The History of Milan, Ohio

The Place Where It All Began...Part Three
Fries Shipbuilding and Warehousing

Above photo shows the north-west corner of Abbottsford/Fries Landing on the Homer Page farm. Mason Road is on the right of the photo.


Most people come to America because it is the land of opportunity and this particular piece of land (shown above) gave an opportunity to three different families which defined Milan's beginning and end of prosperity in the 1800's. This page is about Valentine Fries, who was born in Beteshein, Canton Kilheim, Germany and at 5 years of age came to the United States with his family, first moving to Massillon, Ohio and then, hearing of the unique canal opportunities, moved to Milan in 1846 at the young age of 20. Val was a hard worker and had a vision of how to succeed. He was first employed as a drug store clerk in Massillon and for the next several years he saved everything he could and invested his money sensibly and when he moved to Milan, he opened a small grocery store, which he operated for 20 years, which was the springboard for his many business ventures in Milan and in northern Ohio.     

Of course, he came to Milan because of the canal and for the next thirteen years he studied shipbuilding and continued to invest his money wisely and finally he had learned enough to build and owned his first schooner ship - The Hyphen, a 196 ton ship that was launched on April 25, 1861 as shown below.


The Hyphen - Built 1861


Marion W Page Schooner


Courtesy of Milan Historical Museum

In 1862 he built two more ships, each larger than the last. And again in 1863, 64 and in 1866 he built more schooner ship that sailed the Lake Erie and the Erie Canal. As successful as he was, having as many as thirty-six schooners under his control during his time, he could not prevent the railroads laying tracks and taking away trade from Milan. In an effort to remain competitive, he built a large 387 ton schooner called the Exile in 1867 which would allow him to move more produce on each voyage. But, as luck would have it, that was the last ship ever built in Milan.

One year later, in 1868 the Huron River dam in downtown Milan broke and the canal investors faced the fact that the railroad was replacing all the canals in Ohio, decided to not repair the dam. Without the dam supplying water to the canal, it was impossible to move ships through the canal to the Huron River and that ended the shipbuilding in Milan. All of the remaining shipbuilders in Milan went out of business or moved to areas that had direct access to Lake Erie, except for the largest shipbuilding employer in the area. Valentine Fries wanted to stay in Milan where he had his family, farm, home and business so he decided to make a bold move to save his shipbuilding business by moving his business to the head of the schooner navigation on the Huron River.

In 1869, he meet with Homer and Marion Page and proposed to them that he move his operations to the area of their land beside the river that had been used by Benjamin Abbott in his shipbuilding days and so it came to be in 1870 that he moved all of his business interests to the old Abbottsford property. For the next thirteen years, Fries Landing, Shipbuilding and Warehousing became famous in this area and most of the farmers in northern Milan, including Fries, used his many schooner ships to market their goods to communities throughout Lake Erie and beyond.

Ships using the Milan Canal were always limited in size because of the depth of the canal and the dimensions of existing locks. However, by moving his operations to Abbottsford, Fries was now able to have much larger ships come up the river and there was hardly a day that passed without one of the ships of Fries Fleet coming up to the "new" Landing, loading at the warehouses or going down the Huron River to deliver goods to the communities of Lake Erie and further east. It is estimated that Valentine Fries supplied employment to up to 700 people, at good wages during his time, probably more than any other single employer in this area.

During his time at the Page Farm, Fries used all the available timber for miles around to build his docks, storage warehouses, ships and shipbuilding enclosures. Keeping skilled workers was also a problem so Fries used his own home to boarder some of his workers. At one point Fries considered building "Friesville" - a community of small homes and a boarding house to house the shipyard workers. The voters of Milan also showed their appreciation by electing him to various offices of public truest including Mayor of the Village of Milan and during his time at Fries Landing, he was also a township trustee, but Fries had no desire for a political career. 

Fries Landing Ship Yard - 1874: The above map show's the Fries Ship Yard (in gold just north of the Abbott's Bridge), beside the Huron River on the Homer Page farm (which is shown in green outline). Fries included offices, warehouses and a ship building area. Also, the area in blue was the Milan Canal which shows the location of the lock just before the Huron River in which the Idaho was tied up and never moved again.  Below Photo: The only known photo of the buildings at Fries Landing.

Six years later, in 1876, Fries launched the first ship at his new shipyard - the Marion W. Page which was named after Marion Edison Page who rented part of the Page Farm land to Fries.  In 1877 and again in 1879, Fries launched new ships but the railroads were building tracks near his shipyard and to remain competitive, he designed a huge vessel called the "Golden Age" which was a 287 foot long schooner which was twice as long as most schooners built in Milan with a beam of 39 feet. For the next two years they built this magnificent lake schooner (shown being built below) and it was launched on June 20, 1883 with much fanfare. However, getting the new ship down the Huron River to the lake proved to be a major undertaking. 

The Golden Age (being built) Golden Age Sailing

Courtesy of Milan Historical Museum

*Painting (by Kinley Shogren)

Six months earlier, in January 1883, the Golden Age was ready to launch. But they had to wait for the spring rains to slide the ship into the river, which arrived late that year. In June, three days of constant rain raised the river nine foot and finally allowed them to launch the ship. The problem also was that moving a vessel of this size had never been done on the Huron River so not only did they need to prepare the ship for launch, but also prepare the river for a ship of this size. As the weeks approached, his men dredged the obvious obstructions in the river and cut back hanging branches over the water. Word spread of the enormous task of moving the Golden Age to Lake Erie and on the day of launch, hundreds of people lined the shores to watch the ship move down the river.

Captain Charles Hubbard, who had captioned three different ships by Fries, was the caption when the ship moved up the river.  It was a slow process because of trees submerged in the river which often required farmers along the route to cut the braches of the trees to allow the ship to move forward. At the railroad bridge, just before the mouth of the river in Huron, the ship became stuck again which required the best that Caption Hubbard had to free the ship. Finally, after many hours on the river, they arrived in Huron and all the boats and people lining the docks in Huron gave them a rousing cheer for a job well done. The Golden Age made her first voyage in August of that year with the largest load ever carried in the lake up to that time. After four years, she earned enough to pay off her debt and the ship sailed Lake Erie for 41 years, but she never returned to Fries Landing.

Later that year, the Nickel Plate Railroad crossed the Page property just south of Fries Landing and it became obvious to Fries that even the largest ship, could not compete with the convenient and fast moving trains. The "Golden Age" was the last ship built at Fries Landing and in 1884 he closed his shipbuilding business. From his offices at the Landing, he operated a lumber and fishery business in Huron and mercantile and banking interests in Cleveland and numerous other business interests in Massillon, Sandusky, Norwalk and Milan plus extensive real estate investments

Fries was a humble man who never wanted notoriety. He was fond of reading and having quiet conversations with friends. Politically he was an avid Republican and his faith was Catholic. When he closed the shipbuilding business at the Landing, he moved from his house at Fries Landing to his farm on Mason Road (Williams Farm) which was several miles from Fries Landing. He died at his home on April 2nd, 1900 and is buried at the St. Anthony catholic section of the Milan Cemetery in the unique Fries tomb which has become a landmark at the cemetery. For Valentine Fries, Milan was the land of opportunity because at the time of his death, he was a well established millionaire.

This parcel of land saw the birth and death of river commerce in Milan. For seventy memorable years, it witnessed times of great prosperity from one generation to another through three families that pioneered this soil and shaped the fertile land beside the river. David Abbott, who moved his family to this wilderness land in 1810, would be so proud of his land. What has happened to this land from the early 1900's through today is told in the next section - The Abbott Land Today.


Valentine Fries Timeframe

1846 - Valentine Fries moves to Milan from Massillon, Ohio , was a drug store clerk.

1848 - Valentine Fries opens a grocery store.

1852-58 - Established a shipyard in Milan and hired J. P. Gay to run it. They built ships for sale.

1860 - Fries decided to built his own ships and started the Fries Shipyard.

1861 - Val Fries built/owned the "Hyphen" a 196 ton schooner - launched April 25th.
1862 - Val Fries built/owned the "William Raynor"  a 227 ton schooner - launched on May 5th. This ship was named for his master ship builder.
1862 - Val Fries built/owned the William Shupe" a 240 ton schooner - launched July 30th.
1863 - Val Fries built/owned the "Atmosphere" a 275 ton schooner - launched September 27th.
1864 - Val Fries built/owned the "Amaranth" a 272 ton schooner - launched April 17th.
1866 - Val Fries built the "Mystic" a 161 ton schooner
1867 - Val Fries built the "Exile" a 387 ton schooner

1868 - Dam broke in Milan and Valentine Fries closed his shipyard.

1873 - The Idaho was tied up at the first lock on the canal.

1870 - Valentine Fries moves his ship building operation from Milan to Abbottsford, now owned by Homer Page, where the river was navigable for schooner ships and established the "Fries Landing, Shipyard and Warehouses" on the west bank of the Huron River. And as a trustee of the township, he spearheaded an effort to have gravel put on the roads leading to this area which allowed area farmers to bring their produce to the Ship Yard. He built a home at the Landing and took in borders that worked at Fries Landing. The move allowed him to build larger ships and he built four ships at Fries Landing as follows:

1876 - Launched "Marion W. Page" named for Edison's sister who's land he rented.
1877 - Launched "Charles W. Foster" Steamer Ship.
1879 - Launched "The William G. Edwards" 2500 ton steamer. Lost in 1917 off Newfoundland.
1882 - Launched "The Golden Age" - a 287 ft. long ship with a 39 ft. beam. She was captioned by  Charles Hubbard and her launch was witnessed by hundreds of people who came to see the giant ship maneuver down the Huron River. She was in service for 41 years and sank in 1924 at Put-in-Bay, Ohio.

1883 - Valentine Fries retires from shipbuilding. At one time, he owned 36 vessels that worked the Great Lakes.

1889 - At 63 years of age, he married Anna Crone of Massillon, Ohio on November 28th.

1890 - Valentine and Anna had a son - Valentine A. Fries (not a junior - no middle name on Fries).

1900- Valentine Fries died (at age 74) at home and was buried in Milan Cemetery.

Fries Mausoleum outside and interior with stained glass windows and ceiling circle.

1906 - Anna Fries (Valentine's wife) dedicated the famous Fries family mausoleum in Milan.

1919 - Anna Fries Chapin (re-married Dr. Harry Chapin) died and is buried at the family mausoleum.

1937 - Valentine A. Fries died and is buried at the family mausoleum.

Valentine's son, Valentine A. Fries married Irma Brockett and they had two children - Valentine Jr. & Jacqueline. Jacqueline is buried near the mausoleum in Milan Cemetery. Val Jr., died during WW2 and is buried at a US War cemetery in Epinal, France. 


The Abbott Family 1809-1860

The Page Family 1861-1900

1810-1822 1823-1854 1861-1900
David & Mary Abbott Benjamin & Lorena Abbott Homer & Marion Page

Valentine Fries Shipyard


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Abbott Family - Homer Page Family - Valentine Fries - The Wheeler Farm


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*The illustration of the Golden Age was drawn by Kinley Shogren. A color reproduction is shown on the cover of the book "Huron, A Great Lakes Port" by the Huron Historical Society. Prints are available from Village Framer and Gallery in Huron and the proceeds benefit the Huron Historical Society. The book is available for viewing in the genealogy department of the Milan Library.