by Ken Lahmers
During a couple of road trips to Northwest Ohio and a couple of excursions on Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway’s main line, I had passed through Norwalk.
But in my nearly 60 years, I hadn’t taken time to check out the Huron County seat of 17,000 people — that is until one Saturday in mid-September.
Norwalk is the center of Ohio’s Firelands region, the western end of the Connecticut Western Reserve. The Firelands is comprised primarily of Huron and Erie counties.
How the Firelands got its name is an interesting story. It started with the burning of Norwalk, Conn., by the British Tories under Gov. Tryon in mid-1779.
As compensation for the $116,238 in losses caused by the burning, the U.S. government gave an area in the Western Reserve of Ohio to the “fire sufferers.”
In 1806, 13 men arrived to make the first survey of the Firelands region.
Called the “sufferers’ land,” the Firelands consisted of 500,000 acres south of Lake Erie, and many families traveled there from 1806 to 1810.
In 1815, Platt Benedict of Danbury, Conn., purchased some 1,300 acres where Norwalk, Ohio, is now located and he built a house there in July 1817.
By 1819 the town had grown to 109 residents. Benedict, who became the first mayor, died in 1866 at age 91, and he is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
Called the Maple City, most people don’t realize that Norwalk was the birthplace of Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown and Ban Johnson, founder and first president of Major League Baseball’s American League.
THE FIRELANDS MUSEUM
The Firelands Historical Society in Norwalk considers itself to be the second oldest operating historical society in the state. It was founded in 1857 and began collecting artifacts.
Many founders of the society were pioneers who had retired from active work, and the society continued to grow and gather stories and curiosities.
In 1899, the Dr. Kett-redge house on the site of the present Norwalk Public Library was purchased to house the museum.
With monetary help from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, the library building opened in 1905 with the historical museum on the ground floor. The historical society celebrated its golden anniversary there in 1907.
By 1953 the museum had grown crowded and a new location was pursued. The Preston-Wickham mansion on West Main Street was to be torn down for a new commercial building, and the society rallied to buy it and move the oldest part behind the library.
Samuel Preston built the house in 1834. He was the founder of the Huron Reflector newspaper, which was published in the house for several years.
The house was thoroughly renovated and opened to the public as the headquarters and museum in May 1957, the society’s centennial.
A half-block down Case Avenue from the main museum, the society bought and opened a building in 1988 which now houses more exhibits, a research center and meeting room.
The museum houses some really neat stuff.
Included are some organs and pianos made by the A.B. Case Co., a Norwalk firm which operated from 1876 to 1930. One of the specimens is a beautiful two-manual pipe organ.
Another treasure is a collection of about 440 antique pistols and rifles, one of the largest I’ve ever seen. Many of them were donated by George Titus.
A unique item is an 1842 wooden double base viol made in Springfield, Mass. by the J.B. Allen Co. It’s one of the biggest base viols I’ve ever seen. There’s also a sewing machine made in Norwalk in 1869.
Other items include a carved wood and painted plaster Indian which stood in front of a Norwalk store, a collection of Indian arrowheads, china and pottery, wooden furnishings, dolls and related items and a Civil War drum.
In the research building is a splendid colorful mural of a farm scene painted in 2004 by artist Joe Mak.
Also there’s a late 1800s Fisher carriage. The Fisher family began making carriages in Norwalk. In 1908, two of the seven brothers founded the Fisher Body Co. in Detroit. The firm went on to become a division of General Motors.
The research building also contains info about Norwalk Truck Lines and W.L. Mead Trucking, two longtime large trucking companies in Norwalk.
Norwalk Truck Lines was considered the largest independent trucking firm in the world. It operated from 1923 until it was acquired by Yellow Freight in 1970. Yellow now goes by YRC Freight after a merger with Roadway.
Because of the two big trucking firms, the Norwalk High School athletic teams have been named the Truckers since 1948.
There are a ton of other neat items to check out.
NORTH COAST INLAND TRAIL
The Firelands Rails to Trails Inc. is working to complete a trail across northern Huron County, which will be part of North Coast Inland Trail.
Currently, several miles have been completed between the west side of Norwalk and Bellevue.
The line originally was built by the Toledo, Norwalk and Cleveland Railroad in 1851. It later was acquired by the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern and then the New York Central System.
It was abandoned in 1976 by the Penn Central.
I wanted to see a stone arch built in 1871 to carry the line over the Huron River, so I walked about 3/4-mile down the trail from a small parking lot off Northwest Avenue.
The stone arch was easily photographed from a parallel bridge carrying the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway over the river.
The railroad shops and yard in Norwalk employed 700 men in 1879, but were moved to Cleveland about 1900. There is still a sign along the trail which proclaims “NYCRR Yard Limit, Norwalk, Ohio.”
W & LE built its line through Norwalk in 1880, with a branch north to Huron. The Sandusky, Norwalk & Milan Electric Railway came in 1893 and the last car ran in 1938.
MORE NORWALK INFO
The city was observing its Autumn Leaves Festival on the day I was there, and the historic downtown was blocked off to vehicles.
A section of West Main Street was declared an historic district in 1974. There are several dozen homes dating to the 1800s there, the oldest being 1829.
That oldest house was built as a trading post with Indians, and was occupied by Gibbs family members for more than 100 years.
Another was built as a girls school called the Greek Temple, but has been a home since 1858.
The Huron Country Courthouse was built in 1882 and remodeled in 1913, when a clock tower was added and the bell was cast by the McShane Bell Foundry of Baltimore.
One of Norwalk’s longest continuously operating businesses downtown is Berry’s Restaurant, where I enjoyed tasty baked Swiss steak for lunch.
It’s been operated by the Berry family since 1944, and occupies the lower level of a building once called the St. Charles Hotel. There are three inside sections and a patio.
The St. Charles Hotel was built in 1867. In 1902, a confectioners shop occupied a part of the downstairs. The original tin ceiling can be seen in the middle of the three rooms.
Photographs showing oldtime Norwalk scenes are on the walls. The bar area is called the Dinky, named after a town streetcar from the early 1900s.
Stained glass windows in the eatery originally were created for the Gardiner Music Hall on East Main Street when built in 1887.
Perhaps the city’s oldest business is Bennett Electric, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010.
Among some of the biggest employers in Norwalk are Berry’s Plastics (which has a plant in Streetsboro), EPIC Technologies, Janesville Acoustics and New Horizons Baking Co.
A famous entertainment venue east of town is Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park, a drag racing facility opened in 1962 as Norwalk Dragway and later renamed Norwalk Raceway Park.
The facility has a 26,000-seat grandstand setting on 204 acres, and it serves as the International Hot Rod Association headquarters.
Walt Disney’s mother, Flora Call, was born in nearby Greenfield Township in 1868. She gave birth to Walt in 1901.
Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189