THE LESSON IS SIMPLE AND PROFOUND — INDIVIDUALS CAN CHANGE HISTORY
On January 6, 1970, the last passenger train left Kent’s Erie Depot. Within months, it was boarded up. Franklin Avenue seemed darker and quieter. The busy station and the trains that had brought so much life, so many new people and most importantly, so much employment, seemed lost. Like so many small communities in the 1980s, the city was losing its center to shopping malls far beyond its borders. Once historic homes were being eaten up by fast food restaurants and gas stations. Just when it seemed that the last sounds the depot would hear would be the wrecking ball, a group of local citizens met to take action before it was gone forever.
Local businessman Sam Apicello suggested the first meeting of what would become the Kent Historical Society (KHS). The twelve men who met that night dedicated themselves to drawing up a list of prominent buildings that needed immediate attention. The Erie Depot, now slated for demolition, rose to the top of the list. If they could find a plan, and money, they could send a signal to the community that ordinary people can make a difference. They could change their town.
It would be 1981, ten years from that first meeting until the Depot would reopen, preserved by KHS under the plans of Cleveland’s prominent historical architect, Robert Gaede, and more than a quarter of a million dollars raised from the city, county commissioners, foundations and individuals, as well as a partnership of investors who brought the Pufferbelly Ltd. restaurant to the Depot’s first floor. The second floor would become home to the Historical Society’s first museum under the tireless dedication of its president and curator, Bill Birkner.
Looking at Kent now, full of dozens of new businesses, small shops and restaurants, downtown headquarters of major corporations and a lively night life, it seems impossible to imagine those dark times. But the town had survived crises before.
Once known as the upper village of Carthage and the lower village of Franklin Mills, divided by the Cuyahoga River that had first drawn its earliest settlers for its power, the town’s first success was the coming of the canal. Zenas Kent moved to the village and built a flour mill, a tannery with John Brown, and brokered the imposing building at the corner of Main and Water Streets that flourished from 1837 to its death by fire in 1972. This anchor to downtown was built on the dream that the town was destined for greatness. Zenas hoped it was the canal boom, but it ended up being the canal bust. It would be his son, Marvin, who now bet on a future riding on the rails of the trains coming into the town’s heart — first known as the Atlantic & Great Western, and quickly turning into the Erie. The town, now called Franklin Mills, was thriving again with passengers and freight shipping daily, a brand new Depot, completed in 1875 with more than $4,000 raised in money from its townspeople, and the Erie shops humming off Middlebury Road, run with the sweat of workers eager to make a living, even an often dangerous one. The time of the train would last almost one hundred years. The town, rejecting Marvin’s own suggestion of “Rockton” as a new name, chose Kent, honoring its visionary son and sealing it officially in 1867 when the Ohio State legislature passed the name into law.
The train would increase business opportunities, welcome new students and be the last place some would kiss their soldiers goodbye before heading out from the station to the wars that changed some lives forever. And then, the cars and trucks would increase in number and size and the trains would come and go one last time.
When Marvin Kent died in 1908 at the ripe old age of 92, he was written up in local papers and even the New York Times as a railroad man, one of the state’s richest and most prominent citizens, and one of the community’s most dedicated members.
Marvin’s son, William, would help usher in a third force in town history. With the support of the newly formed Board of Trade, later to become its Chamber of Commerce, William donated the more than 50 acres of land bordering on East Main and Lincoln streets, the beginnings of Ohio’s newest Normal teacher training school. Named Kent for its benefactor, not the town, it offered the promise of an educational facility that might fill the hole left when so many of the train and manufacturing jobs had disappeared. While half of the town’s men had once worked for the Erie, by 2016, Kent State University was the leading employer bringing jobs, students, and income tax revenues that would help attract investors and homeowners seeking good schools and a thriving downtown.
By 2010, the Kent Historical Society began its own third wave of progress. After years in its scenic but limited second floor museum and then in a building on North Water Street, it purchased the historic and solidly built Clapp-Woodward house at the top of the hill on East Main Street, bridging old and new, campus and community, yesterday and tomorrow.
It has been 45 years since the Kent Historical Society first started out to save one building and to prove one group could make a difference. Now, its museum welcomes hundreds of visitors each year including every single third grade student in the Kent schools as part of their study of local history. For decades, the society has given tours to civic groups, family reunions, and businesses and now, even foreign students who want to learn about the town that will become their home. One interested hospitality major student from China learned enough about Kent’s history to give a group of students the entire tour of the museum in Mandarin!
It has created special exhibits including a unique HO model railroad exhibit to highlight our history as a transportation town. A local barbershop and a tailor’s sewing machines, join a Victor Talking machine that cranks out old songs to the delight of the children who visit and dance to the 78 records spinning on its 100 year old turntable. The desk that Kent’s only Governor, Martin L. Davey, once President of the Davey Tree Company, sat behind in Columbus, sits quietly in one room while a 1927 player piano pumps out show tunes in another.
The Museum house was not only solid and historic, it was also connected directly to the Kent family through Harriett Kent Clapp, Marvin’s older sister. Her son, Charles, would live there from 1883 until the family sold it to the Woodward family in 1912. KHS was only the fifth owner, and most of the original 19th century woodwork, pocket doors, hardware and four distinctive fireplaces, large windows, and some of the wooden floors were intact; just as they had been when Harriett’s grandchildren ran up and down the winding staircase.
The Historical Society has grown into a destination place; an educational institution, a research and resource center, and always an advocate for preservation and re-use. To encourage this vision, the society held its first Historic Home Tour in 2005. Held over two weekends, it raised almost $17,000 and introduced people to the grandeur of Marvin Kent’s own residence, now the Masonic Temple, as well as many other privately owned homes along West Main Street. Tours were held again in 2007 and 2014, and were each a success in bringing people to Kent, to spend a day or two, and to appreciate the importance of preserving and honoring our past.
This year’s tour has a special theme. It celebrates the town’s namesake, Marvin Kent, whose 200th birthday will be marked on September 21. KHS decided to center its tour on those buildings and sites that marked the influence of this amazing family.
Few Kentites, or even people in Northeast Ohio, realize that the family that brought nearly 100 years of change and progress to one small town, had been a force in this country since 1630, when the first of the Kent ancestors arrived. Through its research this year, KHS has learned that Marvin Kent’s ancestors were part of the Great Migration of 20,000 pilgrims who left England to come to the new world; specifically, New England. Among the first to arrive in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were Marvin’s 5th great-grandparents William Hosford and his wife Florentia Sarah Hayward, who came in1630. For nearly 300 years to follow, the descendants of these pioneers would settle, migrate and for those of us in the city that bears his name, change the face of our community forever.
The tour will be held over two days, allowing a ticket holder to visit any of the sites either day. Marvin Kent’s family home on West Main Street, now the Masonic Temple, and his nephew’s home on East Main Street, now the Kent Historical Society Museum, will be open. Also on the tour will be the Charles B. Kent home on Pearl Street, the Wells-Sherman home on North Water Street and the second floor of the Erie Depot, which offers one of the most beautiful views of the town and the Cuyahoga River in the area. Other special sites will include selected hours to see the Erie Shops, now home to the Davey Drill off of Middlebury Road, and also accessible through the back of the Kent post office. Other sites free to the public and directly connected to the Kent family history include the foundation stones of the Kent Flour Mill and Tannery, accessible through the walking path from the downtown bridge (or Tannery Park), or visiting the park and walking under the stone arch bridge. This Main Street bridge is still used today because Marvin insisted that it be built much wider than necessary when it opened in 1877 to accommodate just horse and carriages. As usual, Marvin somehow knew that plans must be laid for the present and imagined for a future even he couldn’t conceive.
And the lesson is simple and profound — individuals can change history.
The 2016 Historic Kent Town Tour will be held Saturday, September 17 (10—5 ) and Sunday, September 18 (noon—5). Tour booklets are $20, cash or check only, and can be used for either day. Tickets can be purchased at the following locations: McKay Bricker Framing, Hometown Bank, Sue Nelson Design, and the Kent Historical Society. Check the KHS website at www.kentohiohistory.org or call (330) 678-2712 for more information.