A couple of summers ago, I drove out to Lorain County for a one-day whirlwind tour of some historic sites in Oberlin, Amherst, Vermilion and Lorain.

But there were some places I wasn't able to visit for as long as I've had liked -- especially Oberlin and its famous college -- so in July I returned to explore further during a drizzling rain.

The city boasts about 8,200 residents. The college, founded in 1833 and now situated on 440 acres, is noted for having been the first American institution of higher learning to regularly admit women and black students. Its Conservatory of Music is the nation's oldest in continuous operation.

The college and town were founded by Presbyterian ministers John Jay Shipherd and Philo P. Stewart, and were named after Jean-Frédéric Oberlin, an Alsatian minister whom the pair admired.

Founded in 1865, the Conservatory of Music is the only major music school in the country linked with a pre-eminent liberal arts college. It boasts many firsts, including America's first full-time chair in music history and appreciation (1892) and the nation's first four-year college degree program in music education (1921).

It introduced the Suzuki method of string pedagogy to the United States (1958), it pioneered a program in electronic music (1969), the Otto B. Schoepfle Vocal Arts Laboratory was the first of its kind to be incorporated into a program of vocal instruction in the U.S. (1989) and the world's first LEED gold certified building for the study of jazz music came about in 2010.

Among the oldest buildings on campus are Peters and Talcott halls and Baldwin Cottage (1887), Severance Chemical Laboratory and Warner Gymnasium (1900), Carnegie Library and Finney Chapel (1908), Rice Memorial Hall (1910) and Wilder Hall (1911).

OBERLIN HERITAGE CENTER

The Village Improvement Society was formed in 1903 to improve the community, and in 1964 merged with the Oberlin Historical Society to create the Oberlin Heritage Center. It acquired various buildings and artifacts.

The center offers tours of three properties -- Little Red Schoolhouse (1836), Monroe house (1866) and Jewett house (1884). I enjoyed an entertaining 1 1/4-hour visit to all three to admire the furnishings and hear tales about the community an abolitionism movement, in which Oberlin played a big part.

The schoolhouse is the town's oldest building. In defiance of Ohio's "black laws," it was interracial from its inception. It's been restored as a pioneer-era one-room school, with wooden benches rather than desks, McGuffey Readers, slates and even a dunce cap.

The Italianate-stytle Monroe house originally was the home of Civil War General Giles W. Shurtleff, the leader of the first African-American regiment from Ohio to serve in the Civil War. The house later was owned by Mr. and Mrs. James Monroe.

James was an abolitionist, advocate of voting rights for African Americans, friend of Frederick Douglass, taught at Oberlin College, served as the U.S. Consul to Brazil, and was a five-term U.S. congressman. His wife was the daughter of Charles Finney, an early "fire and brimstone" preacher after which Finney Chapel was named.

The Jewett house was the home of Oberlin College chemistry professor Frank Fanning Jewett and his wife. The Jewetts and subsequent owners -- the Hubbards -- rented rooms to male college students who slept in the attic and studied on the second floor.

The fully intact house and its simple wood frame barn are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On display inside is an exhibit called "Aluminum: The Oberlin Connection" that includes a recreation of Charles Martin Hall's 1886 woodshed experiment. Hall was the founder of the firm that became known as Alcoa.

Both houses are furnished with spectacular 1800s-early 1900s items. The Jewett house has a beautiful stained glass window on one side.

The center offers a number of history walks, including "Scholars and Settlers," "Freedom's Friends: Underground Railroad and Abolitionists," "Soldiers and Civilians," "Radicals and Reformers" (a tour of Westwood Cemetery), "I Spy Oberlin: History and Architecture Scavenger Hunt" and the downtown historic district.

TWO UNIQUE HISTORIC SITES

I stopped by two unusual 19th century structures -- the old water tower built in 1893 and the gasholder building built in 1889 -- both located to the south of downtown.

The 40-foot tall stone water tower was part of Oberlin's waterworks created between 1886 and 1893. A standpipe for water storage once topped the tower, which is made of quarried sandstone. The tool marks from quarrying are still visible.

A round stone reservoir is situated nearby, which bears the construction date of 1912. In 1903, a water softening plant was added to the municipal water system, the first in the U.S. An old red brick building also stands on the site.

The gasholder building was erected by Albert H. Johnson, president of the Oberlin Gas Lighting Co., to store coal gas that was manufactured in a now gone adjacent facility. It is a round brick building with a conical roof originally made of slate, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

It was used for lighting when Oberlin became the first town in the area to have gas-lit streets, and later used to fuel cook stoves. The firm provided coal gas for heating until 1908, when natural gas became available, and since then the building has had various uses -- mostly storage.

The Clark Brothers Construction Co. owned the building from the 1960s to 2007, when it was donated to the city. In the last couple of years, a federal grant and local match totaling about $1.1 million were used to restore the building, with the intent of it eventually housing the Oberlin Underground Railroad Center.

MORE INTERESTING SITES

Early college buildings stood on the 13-acre Tappan Square on the west side of Route 58, the main north/south route through town. As per instructions in prominent citizen C.M. Hall's will, all buildings there were razed by 1927. A bandstand in the northeast quadrant was built in 1987.

A round monument stands on the southeast corner of the square, marking the spot where an historic elm tree once stood. The Oberlin Inn, built in 1955, is across Route 58, near where Oberlin's first settler built his log cabin more than 100 years before.

On the west side of the square is the Memorial Arch, erected in 1903 by the American Board of Foreign Missions to commemorate Oberlin missionaries and their children killed in the Boxer Rebellion in China. It's on the National Register of Historic Places.

South of the arch on Professor Street near Talcott Hall is a unique sculpture of railroad tracks sticking out of the ground, which identifies Oberlin as a major stop on the Underground Railroad. An Oberlin graduate constructed it in 1977 as part of an art class project.

South of Tappan Square along West College Street, I enjoyed a peanut butter crunch ice cream cone from Gibson's Candy, Ice Cream and Bakery, which has been in business in Oberlin for more than 100 years.

Beside the Oberlin Inn is the Coeducational Centennial Memorial Gateway, erected in 1937 to recognize that Oberlin College was the first college to grant undergraduate degrees to women (in 1841). North of it is the Allen Memorial Art Museum built in 1917, considered one of the finest college art museums in the U.S.

South of the Oberlin Inn is the Apollo Theater, built from 1903-13, which showed the town's first talking movie on May 11, 1928, and still shows movies.

Westwood Cemetery was dedicated on July 16, 1864 and contains about 9,200 burials. The peaceful and picturesque memorial park, where many famous local residents are buried, is a haven for walkers, joggers and bicyclists.

A monument in Martin Luther King Jr. Park honors 20 Oberlin men who were arrested in 1858 for their role in the Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue. The event was reported nationwide, prompting historian Nat Brandt to label Oberlin as "the town that started the Civil War."

A monument memorializing Oberlin soldiers who died in the Spanish and American civil wars, both World Wars, Korean War and Vietnam Conflict stands in Wright Park.

Another famous structure of interest to visitors is the Weltzheimer-Johnson house, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1950. It features Usonian principles -- low-cost simple homes for moderate income families, with informal multi-purpose space and oriented to take advantage of the sun through generous windows.

Near the North Coast Inland Trail, which follows the former Toledo, Norwalk and Cleveland Railroad line south of the campus, is Oberlin's board and batten depot, which accommodated passengers from 1866 to 1949. It houses a Headstart program now.

Union School in the downtown area is a three-story Victorian Gothic building erected in 1874. It served as the town's public school building until 1923, then was known as Westervelt Hall when used by the college until 1961.

It was saved from demolition and renovated in the 1980s, and now houses the New Union Center for the Arts. Its original steeple-like bell tower was reconstructed in 1997, and the bell now rings daily at noon and 6 p.m.

It is impossible to mention all of the historic homes and buildings in Oberlin. Some of the oldest and most iconic are: First Church (1842), Burrell-King house (1852), Hall house (boyhood home of C.M.-1853), Langston house (1856), Monroe-Bosworth house (1857), Christ Church (1859), Thompson house (1874), Edward Johnson house (1876), Goodrich Block (1882), Johnson house (1885) and Carpenter Block (1886).

Email: klahmers@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189