Saturday, July 30, 2011

Senator George Norris: Gentle Knight

Few Ohio children came in direct contact with the Civil War, but many who lived through those years were deeply affected by the conflict for the remainder of their lives. George Norris was one. Born not far from Clyde during the war’s first year, George was the youngest of 11 children and the only surviving son of Chauncy and Mary Mook Norris.

Of course, I had known that as a U. S. congressman and senator from Nebraska, Norris had exerted extraordinary power and influence during his 40-year career in Washington. What I didn’t know until reading his autobiography, “Fighting Liberal,” was the extent to which those childhood years had shaped his attitudes and motivated his every action throughout adulthood.

John Henry, Norris’ much older brother, had held a special place in their mother’s heart. Although she made John promise that he would not enlist, he eventually joined the 55th Ohio. At the Battle of Resaca, John wrote his mother that a bullet had pierced his leg. He assured her that it was only a minor wound, but word soon came that John Henry was dead from infection.
Norris Family Marker
York Free Chapel Cemetery
Courtesy of Don Heuring

Norris remembered that “my father’s death [some months later] intensified my mother’s grief over the loss of John. I never heard a song upon the lips of my mother. I never even heard her hum a tune. The song of life…. was silenced forever in the bitter grief and sorrow of those years between 1864 and 1867. The war ended, and the young men came back, but John slept in a soldier’s grave in the blackened southern countryside. There were times when it seemd that her heartache over her son never would pass.”

From that day forward, Mary Norris relied on faith, family, friends, and hard work. There were no government programs to serve as a safety net for families on the frontier, struggling to survive in an economy built on physical labor. As Norris tells it, not only did his mother spin, weave, wash, cook, sew, and can, but she worked in the fields and handled the family’s finances.

His childhood memories of his mother’s grief and “grim drudgery and grind which had been the common lot of eight generations of American farm women” never left him. That vision of loss and of so many grown old before their time drove Norris to find ways to improve the lives of America’s farm families in whom he believed so deeply.

Today it is difficult to comprehend that only 10% of America’s farms had electricity during those years. Norris knew that hydropower could dramatically change their lives. Tempered by childhood adversity, the “Gentle Knight,” as many called him, was up to the challenge. From 1912 to 1933, right through the Great Depression, he fought on, enduring presidential vetoes and resistance from his own party. In the end, he was victorious. The Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electrification Act that soon followed, tamed the Tennessee River and brought flood control, hydropower, and light to thousands of poor farm families across a six-state region. One insightful journalist wrote that “the powerful senator had fought for the poor and the beaten down…and he seemed never to forget that in his own time he had been among them…” .

Louis Baus' Great Lakes Commerical Shipping Photographs

As an Ohio native and three-time governor, President Hayes held a deep interest in the state’s history. He was an early member of area historical societies. He collected original materials that help tell the stories of the people who settled and developed the region. Since the Hayes Center’s creation in 1916, collecting and preserving the area’s history has remained part of the institution’s mission.

Among the Hayes Center’s holdings is the Charles E. Frohman Collection. The wide-ranging archive of unique materials chronicles the lives of those who shaped the future of the Erie Islands and the communities of Lake Erie’s Western Basin. It is a rich collection of books, papers, photographs, and maps of which more and more are digitized. Through support from the Sidney Frohman Foundation, some 2,400 photographs now appear online at Lake Erie’s Yesterdays through OhioLINK’s searchable image database.

Recent efforts have focused on photographs of ships that once plied the waters of the Great Lakes. The photographs were taken and collected by Louis Baus. A long time Cleveland, Ohio photographer, Baus worked independently and then as a staff writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. A native Clevelander, Baus in his later years was fascinated by commercial shipping on the Great Lakes. As a member of the Great Lakes Historical Society, he spent many days traveling and photographing American and Canadian vessels.

Before his death in 1949, Baus had compiled 18 albums of more than a thousand pictures of Great Lakes ships. There are pictures of tugs, freighters, ferries, mail boats, lumber and car carriers, barges, and the ports and harbors they called home. His original black and white prints fill most of the albums, but Baus also collected drawings, pen and ink sketches, and photographs by others. For each vessel, he wrote a capsule history.

You can search Lake Erie’s Yesterdays for a picture of a single ship by entering its name or the entire collection by entering “Baus.” Whether viewing his albums in their entirety at the Hayes Center or online, one gains a sense of those vibrant days when vessels carrying wheat from the Great Plains, ore from Minnesota, and timber from Michigan dominated the Great Lakes. At the same time, one can’t help but be struck by the number of ships lost in storms, collisions, and groundings, taking lives and fortunes to the bottom with them.

Louis Baus’ passion for the region’s waterways extended beyond the Great Lakes. Between 1896 and 1933, he traveled and photographed the entire length of the old Ohio Canal - from Cleveland to Portsmouth. In 2004, the University of Akron purchased Baus’ collection of photographs of canal boats, crews, passengers, locks, and businesses along the canal ways. His more than 400 photographs can be viewed on the university’s website.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Sarah Ellen Drew, 1838 - 1940

Documenting the lives of African Americans of Sandusky County, Ohio is not an easy task! In depth research by Charles Weiker of Fremont, Ohio has identified some of the families. Many were related either before coming to Sandusky County or by marriage after their arrival.

One of the most well known in the community was Sarah Ellen Drew, wife of Thomas Drew, who came to Fremont in 1880. In March of 1933, Sarah, was interviewed by Juel Reed of the Fremont News Messenger. That interview provides a rare glimpse into the life of a child born into bondage in Frederick County, Maryland and enslaved in Loudon County, Virginia as a young woman during the Civil War.

At the time of the interview, Sarah, 95 years of age, was living alone at the home she and her husband had built at 541 Second Street in Fremont. Her husband had died 25 years earlier. She had also lost a son and a daughter.

Sarah was born into slavery on a plantation owned by the Crummel family of Frederick County, Maryland. She said, “I did everything around the farm – milked cows, rode horses, did all kinds of general work.” Sarah stated that later she “went into service across the Virginia line. There were lots of tobacco fields there – no cotton – they don’t raise it there – not far enough south.”

Sarah frequently went with her master and mistress to Baltimore and Washington, D. C. Shortly after President Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated, she attended an affair at which he was present and had the privilege of shaking his hand. She recalled, “He was a wonderful man – not handsome – but so kind looking. We all loved him.”

Two months after the firing on Fort Sumter, Sarah heard the first rumblings of guns near the Loudon County, Virginia plantation, where she lived. “I can still see them bringing the wounded men in – wagon load after wagon load. Some of them were screaming and praying for someone to shoot them and put them out of their misery. Every church was full and they quartered them in every house. Even the place where I was in service had some. I remember seeing 15 of them on the floor of one room. And the way they were buried! They died like flies, and even yet I can see them burying men in boxes that weren’t fit to put a dog in they were so rough. They died so fast they had to get rid of the bodies in some way, I guess.”

When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Sarah returned home to her father, her mother having died the previous year. “We were crazy with joy. Remember, we were in bondage all those years, and the thought of being free was almost too much.”

Sarah’s three brothers fought in Union regiments. Immediately after the surrender, she received a letter from one of her brothers stating. “We ate breakfast in Richmond this morning and not a shot was fired. But the panic was awful. Women and children ran all over screaming. We had to order them inside the houses.”

When freedom came, her father moved on a small farm of his own, and a few years later, Sarah married Thomas Drew, who had come from Jefferson County, Virginia. Three months each winter, Sarah did housework for wealthy families in the vicinity. When one of them, the Raifsnyders, came to Fremont in 1880, Sarah came with them.

Recalling her arrival in Fremont, Sarah laughed, saying, “It was the furtherest I’d ever been up north. Do you know what impressed me the most – the board walks! I’d never heard they had them up here, but I never saw them before. Down south we had flagstones.”

Sarah recalled the celebration in Fremont the following spring when the Hayes family returned to Spiegel Grove. A short time later, her husband Thomas and their children joined her in Fremont. When the Raifsnyder family moved away, Sarah worked for the Stanley Thomas and Grund families.

She later worked for the Hayes family. She recalled, “They were grand people. I don’t know as there were any nicer white folks any place. Whenever they were short handed at the Grove they always called me. Sometimes I cooked for them and some times when they had big affairs I’d usher. And Mrs. Hayes! She was the most wonderful person to work for you could imagine. Why, I remember that several times she drove me home. They had a white horse – his name was Nimrod – and the carriage would bring me right up here to my door.” Henry Drew, Sarah’s son, also worked for the Hayes family. Application for probate of will of Thomas Drew by his widow Sarah Ellen Drew
She remembered the days when Colonel Webb Hayes and Fanny Hayes, children of President and Mrs. Hayes, were young. “After Miss Fannie married and went to Washington, she used to come back here to visit real often. She had a colored nurse for the baby, and she used to bring the nurse over here to visit me.”

In her final years, Sarah Drew lived for a time at the Sandusky County Infirmary. Benefiting from an “old age pension,” Sarah moved to Oberlin, Ohio, where she resided with her granddaughter, Sadie Whiteside. Sadie (born Sarah Ellen Drew) was the daughter of Thomas and Sarah’s son, Cornelius Henry Drew.

Sadie had married Leander Dixon, a son of William M. and Elizabeth Dixon. William M. Dixon was a Civil War veteran and member of Fremont’s Eugene Rawson G.A.R. Post. After the death of Leander, Sadie Drew Dixon married William Whiteside. Sarah Ellen Drew died at Sadie’s home in Oberlin in January of 1940 at the age of 102. Services were held at the Warren A. M. E. Church in Fremont, Ohio, where Sarah Drew had been a devoted and active member. She is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Fremont.