August 2006 Issue
Living with History
Letter from Springboro
Some folks in nearby Dayton call it "Sprawlboro."
People who live here call it a key link in the Underground Railroad, and a good place to live that has kept a fascinating history alive well into the modern day.
To tell the truth, both sides are right.
Even if you live here, it's easy to see why Springboro is cursed with a reputation for out-of-control suburban sprawl. As you drive in from Interstate 75 along St. Rte. 73, one of the two main routes that crisscross it, Springboro seems to be spreading like a weed patch, its dandelion heads sprouting in the form of fast-food signs and neon-lit shopping-center strips. Homes spring up quickly here, and plenty of neighborhoods are so new the saplings in the freshly sodded yards look a bit naked and embarrassed.
Not very far away, however, is a quaint and pretty town center that quickly takes a visitor back to the 19th century. South Main Street is lined with brick homes, offices and commercial buildings bearing oval-shaped signs marking their years of origin: 1836, 1832, 1867 on this one, 1843 and 1831 over there. An old pioneer cemetery is quiet and shady, bearing the stones of city founders and the bones of famous settlers.
But old and new collide nearly everywhere in town. Just a few miles away, the curiously named Pioneer Boulevard is lined by new apartments, a Kmart, a Skyline Chili and a Shell station. Growth in Springboro is happening so fast that Route 73 will nearly double from five lanes to nine in just a few years, as the state makes plans as well to widen I-75 where it passes by the city.
"The traffic here has just quadrupled in the last few years," says Sterling Gardner, who's lived here since the early 1990s. "It's incredible to see so much of it, out into the township where the acreage has been all gobbled up - it's put stress on the schools, stress on the elderly who don't have the money to pay for it all. My taxes have nearly doubled since 1993."
And yet Gardner, 55, is also quick to tell you that he still likes Springboro quite a lot - crazy growth and all. "It's been an adjustment," he says of all the changes, "but this is the longest I've ever lived someplace." And he doesn't plan on moving.
His attitude is common to others in Springboro, a place where residents like to point out, correctly, that if their town were a bad place to live, so many people wouldn't be moving here.
And moving here, they are. The south Dayton suburb is one of Ohio's fastest-growing cities - it ballooned from 6,500 people in 1990 to 12,400 in 2000 to 17,200 today. City Manager Chris Thompson says the city has issued 300 to 350 residential building permits a year for the last 15 years. "It's actually starting to slow down some," she says. "Basically, we're running out of land."
Springboro has a quiet, and rather interesting, success story to tell amidst all the growth. The city's preservation of the center core, and its celebration of the history associated with and contained within it, is something lots of people here are quite proud of.
The history goes like this: In 1815, just a few years after Ohio was settled, Jonathan Wright platted the town as "Springborough," having moved his family in from Pennsylvania the year before. In short order, the new town had a woolen factory, two flour mills, a general store, and plenty of farms - along with lots of Quakers, who brought with them their faith's hatred of slavery, the hot-button issue of the day.
Springborough was right in the middle of the region through which escaping slaves left the South, and since it was located between two of the main corridors those fugitives followed through the area, the Great Miami and Little Miami rivers, the town became quite the abolitionist hotbed.
A nationally known abolitionist paper, The Philanthropist, was published here by an activist named Achilles Pugh, and city historians say Springboro had at least 27 documented safe houses for fleeing slaves.
One of them was the house built by Jonathan Wright himself - which is today the Wright House Bed & Breakfast, owned and operated by Sterling Gardner at 80 W. State St., just a few blocks from downtown.
Gardner is one of the people who have helped keep Springboro's history alive and up to date. He and a partner moved into the stately brick two-story in 1993 and poured on "lots of care." They decided after years of having curious people stopping by to ask about the place, they should turn it into a B&B. Nowadays, they combine a comfortable stay with stories of the Underground Railroad.
"The third floor of the house is where slaves lived, with a secret escape route in case bounty hunters came. It led to a secret area that could hold eight to 10 people, and the hiding place is still there with the trap door," Gardner says. "We think it was used very often." You can see it today.
Gardner tells visitors that Springboro, which in the days before the Civil War had a large population of free blacks, was full of businesses that let escaped slaves earn money. He mentions that it's believed no slave was ever recaptured while staying in Springboro.
"It's incredible to be able to experience so much history here," he says. "I was always interested in history, but after I moved here and learned about the Underground Railroad, I realized the significance of it; I never expected that I'd become an ambassador."
Of the development all around him, just a few hundred yards from his front step? "You have to have a balance," he says.
Terry Dudley would agree with that. He's nearly a neighbor of Gardner's, living with his family in one of the large, historical homes of the central district - the Harry Pence House, built around 1894 at 415 S. Main St. Dudley and his wife have been working hard to restore the white two-story Queen Anne since 1988. According to the historical marker out front, several generations of Pences, including the president of Springboro's first bank, lived here; since preservationists researched the history of the buildings in the central district a few years ago, nearly every building has a story to tell. The Pences, one imagines, would have to be pleased with the care the Dudleys are taking, even burning off coats of paint and redoing the ancient woodwork outside.
A retired aerospace engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dudley, 59, has one foot firmly planted in the modern and one in the past - and thus a clear-eyed sense of all the change swirling around his place. He and others credit the city - Thompson, in particular - and local preservationists with working carefully together in recent years to keep the downtown historical district in good shape, even if it's less robust commercially than they'd like.
Today, for about a six-block stretch you can see a mixture of businesses, small eateries, retail and gift shops and professional offices all doing their best to both take advantage of the old-day ambiance and also contribute to its care. Thompson foresees more lawyers, accountants and other professionals on the way in, which will help maintain the area until more specialty shops can gain a foothold.
In the center of the district is the Brass Pig Cafe and Gift Shop at 243 S. Main St., a friendly spot for a quick and affordable lunch break. K&W, a favorite local burger joint at 430 S. Main St., invites kids after school and on weekends. The Springboro Area Museum and Historical Society sits in a tiny white house that's been home over the decades to everything from the post office to the telephone exchange. The place is the oldest building in the historical district, erected in 1810 - four years before Jonathan Wright came around.
Dudley, Gardner and Thompson, while pleased that such history remains to be seen, wonder if all the thousands of newcomers to their city have the strong sense of it that might be required to keep it going in the future. Springboro has had its share of growing pains - such as those traffic tie-ups, and a recent school levy that took three tries to pass. "It feels like we've lost touch with the area," Dudley says, "like we've lost some of what we moved here for."
But there's an appreciation for what's going on, it seems - whether it's the out-of-towners who come to visit Gardner's inn or Thompson's recognition that "Terry never seems to give up" on the house he's restoring.
"It may be harder to get the younger people involved," Gardner says, "but I meet lots of young parents who recognize that the history is important. They want it collected, even though they don't have time to do it. They're running the kids to soccer and sporting events, so an older group is doing it."
"We aren't looking to go anywhere," Dudley says, proudly acknowledging his membership in that group. "Springboro will make it through all these changes. It will survive with the historical basis intact."
Ron Rollins is a freelancer from Kettering and an editor at the Dayton Daily News.