Toledo once had hordes of odd treasures from its past: a French trader's dugout canoe and a swan-shaped paddle-boat from a Walbridge Park ride, and a bronze beehive that once topped the spire at Notre Dame Academy.
Today they're gone. No one knows where.
Without a permanent home or qualified caretakers, historic artifacts face uncertain fates. Toledo's “family heirlooms” are being lost, mislaid, traded away, allowed to decay, destroyed, sold, even stolen.
“Some of these things have only survived because they were too big to be stolen,” Waterville antiques dealer Rob Palicki said of one Toledo collection. “Civil War and World War I medals, artillery shells, and dozens of ceremonial swords — they've all disappeared into peoples' attics or basements. Or to collectors' shows, where they're sold away out of the area.”
Other precious items — a pair of tickets to the 1919 Willard-Dempsey fight at Bay View Park, embroidered mementos of Spanish-American War naval voyages — are in good hands, accounted for by historical groups, librarians, post commanders, and volunteers who hope someday to find a way to share their treasures. A few are on public display. Others have not faced the public for decades.
“They're in warehouses, standing in the dark where no one can see them,” says Bill Speck, a Toledo historian. “In a way, they are lost. They can't do anyone good in there.”
Those who treasure old Toledo items are storytellers, people who love an object's story as much as the object itself.
Without a story, historic objects are simply curiosities of a bygone age, or antiques for sale to the highest bidder.
Some history buffs are overzealous. Rare and wonderful doodads are “kept safe” in basements, garages, attics, or barns, because “they might be worth something someday” or because historical museums can't display them in a manner the owner feels they deserve. So when the well-meaning “guardian” dies, his collection's stories die too.
In these cases, historical artifacts morph into junk. After decades of survival, the oak barber pole from a once-bustling Summit Street shop, the tin advertising sign from the telegraph office, or the bread box from Seyfang Bakery goes out with the trash.
Be they ever so humble, many of these items are integral to the city's story. They belong to Toledo, a legacy from the city's past to future generations.
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The late Walter Christen said he was not a history buff, just “a lover of old Toledo.” He had the space, time, and money to collect through the middle years of the 20th century, a time when the city had eyes only for the future.
“We began to obtain these things long before others saw any reason for it. We'd pass by a wrecking job of beautiful homes and see lovely chandeliers about to be tossed into a fire. . . . Almost always all we had to do was haul them away or give a small tip to the men there,” he said in 1974.
Over time the barn on his River Road estate filled up with sleighs, cars, gates, lamps, doorknobs, signposts, and murals, exemplars of the long-ago craftsmanship Mr. Christen admired.
In 1973, he moved his collection into the old Burt's Theater building at Ontario and Monroe streets and opened the “Christy Warehouse Museum” on what was once a Vaudeville stage.
For several years he squired Toledoans through the collection, regaling Rotarians, Girl Scouts, and the simply curious with tales of past glories. The goods included a painted wooden swan's head, horses, and fittings from the old Walbridge Park amusement rides, salvaged when the park was razed in 1961. He had a gate from the Way Public Library in Perrysburg, Toledo-made buggies, a Boody House Hotel clock, and a proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln — hundreds of items, all with a Toledo-area connection.
Mr. Christen died in 1977. He left the building to a local theater group, but his will made no mention of what should be done with his museum collection.
Within months, the estate was auctioned at Mr. Christen's Ottawa Hills home. Proceeds went to a trust that continues to fund several Toledo-area charities. And in what seemed to be a wise move, about 200 “items which have special significance to Toledo and northwest Ohio” were sold, for $3,000, to the Ohio Historical Society — a Columbus group that oversees the history of the entire state.
“It was a lot of things,” said Mike Harsh, interim chief of the curatorial division at the Columbus museum complex. “There's tickets to a Jack Dempsey fight, a carousel horse, a tin Western Union advertising sign. Those I know are out on exhibit. There are other things we can find. But there were about 200 items on the list, and I'm not sure how many we have. I have the list, I have the receipt. But exactly which of these items were catalogued, I don't have any way of knowing.”
In 1982 the Ohio Historical Society gave 28 of the Christen items back to Toledo.
An official transfer document cedes a mixed bag of plaster cherubs, a World War I recruiting poster, carousel paintings, brass door handles, railroad lanterns, and brass gates to the Landmarks Committee of the Toledo-Lucas County Historical Society, a group with headquarters at the Wolcott House complex in Maumee.
The society has no record of the transfer, said Charles Jacobs, director of the society. The Landmarks Committee, an offshoot group interested in preserving important buildings, had a membership of about 50 at the time, headed by noted local historian Ted Ligibel. His signature appears on the receipt for the truckload of items, dated Dec. 3, 1982.
“That's been a long time,” Mr. Ligibel said. “It's a distant memory. I remember two red stone pieces, architectural details, castoffs. I remember unloading them from a truck and taking them up to an upper floor at a warehouse on Erie Street, down in the Warehouse District.”
The storage was an oral deal, brokered with the warehouse supervisor, simply a place to put things until something better could be done with them, Mr. Libigbel said. “We had things like that stored in places all around town. I moved on. They may still be there.”
They're gone, said Pat Appold, a later Landmarks Committee member. Mrs. Appold restored the Oliver House in Toledo's Warehouse District to its former glory and integrated, with committee permission, several Landmarks-owned architectural items into the restaurant d cor. She said Landmarks members — she doesn't recall just who — went to the storage space sometime in the late 1980s to find an octagonal bench that once circled a post at the old Paramount Theater.
The storage room was empty. The terracotta angels from the county jail, the beveled glass from the old Lagrange School, the copper beehive — all had vanished.
“I was told somebody had told [warehouse workers] that room was just full of a lot of old junk, and they'd take it out of there for them,” Mrs. Appold said. “And there wasn't any contract signed, so someone else just said, ‘OK, take it away.' And that was the end of it.”
Warehouse owner Willis Day, Sr., ran a check at the warehouse last week. The items are not there, and he knows nothing about them, he said. The people who worked there 20 years ago are all gone now. There is no paper trail to follow.
“We lost some great stuff. But what could we do?” said Mike Young, another former Landmarks member. “Things happen like that.”
“We depend on individual memories to know what is stored where,” said Landmarks Chairwoman Irene Martin. “There's no paper inventory. In recent times we've been more into getting this organization back onto its feet than keeping track of what we own. If we don't go in and check on our belongings, then all kinds of things can happen. If we can't find them, then it shows neglect on our part. We obviously need to take better care of our things.”
Not all of Toledo's history ends in blank walls. There's the story of Battery H, First Ohio Light Artillery, In Action At Cold Harbor, Virginia, June 3 and 4, 1864.
This is an action-packed, five-by-eight-foot, true-to-life oil painting by Victorian painter Gilbert Gaul for a group of Toledo-area Civil War veterans. It is portrait-quality remembrance of local soldiers risk|ing all for the Union during a battle-turned-bloodbath. Newly restored and carefully guarded, it's the pride and joy of Martha Young, Mike Hopkins, and Doris and Warren Danekind, volunteers who now oversee its well-being and tell its story.
The painting was a triumph for the artist. The Toledo Observer, a former city newspaper, declared it “correct in all its details, inspected by Army officers before being accepted by the Boys. . . . The battery Boys had it painted as a memorial, preferring it to anything in marble or bronze.”
It was unveiled in 1894 at Memorial Hall, Toledo's architectural tribute to its war heroes, by then-Gov. William McKinley. It was exhibited at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Memorial Hall was built at Ontario and Adams streets in 1874, and housed a collection of more than 1,100 items of local military memorabilia dating to the 1820s. For years it served as a meeting place for veterans and civic groups, and as American military might expanded, so did the collection. Inside, visitors could see items as varied as Native American trade axes, faded regimental flags, maps, pikes, medals, and pickets from a fence at the dreaded Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville.
The slaughter of World War I cooled Americans' appetite for war, and as Civil War veterans aged and died, Memorial Hall went into decline. In 1915 the Battery H painting was given to the care of the new Toledo Museum of Art. The war relics were boxed and stored in an attic.
The Toledo Soldiers Memorial Association owned the building and its contents, and for decades shuffled the collection from one storage place to another. In the 1930s, the bulk of the collection was sent to the Toledo Zoo for a display honoring the city's anniversary. The Battery H painting went too.
Memorial Hall was demolished in 1955 and replaced by a parking lot. The Soldiers Memorial Association gave the zoo $117,000 to help build a Diversity of Life Museum in exchange for storage and display space for their relics collection. Zoology and artillery made for an odd mix, but hundreds of Toledoans, including Mrs. Danekind, remember visiting the elephants and tigers and seeing the Civil War medals and swords in their display cases as well.
Over the years, when the zoo developed new displays, it moved the military items into a basement storage room. The Gaul painting, once the glory of the Chicago Exposition, was propped against a wall in the damp darkness for years, then moved to a garage, Ms. Young said.
Waterville antiques dealer Rob Palicki was called in during those years to appraise and inventory parts of the collection the zoo board owned outright and wanted to sell.
“The storage conditions were atrocious,” he said. “It was all in a heap in a basement, including some wonderful Indian beadwork, shoved in a corner. And the basement had flooded. I'd say 25 percent of what was down there was ruined. The [zoo] board recognized it needed to be cared for and preserved. They sold things that had been donated to them. I bought a few things myself — [Civil War Major General] James Steedman's sword, sash, and saddle blankets. I offered to buy the rest of the collection, but they were afraid of repercussions; the rest was not directly donated to them.”
Mr. Palicki later sold the Steedman items to a Cincinnati area collector.
In the early 1970s, he said, the zoo held a “very hush-hush, invitation-only auction of just firearms, all vintages. They'd been kept in barrels in the basement. The money went to the zoo. It was handled by an attorney. I'm sure it was on the up-and-up.”
In 1988 zoo officials formed new plans for the museum building and asked the veterans' group to find a new home for its souvenirs.
“I think it surprised people when they saw how much was there,” zoo museum coordinator David Jenkins said at the time. “We had many, many, many, many boxes.”
The dismayed veterans, their group shrunk to about 20 members, weren't sure what to do with their legacy. After much wrangling and deal-making, the collection was ceded by court order in 1989 to the Oregon-Jerusalem Historical Society, a small group with a suitable museum building.
When society members opened up those many boxes, they found that the collection of 1,100 souvenirs that once decked Memorial Hall numbered about 200.
“Somehow I guess some of the things grew legs and walked out,” said Mrs. Danekind, group secretary. “I heard the display cases at the zoo weren't locked. It would've been easy to just open one up and help yourself.”
Mr. Palicki was called to inventory the shipments.
“It almost made me sick,” he said. “Somewhere, between the zoo and the society, someone had just loaded up their truck. Dozens of swords — Tiffany ceremonial swords — probably $100,000 worth, gone. The zoo didn't sell them. They didn't get to Oregon. Somebody stole them.”
“The [swords] just disappeared, who knows where or when?” said Ms. Young, president of the Oregon group. “We got less than a third. The collection was devastated. We have the remnants, and we're grateful for that. And we have the painting, that unbelievable painting. It's our treasure, a national treasure, right here in Oregon.”
“The painting only made it because it was too big to steal,” Mr. Palicki said. “It was in terrible condition.”
Meantime, dozens of other historical items are still in storage at the zoo, said chief operations officer Bob Harden. “Things were donated over the decades, lots and lots of things, and they're kept now in climate-controlled rooms, or lent to other organizations under lending agreements,” he said. “One of our goals is to get them back out on display, put them back as part of a museum.” Like many other zoo employees, he said he couldn't address the missing antiques issue. That all took place before he arrived. Bill Dennler, who was director of the zoo at the time, did not respond to several requests for interviews.
History is alive and well in the Toledo area, and several small “specialty” history museums sprinkle the regional map. Each is packed with stories and souvenirs and tales of how this medal or that certificate was saved from oblivion.
John Repp, curator at the Toledo Firefighters Museum at 918 West Sylvania Ave. in Toledo, has memorabilia that's been reunited with its story. He tells of days 100 years ago when “fire chief” meant “social lion.” Each new Toledo chief designed his own badge, which was executed by a downtown jeweler. Today their rhinestone-crusted crests are hot collectors' items.
“Christopher Wall became chief in 1890 and retired in 1900,” Mr. Repp said. “A few years ago a man comes in with his badge and says, ‘This belonged to my great-granddad. My kids have no use for it. You can have it!'”
The gaudy bauble is displayed beside its first owner's portrait, where its image glimmers on Chief Wall's chest.
In Maumee, the Wolcott House Museum Complex is home to six historic buildings moved to the site from places all over Lucas County, fitted out to represent local life in the 19th century. It's run by the Lucas County-Maumee Valley Historical Society, which has for years dreamed and planned a “glass-case” museum to show off items that don't quite fit into the theme of the complex.
“Toledo's Attic,” a lively Web site at www.attic.utoledo.edu dedicated to local history, was the society's first step toward developing a “real” museum, society director Charles Jacobs said, “but it's kind of taken on a life of its own.” Since 1997 University of Toledo labor historian Timothy Messer-Kruse, using grants from state and private groups, has overseen development of this ever-growing “virtual museum,” which updates local historical discoveries and works to build archives and collections related to 20th-century industrial history.
A long, close alliance with the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library keeps the society's paper records well within public reach, under the watchful eyes of the downtown local history-genealogy librarians.
The library keeps most of its small collection of historical artifacts in warehouses, said Local History Section Chief Jim Marshall — there's no space for them at the new facility, and “after all, we're in the book business, we're not a museum.” These range from Babylonian clay tablets, priceless paintings of early Toledo scenes, clocks, and a hand-carved model of a B&O train. Stained-glass windows and bronze tablets from Memorial Hall, once stored at the zoo, are showcased in a third-floor reading room.
Other groups have similar problems.
The Western Lake Erie Historical Society has a collection of maritime memorabilia that includes two 22-foot sloops, a 16-foot Chris Craft runabout, an old-fashioned deep-sea diver's suit, and a lens from a lighthouse lamp, but it has no good place to show them off. Society President Howard Pinkley said larger items are stored in the hold of the Willis Boyer museum ship in International Park, while films, documents, and photos are filed away in an Ottawa Park clubhouse library.
Lois Karamol is one of the dozen or so stalwarts who keep Oregon-Jerusalem Historical Society's Grasser Road museum open and running each week. She guides visitors through the bowler hats, coffee grinders, and cannon balls, naming names, giving dates, describing this long-gone grocery, or the lady doctor who once owned these instruments.
She wonders about the future, she said.
“We've worked really hard to create this,” she said. “We have a wonderful museum, but it seems nobody knows it's here. It breaks my heart that nobody comes.”