History of the Milan Area of the Ohio Firelands

Erie County can trace its beginnings to one of the most dramatic events of the Revolutionary War. The American traitor Benedict Arnold, and British General Tryon conducted a series of raids in the state of Connecticut and left in their wake burned out homes and villages. In 1792, the Connecticut Assembly awarded 500,000 acres of land in the western most portion of the Western Reserve to the citizens  who had became known as the fire-sufferers. This parcel of land soon became known as "The Firelands"  which consisted of what is now known as Erie and Huron counties along with Ruggles and Danbury Townships.

Erie County got it's name from the first recorded people of this area which were the Erie Indians. Many of their stories are told on "Inscription Rock" at Kelley's Island. Although considered by many to be the most complete Indian pictographs in the Eastern part of America, the carvings have unfortunately been eroded over time. In 1655, the Erie Indians were driven out of the area by the Iroquois and eventually the Firelands area became occupied by both the Ottawa and Wyandot Indians.

From Pettquotting to Milan

In 1787, the Moravians missionaries with their "believing Indians", arrived at the mouth of the Huron River and the Indians named the area "Pettquotting" after a round hill they found in the area. A settlement called "New Salem" (approximately two miles north of Milan) was eventually established and the population grew from their initial group of 107 to 212 people in just three years. The missionaries and their Indian followers moved away from New Salem in 1791 to avoid an Indian war.    

In 1803, the Moravian Church decided to return to Pettquotting and re-establish their village at New Salem. However, upon their arrival they found native Indians has taken over the settlement and so they moved several miles upriver and built a new settlement at the site that is now known as Milan. Thirty-six people made the journey in eight canoes. Six years later, the Moravians ended their stay but by then white people had begun moving into the area although some left during the war of 1812, when British ships moved into Lake Erie. On September 10, 1813 Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry fought a British squadron of warships in what became known as "The Battle of Lake Erie". Perry defeated and captured the Brits just a few miles from South Bass Island and thereby secured control of Lake Erie for the United States. His victory opened the way for General William Harrison's invasion of Western Upper Canada in which America defeated the British and Indians at the Thames River in October of 1813. It was a brief victory however as one week later, the British did drive the American invading force out of Canada and although not well known in this country, America actually lost this war. The war officially ended in 1814 with a peace treaty that was signed that tended to favor America and ultimately opened this territory to the Connecticut settlers. Perry's victory (one of the few American victories of the war of 1812) is commemorated by Perry's Monument and National Park at Put­in­Bay, on South Bass Island.

By 1816, peace was bringing new settlers into the area which provided an opportunity for the development of Ebenezer Merry's grist mill. The second Moravian settlement was rapidly developing into a small community known as "Beatty" which was named after John Beatty who owed the land. Later that year, Merry bought 453 acres of land from Beatty and in 1817, divided the area into one acre lots which was then appropriately known as "Merry's Mill" but which was subsequently changed to Milan. One of the first homes to be built on the new lots was the David Hinman home, which was a saltbox style home, built near the end of 1817 which still stands today (see Historic Homes)  The Village of Milan was incorporated in 1833.

The Milan Canal

Of course, the attraction of commerce in the area had its beginnings with the Huron River gateway to Lake Erie. The river was navigable up to Abbott's Bridge and so in 1827, in true pioneering entrepreneurial spirit, Benjamin N. Abbott who had a shipyard just north of the bridge, built a schooner which he named "Mary Abbott" and loaded it with produce and sailed it up the Huron River to Lake Erie and all the way to New York City to discharge his cargo, re-supply and return to Milan.

Within a year, another ship was built in the area at Lockwood's Landing (located directly across the river from Fries) and the success of these ships further encouraged local citizens to develop an idea on how to bring Huron River commerce directly to Milan by dredging a 3 mile long canal that would allow larger sailing ships to dock at Milan. It took six years to complete, but by 1839 the canal was opened for business and at the time, it was the largest ship's canal in the State of Ohio. The canal was hugely successful and local businessmen built 14 warehouses and mills along its banks. At it's peak in 1847, 20,000 bushels of grain a day were being loaded on ships. During the time, ships were also being built in Milan and improved roads were being constructed and many merchants prospered by the rapid growth of the area.

The Civil War

It is documented that Milan's largest growth of the 1800's happened between 1849 and 1851 during which time the community grew from 550 inhabitants to over 1300. Over fifty new homes where built during this time and many still stand today. However, the closing of the canal left many people out of work and so the population of Milan began to decrease as residents moved away to find work,

It was a time of turmoil as many other areas of the United States were trying to deal with the issue of slave ownership. And as slaves began to escape their ownership in the south, many northern area, including Erie County, helped transport slaves through this area on their way to freedom. A large settlement of Quakers (Society of Friends) was located just north of Milan and as was their custom, they helped runaway slaves through the area. Other noted areas in Milan that served the underground railroad was The Peter Hathaway home located one mile north of Mason Road on route 13 and  Squire's Tavern & Stagecoach Inn located on Rt. 113 just east of Edison High School.

On April 12, 1861, General Pierre Beauregard ordered his troops to open fire with 50 cannons upon Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina which marked the beginning of the Civil War. Although the Firelands area was nestled snuggly away from the ravages of war, it was not immune from it even though no battles were fought in this area. Over 330 citizens of Milan served during the war and Johnson's Island, located at Sandusky Bay, was the site of a prison for Confederate soldiers. The compound usually had about 3,000 prisoners at any one time, and a cemetery was established on the east end of the island for those who died while imprisoned. The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865 when  Gen. Robert E. Lee surrenders his Confederate Army to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. In the five years that spanned the Civil War, 623,000 lives were lost and to put that percentage into today's population, that would equal 5 million lives lost. At stake in the Civil War was survival of the United States of America as a single nation representing all states of the union including Ohio. And sadly, the truth is that it took the Civil War to finally make this country united. As a footnote to the end of this tragic war and how it affected our area, some of the bodies in the Johnson Island cemetery were removed to their homes in the south, but 206 unclaimed bodies remained on the island and a monument was eventually erected to the soldiers' memory, and the cemetery is now federal property.

In the years following the civil war, America settled into an era of peacetime prosperity and that included the Milan area. Two significant events happened at Milan during the next decade. The first was the erection of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the center of town square (dedicated on July 4, 1867 to the Milan residents who served in the Civil War - two years after the war) which you see in it's original state on the right and the transforming of the public square from a hitching post area to a city park. So significant were these events that they affect the look and charm of Milan as it exits today. The Civil War Monument has worn badly over the years and we hope that eventually the monument will be restored to it's original glory.

Famous Sons of Milan

In 1885, a local inventor named Isaac W. Hoover of Avery, in Milan Township, was granted a patent for an innovative “potato digger” which eventually revolutionized the gathering of potatoes from coast to coast. As this company grew, it supplied needed jobs to the area.  However, on May 5, 1888 much of downtown Milan was destroyed. The town hall, the Presbyterian Church and entire business block on the south side of the square was destroyed in a fire that was discovered around midnight and although all the church bells rang to alert the towns people, the fire raged out of control through the night. By morning the citizens worst fears were realized. A year passed before the town hall was rebuilt and a clock tower was added to it which still stands proudly today overlooking the town square.

As famous as Mr. Hoover became with potato farmers, another Milan born citizen was about to revolutionize the world with his incredible inventions.  Thomas Elva Edison was born in Milan in 1847.and although his family moved away when he was young, he went on to change the world with his inventions including incandescent light bulbs and the phonograph among other things. Edison so loved his childhood memories, that he purchased his childhood home from his sister in 1906 and it was opened to the public in 1947.

 

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This winter panorama scene of Milan at the top of this page was taken by Ernst Niebergall (between 1909-1914) who was a commercial photographer in Sandusky, Ohio at that time. We've taken three of his wintertime photos and combined them into one panorama. The photos were taken at the top of the Milan Public School facing north towards downtown Milan. The church steeple you see on left is from St. Anthony's which was beside the public school. In the distance, you can see the back of the library and the side of the town hall with the clock tower rising above the town. The road on the right is Center Street.

 

 

 

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This Page Last Updated: 07/06/2010

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