All history is local. If you are traveling the modern streets of Rome, look to one side or another, and you may see over a railing down to an excavation revealing what the community looked like thousands of years ago. The contrast is such that you lose yourself for a moment in wonder. So too is it – albeit on a smaller scale – when you drive through a small town in America, and suddenly there’s a downtown within a downtown, both hundreds of years apart.
With globalization we have learned so much about so many things on a grand scale, we yearn for new discoveries. Adventurous minds have made remarkable finds in the nooks and crannies of history, often unearthing a vein of gold in the form of fascinating stories that capture the imagination at a local level. As the saying goes, sometimes less is more.
When history comes alive before your eyes, all five senses dance in rhythm. It’s one thing to look at an old baseball card behind glass and another to hear the crack of a bat and see the ballplayer of the 1800s sprint to first base in his loose fit uniform. Or see sparks fly in the hot and soot-smelled confines of an old blacksmith shop. Or feel the spray of water sprinkling from a potter’s wheel.
Even when you travel to well-known places, it is often the obscure, little-known gem that is particularly striking and gets stored in long-term memory. Smithville, Ohio is one such place – a diamond in the rough. And in 1990, Joe Irvin and a handful of others decided it was worth mining and polishing. He became the first president of the Smithville Community Historical Society and served for the next 20 years. Joining him at the time were current president, Harold Downey, Nita Downey and a team of volunteers.
Ever since, they’ve saved, renovated and moved historic buildings from around the area to a central place downtown, creating Pioneer Village. And with it came together a community of 200 volunteers who spin history before your eyes.
But before we explore pioneer life in this village, the story begins down the street at the second campus. Here is where the historic Mishler Weaving Mill still operates today.
Before the “c” went missing from his surname, John C. Mischler immigrated to the United States from Switzerland bringing with him his wife, Rosina, and his first three children. It was just after what was known as the Long Depression, sparked by The Panic of 1873. It gripped both the United States and Europe. In nearby Dalton, Ohio the Mathias Gerber family sponsored the Mischlers. When the Mischlers got off the train, they had a small trunk of belongings and five dollars to their name. Soon, they added six more mouths to feed and became a family of eleven.
The Mischlers were farmers in Switzerland but also did their share of weaving to make ends meet. Since land was too expensive for them to buy and farm in the United States, they honed their craft as weavers to make a living. Five years later, they moved from their little log cabin to Smithville. If anything, it was to have better access to the railroad depot – which is preserved along with a caboose in today’s Pioneer Village. This allowed them to move their products such as rugs, towels, and cheesecloth more easily.
Over the years, they made a name for themselves weaving and selling cheesecloth. In 1915, electricity was added to the mill, fueling large power-driven looms which spun a more extensive weaving operation. It was previously powered by steam from a coal-fired boiler. Before that, it was done manually. Business records show their family-made cheesecloth was purchased all over the world. As you may expect, the main use of cheesecloth was in the cheese-making business. Cheesecloth was primarily used to remove the whey from cheese curds. This helped hold the curds together as cheese formed. It was also used in a variety of other ways in food processing and beyond.
John B. Mishler (notice the “c” missing in the surname), the eldest son of John C. Mischler, died in an accident. The youngest son, Daniel Mishler, eventually took the reins of the family weaving business. By that time, he was the only family member still heavily involved in it. Although, his sister Lena – one of the original three children who emigrated from Switzerland – helped.
The hand-powered and mechanical-powered looms in the old mill are still used to produce goods for sale today. There are large leather belts extending down from the ceiling throughout the mill, running off of the line shaft. They are being operated today by a coal-fired steam engine and electric motor. It’s an unusual sight that is rare to see in production today in any part of the country. The old floor looms are also in production as volunteers throw shuttle through and beat it.
Volunteers operate the looms every Wednesday and during special events. It’s one of the ways the Smithville Community Historical Society, now owners of the mill, fund the present-day acquisitions, maintenance and operation of the Pioneer Village and Mishler Weaving Mill.
“We try to be self-sustaining by weaving towels, cloths, rugs or just about anything you want,” smiled Nita Downey.
From one family business to another, the Mishler stomping grounds are now the stomping grounds of the Downeys. Harold runs things, Nita weaves in addition to numerous other duties and their son, Vance – along with Harold – owns a Model T automobile.
What does owning a Model T have to do with the weaving mill and historical society?
The garage of the old Mill is home to the Model T Garage Museum operated by The Greater Akron Model T Club. It features several restored Model T automobiles along with a cutaway engine, various other auto parts and hard-to-find memorabilia such as a license plate and steering wheel collection. There, too, are knowledgeable enthusiasts who very much enjoy a conversation about the antique car.
One of the old car enthusiast stories you might hear is that of the Depot Hack. It’s a unique form of Model T. It was not an official Ford body style at the time. Private companies or individuals purchased the chassis from Ford and custom-built the body on top of the chassis to that of their need. Depot Hacks were largely designed to carry a high volume of travelers plus their luggage from train depots to area hotels. Today, you would get on a shuttle bus that serves the same purpose to get lots of travelers from the airport to nearby hotels. But in the 1920s, most travels was done by train, so these vehicles were used to get people from the train depot to the nearby inns and hotels. In short, it was a taxi – which is what Hackney means.
Vance helps during special events by operating a tractor-pulled wagon. It’s a replica of an old horse-drawn school bus once used in the community. Today, it is used to get folks from the Mishler Weaving Mill to and from Pioneer Village. Riding the backstreets of Smithville aboard this ole jalopy between the two historic campuses is something the kids will definitely remember.
Like times of old, the best way to enter the village is at the Train Depot. And if you’re lucky, you’ll hear an old sputtering engine just outside. It is used to churn out fresh, old-fashioned, homemade ice cream.
The train depot was rundown because it was unused for years. The railroad offered it as a gift to a local farmer, Arden Ramseyer, under one condition – he had to move it.
“So it was one of those expensive free things,” chuckled Harold.
So the depot was moved downtown to Pioneer Village and restored along with an old caboose as a package deal. The caboose is a 1929 B&O (Baltimore & Ohio) caboose. Inside the depot is the bicycle that the station master, “Rush” Webner, rode to work every day for 40 years.
Next to the depot and caboose is a mural painted by Rusty Baker. Webner is in the mural handing a packet to the train engineer while a Model T waits to cross the track. This image was inspired by a photograph taken by Dan Mishler, the Mill owner. He was a gifted amateur photographer. Many of his photos are displayed throughout the depot museum.
Stepping back outside, if you hear organ music in the air it’s coming from the historic Church of God next door. The organ was made by, then, a farmer named A.J. Tschantz. Later, he founded the Schantz Organ Company from nearby Orville, Ohio. Notice the “T” from his surname was dropped in the company name. It is the earliest Schantz Organ known to exist. It is one of only four knowns of its kind. The Schantz Organ Company was founded in 1873 by A.J. Tschantz. It is the oldest and largest pipe organ maker in the United States that is still managed by the founding family.
The church is where it’s always stood ever since its bricks were fired on site in 1867. Unfortunately, in its later years, it fell into disrepair and had a congregation that has all but disappeared. The Smithville Community Historical Society was asked to take it over, and that’s what they did.
Pioneer Village has another Schantz Organ in the Sheller House dating back to the 1880s. This old house was owned by a tailor in town named G. Sheller.
“It later became a rental, so there are a lot of people who spent time calling this their home,” smiled Nita. “And when they visit the village, it is a literal homecoming and peak back to their childhood.”
The Sheller House was moved from Main Street. The historic buildings in Pioneer Village were either moved as a whole or dismantled, moved and rebuilt.
The Blacksmith Shop was originally a small horse-and-carriage barn moved from just up the alley. It was owned by “Rush” Webner, the train depot station master. It is crafted with hand-hewn beams with pegged construction. It had been two stories tall but the ground floor was so rotted out it leaned severely. Consequently, the second story became the ground floor and now it’s a one-story building. Several blacksmiths volunteer to work the shop during special events.
Another building, The Spring House, is typically a one-story structure but this one is two stories. A farmhand used to live on its second floor which was big enough to have a cot and small stove. Spring houses were built over springs or running streams before there was refrigeration. The water would keep a steady temperature of about 55 degrees for food lowered into it. This isn’t that cool by today’s refrigeration standards, but it kept milk, eggs and other foods cool enough in the 1800s. Excess space was used for storing kettles, utensils and preserved foods.
Cooking was done in the large open fireplace as displayed inside the Pioneer Log Cabin. The fireplace was the heat source for winter and provided light after sundown. So families often would huddle at the hearth which was the heart of the home much like today’s kitchens. Outside is a small, stand-alone, brick bake oven which was used for the kind of cooking the fireplace couldn’t provide.
A summer kitchen was kept close too, but away from a farmhouse because it was a fire hazard. It served as a full-fledged kitchen in the summer when it would be too darned hot to have a fire inside the cabin.
The summer kitchen at Pioneer Village is now The Tin Shop. Inside you’ll find tin master Fred Wetshtein and apprentice Patty McFadden hard at work in between their laughter. Fred used to be a professional sheet metal fabricator. He worked into retirement as the tin smith at Historic Zoar Village, an 1817 active village housing some 75 families today. After some years, Fred longed for a shorter commute from his Barberton, Ohio home. One day, he drove through the small town of Smithville and noticed the town within a town and stopped to take a closer look. He saw tinsmith tools displayed and asked if he could put them to use. The rest, as they say, is history.
Another pair of craftsmen has their shop in Pioneer Village’s Carriage Barn. It accompanied the Sheller Home generations ago. Built in the late 1800s, it is constructed of rough sawed lumber and pegged construction. It was used for a time as the horse stable for the stagecoach on Portage Trail which is now Ohio State Route 585. Today, Sam Sheller and Dave Sollenberger run a pottery business inside. Stop in this active shop, and you’ll find these men at their potter’s wheels, hand-crafting and then firing colorful pottery of all kinds. Gather round and watch the hypnotic spinning of the spiral marked wheel while these gentlemen explain their craft in storyteller fashion. The shop is both artists’ studio and store, hawking their wares.
All of these buildings and craftspeople bring the life and times of the Nineteenth Century alive for guests every season of the year. These occasions kick off in May and are billed as Open Houses. The June open house features all of these activities again. The July festivities add a community band and ice cream social. August features an antique market at the Mill. A classic car show highlights the September open house outside the Model T Garage Museum. The bake oven spits out fresh cookies and bread during the Apple Butter demonstration in October. And then comes the Christmas in The Village over the first weekend in December. This special event features Christmas decor throughout the buildings, marshmallows roasting in the fireplace, carols sung to organ music and of course, Santa makes an appearance.
But a pioneer village could never be complete without showcasing and re-enacting America’s favorite pastime – baseball. Yes, this village has a ballfield where the Smithville Stars play live Base Ball games. Watch and learn how the game was originally played. The players are dressed in their vintage uniforms from 1868 and demonstrate the rules as they were during the 1860s – Civil War era. By the way, did you know that Civil War hero Abner Doubleday is credited with inventing the game in Cooperstown, New York back in the summer of 1839?
In the late 1800s, baseball was a part of the popular Chautauqua Circuit.
Chautauqua was an adult education movement in the United States that enthralled communities with speakers, teachers, preachers, musicians and other entertainers. The original annual event was held in Chautauqua, New York. But its popularity spurred offshoots that flourished across the country. The community-based education and entertainment were well-anticipated events lasting a week or two until the Great Depression of the 1930s. Smithville had there own Chautauqua, and it drew people from all over the region.
Now, people from all over the region are rediscovering Smithville and its growing Pioneer Village.
By Rocco Satullo, your Tour Guide to Fun!