Friday, December 26, 2008

Man of the Milennium

Pennsylvania was now behind us on a hot and humid day that was far too early for the season. I had the beginning of a head cold which seemed a perfect rationalization to get off the Interstate, take refuge in an air-conditioned motel, and catch up with mail and personal hygiene before going on to Michigan. When it hit 96 at midday I was sure I had made the right decision. Ordinarily I would have avoided the Interstate which follows the Ohio Turnpike here but didn’t because of my attempt to reach a campground on Lake Eire early. There were alternate routes to avoid it as the road joined at the Pennsylvania State line, but the head cold lessened my interest in circuitous routes, so listening to CDs while on cruise control seemed easier while taking decongestants.
Interstate 80 was continued through Pennsylvania some years ago to give the traveler a more northern route that was closer to a straight line into the New York Metropolitan area. It replaced the much maligned (at least by me) Pennsylvania Turnpike as the route of choice for most trucks, buses, and vacationers. It is free, fast, and a lot less scary.
The Ohio Turnpike was designated as I-80 from the time of its construction. In fact, since Interstate highways were funded at 80 per cent by the federal government under President Eisenhower---the last great public works project of the century--- it may be how it got built at all. It has been having cosmetic surgery done for as long as I can remember. You get the feeling that the state wants to make a good impression. I have only been on it sporadically and mostly years before traveling from Maryland to Chicago. My brother, who used it extensively to return to East since his college days, will testify that it has been this way for as long as he can remember. It is not a big deal in the larger worldview, but an interesting and annoying circumstance. A “Lane Closed, Reduce Speed” sign followed by miles of orange cones blocking seemingly spotless pavement are not a favorite sight for most drivers when it requires them to lower speeds and Ohio has strict enforcement. Often, one work crew in a ten-mile stretch will be found in the midst of this either drinking coffee or driving a pickup truck in the closed lane with the lights flashing.
I had enough of all that for the day in Huron County at the Huron River just east of Sandusky. When I exited, I saw a sign for the "Birthplace of the Man of the Millennium, Thomas A. Edison." I had no idea, having grown up near Edison, New Jersey that he had been born here. Further, I didn’t remember that anyone named him the Man of the Millennium. Maybe they had and I missed it. I recalled vaguely at the time of the infamous “Y2K” moment that there were historians arguing for Jefferson, Gandhi and others. To my knowledge it had never gotten beyond that. Perhaps the town where he was born had a special election. It seemed presumptuous, as brilliant as he was, to declare Thomas Alva Edison the Man of the Millennium.
Thus, a heat wave, a campground too far, and a decision that I wanted to tend to my head cold rather than continue on to the home of the beloved Toledo Mud Hens baseball team that led me, later that afternoon to a town that looked like a place I would see in Connecticut. Milan Ohio (which the locals pronounce “My-lan”) is a charming town with a rich history. By the accident of his father's occupation and the political allegiances of his forefathers, it was the place where one of the greatest inventors of all time was born.
White missionaries, the Monrovians, lived among the Indians in a village known as Petquotting here as early as 1787. This became Milan after they left for reasons lost to local history, in 1804. Milan is in the Firelands, the western most tract of a parcel of land known as the Connecticut Western Reserve. The name is apt since it was land given to Connecticut families burned out of their homes and driven west during the Revolutionary War.
This birthplace of Edison also has a remarkable and unlikely place in the history of the Great Lakes as a port. The Huron River was navigable to Lake Erie in the early 1800’s to within three miles of Milan. A few daring entrepreneurs decided that they would build a canal from the town to the river and thus gain access to the Lake. By 1839 the first ship from the Great Lakes entered the canal, and this once quiet inland village where one of the first settlers, Ebenezer Merry, had built a flower and sawmill in 1816 now became a hub of commerce for the then western United States. Warehouses were built nearly overnight to store 300,000 bushels of grain. Hundreds of wagons from 150 miles away lined the roads daily to transship the grain from the inland farms through Milan to cities North and East. More ships were needed to move the grain than entered the canal, so Milan began building them. By 1847 more than 75 schooners had been built and were under sail. In 1847, more than 917,800 bushels of were shipped from this port, making it the second largest in the world after the Ukrainian city of Odessa.
Milan was content and on it's way to becoming a port city of huge importance until the railroad. Milan fought the introduction of rail transportation for obvious economic reasons. However, rails, not canals, were the future, and it lost. By 1869, Milan's canal and warehouses were being abandoned to become part of the village's history. One warehouse still stands near the canal basin in mournful testimony to the thirty years of plenty.
Even without the presence of the Edison family, this would still be a remarkable village. This meteoric burst of commerce made many rich, and left as quickly as it came, and yet a lovely town, with homes representative of those boom times remains. It is part of Ohio history and a proud chapter in the history of Huron County. Yet millions pass, at 70 miles an hour within 7 miles of its bucolic village green and have no idea it is there, what it was, or what it has become. In much the same way that planes fly at 500 miles and hour over rich, diverse, and interesting, places, those who travel the "I" roads do so in the same hermetically sealed existence. They go fast, eat plastic food, and never know of Ebenezer Merry, or see the place where Edison was born. We learn to travel quickly and efficiently, but because we do, we know little of what we pass. As Charles Kuralt, the “On the Road” journalist of CBS News once famously said, “You can travel the interstate highway system from one coast to the other and never see a thing.”
On the village green, there is a bandstand shell, a monument to the Civil War soldiers of Milan, and a statue of a young Mr. Edison reading at his mother's knee. The town hall that was built in 1864 faces it on the east side. It has, I was assured, the same fa├žade as it had then. There are shops and buildings that are not "faux" replicas, but lovingly cared for originals. There are period lampposts which border the square, each donated in memory of a citizen now gone, some prominent and some not. On the south side, the Milan Inn stands as a museum, looking as if it would open for dinner, with vases and linen on the tables in the first floor dining room. The second floor looks ready for guests as well. All the rooms that faced the square had welcoming candles in the windows in the Amish tradition. I was assured by one of the women who worked in City Hall having a late lunch here on the green that it still was used for "occasions,” although it did not open regularly. It needed a coat of paint, but otherwise looked as it did in the 1800's.
Down the street is the old canal basin and near it the small house where Edison was born. He did not live here long, his great- grandfather John Edison was an inventor too, and had lived in New Jersey during colonial times. Some 160 years later, the tract of land that John had farmed back then became Edison New Jersey and was where Thomas worked and made his home. John Edison was a Loyalist during the Revolution, and like most that stayed true to King George, soon found himself in Nova Scotia, after having his property confiscated under tenuous legal circumstances and sentenced to execution. His prominent relatives got him safely to Canada but the family fortunes fluctuated after that. Edison's grandfather, a Canadian by birth, served in the British Navy in the War of 1812. Edison’s father married the daughter of one of General Washington's officers. He left Canada after an unsuccessful attempt to free that country from British rule and finally settled in Milan where he made roof shingles and Thomas eventually joined five siblings when born on February 11, 1847. Seven years later they were gone and the house passed on to other owners until one of his sisters bought it and lived there for a time. Edison inherited it in 1906. He never lived there. On a visit in 1926, however, the father of the electric light was shocked and embarrassed to find that his property was one of the few left in Milan still lit by gas and candles.
This place is full of history. It was for a few years one of the great ports of the world. It was the birthplace of the man who invented the telephone, the phonograph, a way to record votes electronically, wireless telegraphy, the electric pen used in mimeograph machines, the motion picture camera, the miner's lamp, the nickel iron-alkaline storage battery, and vulcanized rubber among other things. Yet it sits, largely unnoticed near the roaring Interstate, quaint for its history, lovely in its present state, but forgotten in history larger than Huron County and Ohio.
The centerpiece of the town is without doubt the village green. It has that imposing monument to those who fought in the Civil War. At its base are the names of all the battles they fought in as part of various Ohio Regiments and an obelisk that rises above to which is affixed the "Roll Call of the Dead.” Unusual for such remembrances is that there is also a "Roll Call of the Living.” Bert, the fellow who was cutting the lawn, explained that this honored the men who returned to Milan and in many cases became its leading citizens. There were small plaques in the grass at the base that honored those who had served in World War One and Two. I asked Bert why there was none for Korea or Vietnam. He looked into the distance and said there had been some talk about that but the American Legion—which provided the other two—and whose local Post was in one of the buildings facing the square, had donated the ones that were there. He did not elaborate. I hoped that the Charles Evans American Legion Post just takes its' time to deliberate such things. I hoped that, but doubted it provided a plausible explanation.

A soft breeze was blowing in the shade on the village green. I had enjoyed a wonderful day discovering this place and talking to friendly and helpful people. I had enjoyed this day simply because it was on the way, and I, for all the wrong reasons and all the right results, took the time, once off the highway, to find it.

3 comments:

  1. Another good piece, Reamus. Makes me want to read up on Thomas Edison. And it makes me want to slow down when I travel.

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  2. A treasure trove here of information about one small town in Ohio. If not for this blogpost of yours, I'd have probably gone on forever being unaware of Milan.....unless I suddenly acquired the urge to study up on Thomas Edison, of course.

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  3. Bob,

    Thanks and yes, slow down, it is worth the trouble.


    Farmwife,

    Glad you enjoyed it. it was an interesting place...

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