for its Blue Rock sandstone and the grindstones, which were shipped to all parts of the world. The stone was also used for building foundations and sidewalks in La Grange Village.
In 1884, the Toledo-Norwalk-Cleveland Railroad built a spur to the quarry from Oberlin. Stone, supplies and mail traveled the rails to Nickle Plate. A two-story building contained a store, telegraph office and post office.
Sam Pryce came with his family in 1886 and was employed as a telegraph operator. Jack Clif was manager of the quarry. Henry Abbey was the quarry blacksmith. In 1899, Nickel Plate had a famous baseball team, complete with uniform and managers.
Due to the increase in the population, two school districts were combined. A two-room brick school was built in 1898 and was used until 1915, when the last of the "on-room school houses" was closed. This was a challenging school for a teacher. Immigrant families would arrive during the summer and children in their teen were placed in the first grade because they could not speak English. They advanced rapidly once they mastered the English language.
The company store was a fascinating place to browse, with a wide selection of necessities of life. If an item were not available, the storekeeper would order it. The post office was located in a corner, with the rows of numbered boxes. In the evening, the store was a gathering place for the men, to pick up the mail and visit with fellow workers.
It was a sad say when the quarry workers began to sell less stone and decided to suspend operations. Workers left to find work on the nearby farms and in Elyria. The company store had an auction sale. The empty company houses were removed to other locations. The schoolhouse became a private residence.
As the population increased in the township, houses and business establishments were built at the center of the township. Hotels, hardware and general stores, blacksmith shops, drug store and harness shop served the people of the township.
La Grange Village was incorporated and held its first election on April 5, 1875. One hundred and three voters elected the following officials: Mayor- Judson E. Willard; Clerk, D.D. Gott; Treasurer- D.L. Gott; Marshall- P. Holcomb.Councilmen were: A. Ryan, G.H. Robbins, O. Dale, D. Holcomb, W. Hopkins and E.L. Gott.
During the early years, a variety of businesses flourished. Aside from the stores and hotels, a carriage shop made wagons and buggies for prospective customers. A shoe repair shop, millinery shops, a band and a meat market served the public. The Belle Vernon Company built a creamery, where milk from nearby farms was brought for processing. A fire in 1897 destroyed the buildings in the southwest section of the square. The area was rebuilt in a short time.
Today, a tavern in the northeast section of the square is the only original building left. The building was built by Dr. George Snyder as a drug store and a family residence. Fires and demolition have destroyed the other buildings.
The first post office in the township was located in the home of Calvin Wilcox, who was the first postmaster. Later, his son, George held the position. During the years, the post office has located in eight different locations on the square. On July 20, 1893, the United States Post office Department changed the spelling of La Grange to LaGrange for no apparent reason. In 1941, the Postmistress, Mrs. Alice Wyllner was notified. Long-time residents still spell La Grange the original way.
The Peoples Bank was founded by Justus M. Starr in 1898. At this time, the dairy business was flourishing and groups of railroad workers were housed here in work camps. Along with other businesses, payday meant the cashing of checks at the bank. After the bank holiday, the bank owner chose not to reopen. For several years, La Grange did not have a bank. Later a branch in the Grafton Saving Bank was opened.
In 1894, La Grange was proud of its Cornet Band, consisting of ten young men, under the leadership of Chester Crow. Members of the band were: Frank Roberts, Leon and Roy Merriam, Lewis Buswell, Bill Gott, Frank Wolcott, Ed Hubbard, Earl Underhill, Frank and Will Knowles. The bank traveled to Canton to pay tribute to William McKinley when he was a presidential candidate. The band provided music and parades, Memorial Day services and band concerts. At one time, Mary Snyder was leader of this group of musicians.
At the Novmeber elections in 1901, the citizens of the township and village voted to purchase a veteran's monument in memory of the soldiers who fought in the Civil War. It was placed at the hub of the township, in a circular park in the middle of the Village Square. On Memorial Day 1903, a special dedication was held, as the residents came to view the monument. For a short while, the soldier atop the monument faced to north, toward Elyria, the county seat. Several people noted "a good soldier never tuned his back on his enemy" and the soldier was changed to face the south.
Prior to the 1900s, fires were fought by the bucket brigade, and every available person helped. That changed when the La Grange Engine and Hose Companies were formed. A hand pump was purchased and was manned by volunteer firemen. As the population in the township grew, so did the fire department. Modern equipment was purchased and today along with a rescue unit, the public is served. A new fire station has been built and the rescue unit is housed in the town hall.
On Labor Day 1950, the residents celebrated the 125th anniversary of the first permanent settler in the township and the 75th year of incorporation for the village. Grace Goulder, columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer visited La Grange to gather information for her article featuring the celebration. She summed her thoughts of La Grange in one sentence:
"Odd to think of the soldier man presiding over a little village in Ohio, named for a French general's country place."
This article tells of the highlights in the history of the township. No mention has been made of the many citizens who served thoughtout the years as township officials, volunteer firemen, workers and members and various township committees. We could not have grown into the prosperous community we are today without their unselfish support.
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