Saturday, December 4, 2010

Following the Old Roads

One way to find the oldest buildings is to follow the old roads. This is not quite so useful in the urban core, where whole cultural landscapes have vanished as an area is re-imagined as something else. But, as you drive into the country - where there is enough space that it's not necessary to demolish before building new - you can see most of the set of buildings that were present in 1860.

Settlement of Northeast Ohio by people of European ancestry began about 1800, and in rural areas had reached a climax population by 1850. By this, I mean that the land had filled with as many people as it could support from farming and associated activities. Towns continued to grow, but the rural population stayed pretty much the same. As examples, while the population of Cuyahoga Country jumped from 26,512 in 1840 to 130,564 in 1880, the population of the rural townships in Cuyahoga County of Brecksville (1840 - 1,124; 1880 1,095), Royalton (1840 - 1,051; 1880 - 1,124), and Strongsville (1840 - 1,151; 1880 - 1,029) were stable.

Most early settlers built rude, temporary structures at first, such as log cabins. It was not until the 1820s and 1830s that there were considerable numbers of frame (mostly), brick (occasionally), or stone (rarely) structures. As the decades progressed, the number of new rural homes declined and desires for up-to-date styling and function were most often met through remodeling and expanding existing homes.

When building their "permanent" homes, the farmers sited them along the existing public roads, which were far fewer than there are today. As a result, the farm houses were much closer together than you might think. The houses of the rural settlement landscape are in linear corridors, with the agricultural fields owned by the householder sometimes adjacent, sometimes in a scattered patchwork in the surrounding area.

Typical settlement pattern of a rural Western Reserve Township in Portage County, about 1870. The area in this graphic covers approximately 2 x 4 miles, with the town center at bottom center.

You can find the old roads by looking at old maps or you can find them simply by following the farmhouses.

In general, roads follow the suggestions and imperatives of natural geography; the rules and necessities of political geography; and the uses of commerce. In northeast Ohio, in the area once known as the Western Reserve, townships were 5 miles square. Usually, in the center of each township was a place called, reasonably enough, "the Center" or, in variant spelling "the Centre." Typically, in each Center was a township hall, 2 or three churches, a school, a general store or two, and a few tradesmen (such as blacksmiths). The center was also often the intersection of two roads - a north-south road through the township and an east-west road through the township. These were often the most traveled roads. [Geographic imperatives always create exceptions - In a recent, earlier, blog, Christopher Busta-Peck followed the main Road that followed the Erie Lakeshore.]

So, if you start at a town center in northeast Ohio and head east or west, you will most often find other old town centers, at about 5 miles apart. On Route 82, if you start at Columbia (Lorain County) and you head five miles east you will find Strongsville, then 5 miles to North Royalton, then Brecksville, Northfield, Twinsburg, Aurora, Mantua, and Hiram. The term "center" is still found in some road names, such as Dover Center Road, Warrensville Center Road, and SOM (for Solon, Orange, Mayfield) Center Road.

On the west side of Cleveland, some of the oldest roads follow the ridges formed by various shorelines of glacial Lake Erie. Detroit Road (so named because it was the road to Detroit) follows North Ridge (you will find Northridgeville in Lorain County); Hilliard Avenue, for a while, then Center Ridge Road follow Center Ridge; Lorain Avenue (so named because it was the road to Lorain) follows, in part, Coe Ridge; Dennison follows Dennison Ridge; and Butternut Ridge Road follows Butternut Ridge.

From Geological Survey of Ohio, Vol 2, 1874. "Map of Lake Ridges in Lorain and Cuyahoga Counties."

After following the old road for a while, you learn to filter your vision, so the older buildings pop and newer buildings fade.

For more about the really old roads (which European settler's roads usually followed), see:

William A. McGill, ed., Ohio Indian Trails - A Pictorial Survey of the Indian Trails of Ohio Arranged from the Works of the Late Frank Wilcox. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1970.

Frank N. Wilcox, Ohio Indian Trails. Cleveland, Ohio: Gates Press, 1934.

William C. Mills, Archeological Atlas of Ohio. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State Archaelogical and Historical Society, 1914.


  1. I always wonder how different Ohio would look if we had followed the European model where all the farmers live in a dense little hamlet and then there are just miles and miles of rolling farmland with no buildings on it.

    Of course in europe all the land was owned by the aristocracy so there was an urban growth boundary by default, but I think too often our pattern of constantly dividing and subdividing the land results in ugly and chaotic developments... how many times have you seen an old cemetery stranded in the middle of a parking lot?

  2. You said, "On the west side of Cleveland, some of the oldest roads follow the ridges formed by various shorelines of glacial Lake Erie."

    The same is true for Lake County, on the East side. North Ridge (Route 20) and South Ridge (Rt. 84) Roads were formed by various shorelines. As is Middle Ridge Road.

  3. And yet - Ridge Road runs N-S! The one road you would think was once a shoreline.