Summer in the Firelands

As we approach Labor Day, we look back on a summer of outdoor activities and vacation trips. But how did people in the Firelands spend that period between June and September? In those days before the advent of air conditioning, whole families (less fathers who stayed in town to work) would decamp from hot towns and cities to cottages on lakes, at the seashore, or in the mountains. In some parts of the country, this tradition continues, albeit, now only for weekends.

Growing up, I spent part of my summers at “the cottage” in the Firelands, on the shores of Lake Erie, about an hour and a half west of our home in Cleveland. I remember “the cottage” as a musty old building with wide porches set between a cemetery and the lake. I loved the air of family history that permeated the place.

Squirrel House 1972

The Cottage at Oak Bluff in 1972 – as I remember it.

At the time, I was aware that it had been in our family for generations, but had scant knowledge of how it came into the family. Decades later, I found at my mother’s house a story written by my grandmother. Titled, “The Squirrel House,” it filled in the gaps in my knowledge and gave me a glimpse of a time when many families in the Firelands, and across America, would spend their summers at the beach.

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The Squirrel House

by Harriott Barton [1]

About 1892, Judge Charles Wickham [2], Judge Samuel Wildman [3], brother’s-in-law, and Dr. David DeForest Benedict [4]  bought from Mr. Douglas, father of Will Douglas, the property which they named Oak Bluff, because of the huge old oaks that grew along the hilltop. Each of the three owned a front lot upon which he planned to erect a summer cottage. The remainder of the land to the west of the cemetery and south and west of the cottages was held in common. Later they sold the west lot to Captain John Adams [5], brother-in-law of Wickham and Wildman. He built a fourth cottage.

David Benedict - Firelands Pioneer

As this was in the “Horse and Buggy” age, it was necessary to have a stable. So a long, narrow shed was erected facing west, just beyond the south-west corner of the cemetery, close to the entrance from Lake Road. A partition separated the Benedict part from the larger Wickham-Wildman part. There was a wide door on the west side of each room. Between the road and the lake was Common Property — an old peach orchard, neglected, and no longer very productive. Later it was fenced for a pasture. Then it was used for a tennis court.

The Wickham and Wildman cottages were built, I believe, in 1893. On the Benedict lot, overlooking Cranberry Creek, was the old cabin, its floor mostly rotted away; the door sill a good three feet above the badly eroded ground. On my first visit someone lifted me up to look inside. What floor still remained in place was covered with heaps of chewed hickory nuts and acorns. Back in town I chattered about the squirrel’s house, and that became its name.

Harriott Wickham 1893

Harriott at age 3 in 1893, about the time when she named the cottage “Squirrel House”

 

That winter Grandpa and old Bill Mears (uncle of Mrs. George Harkness) cleaned and repaired the old cabin. They put in a new roof and floor . . . Grandpa loved to work with wood. In Norwalk he had a workshop above the chicken house on the slope of the hill behind the garden on Bank Street. They built two partitions in the cabin for a dining room on the west, with the east part cut into two small rooms, the kitchen to the south and a bedroom on the north.

In the front yard they made a large wooden platform about a foot above the ground for a floor for the big four room tent which housed the rest of the family in the summer. Each room held a bed and a wash stand with bowl and pitcher. Wash water was carried up from the lake; drinking water from the Ruggles or the old stone trough south of Ceylon.

The cabin bedroom was reserved for Grandpa and Grandma [6] when she was there. They usually took their vacation in early fall, when there were usually fishing boats on the shore. I now suspect they found more peace and quiet at that time.

Through the summer the place was always full of family! Although Aunt Fannie [7] was till in Colorado, there were still Aunt Lil [8], Mame [9] and my mother [10], also Cousin May [11], our grandmother’s orphaned niece from Canada who married Fred Christian [12], my father’s nephew. May had been a part of the Benedict family for several years.

As the years passed and Grandpa’s tribe increased, he saw the need for larger quarters, so by 1896 he was involved in a new project; bedrooms to complete his house. He personally chose the boards he wanted to use – many for their knots, which he found interesting for their varied designs.

The actual building, I believe, started in the fall of 1896 and finished in the spring of 1897. Again Bill Mears assisted. They erected the frame and fitted the perpendicular siding boards, using sawhorses made during the winter in Grandpa’s workshop. The only clear memory I have of the actual building is it standing back of the house about 30 feet (there was no fence at that time). Grandpa was sitting astride the ridgepole with his snowy hair and beard — he looked just like the Santa Claus on a Christmas card!

Finally, the house was finished! A living room and two bedrooms on the ground floor; upstairs four bedrooms opening onto a narrow hall. The bedrooms’ inner walls were really just partitions, seven feet high. No ceilings up there — to allow for better ventilation. A porch (roofed) ran across the front of the living room along its east side to join a porch in front of the dining-kitchen part, and around the east side, where the steps led down to the back yard and the privy. No doorway was cut between the new part and the kitchen-dining area, in order to keep flies out of the front part of the house.

Oak Bluff c. 1911, 1912 (Susan Orsini)

The Squirrel House, 1911

There was no fireplace, as in other cottages. Grandpa had grown up in a family haunted by the memory of his older brother who, at the age of three, got up too early one morning, caught his night clothes afire, and was burned to death. Some years later my mother had one built in the living room.

Having finished the house and furnished it — largely from the attic at 80 E. — a number of surplus things from the dismantled Deaver home in New Haven [14] were stored there. The little ash stands were the property of Uncle Will Benham [14], who had had a rooming house in Chicago during The Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1892-3.

Having finished the house and furnished it, Grandpa decided that, to protect it from dripping bathers, there should be a bathhouse; so he proceeded to build one! — on the slope of the bluff just west of the steps down to the beach. The south side of the shed-like building rested on a shelf-like cut in the slope up from the beach (the south part of which was higher and much drier than now). The north part of the shed-like building rested on tall posts resting on stones set into the beach. A north-south partition divided it into rooms — ladies to the east, with a door onto the stairway; the men’s room (to the west) going onto a plank walk between the building and the hillside. Each room had a window, a table and hooks on the wall. It saved many a wet trail in the house!

scan0012

At the beach – 1908

It was at about this time that Aunt Fannie, her husband [15] having died very suddenly, returned to Norwalk with her three children, Benedict [16], Mary [17] and Agnes [18] and became part of the summer household in the cottage. I’ve often wondered how our three mothers put up with us!

Eleanor, Harriott, Ben Hottel 1

Harriott (bottom left) her cousin Ben and sister Eleanor

By this time Grandpa’s angina had become much more severe. The last year he came to the lake he began having very sudden and severe attacks of pain in his chest. As he insisted upon being quite active, I was assigned the task of keeping an eye on him.

I was nine years old by then and had been very devoted to Grandpa. The problem was that he did not want to be considered an invalid and kept telling me not to follow him. One day he collapsed in the drive back of the Wildman cottage. I came running up and he was a bit cross about it, saying he was just tired and was resting! and he wished I would stop following him.

I was, of course, old enough to understand that he as in great pain, but determined to keep going. And he did until the next January when, overnight, he died suddenly at the age of 68.

If he could look in on Oak Bluff now, more than seventy years later, I’m sure that he would be happy that some of his family are still enjoying, as he did, The Place on the Lake.

 

Genealogical Notes

When reading old stories like “The Squirrel House,” do you often wonder who all these people the author mentions are? Who are “Aunt Lil,” and “Grandma,” and “Judge Charles Wickham” and all the rest of these people Harriott Barton mentions in passing?

Well, I have the answers to those questions for you. Below are the full names of everyone mentioned in “The Squirrel House,” along with their relationship to Harriott. Click on the links for a WeRelate Wiki article that describes their lives. Let me know if you have additional information about any of these people, and I’ll update their article. Or you can  join WeRelate Wiki and update it yourself! That’s the beauty of Wikis–collaboration!

[1] Harriott Benedict Wickham Barton (1890-1981). Author of “The Squirrel House.” Daughter of Agnes and Frank Wickham.

[2] Charles Preston Wickham (1836-1925). Eldest brother of Frank Wickham. Civil War veteran, judge, and U.S. Congressman.

[3] Samuel A Wildman (1846-1934). Brother of Charles Wickham’s wife Emma. Civil War veteran and judge.

[4] David DeForrest Benedict (1833-1901). Harriott Wickham Barton’s grandfather. Surgeon in the Civil War where he was captured at the Battle of Chickamauga.

[5] John Adams (1843-1927). Civil War veteran. Husband of Mary Wildman, Samuel Wildman’s sister.

[6] Harriott Deaver Benedict (1835-1909). Harriott Wickham Barton’s grandmother. David Benedict’s wife.

[7] Fannie Buckingham Benedict Hottel (1863-1940). Daughter of David and Harriott Benedict. Harriott Wickham Barton’s aunt.

[8] Ellen Eliza Benedict Wickham (1868-1942). Daughter of David and Harriott Benedict. Harriott Wickham Barton’s aunt.

[9] Mary Deaver Benedict (1857-1931). Daughter of David and Harriott Benedict. Harriott Wickham Barton’s aunt.

[10] Agnes Caroline Benedict Wickham (1861-1934). Daughter of David and Harriott Benedict. Harriott Wickham Barton’s mother.

[11] Mabel (May) Curtis Christian (1868-1911). Ward of David and Harriott Benedict. Married Fred Christian.

[12] Fred Christian (1866-1935). Son of Katherine Wickham Christian, sister of Charles Preston Wickham. Married May Curtis.

[13] Homestead of James Deaver and Harriott Shaon Deaver in North Fairfield, Ohio. Parents of Harriott Deaver Benedict and Harriot Wickham Barton’s grandparents.

[14] William Benham (1858-1923). Second husband of Harriott Benedict Benham, eldest daughter of David and Harriott Benedict. Harriott Wickham Barton’s aunt.

[15] Andrew Hottel (1852-1899). Husband of Fanny Benedict Hottel. Harriott Wickham Barton’s uncle.

[16] David Benjamin Hottel (1890-1955). Son of Andrew and Fanny Hottel. Harriott Wickham Barton’s cousin.

[18] Mary Hottel (1895-1981). Daughter of Andrew and Fanny Hottel. Harriott Wickham Barton’s cousin.

[19] Agnes Hottel (1897-1983). Daughter of Andrew and Fanny Hottel. Harriott Wickham Barton’s cousin.

 

For additional information about Oak Bluff and the Benedict and Wickham families, check out Family, by Ian Frazier.

 

 

 

 

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One Response

  1. […] summer evenings dancing at “The Grove” in Ruggles Beach, as I described in my “Summer in the Firelands” post this past […]

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