History tells us that the Erie Indians lived along the south shore of Lake Erie until their murderous extinction by the warlike Iroquois from upper New York State in 1655. Then around 1700 the Ottawas, Hurons (Wyandottes) and Chippewas gradually returned to the area for furs to sell to the French traders until they too were pushed out of their hunting and trapping grounds by the pioneering white man. Few Indians remained by 1800. One historian said, "Lake Shore Ohio was an Indian borderland. Indian habitation was a nervous, restless one punctuated by wars, international rivalries and disasters."
Early Explorers of Vermilion Ohio
The French Period, 1669-1762
French names abound from Vermilion westward: La Chapelle Creek, Huron River, Portage River, La Carne, La Carpe Creek, La Toussaint River, etc. Vermilion itself is of French derivation - vermilion, meaning red of course. Yet very little is known about French exploration along the south shore of Lake Erie.
Sanson's map of 1656 names and outlines the lake with reasonable accuracy, no doubt from Indian descriptions. It wasn't actually "discovered" until 1669 when Adrien Jolliet traversed the north shore west to east. That year two missionaries met Jolliet who told them of his passage on the lake. They recorded their visit to Lake Erie at Grand River near Long Point, where they spent the winter.
On March 23, 1670, they erected a cross and took possession of our area in the name of the King of France. Francois Dollier de Casson and René de Bréhant de Galinée claimed possession of the area for France, on the basis that it was non-occupied. Their claim consisted of a certificate that they attached at the foot of the cross, along with the coat of arms of the King of France. A transcript of what they wrote on the certificate was sent to the King. Later, at the time of discussions between France and England in 1687, the French government sent the above transcript and Galinée's map to London as incontestable proof of France's rights to Lake Erie, Ontario, and the surrounding territory.
On the 26th of March, the explorers launched their canoes and paddled toward the west, hugging the north shore and camping each night on the beach. After 250 kilometers of paddling they reached the mouth of the Detroit River. Galinée honestly reported "Je ne marque que ce que j'ai vu. I note only what I've seen." He saw Point Pelee and the northernmost of the islands in western Lake Erie."
Dollier de Casson and Galinée, and many who followed later, purposely avoided the south shore because it was controlled by the Iroquois who had killed or driven out the Erie Indians in 1655 and who were mortal enemies of the French. Even as late as 1755, Bellin, engineer of the King for the French navy and drafter of an excellent map of the Great Lakes, inscribed the south shore of Lake Erie with the phrase "Toute cette coste n'est presque pas connue. All this shore is almost unknown."
With the fall of Quebec in 1759 and the ceding of New France to England in 1763, Lake Erie and Vermilion came under the rule of the King of England. Thus ended the French period with little or no written history of our area. Except for the ever remindful place names, probably given by coureurs du bois and voyageurs, not noted for their education or for recording their travels with maps or by the written word, we would never know that we are a former French jurisdiction which lasted over 90 years.
Pioneer's Life in the Wilderness
"We do not at all appreciate, we can hardly conceive, the inconvenience, the want, the suffering, the 'hard times' of the early settlers. Sickness added greatly to their hardships. Ague, 'chill fever,' and other malarial diseases incident to the opening of a new country, were prevalent. Sometimes whole families were prostrated, and often scarcely anyone remained in health to take care of the sick. Wild animals were annoying. Wolves, bears and foxes endangered their sheep, pigs and poultry, and deer, raccoon and wild turkeys damaged their crops. No roads, no mills, no markets and very scanty supplies at high prices of those articles of necessity, which had to be obtained from the East. Skins, furs and articles of food, from the necessity of the case, were used as legal tender. In fact, such was an early territorial law of Ohio. In 1792 a law was adopted regulating fees of civil officers, in which was the provision, 'That whereas the dollar varies in value in the several counties of the territory, some provision in kind ought to be made; therefore, be it enacted that for every cent allowed by this act, a quart of Indian corn may be demanded and taken by the person to whom the fee is coming as an equivalent for a cent, and at the same rate for a greater or less sum.' Taxes were not high, but it was difficult to pay them. Farm products brought but little return to labor. No markets. No markets."
The First White Men
We do not have any direct evidence of early explorers or trappers passing or living along the riverside. But we know that they passed this way along the south shore of Lake Erie as a small boat cruising along the shore was the way adventurers traveled, it was the only practical way.
One of the first explorers we know of and have solid evidence indicating that he was in Vermilion was Simon Kenton. He chiseled his name, S. Kenton 1784, on a boulder about 2 miles south of the river mouth on the southern border of the old Rossman farm in a spot about 600' east of the State Road. In 1937 the Centennial "Stone Committee" found it and took pictures. The stone now stands as a memorial to Kenton at the Ritter Library. Presumably, Kenton marked the boulder to substantiate his claim to a 4 square mile area surrounding the river mouth, a likely settlement someday. Kenton claimed similar areas throughout the State but lost his claims due to his lack of education. He was too early and too ignorant of drawing up legal claims of his discoveries. He died a poor man and might have been governor if he had had the proper background. As it was, though, he was an outstanding Indian fighter and explorer in the Ohio wilderness and his efforts added considerably to the opening of the country to the settlers. We do have the satisfaction of knowing that he was the first to find and realize that the Vermilion River would some day be the nucleus of a growing community. How right he was!
Settlers & Incorporation of Vermilion Ohio
"Settling In"Between 1808 and 1811 the first settlers struggled into the Township to claim land already surveyed by Almon Ruggles. The area was part of a tract offered by the State of Connecticut to the Fire Sufferers whose property had been plundered by the British during the Revolutionary War. A section of Connecticut's Western Reserve, it was appropriately called the Firelands. And using the name the Indians had given the river; the Firelands Company named Township No. 6, Range 20, Vermilion. However, so many years had passed and so much red tape was involved that most new arrivals were not the original Fire Sufferers, but those who had bought out claims of others. The first to arrive from the East was William Hoddy (or Haddy), who came alone from Connecticut, built his cabin by the mouth of the river and then returned East for his family. So far as is known he did not come back into the area.
The following year the William Austins and Horatio Perry families arrived from New York; the George and John Sherods from Connecticut and Pennsylvania; and the Enoch Smiths from Connecticut. The Austins settled on the west bank of the river, the Sherods on land now known as Sherod Park. Sometime later in the year the Justin Thompson family came into the Township from Connecticut and settled on the Ridge.
Almon Ruggles came in with his family in 1810, as did Solomon Parsons, Benjamin Brooks, Barlow Sturges, Deacon John Beardsley and James Cuddeback. Peter Cuddeback and others came in 1811. According to the Firelands Pioneer, most came with teams.
As with the history of most settlements, the "firsts" have been carefully recorded:
The first house (cabin) was erected by the mouth of the river by William Hoddy in 1808; the first birth, John Sherod in 1809; the first marriage, Catherine Sherod to Burt Martin in 1814; the first frame house was Peter Cuddeback's (near the corner of Lake and Risden Roads) in 1818; the first stone house was William Austin's in 1821 and the first brick house was Horatio Perry's. The first commissioned Postmaster was Judge Almon Ruggles and the first doctor was Doctor Strong, although the first resident doctor was Dr. James Quigley in 1837. The first attorney, O. A. Leonard, announced his residency the same year.
Barlow Sturges began the first trading post and hotel. And together with the Austin family he ran the first ferry service across the Vermilion River. The first school was taught by Miss Susan Williams in a cabin on the lakeshore, in 1813. At about the same time another school was in operation on the Ridge and taught by Miss Addie Harris.
In 1818 the first organized religious society, the Presbyterian Church (later Congregational) was established. Ten years later the congregation built the first church, in an area just off Risden Road. This was the expected center of population.
In 1818 the Township government was organized with the following officers: Almon Ruggles, clerk; Peter Cuddeback and James Prentice, judges of election; Francis Keyes, John Beardsley and Rufus Judson, trustees; Jeramiah Van Ben Schoten and Horatio Perry, fence viewers; Peter Cuddeback lister and appraiser; Stephen Meeker, appraiser; Peter Cuddeback treasurer; George Sherod, Francis Keyes, William Van Ben Schoten and James Prentice, supervisors.
In the year 1820 the Vermilion township population was listed as 520.
Vermilion Village, 1837
With its clapboard buildings, giant maples and village square, Vermilion, at the time of incorporation, had the look of a typical New England hamlet. The little harbor community had just 43 land owners. Several shops were now situated on Main, Columbus and Liberty Streets. Just a year before, a new warehouse had been erected near the shipping docks. To the left were the fish shanties, and to the right, a saw mill. Business was flourishing at Mr. Burton Goodsell's shipyards located on the riverbank between Lake and Ferry Streets, and in this particular year, the sounds of hammers and saws told of the construction of the steamboat Vermilion. The village plat was completed in January and by a special act of the Ohio Legislature, Vermilion was incorporated and granted a charter.
The Pelton Wheel
Along with other "firsts", a mention should be made of Vermilion's first inventor, Lester Allen Pelton. In 1849, he along with several young Vermilion men, made the long trek to California in search of gold. Although he never discovered his gold, Pelton later invented the Pelton Water Wheel which accounts say "meant more to the State of California that all the gold in the hills." A handyman, carpenter and millwright, he built a small shed in the backyard of his landlady's house in the gold mining town of Camptonville, California, and spent his evenings tinkering with small experimental wheels. He hoped to harness water from the mountain streams for gold mining companies. He devised 40 models, including one that powered the landlady's sewing machine. From this evolved his unique wheel that harnessed waterpower by a system of "water splitting." A model is in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. By 1895, 850 companies were using his improved wheel. The Pacific Coast and Electric Company in 1980 was operating 53 Pelton Wheels. Mr. Pelton was born in the Risden Road home still occupied by his descendants, Mr. and Mrs. William Kishman. He was a student in the little Cuddebach School No. 2. He is buried in Maple Grove Cemetery, Vermilion.
According to the William's History of Lorain County the first settler of Township No. 6, Range 19 (Brownhelm) lying along Lake Erie and then a part of Huron County, was Col. Henry Brown from Stockbridge, Mass. who arrived about 1816. He was accompanied by Peter P. Pease, Charles Whittlesey, William Alverson, William Lincoln, Seth Morse and Rensselaer Cooley, who assisted Col. Brown in building his house, a log house near the lake shore. Morse and Cooley returned to the East for the winter, the others remained on the grounds. The Township is named in honor of the leader of the original colony.
In later years Mr. Whittlesey became distinguished as a general in the Civil War, as an archaeologist and historian. He was the founder of the Western Reserve Historical Society and its president for many years. Peter Pease became the first settler of Oberlin. On July 4th, 1817 the families of Levi Shepard, Sylvester Barnum and Stephen James arrived and were the first families to settle in the town. During the same year the families of Solomon Whittlesey, Alva Curtis, Benjamin Bacon and Ebenezer Scott arrived. In 1818 the families of Col. Brown, Grandison Fairchild, Anson Cooper, Elisha Peck, George Bacon, Alfred Avery, Enos Cooley, Orrin Sage, John Graham and others arrived. The first frame house was built by Benjamin Bacon; the first brick house by Grandison Fairchild in the summer of 1819. Until October 1818 the town was part of Black River; it was then organized as a separate township. Officers were Calvin Leonard, Levi Shepard and Alva Curtis, trustees; Anson Cooper, clerk; William Alverson, treasurer; Benjamin Bacon and Levi Shepard, justices of the peace. Lorain County was formed on December 26, 1822 with Brownhelm as a part. In 1827 Henry Warner started the Brownhelm quarry. Blocks were hauled on wagons to Vermilion where they were shipped via schooner.
In 1819 Mrs. Alverson opened a school in her house; in the fall of 1819 an 18 x 22 foot school was built on the brow of the hill (North Ridge Rd. and Claus Rd.) in the settlement and was named Strut Street School. In the early part of 1899 the brick school was built on N. Ridge Rd. The first class of nine -- 5 boys and 4 girls graduated in 1889. Brownhelm could also boast of a U.S. Post Office from November 6, 1878 to March 31, 1912 and a train station located at Brownhelm Station Rd, and Sunnyside Rd.
In the late 1950s the residents of Brownhelm voted to change zoning to permit the Ford Plant to build and, after losing the plant to Lorain in a heated court case, petitioned the Village of Vermilion for annexation. On December 21, 1959 the Village of Vermilion passed legislation to accept the petition and approximately 4,300 acres of Brownhelm Township, including Elberta Beach, became a part of Vermilion Village.
Vermilion Ohio River & Industries
The Development of the River
Captain William Austin was a man of energy and built the first schooner along the river in 1812. She was the FRIENDSHIP, a schooner of the times, about a fifty footer registered at 57 tons in Cleveland in 1817. Solomon Parsons built the second schooner, the VERMILION, in 1814 and registered in Detroit at 36 tons about 40 feet. Where these ships were built is not exactly known but the builders chose a flat place along the riverside. This most certainly had to be near the foot of Huron Street where the later shipyard stood when ship building became the main industry in the village. Small schooners were ideal for scudding along the lake shore bringing in supplies from Buffalo and other ports. They were as large as the natural river bars would allow and enough cargo capacity to supply the needs of the early settlements. The schooner was the "work horse" and a very important transportation means in the opening of the vast Great Lakes Country. They reigned supreme until a new form of transportation arrived along shore - the steam railroad.
In 1840 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished building the two piers at the mouth of the river which provided the bar depth builders needed to take crafts to sea. Thus began the "Golden Age" of ship building on the river, in tune with the great demand for shipping on the lakes. In a period of 36 years 48 large lake schooners were built. This provided jobs and growth for the community. The harbor was a beehive of activity and the sound of the maul on caulking iron was a musical note that rang throughout the valley.
One very interesting ship built in the Golden Age was the screw steamer INDIANA built by Burton S. Goodsell in 1848, the only screw steamer built in Vermilion. In June 1858 off Marquette, Michigan on Lake Superior she went down with a cargo of iron ore. Her loss was a mystery and was not explained until the Smithsonian Institute raised her in 1979; she had lost a blade from the four blade propeller and the subsequent vibration opened her wooden seams causing water to rush in and extinguish the boiler thus allowing her to sink. The Institute now has a fine exhibit in Washington, D.C. of the engine, boiler, propeller and other artifacts recovered in the salvage. The engine represents the finest original marine steam power plant in the country. This explains why the Smithsonian was anxious to recover the engine. The "Vermilion Display" is a permanent monument to ship building in Vermilion. No other city can boast such an honor on the lakes.
The Fishing Industry
With the abundance of fine fish in the lake plus the need for food, the early settlers took to the lake and shore with small boats and seines to reap the easy harvest. Soon they were sailing in deep water using gill-nets, trap-nets along shore to satisfy the market demand for fresh and salted fish. With the arrival of the trains the markets quickly expanded to the big cities. To meet this demand the steam tug emerged as the champion catcher of tons of delectable white fish, herring, pickerel and perch. Then came the powered net puller in 1900 making the steam tug the most efficient and profitable fishing method. The golden years were from 1890 to 1945 when the fish harvest on Lake Erie peaked making a lucrative livelihood for thousands of fisherman. Vermilion was home to the following commercial fish companies and their tugs:
- Kishman Fish Company
- Leiderheiser Fish Company
- Edson Fish Company
- Parsons Fish Company
- Driscoll Fish Company
- Southwest Fish Company
Before the steam tugs, sailing boats were used for gill-nets and pound nets. This period consisted of the very first commercial fishing around the port in the years between 1820 and 1880 when steam tugs began to appear in number.
The Stone Industry
In the 1860s and 1870s considerable sandstone was shipped out of the harbor in schooners or barges. Two quarries, Brownhelm and Berlin Heights, shipped stone by rail to town where it was switched to the docks running from Exchange to Toledo Streets. Steam derricks transferred the stone from cars to the ships. Prominent quarry operators of the period were: Orange A. Leonard & Company, Summers & Harteep, and Worthington & Sons. Much of the building stone was used in rebuilding Chicago after the big fire there in 1871.
The Lumber Business
Another lifeblood industry was lumbering. Prior to 1861 a large quantity of forest products, such as staves, ships' timber, firewood and furniture was shipped from the area. During the 1860s and 1870s a shortage of suitable timber developed in the immediate area surrounding the town. This made it necessary to import raw material. Throughout the period large quantities were shipped into the port in schooners from the upper lakes to be manufactured into sash, doors, blinds, molding, dressed flooring, siding and a variety of other related products. N. Fisher & Company was the largest dealer. They operated two scows (old schooners). Their steam mill was at the corner of Sandusky and Liberty Streets, the southwest corner. In 1876 Fisher & Company leased the lumber mill to J.C. Gilchrist & Company. They left Vermilion to establish a large steamship company. Some of their relatives stayed in the lumber business and are now operating in the Seattle country.
Furnaces on the River - Lime Burning
Sometime around 1840 a lime kiln was built along the riverfront just north of Huron Street. The exact location is several feet north of Dr. Stack's house on the lakeshore. This furnace was a typical burner with a square sandstone base supporting a large iron stack. Limestone shipped down from the islands was loaded at the top with a skip-hoist that ran from the dock to the stack top. Horse power was used to hoist the stone cart. The burning flooded the town in a northeast wind with burning wood tinged with a lime aroma but the natives accepted the haze as a fact of life. The burnt lime was used to plaster many a house along the south shore of Lake Erie.
Furnaces on the River - Iron
About 60 feet north of Huron Street along the riverfront were two stone foundations, round in shape 10' in diameter and 2' high. Around the foundations the ground was tinged red, the sign of iron ore. These two furnaces were the first stacks of the Geauga Iron Company of Painesville built in 1828-30. They had a dock and warehouse nearby on the river. Later they moved back on the ridge as the Huron Iron Company west of the State Road. This business operated for many years until coke made charcoal furnaces obsolete. The Huron Iron Company ceased operations in 1865.
The Present River
In 1916 there were two yachts docked permanently in the river owned by Vermilionites; one was the IONA, a 35' glass cabin cruiser and the other was TOBERMORY, a 45' bridge-deck cruiser. Later, Harry Hewitt owned the NOMAD, a 36' powerboat he docked by the bridge. These three were the only pleasure boats in the steam in those days. Prior to those years the Rocky River sailboats would race to Vermilion on Labor Day for the annual "Big Time" in the little fishing port. Many a yarn was coined about the big mosquitoes that buzzed along the river.
In 1916 the Vermilion Boat Club held their first South Shore Regatta, which attracted sailors from Toledo, Sandusky, Rocky River and Cleveland. Headquarters consisted of a tent in front of the waterworks. Free ice-cold lemonade was served to all yachtsmen. Many a river kid with the spirit of the day immediately became yachtsmen. It was a day to remember for the thousands of spectators that lined the docks and piers.
Currently the river supports some 8,500 yachts, small boats, many of them sail, which indicates some 350,000 passages. Sail for fun has replaced sail for work.
Aside from ship building, lumber, commercial fishing and the stone trade providing jobs along the riverfront, there have been several substantial enterprises formed in the town over the years. These have been basic living and growth industries essential for all communities:
- Duplex Hot Water Heating Company
- The F.W. Wakefield Brass Company
- Dall Motor Parts Company
- South Shore Packing Corp.
- The Ford Motor Company
- The Howard Stove Company
- The Peasley Woodworking Factory
- Lithonia Downlighting
- Bettcher Industries
- Schwensen Bakery
- The Maurer Dairy
- The Vermilion News
Vermilion Ohio Recreation
Linwood Park (so named for its Linden trees)
The year 2002 marks the 118th birthday of Linwood Park, originally Evangelical United Brethren, now United Methodist-oriented; it is a semi-private family park, owned and operated by the Linwood Park company, maintained by the Park Superintendent with admittance gate fees collected by the Board of Directors during the season from early June until Labor Day.
Crystal Beach Park
Just east of downtown Vermilion on Rt. 6 on the north side of the road are an easily overlooked apartment complex, a gas station and a bank. On this acreage, as early as 1870 stood a picnic grove called Shadduck Lake Park. This pleasant grove became popular because the tree shaded area was accessible to horse-drawn buggies.
In 1906 George Blanchat purchased the park and named it Crystal Beach Park after his wife, Josephine's, description of the "crystal-like" sand on the beach. With rides and concessions added, Crystal Beach opened on Decoration Day, 1907. Along with the transition of ownership and name came other changes; even the square dancing gave way to the two-step. Some of the original buildings for the premier season were a pavilion for dancing and serving refreshments, a beer garden, a shooting gallery and a merry-go-round. Later bowling alleys, a toboggan slide into Lake Erie and a large restaurant were added. By the twenties, Crystal Beach featured such popular rides as the Bug, the Caterpillar, the circle swing called "Airplanes" and the Crystal Thriller roller coaster.Rivaling the big thrill rides in popularity was the dance hall, the Crystal Garden. This hall played host to well-known bands as Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Les Brown, Sammy Kaye and Lawrence Welk, to name just a few. This one feature drew people from Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo. As the big bands flourished, so did Crystal Beach. Certainly ballroom dancing provided a central attraction to the many amusement parks of that era.
George Blanchat passed away in 1938 and James Ryan, active at the park since 1929, took over as manager for Mrs. J. Blanchat. Jimmy Ryan held that position until the park's close at the end of the 1962 season.
Many people do not know, or remember that the restaurant known as McGarvey's was originally built, owned and operated by Charles Helfrich. That was in 1929, shortly after the new bridge was built across the river. The old bridge crossed a little south of the present location.
Mr. Helfrich operated a small boat and canoe rental business on the east side of the river. The proposed new bridge nearly touched his building and also diverted traffic away from it. So he purchased the land just north of the new bridge and built a restaurant and boat rental business there. Home cooked dinners, fish, chicken, sandwiches and homemade pies were the first attractions. Also served were the almost unheard of hot fish sandwiches, on Schwensen's bread. The business prospered and Helfrich's became a busy place. The canoe and boat business were also thriving. Canoeing on the river was a popular pastime in those days, especially on Sunday afternoons.
In 1934 Mr. Helfrich died and two years later Mrs. Helfrich sold the enterprises to Charlie McGarvey's. After his death, Mrs. McGarvey sold her husband's business to Charles Solomon, son of Eddie Solomon. The restaurant was one of the most well known eating places along the lake shore, popular with both "landlubbers" and boaters. In the year 2000, the Vermilion Port Authority purchased the McGarvey's property and razed the building. The property became a transient marina and restaurant named Red Clay on the River, now Quaker Steak & Lube.
Louis Wells, a Cleveland contractor, began the Vermilion Lagoons project as a means of keeping his men busy during the Great Depression of the 1930s. By 1931 the first house and the beach house had been built and the lagoons were dredged and most of the wooden piling secured.
The first house was located just to the south and west of the beach house on the Erie Lagoon and belonged to a Mr. Comstock, a real estate salesman and employee of Wells Realty Company. A "building boom" took place in the mid 1930s and by 1940 all of the houses on Anchorage Way, at least one house on Willow Lane, and most of the houses on the portion of Portage Drive located on the north side of the Erie Lagoon had been constructed. The first year-round residents, the Lester Kishman family, moved into their new home in April of 1937.
The Lagoons was not mostly permanent residents until the 1950s. Another "building boom" began during this period and it was at this time that Park Drive, the last road to be developed, experienced growth. To the townspeople of Vermilion, the people of the Lagoons were often known as "swamp dwellers" or "swamp rats." They were also thought to be slightly crazy for wanting to live so close to the water. At times, this has indeed meant being in the water rather than by the water.
Along with the residential development came the recreational in the form of the Vermilion Yacht Club. Mr. Wells deeded the land on the tip and south side of Anchorage Way to the Yacht Club with one stipulation - no alcoholic beverages could be served or sold on the premises of the club itself. The originators of the Vermilion Yacht Club were all former members of the Cleveland Yacht Club seeking a more secluded anchorage.
Besides the obviously great boat dockage and the beach on the Lake, the uniqueness of the Lagoons is in the uniformity of the architecture of all buildings found there. The charm of Cape Cod homes, all white with dark roofs and shutters, amid trees (mostly all willows in the beginning) and fronting on lagoons is undeniable and gives to the Vermilion Lagoons its own inimitable flavor.