History of Brownhelm Township

Early Brownhelm History

written by Marcia DePalma

front doors of historical Brownhelm School

In 1816, Colonel Henry Brown of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, traveled to Ohio to this area of the Western Reserve to look for land to purchase. Having chosen land along the lakeshore, he returned home and entered into a contract with the Connecticut Land Company for this township, known then only as number six in range nineteen.

In the fall of the same year, several men accompanied Col. Brwon to this new land. After erecting a log cabin near the lakeshore, Col. Brown returned to Massachusetts, leaving his men to make preparations for the families moving out here the following year.

On July 4, 1817, after a long and tedious journey, the families of Levi Shepard, Sylvester Barnum, Stephen James arrived in Brownhelm. They lived at the log home of Colonel Brown for a short time until the completion of their own homes.

Before the close of the year, the families of Solomon Whittlesey, Alva Curtis, and Benjamin Bacon arrived. Soon followed the families of Grandison Fairchild, Elisha Peck, Enos Cooley, George Wells, Abishai Morse, Ezekiel Goodrich, and may others.

The privilege of naming the new place was given to Col. Brown by the citizens. He gave it the name "Brownhelm", which caused some displeasure among the people. The Saxon word "hem" or "helm", meaning "home" or "dwelling place", translated the name to mean "Brown's home". Some thought it sounded like "Brown at the helm", implying that he was to steer the ship. At one time a petition was circulated to change the name to Freedom, but Brownhelm is the name that held steadfast, and fittingly honored the founding pioneer, Col. Henry Brown.

Benjamin Bacon house, located in Mill Hollow

Life in this new wilderness land was difficult. Leaving the established towns out east and coming to a primitive life was very hard. Many died in the early years of the milk sickness, which prevailed so fatally and affected many families. The land was covered with a thick forest that had to be cleared, and wild animals posed a constant threat. Lands needed cleared before logs were available to build homes with. These homes were without windows, had dirt floors, and crude homemade furniture. Goods were sometimes shipped from the East, which took weeks and months at a high cost.

the Vermilion River passing through Mill Hollow

As more of the settlers worked at the trades they knew, a community began to form. Abishai Morse and George Hinckley built the first sawmill in the hollow on the Vermilion River, which helped to provide lumber for homes. Col. Brown constructed a grist mill in Swift's Hollow to grind flour. Morse eventually purchased the mill and moved it next to his sawmill. Benjamin Bacon purchased both mills in 1835. He served as a Justice of the Peace for many years.

Alva Curtis opened, in his house, the first hotel, which was located at the top of hill (near Mill Hollow). He was also one of the first proprietors in town, carrying the dry goods shipped from the East. Levi Shepard, an early deacon, was the only blacksmith in town for many years. Elisha Peck was a shoemaker for over 60 years, and also operated a tannery. He could perform the entire labor of transforming raw leather hides into shoes. Seth Morse, a Revolutionary War veteran, made rakes and farm cradles. Solomon Whittlesey made potash from the burnt timber.

The early days in Brownhelm are filled with stories of strength, determination, and fortitude, giving us a rich history. Today, many homes still stand that were built by our early settlers, along with the church, blacksmith shop, and cheese house. Farmers still till and plant the earth cleared by them so many years ago.

James Fairchild, a Brownhelm native and one time President of Oberlin College, wrote these words in 1878 in the History of Lorain County:

"It is pleasant to believe that the places that are sacred to us with all pleasant memories, will be held by our children to an indefinite future. That another people shall come in to whom these farms, and streets, and dwellings are simply so much territory to be appropriated, the life that has passed here all unknown to them, is not an inviting prospect. Yet such is the prospect. Fifty years hence, the faces, and the voices, and the names of strangers will be seen and heard at holiday gatherings and along these streets. The familiar names that seem to us identified with the very face of nature, will be heard here no more."

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History of Brownhelm School

Built in 1889 the original red brick school was square in plan with four evenly spaced brick pilasters along the front, back and sides. Evidence of these can be seen on the east and west sides of the school today. Ventilation and daylight were introduced into the interior by tall, narrow, double hung windows. The building had a steeply pitched hip roof.

In 1905, an addition was constructed on the west side of the 1889 building. The current, less steeply pitched hip roof was added at this time. The roof has a deep overhang with carved wood bracked supports. Roof dormers and a cupola were added with this addition.

the historical Brownhelm School

In 1922, the Brownhelm School was renovated and further enlarged to give it its present appearance. The renovation included a new red brick Neo classical/Georgian Revival front facade. The round top glass transom and stonework detailing give importance to the main entrance. The rear flat roofed brick and masonry addition contains a large combination auditorium and gymnasium. The present Brownhelm School offers a physical piece of history representing the last hundred years in Brownhelm.

At the present time we have a 99 year lease with the Brownhelm Township Trustees to save this building. The exterior renovations were completed in 2012, partly due to an anonymous donor and several other fund raisers. The interior repairs began in 2013 – our goal is to complete one room at a time. Someday this will be a great Community Center for the residents of Brownhelm.

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John Mercer Langston Memorial Marker

the John Mercer Langston historical marker

In April 2002, the BHA was instrumental in securing a historical marker featuring John Mercer Langston, that was placed at the school property on North Ridge Road. Mr. Langston, who lived and owned property in Brownhelm, was honored as the first African American elected to government office in the United States. John Mercer Langston won the election as Clerk of Brownhelm Township in April 1855.

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Brownhelm Historical Association

the Brownhelm Historical Museum

The Brownhelm Historical Association was organized in 1993 and charter memberships were accepted thru 1994 with 74 members concerned about Brownhelm's history and buildings. Since that time annual membership averages around 100 as we continue to protect and restore some of the Brownhelm area historical aspects.

Our meetings consist of a regular business meeting and a speaker or a display of a historical nature. We meet the first Wednesday of each month at 7:00 P.M. At the Carriage Barn behind the Bacon House Museum at Mill Hollow Park on North Ridge Road in Vermilion, Ohio. There are no meetings or newsletters in January, July or August

Our current interests are:

  1. Helping to renovate the Brownhelm red brick schoolhouse on North Ridge Road.
  2. Maintain the Brownhelm Heritage Museum on Claus Road, formerly the German Evangelical and Reformed Church built in 1870. (1355 Claus Road, Vermilion, Ohio)
  3. Protect an early, but not forgotten cemetery now known as Brown's Lake Road Cemetery, where many of Brownhelm's early settlers were laid to rest.
the Brownhelm Historical Museum

Membership is open to anyone interested in Brownhelm history for $15.00 a person or $25.00 per family each year. A youth member can join for $5.00. A donation of $150.00 entitles one to a lifetime membership with the Brownhelm Historical Association.

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Brownhelm Traditions

Memorial Day Parade

On the weekend of Memorial Day, the Amherst American Legion assists us in remembering our veterans with a short ceremony at the Brownhelm Cemetery. A parade precedes the ceremony and usually consists of the BHA in costume on a wagon, a few antique cars, a pony cart or horseback riders, the Amherst Alumni Band, and whoever else gets to Claus Road on time to line up. This is true hometown America showing respect for its freedom. Watch the Vermilion Photojournal for the date and time.

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Brownhelm Community Christmas

Founded in 1932 by Rev. Albright in response to the Depression, Santa visits (68 years!) all the homes in the area that were once in the old Brownhelm School District. He brings gifts for all the good little boys and girls, and candy for mom and dad. For the older folks he brings fruit baskets and more candy. This is a tremendous undertaking which tracks the over 800 homes now in our Township. This group needs help mostly with Santas and drivers (usually working Christmas Eve from 5 PM to 8 PM), packing candy and fruit on December 23, and a few route chairmen whose job ends on December 23. Some Santas have elves, and drivers can start at 16 years of age. Donations are taken around Christmas at the Brownhelm Store, or given directly to your route chair or to Santa!

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