As curator of the FHHS, I often find myself sitting at the desk in the society library room. All around me are old city directories, tax ledgers, yearbooks, and many more primary sources. Local residents can draw memory maps detailing buildings that once stood in Fairport. Business facades on Third Street and High Street give an insight to the village past. Our society history books and museum archives contain photos of the village's nearly 200 years of existence. Recently, I had the need to drive into downtown Willoughby. My stops...along the way included Vine Street. Today, the face of Vine Street has changed. However, today's blog is a mini quest to uncover the ethnic origins and early history of Vine Street.
Willoughby, like many Lake County cities, once had a distinctly Irish and Italian neighborhood. In the mid-1800's, Irish families moved into the city. They sought jobs felling trees and laying track for the coming railroad. Mom and Pop businesses, such as grocery stores, bars, and hardware goods stores sprung up. This was the Willoughby my uncle grew up in. His house was on the property next to the railroad bridge. His family were Italian laborers, who like many Italian laborers built homes close to work and church. He walked daily down Vine between Erie and Skiff. He attended Willoughby Union High School. He graduated in 1941, served in WWII, returned and remained a resident. His father recalled the Immaculate Conception Church, a small wood framed structure with a rectory built in 1869. My uncle remembered the Penfield Brick Yard, located north of Vine near the railroad. My uncle recalled that as the trains rumbled through downtown Willoughby, the engines used coal instead of wood. My uncle recalled the Vine Street of the 1920's and 30's as being lined with tidy homes and businesses whose owners were named Angelotti, Borrelli, Carmody, Clair, DeMilta, and Venditti. My uncle remembered a large clock on the downtown bank facade. Employment opportunities decreased in time. The train station closed. Families moved on. Even my uncle moved five minutes down the road into Mentor.
Vine Street has been revitalized over the last decade or so. New businesses are thriving, visitors gather at the local eateries, and special event programming call attention to the city. As you walk downtown Willoughby, look around Vine Street. It is one of the entrances into the history of the city. Notice the tile that spell out hardware store on the corner. Walk over to see where the CP and E rail system was housed. Check out the old Union High School and the memories it could share. Stroll the sidewalks and imagine the Irish and Italian neighborhoods that once were present. Look into the business windows and imagine the hard-working immigrants who once worked inside. Each gave so much to the community.
Every city, town, or village has a similar story to tell. Historical markers share important facts about the Lake County you live in. Architectural cornerstones exist in many historic districts to remind us of what once was. Opportunities exist to experience what was handed down to you. Honor the heritage that is Lake County. Your local historical society can share its collected knowledge with you as well as suggest programming and events of interest. Better yet, volunteer in your community or historical society. Be an eyewitness to the living history that is still evolving today.
Old Vine Street Occupants - just a sampling
Reece Carrell 1889-1918 largest landowner in county
Asa Cottrell 1827-1911 wagonmaker
Nathan Clark 1842-1912 tailor
Charles Jenkins 1840-1920 village clerk and lumberman
Capt. Ranson Kennedy 1819-1887 hardware and Lake captain
J.W.Stewart 1876-1957 harness maker
Orin Talbot 1831-1939 wholesale merchant
J.H.Wilber 1824-1895 jeweler
Richard Yaxley 1835-1917 gun smith and farmer