Waterville Historical Society Marks 60th Anniversary

Waterville Historical Society is marking its 60th anniversary this year. Members include (from left) Jim Conrad, Barb Jones, founding member Thad Jones, and Verna and John Rose. MIRROR PHOTO BY KAREN GERHARDINGER

BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — To save on heating bills sometime in the 1970s, the members of the Wakeman Lodge No. 522 Free and Accepted Masons installed gold carpet on the walls of the circa 1888 building that served as their home for over 100 years.

Last month, the hardworking board members of the Waterville Historical Society – which purchased the 401 Farnsworth Rd. property in 1997 – launched a renovation of the first floor. After ripping off the carpet, scraping sanding, painting and removing an outdated drop ceiling, the WHS is ready to give the public a sneak peek of the work in progress while kicking off the nonprofit’s 60th anniversary.

On Wednesday, March 20 at 7:00 p.m., WHS member, past president and retired history teacher Jim Conrad will share highlights from the past 60 years.

An Anthony Wayne High School graduate and Waterville native, Conrad was in college in 1964 when the Waterville Historical Society was formed. His mom, Lucille, served as treasurer for the newly formed society. 

Waterville teacher Estella Wreade and bank manager Al Sieczkowski thought it would be a good idea to establish a society to preserve and promote the town’s history, Conrad said.

“We still had a lot of board members that were born in the late 1800s,” he added.

Thad Jones is the sole founding WHS member, coerced by Wreade, his former eighth-grade history and English teacher, to join.

“I paid $50.00 for a lifetime membership,” said Thad, joking that it turned out to be a good deal.

In 1965, the WHS held its first Founder’s Day celebration to honor John Pray, who laid out Waterville’s first 50 lots in 1831. The daylong event included movies and exhibits of early Waterville in the school gymnasium, walking tours and historic home tours, tea at the Columbian House and a dinner at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church. 

Over the years, the event grew to become more community-oriented, with a picnic at Conrad Park and historians setting up tables to display their artifacts. Thad brought his collection of long guns and Native American artifacts, wore a buckskin jacket and a skunk cap. He did what he could to support the society.

“We had a lot of fundraisers and a lot of apple butter cooks,” said Thad, as he sat with his wife Barb, Conrad and longtime members John and Verna Rose around a table in the Wakeman Hall’s upstairs Archival Research Center last month.

“We did an apple butter festival before Grand Rapids,” pointed out John, noting that groups of volunteers got together in a daylong process to make the spreadable preserve from Farnsworth Farms apples. The sales and historical tours raised money for the society.

In 1967, Marion and Charles Swope gave the WHS permission to use the upstairs apartment in their 19-1/2 Third St. building to use as a museum to display items that were stored in members’ basements and attics, Verna said. 

The organization encouraged families to research the history of their homes and gave historic home plaques to homes built prior to 1900. The first plaque was placed on the circa 1837 Oliver Pray House at 144 N. River Rd.

It wasn’t until 1980 that the WHS truly had a home of its own. The Robbins House was built by constable and farmer David Robbins in 1838 at 114 S. River Rd. It was remodeled into a museum with pre-Civil War furnishings. Justice of the Peace Edward Sargent built the house next door around 1840, and that was slated to be torn down to construct a parking lot when the WHS bought and renovated it – opening it as a museum in 1992. An adjacent cobbler shop, used by shoemaker George “Haze” Haley, was moved behind the Robbins House in 1983 and recently renovated by member Merle Wilhelm. This River Road campus has hosted many tours, ghost hunters and Roche de Boeuf Festival displays over the years.

Adding another building wasn’t on the WHS radar until 1996, when Rite Aid was eyeing Wakeman Hall at the corner of Farnsworth and the Anthony Wayne Trail.

“They wanted to tear it down and put in a drug store. Our town was up in arms,” recalled Verna. 

A $100,000 donation from the Swopes and a $30,000 loan from Waterville enabled the society to purchase the building. Verna and Nancy Myerholtz organized and archived the materials that finally were able to come together in one space.

Now, the top floor is filled with neatly organized shelves of books, maps, photographs and historical documents available to the public every Wednesday from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., as well as on Saturdays from May to October.

“It’s a wonderful resource,” Barb said, explaining that volunteers help visitors seeking information on families, businesses, schools and more.

In 2018, Waterville Gas Co. donated its two-story commercial building at 9 N. River Rd. and a home at 11 N. River Rd. to the WHS. These are rented out to provide income for the society.

Membership has steadily grown to over 200, Conrad said.

“Some societies get started, falter, wither and die,” Conrad said. “We’ve gotten bigger and better as the years have gone by. I think that’s quite an accomplishment.”

The WHS hosts programs to draw in and educate the public, such as the annual Ghostly Encounters at Wakeman Cemetery. Wearing period-appropriate clothing, members and friends re-enact the lives of famous Waterville residents who are now buried in the cemetery. For the third year, the WHS will host its popular Haunted Waterville Tours, with guests riding horse-drawn wagons through town while hearing stories of Waterville ghosts.

A Student Advisory Council, made up of high school students, provides hands-on activities and education to Anthony Wayne Local Schools third-graders, in addition to volunteering as costumed leaders for other WHS events.

Conrad also credits the team for bringing the WHS into the digital age by scanning hundreds of historical photographs now available on the website at www.watervillehistory.org. John Rose and other volunteers write columns about Waterville history to share regularly online, and the WHS has over 2,000 members on Facebook.

Keeping up with repairs and renovations to the historic buildings requires fundraising and grants. Restoration of the Sargent House has been underway over the past year, sponsored by the Fort Industry Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution and donations to the Waterville Historical Society’s Capital Campaign. Repairs to the foundation and siding will be completed later this year.

The WHS also partnered with the Fallen Timbers Battlefield Preservation Commission and the Black Swamp Intertribal Found-ation to obtain a $4,700 Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation grant to refurbish the first-floor meeting room of Wakeman Hall.

The space will host the Battle of Fallen Timbers 230th-Anniversary Exhibit, said WHS first vice president Julia Wiley.

Beginning this summer, the public will be able to see a collection of artifacts that have never been presented in one space – including period weapons, a rifle used in the battle, artifacts from Fort Loramie and archaeological finds from the battlefield site and related to where Gen. Anthony Wayne and his troops camped. The collection also includes a frog leg eagle button – one of the earliest images using the eagle as a symbol for the United States, Wiley said. 

Items will be on loan from private collectors like Tom and Peggy Parker, as well as the Garst Museum in Greenville, Ohio, the site of the Greenville Treaty.

“We’ll also have Native American artifacts from both the battlefield and representing the nations that lived in the Ohio area,” Wiley said. “This is the largest collection brought together about the campaign and that era. We expect to draw people from a broad area.”

In addition to the exhibit, Waterville’s Parker Square and Memorial Park will host a historical military en-campment in August.

WHS activities are scheduled through October. During the Roche de Boeuf Festival, the WHS will again host a mixture of home and Roche de Boeuf bridge tours, period-dressed docents leading home tours and artisans sharing the crafts of yesteryear. Haunted Waterville Tours will also continue through the summer.

For information on events or joining the WHS, visit www.watervillehistory.org.

Check Also

Austin Wilson Is Accepted Into The U.S. Naval Academy

BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — The first time Austin Wilson stepped onto the bridge of a …