Monday, January 7, 2013

Ravenna State University?

Most people who are familiar with the history of Kent State University are aware that the state of Ohio awarded Kent with what was known as a "normal school" (a school to train teachers) in 1910.  They also are familiar with the somewhat embellished story of how local leaders here in Kent were able to convince the commission that was sent from Columbus to scout various sites in both northwestern and northeastern Ohio for two new normal schools that Kent was the best spot and how the Kent visit was nearly a total disaster.  Not only did the weather not cooperate in the least, but the local welcoming committee didn't meet the search commission at the right place (the train station downtown) believing that the commissioners would be arriving by car.  Only a wonderful blue gill dinner at the Frank Merrill home in Twin Lakes saved the day, enough that Kent eventually won the normal school which later became Kent State University.  The next stop for the commission was Ravenna, where they were expected by lunchtime but arrived about three hours late.  It's most often presented like the committee in Ravenna knew their bid was doomed and that Kent would win.  But was Ravenna really ever a major consideration for the normal school?  And was it a competition exclusively between Kent and Ravenna?

Locally, many people are aware that Ravenna was one of the cities that tried to get the normal school along with Kent, but for some reason, many also believe that it was a choice the state made only between Kent and Ravenna.  This has evolved into an even more bizarre myth that Ravenna was given a choice between having the county seat and the university and chose the county seat so Kent got the university.  Where that story came from I have no idea, but it's pure folk history (and false).  Ravenna and what would later become Kent did compete for the honor of being the county seat when Portage County was formed, but that was in 1807, over 100 years before the state of Ohio passed the Lowry Bill to establish two new normal schools in northern Ohio.  In 1807, neither city was much of anything in terms of buildings or a city layout.  Ravenna won because its founder, Benjamin Tappan, was able to convince the powers that be to give his settlement the county seat (on his land, which is now downtown Ravenna) over what had apparently been the favored location in Franklin Township, owned by Aaron Olmstead.  Had Olmstead's land been chosen, the county seat would've been located about where Standing Rock cemetery is today in northern Kent along SR 43, and Kent itself likely would've been located further north that it is.  As it turned out, Olmstead died before the deal could be worked out and his heirs used the land for other purposes, so the county seat went to Ravenna.

Front page of the Ravenna Republican,
September 22, 1910
On to the normal school.  The first important fact to know is that the search for the normal school site in northeastern Ohio included far more than just Kent and Ravenna.  Over 40 communities statewide applied for consideration for one of the two schools.  In northeastern Ohio, Kent and Ravenna were just two among a group that included Ashtabula, Canton, Chagrin Falls, Columbiana, East Liverpool, Geneva, Hubbard, Hudson, Lorain, Massillon, Medina, Poland, Salem, Seville, Urichsville, Wadsworth, Warren, and Youngstown.  Eventually the commission narrowed the list down based on a number of criteria like central location in the region, access to railroads, etc.  They then heard presentations from each candidate city and made further cuts.  After those two "rounds", the commission visited the remaining candidate cities, which totaled 14 for northeastern Ohio.  Both Kent and Ravenna made those first cuts as both cities shared a central location in the region and rail connections.  Also included were Wadsworth, Medina, Hudson, Salem, Warren, Poland, Youngstown, Ashtabula, Geneva, Chagrin Falls, Canton, and Massillon.

Front page story from the Ravenna Republican, September 29, 1910
After the commission narrowed down the list, they started making their official visits.  Each community's first visit was highly planned and announced ahead of time.  I already mentioned Kent's first visit, which was plagued by bad weather and poor communication and was preceded by a visit to Wadsworth.  Most of the details about the time the commission spent in Kent are accurate as far as I can tell.  They did arrive without anyone to greet them; the weather was miserable, and they did go to a dinner at the Frank Merrill home in Twin Lakes, which was on the "road to Ravenna" (which is technically correct; it's just the "road to Ravenna" between Ravenna and Hudson, not Kent and Ravenna).  It is also true that they were originally expected around lunchtime and arrived later in the afternoon.  However, if the Ravenna committee felt their bid was dead-on-arrival, they certainly didn't let on in the press.  The Ravenna Republican makes no mention of the commissioners being late and they felt like the Ravenna committee showed off what they needed to and that it was received well.  The feeling the bid may have been doomed from the start is expressed in Philip Shriver's 1960 history of Kent State, The Years of Youth, but the footnote says it was from an interview in 1958, so 48 years later and a lot of time to put hindsight into the view.  Further, a few months later, the commissioners made surprise visits to the same cities, including Ravenna.  I hardly think they would've made a second visit to Ravenna if they weren't still considering it as a site.  Shriver notes that most of the cities the commissioners visited felt confident about their respective bids.  Hudson in particular, which had an entire campus (the former campus of Western Reserve College and current campus of Western Reserve Academy) ready and waiting, felt they had a strong case for the new school.  The positive feelings of Salem, Warren, Chagrin Falls, Hudson, Canton, and Wadsworth (as expressed trough their newspapers) are also recorded.

By the time of the decision, the front runners weren't exclusively Kent and Ravenna, however.  For whatever reasons, the front runners were seen, at least in the media, as Kent, Warren, and Wadsworth.  Ravenna certainly believed they were still in the running as a newspaper article seems to suggest, as did Hudson, but that may have just been pure optimism on the part of the newspaper.  And remember, newspapers in those days were a lot more editorial than papers today and often acted as the mouthpiece for an entire town or a specific family or group within a town.

Ravenna Republican front page,
November 24, 1910
Obviously, Kent won the normal school since Kent State University exists today.  This was after those visits by the commission (the 2nd visit being much better than the first for Kent), and final hearings in late November 1910.  The news of Kent getting the normal school came at the end of November and was met with disappointment in Ravenna, but still the Republican offered Ravenna's "heartiest congratulations" and found some solace that the school would be located in Portage County.

Two sites were presented to the commission in Ravenna (2 sites were also presented in Kent and both of them are now part of the KSU campus).  The first was the Beebe farm, which straddled the line between Ravenna and Ravenna Township.  Today, that area is roughly bordered by Washington Avenue, North Walnut Street, Freedom Street (SR 88) and the railroad. It's largely residential, but includes Carlin Elementary School on Washington Avenue and Bethel Baptist Church on Coolman Avenue.  The other site was known as "Bunker Hill" in the southeastern part of town.  I have not been able to pinpoint exactly where that was as it is a name that was apparently not all that common (not on any period maps) and certainly isn't used today.  All I can narrow it down to is in the part of Ravenna south of Main Street and east of Chestnut Street, probably a few blocks out of downtown.  It is apparent that the commission wanted, or at least preferred, a site that was on a hill as both sites in Ravenna were on a hill (or at least purported to be) and the main site in Kent, where KSU's original front campus is now located, is a hill (over 60 feet above Main Street and about 100 feet above downtown).  Sites in other towns mentioned also indicate that hilly sites were offered.  Indeed, the KSU history indicates that one of the primary features of the Kent site that really attracted the commissioners was the hill (some views below).  Obviously in northwestern Ohio, hills are hard to come by, so it doesn't seem like it was a priority or preference there (Bowling Green State University has no hills anywhere on its campus and the entire town is roughly the same elevation).  Below is a map of Ravenna that has the former Beebe farm outlined.  Had this been selected, it would be the nucleus of what would more than likely be called "Ravenna State University".  However, as we can see, there was a more likely possibility of a "Warren State" or "Wadsworth State" than a "Ravenna State University".

View Ravenna Normal School locations in a larger map

View of Kent from N. Mantua Street looking east showing the relative height of the KSU campus in the background (water towers on the right, pitched roof building just to the left of the crane) over downtown Kent.  

View looking northwest from the KSU campus in 1919, similar to the view the commissioners would've seen in 1910
(image from Kent State University Special Collections & Archives)

View looking west over Kent from the KSU campus, similar to the view the commissioners would've seen in 1910
(image from Kent State University Special Collections & Archives)


  1. I'm glad you debunked the part about the county seat. I had never heard that one, but I had heard the story that Kent got the university and Ravenna got the court house, which made no sense for the same reasons as the county seat story.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, I am not sure how those two stories got mushed into one. I first started figuring out it couldn't be true when I learned that Kent State was founded with Bowling Green State University. Bowling Green is the county seat of Wood County, so obviously it wasn't a matter of choice for them, so why would it be for Kent or Ravenna?