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Published: Thursday, 7/5/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Maumee site prepared for Obama to kick off bus tour

Famous visitors a proud tradition at historic Wolcott House

BY JANET ROMAKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The Wolcott House Museum in Maumee was spruced up for President Obama's visit and will welcome him today with red, white, and blue bunting and cascades of purple petunias, accented with American flags. The Wolcott House Museum in Maumee was spruced up for President Obama's visit and will welcome him today with red, white, and blue bunting and cascades of purple petunias, accented with American flags.
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Dust cloth in hand, Marilyn Wendler brushed cobwebs from a windowpane near the back door of the Wolcott House, a local landmark and historic treasure.

Company's coming. Namely, President Obama.

"We want everything to look just right," said Mrs. Wendler, curator of the Wolcott House Museum Complex in Maumee, as she and others spruced up the place for the presidential visit.

On the Wolcott grounds today, President Obama is scheduled to kick off his "Betting on America Bus Tour," a two-day re-election campaign swing through Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Historically, the Wolcott House is a sure bet. Its history is stitched into the very fabric of America. The house was built between 1827 and 1836 and is one of the oldest major homes in the Maumee Valley.

"What we have here is a wonderful, unique representation of two cultures coming together and of the pioneer spirit that founded northwest Ohio," Mrs. Wendler said Wednesday.

President Obama is not the only prominent figure to visit the Wolcott House. James Wolcott, a member of a prominent, politically connected family, was an associate and friend of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States.

Mrs. Wendler said it's not known who may have visited the home when Mr. Wolcott lived there in the 19th century. But as a businessman of national renown and one of the founders of Maumee, it is likely that other prominent figures would have been there.

Morrison Waite, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1874 to 1888, was from Maumee and was a contemporary of Mr. Wolcott's when he established his law firm in the Toledo suburb in the 1840s.

In more contemporary history, James A. Rhodes and Bob Taft visited the house when they were governors, Mrs. Wendler said.

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Law enforcement officers and firefighter personnel  go over the grounds in preparation for the President's visit. Law enforcement officers and firefighter personnel go over the grounds in preparation for the President's visit.
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One of the oldest buildings in the Maumee Valley, the Wolcott House represents the early entrepreneurs who came here, founded businesses, created jobs, and made their fortunes.

A proposed canal to connect Lake Erie with Fort Wayne stimulated speculative interest and attracted Eastern entrepreneurs.

Mr. Wolcott, of sorts an American advance agent of civilization, was one of those entrepreneurs.

Born in Torrington, Conn., into a family with ties to the very beginnings of this country, "he came out west to make his fortune and he did just that. He accomplished his goal," Mrs. Wendler said.

Mr. Wolcott, a prosperous businessman during the late 1820s to the mid 1840s, is a descendant of Oliver Wolcott, a Connecticut governor who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a copy of which is on display in the museum that is nestled near the bank of the Maumee River.

James Wolcott was active in the new town of Maumee's affairs, serving as a councilman and as mayor. In 1839 he was elected a Lucas County Common Pleas judge.

"Judge Wolcott had his office right there in the front room of the house. In fact, his built-in desk is in his study there. Judge Wolcott was one of Lucas County's earliest judges. In those days, Maumee was the county seat and the courthouse for Lucas County was where the Maumee Branch Library is today," said historian Fred Folger of Toledo.

Mr. Wolcott, who wrote his name large in the early history of the Maumee Valley, had a thriving steamboat-building business and warehouse on the hill down from the house leading to the Maumee River, said Judy Justus of Perrysburg, Wolcott House Museum Guild president.

A staunch supporter of Mr. Harrison, Mr. Wolcott named one of his ships for the War of 1812 general who later was elected president. General Harrison established Fort Meigs on the south side of the Maumee River in 1813.

A drawing of the General Harrison ship, which hauled goods to and from Buffalo, is one of many artifacts featured in the museum's memorabilia room.

It is said that one of his ships bore the first piano into the wilderness that would become northwest Ohio (Mr. Wolcott's daughter Mary Ann had studied music at a ladies seminary in New York).

Mr. Wolcott was active politically as one of the organizers of the Whig Party in the area, Mrs. Wendler said. "He knew a lot of important people. He knew Henry Clay," she said, referring to the 19th-century Kentucky legislator and orator.

Active in the Episcopal Church, Mr. Wolcott and his contemporaries formed the first Episcopal Society in northwest Ohio, she said. St. Paul's Episcopal Church of Maumee is closely connected to the Wolcotts. The church's first log chapel was built in the 1830s on the grounds of the Wolcott House by Mr. and Mrs. Wolcott, who were contributors to the building that now houses St. Paul's at 310 Elizabeth St.

Mr. Wolcott wed Mary Wells, who grew up in Kentucky, in 1821 in Missouri, where they were living at the time; they built their federal-style home, which became known during their residence as the Mansion on the Maumee, six years later. A two-story porch and veranda give grace and charm to its square dignity.

Mrs. Wolcott was the daughter of Indian agent William Wells and granddaughter of the Miami Chief Little Turtle, who was strong in battle and wise in counsel.

William Wells was kidnapped at age 12 by the Miami Indians near his Kentucky home, was adopted by Chief Little Turtle, and fought alongside the Indians during the Indian Wars, 1790-1794. He later joined forces with the Americans and served with Gen. Anthony Wayne. He was present at General Wayne's victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 and was interpreter for the Miami at the Treaty of Greenville in 1795.

The Wolcott House Museum on July 3, 2012. The Wolcott House Museum Complex prepares for a visit from President Barack Obama Thursday. The Wolcott House Museum on July 3, 2012. The Wolcott House Museum Complex prepares for a visit from President Barack Obama Thursday.
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"Both William Wells and Little Turtle wanted to establish peace. They worked toward that end during a very turbulent time in our nation's history," Mrs. Wendler said.

Mr. Wells, who married Chief Little Turtle's daughter Sweet Breeze, was killed during the massacre at Fort Dearborn (present-day Chicago) in the War of 1812.

The family lost another relative to war: one of Mrs. Wolcott's children died in the Civil War.

The Wolcotts' daughter Mary Ann, who married Smith Gilbert (he was a mayor of Maumee), inherited the Wolcott House, and later, their daughter Fredricka Hull inherited the home. It was the wish of Mrs. Hull and her daughter Rilla that the home should become a museum.

Rilla, who died in 1957, willed the house at 1035 River Rd. and property to St. Paul's Episcopal Church of Maumee.

The church could not operate a museum, Mrs. Wendler said, and for a minimal amount, the house and land were sold to the city of Maumee, which leases the complex to the Lucas County Maumee Valley Historical Society.

The complex, which includes a log home, a farmhouse, church, a railroad depot, and one-room school, serves as host to special events and is an educational facility. Visitors can walk through history as they tour the Wolcotts' handsome home where the furniture is hand fashioned and hand carved.

Extensive work went into the Wolcott House to repair sagging floors and other problem areas in preparation for its rebirth as a museum. With capital improvement and operating funds scarce, volunteers pitched in to raise money. Cookies were baked, yard sale items collected. Sales were held.

"We began to operate as a museum in 1960, and at that time, it was just this house and it kind of grew. A lot of people donated their time to make this happen," she said as Jack Hiles, executive director of the Maumee Valley Historical Society, walked in.

Sweaty from hours of work on the complex grounds, he asked for her keys; her car needed to be moved.

"Jack, it looks like you need a break," she told him.

Mr. Hiles kept going, waving aside any mention of taking time off. There were still things to do.

After all, company's coming.

The city is expecting between 500 and 700 people to attend President Obama's visit.

Maumee Mayor Tim Wagener expressed great excitement for the event and pride in Maumee as the city buzzed about the visit.

"Maumee is an all-American city, and that hopefully had something to do with his decision to be here in Maumee this week," he said.

In the sweltering heat Wednesday, swarms of workers scurried about the Wolcott grounds, setting up equipment and tackling items on a lengthy to-do list. Plans are in place for water stations and a designated cooling-off spot for the crowd today, Mr. Hiles said.

President Obama's campaign staff looked at three area venues for the visit and decided on the Wolcott House after viewing the conditions of the grounds and the property's layout, Mr. Hiles said.

Kevin Rupp of Maumee, a University of Toledo student who is on staff at the museum complex, said it's "fantastic" that Mr. Obama will visit such a historic landmark in Maumee.

The Wolcott House received extra-special attention, inside and out, this week, he said shortly before revving up a heavy-duty vacuum sweeper.

When Mr. Obama arrives today, the Wolcott House will extend its welcome with red, white, and blue bunting and cascades of purple petunias, accented with American flags.

As Mr. Rupp noted, "It looks presidential."

Blade staff writer Mel Flanagan contributed to this report.

Contact Janet Romaker at: jromaker@theblade.com or 419-724-6006.



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