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!

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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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“Sufferers’ Land Post #36 – The Wickham Family

While staying with her husband’s parents at their home in Sodus Point, New York, Lucy heard many stories about the Wickham family.

The first of Frederick’s family to come to America was Thomas Wickham, who arrived in Wethersfield, Connecticut around 1648. His son Samuel was a prominent citizen of Warwick, Rhode Island. Samuel was a military leader and a representative to the General Assembly for many years, serving as clerk of that body for three years. He was a relatively wealthy man, and a slave owner. An inventory of his goods taken about 1712 included a Negro woman as his property.

Samuel’s son Thomas followed his father’s example as a soldier, prominent member of the community and a slave owner. In his will, he left to his wife Hannah a Negro woman named Bess.

Samuel’s grandson was born in 1736 and named Thomas, like his father. In 1762, he married Elizabeth Wanton, whose father was the Royal Governor of Rhode Island.

Like his father-in-law, Thomas Wickham was a loyalist during the Revolution and in 1781 went to prison because of his sympathies for England. He gained his release from prison by paying 5,000 silver dollars. He didn’t leave America as many Loyalists did, but spent the remainder of his life petitioning for the return of his and his wife’s lands and fortunes. [1]

Thomas and Elizabeth named their sixth child William. He was born on July 7, 1778 in Newport, Rhode Island. In his youth, William lived with the stigma of being a member of a loyalist family.

When he was a small boy, William was playing one day with a friend on the edge of an enclosed field. Two men were talking on the other side of the fence. One of them pointed to William and said to his companion, “That little boy is the son of a notorious Tory!” The other man laughed, patted William’s head and said, “Poor little Tory. We’ll have to teach him better.” Then he shook William’s hand and departed. William later learned that that man was George Washington. [2]

William left home early, going to sea at the age thirteen. In 1798, he was in the U.S. Navy during the War with the French. He also served with Decatur on the Tripoli expedition. He sailed all over the world, rising quickly in rank and becoming Captain of a ship at the age of twenty-one.

Shortly after he became Captain, William sailed to Philadelphia with a cargo. While there, he visited the home of Frederick and Elizabeth Christian, a prominent family in the city, in company with Frederick and Elizabeth’s son. As the two men entered the house, they encountered the Christian’s daughter, Catherine. Catherine later remembered the scene to her granddaughter.

There was a young man in Philadelphia who was attentive to me, and while I could not say I loved him, I thought more of him than of any other young man I knew. One day he invited me to go horseback riding and I felt that day he was going to ask me to marry him, and I had made up my mind to accept him. Just as I was coming downstairs in my riding habit, my brother came in the house with a young man whom he introduced to me as Captain Wickham. I knew right then I was going to refuse the other young man that afternoon, and I did. Later your grandfather asked me and we have been lovers ever since.

When she heard this story, Lucy must have remembered first meeting Frederick in her garden in Norwalk.

William and Catherine were married on Thursday, March 24, 1803 in Christ Church in Philadelphia. William wanted to go back to sea, which was the only life he knew, but Catherine adamantly disagreed. He had an opportunity to go on an expedition to the Pacific Northwest on the Astor, but Catherine was so much against it that he turned down the offer. The ship sailed without him and never returned. It reached Oregon, but Native Americans killed the entire crew.

After this, William abandoned the sea and moved to New York City, where he went into the shipping business in partnership with his brother Thomas. However, this was not a good time for the shipping industry. The brothers had a string of bad luck that ended in financial disaster.

Their ships often sailed to the West Indies, and one was lost on a return voyage, weakening the business. In 1807, President Jefferson placed an embargo on American shipping out of U.S. ports. The Wickham brothers had a ship loaded and ready to sail. Because of their earlier loss, they were in a bad financial situation. Taking a chance, they decided to send the ship out anyway. Authorities caught the ship and confiscated it and its cargo, which ruined the brothers’ business.

William and Catherine moved to Sodus Point in upstate New York, then at the edge of the frontier. They built a cabin and went into the fishing business on Lake Ontario. The future looked promising, but unfortunately, William and Catherine had gone from the frying pan into the fire. The War of 1812 had just begun, and in 1813, a party of British soldiers raided Sodus Point and burned the town, leaving only one house standing. Ironically, William, whose father went to prison as a British loyalist, had his house, boats and nets burned by the British Army.

Before the British arrived, William and Catherine buried their silver in the woods. This included a tea set given to William’s ancestors John and William Wanton by Queen Anne for service to the crown during Queen Anne’s War – another irony. [3]

Lucy spent several months with her in-laws, and learned much about her husband’s family. Finally, with summer ending, she bid them farewell, and departed for home.

Please like this post and let me know what you think in the comments. Thank you.

GO TO NEXT POST – Return to Norwalk and a Newlywed’s Life

Index of Posts

Footnotes:

[1] The history of the Wickham family in America is from the Family History: Wickham, Benedict, Preston & Deaver, by Agnes and Harriott Wickham, edited by Dave Barton, pp. 28-32 and a letter dated July 18, 1943 from Mr. Brunell E. Stanfin to Miss Elanor Wickahm.

[2] This story is from undated notes about the Wickham family written by Harriott Wickham Barton

[3] The history of the Wickham family in America is from the Family History: Wickham, Benedict, Preston & Deaver, by Agnes and Harriott Wickham, edited by Dave Barton, pp. 28-32

NOTE: For genealogies of Frederick Wickham’s family see the following pages on this site: Genealogy Wickham; Genealogy Wanton; Genealogy Winthrop; Genealogy Sutton, Dudley and Winthrop.

© 2009 by David W. Barton. All rights reserved

“Sufferers’ Land” Post #35 – Lily of the Garden –

Lucy Preston loved flowers and often worked in the garden in front of her home. One day in the mid-eighteen-thirties, her love of gardening changed her life.

She was cutting flowers in front of her house when two men walked by, one of whom she knew. Her acquaintance introduced her to his companion, Captain Frederick Wickham, the skipper of a lake schooner. The rugged young man impressed her so much that she impulsively gave him a lily.

So began a romance that would span fifty years. Frederick and Lucy were in their early twenties, and both were responsible for their age. Lucy had been in charge of her family’s household ever since the death of her mother almost ten years before. Frederick had been a sailor since he was a boy, and commanded a ship while still in his teens. He was a strong-willed man, and soon won Lucy’s heart.

At the time he and Lucy met, Frederick was skipper of the schooner DeWitt Clinton, owned by him and his brother John, who had warehouses and a shipyard in Huron, Ohio. After he met her, Frederick spent winters in Norwalk, working in the family store, Wickham, Ailing & Christian.

The couple’s romance blossomed, and in January 1835, they married at her home on 50 West Main Street. That summer, Frederick went back to the lake and the schooner DeWitt Clinton. With her husband away, Lucy decided to visit his family in Sodus Point, New York.

The voyage was long and arduous, although not anything like her journeys to the Firelands as a child. She went by boat from Huron to Cleveland, where she met her husband and his ship. They traveled together from there on the DeWitt Clinton to Buffalo, New York. Being in that town brought back memories for Lucy of her voyages as a child to the Ohio wilderness. No doubt, she noted many changes, both in the town and in the means of transportation.

From Buffalo, she continued alone by canal boat along the Erie Canal to Lyons, New York, where she met the wife of her husband’s cousin Mrs. Rachel Christian, and her son Thomas. Together, they traveled overland north to Lucy’s in-law’s house on Sodus Bay.

William Wickham, then 57 years old, and his wife Catherine Christian Wickham greeted their daughter-in-law and welcomed her into their home. Lucy stayed with them until October, and during this time learned much about her husband’s family and their heritage. [1]

Please like this post and let me know what you think in the comments. Thank you.

GO TO NEXT POST – The Wickham Family

Index of Posts

Footnote:

[1] The story of Frederick’s courtship of Lucy, their marriage and Lucy’s trip to Sodus, New York are from “Memoir of Lucy Preston Wickham, The Firelands Pioneer, Jan. 1920, pp. 2399-2400; the Family History: Wickham, Benedict, Preston & Deaver, by Agnes and Harriott Wickham, edited by Dave Barton, pp. 32-33.

© 2004 by Company Name. All rights reserved

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