ELYRIA — Moments after Mayor Holly Brinda read from a proclamation declaring Saturday as Founder’s Day in the city of Elyria and just before a new historic marker was unveiled to mark the event, her voiced cracked as she reflected on the occasion.
“It’s very humbling experience,” Brinda said as a light, freezing rain fell. It reminded her of a scripture in I Corinthians.
“Basically much care is needed to build on a foundation someone else set,” she said.
The genesis of a community always has a starting point.
For Elyria, the time and place was roughly March 18, 1817, near the now-intersection of East Broad and East Bridge streets. It is when and where Elyria got its start when founding father Heman Ely and his party charted the area as a permanent settlement.
“Heman Ely was a bit different than other settlers,” said Bill Bird, executive director of the Lorain County Historical Society. “He came here a year earlier and made preparations. That way when people came there was a saw mill, gristmill and place to live.”
The story goes like this.
Ely, the son of Justin and Ruth Ely, of West Springfield, Mass., guided settlers to Elyria and gave them the materials needed to start, stabilize and expand in the area. His servant Ned accompanied him, along with Anna Snow, a housekeeper; Luther Lane, a wagon master; Artemas Beebe, a master builder; and Ebenezer Lane, a relative of Ely.
The first home built in the new settlement was Ely’s near the same intersection. Beebe went on to purchase land from Ely to open the Beebe Tavern on the south side of Main Street, known as East Broad Street today. By 1847, Beebe sold the tavern and constructed the Beebe House, a grand hotel at Broad and Court streets.
Those early efforts, Brinda said, laid the foundation for Elyria to become Ohio’s 14th-largest city, with a population of roughly 54,000 people, and the county seat of Lorain County.
Appreciating this gift two centuries later gives Elyria residents, both natives and transplants, the opportunity to reflect on the city’s past and future.
Did Ely think Elyria would be still standing today?
“Probably hoped it would, but didn’t expect it,” said 48-year-old Matt Swabb, who with his wife, Shannon, and daughter, Sophie, 8, live in a 107-year-old home on West Avenue. “Having the Black River and access to water to do the work for you and quite a bit of lumber probably helped a lot.”
Founder’s Day, a celebration that included birthday cake at the Lorain County Historical Society, is the official kickoff of a yearlong celebration in the city.
“The bicentennial will be an educational, recreational and celebratory time for the city, and we are so excited about this,” Brinda said. “We will have something for all residents.”
The opportunities for involvement abound.
Steve Kaplan, of the Kaplan Family Foundation, sponsored the historic marker unveiled Saturday.
His family is fourth-generation Elyrians who are proud to have their roots here, he said.
“I hope this year can be a real good year for us,” he said.
Swabb said the bicentennial makes him think about the preservation of history.
“We have to learn to appreciate our history and protect it for the future,” he said. “We are just custodians of it at this time of our historical buildings.”
Swabb was born in Erie, Pa., and moved to Elyria in 1984.
“My mother wanted to settle here, and I just stayed,” he said. “It’s a nice town.”
Che Gonzalez, a part of the Oberlin African-American Genealogy and History Group and an Elyria native, said she has gotten interested in tracing her family and neighbors in Elyria, especially as the African-American experience is often overlooked in city history.
“Like Ned is just called by his first name,” she said of Ely’s servant. “Very little is known or written about him.”
YWCA Executive Director Jeanine Donaldson said a presentation set for Friday will shed more life on African-Americans in Elyria.
“We have a start here, too,” she said.
Other upcoming events include record-a-memory event Saturday at the History Center at the Elyria Public Library West River Branch and The Abbewood and a gospel hymn sing April 9 at First United Methodist Church in Elyria.