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A Brief History of the Firelands

The Firelands of Ohio is geographically a half-million acres of land off the western end of the Connecticut Western Reserve in northern Ohio. It was first called the Fire Sufferers Land, a name that was soon shortened to the Firelands. This tract was given by the Connecticut Legislature in 1792 to citizens of nine towns which were invaded and damaged by British troops during the American Revolution. The British were attempting to destroy manufacturing and shipping which aided the Continental Army.

The nine towns which suffered losses were Norwalk, New Haven, East Haven, Greenwich, Danbury, Ridgefield, Groton, New London, and Fairfield. The War ended in 1781. Compensation claims were not approved until 1792 and land ownership wasn’t secured by treaty until 1805. Surveying was completed in 1808. Thus, most of the original sufferers had passed away or had become too old to travel to Ohio. Most of the early settlers were opportunists looking for cheap land and mild winters. The majority of the Firelands was bought up by land speculators who then sold to the actual settlers.

Permanent settlement started in 1808 but was hindered by the remoteness of the tract. The area was organized and named Huron County in 1809 but did not have its own government until after the War of 1812, which ended in 1815. By this time there was sufficient population to support a local county government. To this day of the original townships, nineteen remain in Huron County. Erie County was established to the north in 1838 and 1840, Danbury Township became part of Ottawa County and Ruggles Township was made part of Ashland County in 1846.

During the War of 1812 most of the settlers fled in fear of being attacked and murdered. Several military actions took place in the Firelands including the first (and one of the few) battles on Ohio soil. Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie in 1813 was only a few miles off the north coast.

Settlement grew quickly after 1815 and soon the wilderness was being cleared and succeeded by farms with fenced fields, grazing livestock and well-tended crops. Several main roads crossed the area carrying immigrants west and providing stage coach service to the several towns. Towns along the lake were busy ports for sailing ships and steam boats. The advent of the Milan Canal in 1839 made that village a lake port for imports and exports.

Railroads eventually were built and the Firelands became known as much for manufacturing as for farming. Today it is a mix, and despite adaptation to the 21st century, several of the towns and villages retain much of their New England heritage and architecture. Several towns and townships still bear the names of their forebear Connecticut towns.

In the last census Huron County’s population was 59,500, while Erie County’s was 79,500. Norwalk is the seat of Huron County; Sandusky is the seat of Erie County.

The Firelands Historical Society’s Museum Home

The Firelands of Ohio is geographically a half-million acres of land off the western end of the Connecticut Western Reserve in northern Ohio.  It was first called the Fire Sufferers Land, a name that was soon shortened to the Firelands.  This tract was given by the Connecticut Legislature in 1792 to citizens of nine towns which were invaded and damaged by British troops during the American Revolution.  The British were attempting to destroy manufacturing and shipping which aided the Continental Army.

The nine towns which suffered losses were Norwalk, New Haven, East Haven, Greenwich, Danbury, Ridgefield, Groton, New London, and Fairfield.  The War ended in 1781. Compensation claims were not approved until 1792 and land ownership wasn’t secured by treaty until 1805. Surveying was completed in 1808.  Thus, most of the original sufferers had passed away or had become too old to travel to Ohio.  Most of the early settlers were opportunists looking for cheap land and mild winters. The majority of the Firelands was bought up by land speculators who then sold to the actual settlers.

Permanent settlement started in 1808 but was hindered by the remoteness of the tract.  The area was organized and named Huron County in 1809 but did not have its own government until after the War of 1812, which ended in 1815.  By this time there was sufficient population to support a local county government.  To this day of the original townships, nineteen remain in Huron County.  Erie County was established to the north in 1838 and 1840, Danbury Township became part of Ottawa County and Ruggles Township was made part of Ashland County in 1846.

During the War of 1812 most of the settlers fled in fear of being attacked and murdered.  Several military actions took place in the Firelands including the first (and one of the few) battles on Ohio soil.  Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie in 1813 was only a few miles off the north coast.

Settlement grew quickly after 1815 and soon the wilderness was being cleared and succeeded by farms with fenced fields, grazing livestock and well-tended crops.  Several main roads crossed the area carrying immigrants west and providing stage coach service to the several towns.  Towns along the lake were busy ports for sailing ships and steam boats.  The advent of the Milan Canal in 1839 made that village a lake port for imports and exports.

Railroads eventually were built and the Firelands became known as much for manufacturing as for farming.  Today it is a mix, and despite adaptation to the 21st century, several of the towns and villages retain much of their New England heritage and architecture.  Several towns and townships still bear the names of their forebear Connecticut towns.

In the last census Huron County’s population was 59,500, while Erie County’s was 79,500.  Norwalk is the seat of Huron County; Sandusky is the seat of Erie County.

The Firelands Historical Society, Inc

The Firelands Historical Society considers itself to be the second oldest continuing historical society in the state, maintaining the oldest museum. The Society was founded in 1857 and almost immediately thereafter a “cabinet of curiosities” was assembled, which is the foundation of the present museum.

Most founders of the historical society were actual pioneers who had retired from active work after laboring many years to develop the Firelands from a wilderness. A periodical called The Firelands Pioneer was soon begun and the early memoirs in it are mostly first-hand local history accounts from the pioneers themselves. This magazine has had an irregular existence, and must be considered the prime source of Firelands history and genealogy material.

There had been earlier attempts at founding a historical society in Norwalk. Material accumulated by those persons was turned over to the Firelands Historical Society folks. Much of this earlier material was published in The Firelands Pioneer. As early as 1846 a local attorney named Charles B. Squire wrote a manuscript history of the Firelands, but apparently had been lost by 1857. It may have contained valuable stories which he had gleaned from the memories of some of the older pioneers.

Meanwhile, the Historical Society continued to gather stories and curiosities. It had little funds and no permanent home until 1899 when the Dr. Kettredge House on the site of the Norwalk Public Library was purchased in cooperation with the Whittlesey Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Young Men’s Library and Reading Room Association. The latter group was operating a subscription library and reading room for the village at the time. It occupied the majority of the house, while the Historical Society utilized the remainder for its museum.

It was decided in 1903 to build a new fireproof building for the library and museum. This was accomplished in part by the generosity of Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate. The new building opened in 1905 with a free public library on the main floor and the historical museum on the ground floor. In these quarters the Historical Society celebrated its golden anniversary in 1907.

Years of dormancy and a crowded museum brought about new thoughts in 1953 – at the time of Ohio’s sesquicentennial – of a new museum building. The Wickham Mansion at 38 West Main Street was to be torn down to make way for a new commercial building. The Historical Society and several local citizens rallied to buy the house and move the oldest part to a space behind the library. The house was thoroughly renovated and opened to the public as the headquarters and museum on May 20, 1957, the Society’s centennial.

Thanks to more generous gifts the Historical Society was able to buy a building at 9 Case Avenue and open it in 1988. It new houses the Research Center, Meeting Room and additional display area.

The Historical Society has operated all these years without public money, relying instead on investments, gifts, memberships and admissions.

The Research Center and its Collections

The Historical Society’s newest asset is located in a former commercial building at 9 Case Avenue. At this location one will find the Research Center, the Meeting Room and additional display area. The majority of the program meetings held by the Society take place in the Meeting Room.

Two sizable bequests made this fine facility a reality. Gifts from Mrs. Olga Gill and Mrs. Ruth McCrillis allowed for the purchase and renovation of this building. The Research Center section of the building was opened in 1988. Prior to this time there was a “library” crowded into a part of the museum basement. Later gifts made it possible to create and furnish a meeting room in the building.

The Research Center contains approximately 4,000 books pertaining to local, Ohio, and general American history and genealogy. The thrust of the Center is to concentrate on the history and genealogy of the Firelands area and the people who settled here. There are also files of local history manuscripts pertaining to local people and organizations. These are available to persons researching a specific facet of local history. One also can find early records from a few of the Firelands townships, towns, and institutions.

After moving in 1988 it was possible to better organize the Historical Society’s local photo and postcard collections. The latter includes portrait photos of hundreds of former citizens as well as historic photographs of streets, roads, buildings, and scenes from around the Firelands. In 1962 the Society was given the collection of historic glass plate negatives formerly owned by photographer Evander Bateham. A later gift made it possible to have all of these processed so that we have a copy of each negative. Other gifts have helped with preservation and equipment needs as well.

The Historical Society also owns a large collection of local newspapers which have been microfilmed. These films are on loan to the Norwalk Public Library where they, along with other microfilm material, make an enviable collection of local history material on film.

When visiting the Center, take time to view the extensive farm implement and Indian artifact collections. Note the mural on the wall, a hand-painted country scene by our late member and local artist Joe Mak.