Elizabeth Strahan and Aurora's 'Birth of a City'
Founded in 1799, the settlement of Aurora had grown and prospered by 1807, making it necessary to form a village government. Samuel Forward, Phineas Perkins and Ebenezer Sheldon were elected the first trustees of the village. In 1928 the central portion of Aurora was incorporated into what officially became known as Aurora Village. Lee Gould was elected the Village’s first mayor. Lacking a town center, the Village had two primary areas of activity. Located along Garfield Road (Route 82) was “Aurora Station.” It was the village’s main area of commercial activity. “Main Street” (Routes 306 and 43) where the Village Hall, the Federated Church and Aurora Centralized School House formed the cultural center of the Village. Surrounding the Village was the political division of Aurora Township which included the community of Geauga Lake. The Township had its own elected trustees under the jurisdiction of the Portage County commissioners.
The situation of having two political division within the 5-square-mile area of Aurora presented problems with providing services to the entire community. Issues of police and fire protection along with water and sewer, recreation, and taxation all presented the need for cooperation between the Village and the Township. Reaching a population of nearly 5000 voters, concerned citizens and government officials saw the necessity to resolve the issues.
In the spring of 1966 the Aurora Village Council established a committee to investigate the advantages and disadvantages to seeking “city status.” The committee determined that “cityhood” would provide the Aurora with local authority eliminating control by the Portage County Commissioners. The Aurora Board of Education supported the idea since it would put control of the schools under local jurisdiction without have to depend upon the County Board of Education for services. Cityhood would also have Aurora’s tax monies staying in Aurora.
By 1971, the population had grown to include 6,549 registered voters qualifying it to be designated a city by the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office. Application was made to Ohio’s Secretary of State’s Office, which granted Aurora the status of “City.” Mayor George B. Hettinger declared March 20, 1971 as “Birth of a City” day.
One of the driving forces behind cityhood was Geauga Lake resident Elizabeth Strahan. Long before Councilman Jim Vaca became a representative for Geauga Lake on City Council, Liz was the major advocate for the community. Strahan first ran for a position on the Village Council in 1959 but was defeated. In 1961 she won a seat on council representing Geauga Lake until 1971. While on council she was chairperson of the Utilities Committee where she was instrumental in securing a federal grant that brought sewer and water to the area. Her relentless persistence also brought streetlights and other services that she felt had been long neglected by Portage County officials as long as Geauga Lake remained under the political status as a township. She believed that only by becoming part of the Village and then reaching city status would the community have the local control and funds needed to resolve the areas issues. She felt that the endless trips to Ravenna to “bend the ears of government leaders” presented obstacles to getting things done since the Township Trustees had to seek approval from the County Commissioners.
Like many lifelong citizens of Aurora she struggled with the changes that the community was experiencing in the 1960s and 70s. However, she realized change was inevitable. After her tenure on council she kept up with city issues but refrained from openly commenting. In a 1991 interview in the Gateway Press, Strahan expressed her thoughts on the complaints about the expansion of the Aurora Farms. She stated that the “people who live behind Aurora Farms should have looked over their back fences before they bought. Do they want to go back to the pigs, the horses, the cows? Things change. They complain about dust and noise, they should have seen the Farms years ago. I don’t like the traffic any more than they do, but this is the price we pay for progress. If we want amenities like nice local shopping, and the Farms is a fine facility, we can’t expect other people to keep away from it. It’s not a private club.”
Liz Strahan was born on June 1, 1912, and moved with her family to Aurora as a young girl from Garfield Heights. Her uncle had purchased property in Geauga Lake following World War II, building a house where the family would spend weekends and summers. Her father would commute to Garfield Heights where he owned a barber shop. Liz said that as a young girl she did not go to her father’s shop very much, since it was “not a place for young ladies to frequent.” When Strahan’s moved to Aurora there were only 12 families that had permanent residences in Geauga Lake. It wasn’t until after World War II in the 1940s that the community began to see an increase in year-round residents. She reminisced about reading books in a hammock in her back yard, and playing tennis down by the lake. She recalled that with the Grantwood Race Track nearby many of the cottages were rented out by the owners, jockeys and others that brought into the community a “different culture.”
Liz was not only involved in actively seeking to improve the community as a member of City Council, but was also equally involved in its religious and social life. She was instrumental in establishing one of Aurora’s first food pantries and used clothing store known as the Fish Store at the intersection of Routes 43 and 82 in a former Mobil gas station where Walgreens is located. Liz was also actively involved in the Red Cross for 49 years and at one time served as the Portage County Red Cross secretary.
Throughout her entire 100 year life she was guided by her devout Christian beliefs. As a young girl she was a member of the Trinity Baptist Church in Garfield Heights where she attended even after moving to Aurora. During World War II gas rationing made it difficult to make the Sunday drive so she started attending church services in Aurora. Rev. John Hutcherson from the Federated Church in Aurora (The Church in Aurora) held Sunday services in Geauga Lake at the G.L.I.A. community center while also holding services at the church earlier in day at the Federated Church. It was during that time that Liz developed a strong relationship with Reverend Hutcherson as a result of his helping through a serious health scare during the difficult birth of her sixth child. Strahan’s family were among the founders of the Geauga Lake Community Church in 1942 where Reverend Hutcherson volunteered as minister for the church’s first nine years in addition to his service at the Federated Church.
Liz Strahan was also was key in providing a voice for the Geauga Lake area that soon reached out to the entire community of Aurora. For 26 years she was editor of the Listening Post which she started after World War II as a newsletter that went out to young men in the service “so the boys…would have some communication from back home.” It soon became a regular newspaper printed on mimeograph machines and had a circulation of more than 1200. Covering the schools, churches, clubs, sports, police and fire reports, editorials with hand drawn advertisements the primary purpose of the paper was “to promote the spirit of friendliness and cooperation among the people of our community.”
In an interview at the age 90 she was asked “what was one lesson that she learned that shaped her beliefs about life?" She told the story about when her father made her look in a mirror and tell him what she saw. After gazing into the mirror she replied a “skinny barber’s kid.” Her father replied, “No, look into the eyes! You must have respect for yourself, Elizabeth. If you have a good feeling for yourself, then you can demand respect from anybody else.”
Reflecting back on when she was honored as Grand Marshall of Aurora’s July 4th parade, named Citizen of the Year (1979) and had a park named after her (Liz Strahan Playground) Liz said, “I did something that evidently the City of Aurora gave me a pewter plate. It’s up here (on a shelf). I don’t even look at it…I don’t know what I did that was so important….”
Liz Strahan died on July 6, 2012 at the age of 100 and is buried in the Aurora Cemetery next to her husband John whom she had met when he was a young man from Bedford working in the concession stands at Geauga Lake during the summer. Married for 65 years they had 6 children, 19 grandchildren and 36 great grandchildren.
Like the early pioneers of Aurora, Liz Strahan was a powerful and moving force in the development of Aurora at a time in history when women were emerging to take roles in society which had been long dominated by men. It is only fitting that the young people in the Geauga Lake area have a playground where Liz’s memory of a life of service to Aurora remains alive.
Printed with the permission of the Aurora Historical Society which retains rights to all content and photos.