March 2007 Issue
A Sense of Place
Celebrating its bicentennial this year, Northfield, an "ordinary" hometown, proves to have a remarkable heritage.
Funny how much of life's richness washes right up to and over our feet without our even noticing it.
A half century ago, I grew up in the southwest corner of Sagamore Hills without the slightest suspicion that there was anything extraordinary about the ground I walked every day. Our living area seemed simply another chunk of real estate in the splash of housing developments and drug stores being endlessly replicated in the Cleveland-Akron sprawl. I assumed such ordinariness existed everywhere in Ohio, a state mired in the "middles": a middle state filled with middle-class people who had middle-of-the-road habits so mundane that commercial pollsters regularly came here to test the market for their products. My assumption was that anything really important must have happened elsewhere.
I would be well into my 40s and out of northeastern Ohio before realizing, with a shock, that the ordinary land of my youth was anything but. Suddenly I was confronted with the facts that my little piece of "ordinary" homeland:
- constituted, for a time, part of the western boundary of the United States;
- included an Indian trail that felt the feet of some of the continent's greatest military minds, who wore names such as Pontiac and Tecumseh;
- was considered one of the four best townships among the scores created in the nation's most bizarre real estate transaction;
- saw some of the first construction on the Ohio & Erie Canal, an artery that would play a major role in creating the giants of Cleveland and Akron, and connect New Orleans with New York;
- served as headquarters or hideaways for some of the nation's most unusual and remarkable religious groups, such as the Mormons and Shakers;
- hosted the bustling community of Brandywine that, as late as 1816, was considered an equal urban rival to Cleveland.
Four of these facts are rooted in my home township of Northfield. Maybe this is why we need to keep on celebrating birthdays. They are reminders of who we are, where we came from, and why we do things the way we do.
Old Northfield Township turns 200 years old this calendar year, as European Americans reckon such things. The two centuries have seen the township divide into four separate but cooperating governmental identities (Northfield Village, Northfield Center, Macedonia and Sagamore Hills), but the bicentennial will, I hope, reawaken the sense of historical oneness among residents in the community.
I remember Northfield's sesquicentennial 50 years ago, with its beard-growing contests, parades of costumed pioneers and Indians, and a community chorus that I was invited to join as a third-grader. There were games, movies and raffles in the high school gym and, I am sure, no shortage of speeches. Fifty years later, the bicentennial planners are making different plans for a vastly different Northfield. But the sense that people must somehow rejuvenate their connection with the past is the same. It is more than a game of quaint memories. We are part of a living chain.
There is a "center" to Northfield, but it has always lacked the sense of centricity of those well-ordered New England towns that served as a model for the pioneers from Connecticut who settled the area. You get the impression that the town was built from the outside-in, with healthy and contented pockets of commerce and activity only occasionally thinking to toss a road in the direction of the town center.
The settlement of Ohio's 12 northeastern counties is an extraordinary tale. Instead of grouping themselves along rivers, which the Indians had sense enough to do, the first white settlers simply hacked their way into the middle of the distant forests where they plopped down in isolated single-family units, hundreds of miles from home in Connecticut, and sometimes a dozen miles from the nearest white-faced resident.
Western Reserve historian Harlan Hatcher says that David Hudson despaired for the health and safety of his family during his brooding last night back east before setting out for the new land. The founder of Hudson, Northfield's southeastern neighbor, had been stunned by the actual danger and hardship represented in those cozy-looking little blocks drawn in the comfort of a Connecticut land office. William Henry Perrin's 1881 History of Summit County notes that Isaac Bacon experienced some of the same despair in becoming Northfield's first permanent, white resident in 1807. Bacon chose his spot as best he could, settling in near a lake (Willow) and the Mahoning Indian Trail along what would become Valley View Road. Still, he almost went beyond the capacity of his own hand. With no help available, Bacon was faced with the problem of how to hoist into place the logs of the crude cabin he desired to build. Eventually, he had to engineer a system of skid ramps and ox power to complete the task. His wife was later to complain that for six months the only white woman's face she saw was the one returning her glance into a pool of water.
The economic and social isolation suffered by our pioneers was the product of the preposterous land claims of some of the original colonies. The king's early proprietors had a pretty good idea of their north-south boundaries, stacked up as they were along the Eastern Seaboard, and the Atlantic gave them a mutually agreeable understanding of east. West was another matter. No one was sure how far the land extended in that direction. To be on the safe side, the founding colonists got into the habit of claiming everything westward to the great south sea - whatever and wherever that might be.
Reasonable people soon saw that the only reasonable solution for the conflicting land claims was for the colonies to give up all their western claims to the new national government. But Connecticut was not being reasonable, instead pushing for and winning a compromise concession of land in the Ohio country. The result was that more than three million acres immediately west of the Pennsylvania border became the land speculators' finest dream - and the settlers' worst nightmare.
The Western Reserve's pioneers found ways to cope with the nightmare. Before the Ohio-Erie Canal came along in 1827, the area might have been better named The Whiskey Reserve. In the cash-starved frontier townships the home brew was often the next best thing to gold. Early historians tell us that the distillery at Brandywine could churn out 30 to 40 gallons a day for everyone from tough canalers to equally tough ministers
At the time, Bacon was probably little comforted in knowing that Northfield Township had been formally assessed as one of the four best plots (the others were Bedford, Warrensville and Perry) among the better part of 200 townships in the Reserve. The Wisconsin Glacier had been kind in its watery retreat 10,000 years ago, bequeathing to Northfield some of the finest agricultural soil anywhere, and the Cuyahoga River - much larger in those days - offered a lifeline to the Great Lakes and, later, the world.
"Well, so what?" asks our "now"-obsessed cultural voice. "Those are quaint little stories-amusing enough for, say, a bicentennial celebration - but of what use is that kind of information today? If we weren't living here we'd be living in some other â€˜Northfield' out there."
That voice is badly and sadly mistaken. There is only one Northfield for the same reason that there is only one Hudson, or Cleveland for that matter. Place is a one-time thing in life, and the living organs of each place include its storied past as well as its working present and its hoped-for future. You may have lived in the same place all of your life, or in dozens of different places, but different they will always be. And the ways we shop, the careers we build, the educations we get, the friends and enemies we make, the families we raise - even the faiths we practice - are brushed with the colors of the places we have lived.
For this son of old Northfield, no matter how far he roams, those colors will always include the light muddy-brown of the Cuyahoga River, the verdant forest greens of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and a rich kaleidoscope of historical hues that contribute so much to the finished portrait.
Jeffrey J. Knowles, who lives in Columbus, is the author of two books, What of the Night? (Herald Press, 1992) and Integrity with Two Eyes (University Press, 1999), and several articles.