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Ohio Centennial (1903)

The changing nature of centennial commemorations is well illustrated in Ohio’s public observances of its own anniversaries. This year marks the third time that Ohio has celebrated its founding. Each of these commemorations spaced, as they were at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the Twentieth Century, are telling symbols of their age. Each affords a little glimpse beneath the bare facts of history to reveal something of the spirit of the time, for the way we remember events reveals not only what we value but how we understand ourselves.

Ohio’s first Centennial celebration fell far short of its organizer’s expectations. Toledoans successfully lobbied to have their city designated as the site for a grand Ohio Centennial Exposition that they hoped would propel their city to world prominence. Toledo’s boosters planned to pour over a million dollars into construction of a grand exposition grounds at Bay View Park, enough to compete with St. Louis’s Louisiana Purchase Fair, whose budget was five million. But, as often happens in Ohio history, party politics intruded with a fight between the Foraker and Hanna factions of the Republicans, dooming the Toledo Centennial idea and ultimately settling for a far more modest ten thousand dollar observance at Chillicothe. (chill-uh-CAH-thee).

CHILLOn first glance, Ohio’s Centennial observances of 1903 appear out of proportion to its prominence as a state. In 1903 Ohio possessed the third largest number of farms in the nation, was fifth in value of manufactures, and fourth in population. The last elected President and the sitting vice-President were both Ohioans. The state was at the peak of its power and prosperity, yet the scope of its centennial observance was limited to a two-day commemoration in its twenty-second largest city.

A crowd less than half the size of Chillicothe’s own population of thirteen thousand people attended the ceremonies, which were heavy with solemnity and reverence. Most of the program consisted of prayers and invocations and scholarly lectures on Ohio history, punctuated occasionally by a brass band striking up patriotic airs. The whole was a numbing blend of the elements of a protestant tent revival, a traveling Chautauqua, and a political campaign rally without the whiskey.

Though a low-budget operation, Ohio’s centennial had all the elements of a unifying centennial. Governor Nash proclaimed that its purpose was for the “commemoration of its great deeds and the lives of its founders [so that they] may be not only perpetuated for the benefit of generations to come, but may be a source of inspiration to the living of to-day.”Feb. 27 was designated Ohio Day and each school classroom in the state followed an official “Ohio Centennial Syllabus” which was mailed to all 15,000 school teachers. It was filled with 65 pages of “drill and recitation” that was “well calculated to stimulate and strengthen study of the growth and achievements of Ohio.”

The centennial events in Chillicothe mixed raised state citizenship to the level of a secular religion by beginning each round of academic lectures with a prayer and patriotic song. It successfully connected present with past by inviting onto the rostrum the men who had direct memories of the early settlement days.

William T. McClintock, an eighty-three year old life-long resident of Chillicothe, understood his own role: “I have said that I feel myself to be a connecting link between the past and present and so I am for I have personally known all the governors of the state from Edward Tiffin to our present governor. . .” McClintock noted that he followed the procession which carried Gov. Worthington to his grave in 1827. He then had to scrape a little to find something to say about Ohio’s first governor. “I had the honor of having a tooth pulled by Dr. Edward Tiffin in my childhood . . . a recollection . . . as fresh as if it happened yesterday...”

Overall, the speeches and historical presentations of 1903 stressed a common Ohio origin by overlooking the divisive and stressing only the unifying elements of the state’s history. Of course, unmentioned were the rancorous debates in the original Constitutional convention over race, taxation, and native American relations, bitter issues which, if mentioned, give the lie to the idea of a unified founding moment. No discussion was made of the struggles of working people and immigrants in the state; somehow canals dug themselves, coal tumbled out of the earth, and capital alone worked the factories. Ohio was discussed as the cradle of the abolitionist or temperance movements, perhaps the most divisive political movements in the nation’s history.

Ohio Sesquicentennial (1953)

In 1953, Toledo took the initiative in organizing a celebration of Ohio’s sesquicentennial. With a $32,000 appropriation from the city and county and $46,000 from private companies, the sesquicentennial organizers swung into full gear. Walbridge park and the zoo were designated “Sesqui Center” and a month-long series of events centered around the Fourth of July was planned. There was a gala Sesqui-ball at the Commodore Perry Hotel at the princely sum of $10 per plate. Out at the Sesqui Center there was a Sesqui-tent filled with, among other things, artwork produced by children who participated in an Ohio birthday art competition. There was an historic “village of pioneers” that represented life on the frontier and the “winning of the west.”The military put on a display of some of its latest equipment. But the centerpiece of Toledo’s sesquicentennial celebration was the grand “Sesqui-show” written and performed by over one hundred local talents, including a then as yet undiscovered Danny Thomas. Performed in the zoo band shell, it was a grand evening that dramatized Ohio and Toledo’s history from Act One and the “First Settlers” singing the “Indian Epilogue” and “Sweet Betsy of Pike” to its finale entitled “The Industrial Parade and Ohio Hall of Fame.”Interestingly, the writers chose to explore history only up through the 1920s with the performance in Act II of the Charleston and star Lanny Ross singing “The Showboat.”Apparently no one wanted to remember the more recent events of the Great Depression or World War Two. All in all, it was a fantastic success, with a quarter million visitors and ticket income exceeding expenses (how often does that happen in historical events?).

Like the centennial of 1903, Toledo’s sesquicentennial was built on a romantic and uncomplicated view of history. As the program to the Sesqui-show proclaimed, “It is designed to strike a note of respect and reverence appropriate to the heritage of moral and physical strength handed down by the pioneers and their successors to the Ohioans of today.”For a generation just emerging from depression and world war and entering a new and in some ways more dangerous time of thermonuclear cold war, such a vision of blissful civic consensus was just what they wanted to celebrate.

In the half century since 1953, much has changed, not least is our public sensitivity to the variety of historical experiences of Americans. In the wake of the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, after Roots, after Cesar Chavez, after the occupation of Wounded Knee and Alcatraz, after decades of activism of people from all over the country who discovered deep meaning in histories that emphasized conflict and struggle, oppression and liberation, we emerged in the twenty-first century as a people who can no longer easily romanticize our own past. No longer can the state celebrate an uncomplicated, consensus history because too many groups contest and challenge it. It cannot dare to celebrate some aspect of the past without fear of offending someone’s very different understanding of it.

Ohio Bi-Centennial

In 1989 the Ohio legislature changed the lyrics of the state song “beautiful Ohio” removing from it the words:

Drifting with the current down a moonlit stream
While above the Heavens in their glory gleam
And the stars on high
Twinkle in the sky
Seeming in a paradise of love divine
Dreaming of a pair of eyes that looked in mine
Beautiful Ohio, in dreams again I see
Visions of what used to be.

And replacing it with:

Beautiful Ohio, where the golden grain
Dwarf the lovely flowers in the summer rain.
Cities rising high, silhouette the sky.
Freedom is supreme in this majestic land;
Mighty factories seem to hum in tune, so grand.
Beautiful Ohio, thy wonders are in view,
Land where my dreams all come true!

Thus in 2003 the state is celebrating a bicentennial that is largely stripped of its traditional didactic and unifying elements. Governor Taft’s signature quote gracing the top of the website is “Ohio’s Bicentennial is a time to reflect on our past, to visit events and attractions celebrating the present, and to dream about our future.”   This is a long way from Governor Nash’s understanding of his centennial, the “commemoration of [the] great deeds and the lives of its founders [so that they] may be not only perpetuated for the benefit of generations to come, but may be a source of inspiration to the living of to-day.”We are no longer told to extol the founders but merely to reflect on them. We celebrate the present and not the past and we dream not about history but about the future.

BLADE202While centennials of the past may have been historically inaccurate, even biased to a large degree, their romanticized fictions did lend them a degree of spirit and vigor that I find absent today. Could we imagine a headline in a turn-of-the-century account of Ohio’s centennial celebration like that which appeared in the Blade this past March: "Ohio's constitution: Scribbled in haste in a Chillicothe pub"? Or would any previous generation have considered creating a bicentennial mascot bird named for Thomas Worthington anything but irreverent?

Take one of the signature events of our bicentennial, the casting of county bells. Bells are a complex symbol, denoting both the liberty bell and political freedom, the steeple bell and religious piety, and the school house bell and secular education. But as religion and, to an extent, even education, are controversial subjects today, these symbolic aspects of the bells are not mentioned. We are not invited to look upon the bells and consider Ohio’s historic role in religious revivalism that played such a part in the early life of the state, or to look upon the bell and consider the rural one-room schoolhouse through which the likes of Thomas Edison was educated. But these are complicated and potentially controversial historical subjects, so instead the bells are explained officially as being “a thematic tribute to the state's manufacturing and industrial roots.”Gov. Taft, after dedicating one of the bells, explained, “It educates people of all ages about bell foundry work, which is an important part of our state’s manufacturing and industrial roots.” In fact, the numbers of bell foundry workers in Ohio was never even large enough to merit a separate category in the census tables.

But the real test of the exhortative function of celebrations is what children are told. My fourth grade son brought home a binder of materials dealing with the bicentennial this past year and I was most intrigued by the official bicentennial book distributed to children, “Happy Birthday Ohio.” A book that begins with a letter from the governor addressed to “Dear Young Ohioan” urging him or her to “share [this book] with your family and friends” and even to “pass this book down to future young Ohioans” as you grow older. In its chapters the young Ohioan would find the state bird, tree, flower, some Ohio firsts, a poem about “Little Buckeye” growing up, and the story of “Marblehead Muffler Man” who finds an invitation to a bicentennial celebration and gives up his job holding up a billboard to go to the state’s birthday party. Along the way he visits important state locations like the giant fiberglass apple in Port Clinton, the world’s largest basket in Newark, the 25-foot-tall rocking chair in Austinburg, and other places. Within “Happy Birthday Ohio,” there are no references to any historical events or to that traditional glue of civic unity, a “founding moment.”

BWASHAll of this makes sense, I suppose, in our modern society where today one quarter of Ohioans are not from Ohio and about one in twelve have not lived here more than five years. It makes sense in a state where nearly half of all its growth since 1990 is due to increases in the Hispanic and African-American populations. It makes sense in a global village of a world where one’s identity with a particular nation or state or place is not one’s primary identity or even one’s permanent identity. The simple fact is that official civic history is no longer acceptable and the idea of celebrating any single “founding moment” is difficult at best.

What we are left with is not one official story, but many stories, woven together form the tapestry of our collective experience. In the past year, the best and most important work has been done by the local historical societies and local bicentennial organizing committees who have recognized important events in the lives of their own communities through public programs, historical markers, and roadside signs. Though it lacks the grandeur of historical celebrations of the past, the devolution of official state history to local and community groups has made an opportunity for the presentation of a more accurate and relevant history.


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