Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The History of the "Oldest House in Cleveland"

The Astor House - the oldest house in Cleveland
Cleveland Plain Dealer October 23, 1898, page 18.

On Monday, I introduced the Astor House, which was said to have been built in the 1780s. Today, I'll introduce the available evidence regarding the house.

The significance of the Astor House first appears in the public record in 1883, in the Annals of the Early Settlers Association. Virtually all of the later articles on the structure derive their facts from these articles, so I've reproduced them below rather than participate in another attempt to rephrase what is already second or third-hand information.


At the corner of Hanover and Vermont streets in Cleveland stands a low roofed house of a reddish color, looking much like other houses as to wear, but its style seems a little antiquated. This house is said to be nearly two hundred years old. A SENTINEL scribe hearing that Mr. Robert Sanderson could give an account of the old house, called upon him at his residence, No. 54 Clinton street, and found him quite willing to deliver up all he new concerning the old relic. Mr. Sanderson is a hale and hearty old gentleman, and seems to have an excellent memory. He has lived on the West Side for nearly fifty years, arriving here October 4, 1833. There were scarcely a hundred people on this side of the river then, and the etiquette was at such a high standard that there was but one man in the whole place that owned a broadcloth coat, and he was a tailor and ashamed to wear it because he was afraid of being laughed at. When Mr. Sanderson came he brought such a coat with him, and did not wear it for two years for the same reason. When asked concerning the old house on Hanover street, he gave a brief history of it, as far as he knew, as follows:

"I bought the house from old Joel Scranton forty-four years ago, and from him I learned its history, and all I shall tell you about it before I owned it, will be on his authority. The Northwestern Fur Company built it possibly two hundred years ago for a fur warehouse. The company consisted of Scotch, British and French, but the first-mentioned had control of it. The house was built up at the head of the old river-bed, or rather where the head now is. After it had been there in use a number of years, the beavers built a dam across the river right about opposite where the rolling mill stands, and the river made another mouth of its own accord from there in to the lake. The company then moved the house from where it was built to a point above the dam, thinking it was better to do that than to disturb the beavers, as it was their skins they were after. It remained there till sixty-three years ago. That was the time the Ohio canal was built. The government decided that year to dredge out a new mouth to the river, and the house was moved over on the government land near where the stone pier now is, on the other side of the river. It was moved before the new channel was dug, so they did not have to take it across the river. Here it stood for quite a number of years, used for the same purpose. After a while it was moved from there up to the corner of Superior street hill to where the Oviatt building now stands. Ward & Blair owned the property there and an adjoining warehouse, and I don't know whether they bought or rented it. This was right opposite the Cathan corners, which were where Myers, Osborne & Co.'s works now stand. These corners were well known all over the Western Reserve, and between these corners and Superior street hill was the only place of crossing the river, and that was by ferry. I bought the house from old Joel Scranton forty-four years ago. When I found it was such an old house and had a history, I decided to preserve it, so I took it apart, and moving it in sections, set it up where it now stands. There were eleven courses of shingles on the roof, one on top of the other; the under shingles were the long ones, which looked more like barrel staves, while those on top were more modern and smaller. I used it as it was for six years as a joiner shop, then I took the old siding off and put on new, as it was quite an eyesore to the community in its original shape. There was no saw mill farther west than Albany when it was built (so Scranton said), and every stick in the house, even to the siding and long shingles, was hewn out with a broad ax. The house was made entirely of chestnut, as that wood is easily hewn, and when I found that out, I replaced every piece that I had found unsound, with chestnut. The shingles and siding are about all that there is of the house as it now stands that was not in the original warehouse. When I took it down to move it, I found it full of hairs from the bottom to top and between the floor of the upper story and the ceiling of the lower was entirely filled up with hair. The houses seemed full of it, and there is hair in it at the present time. According to Scranton its age can be traced back one hundred and forty years. I think Scranton's ancestors were connected in some way with the old fur company. Scranton was a queer old man; never talked much - about once a week on average. When I was taking down the old building, he would come and stand there with his arms behind his back under his coat-tails, and look at the old building in a longing way. One day he came there as usual, and after a while he said, "Well, well, many is the pound of tea I have sold in that old building to the Indians for $10 per pound, and taken my pain in skins." It seemed a sorry time to him that such a day was passed. You see, he got the skins for about two shillings a piece, or thereabouts, so he made a pretty good thing of it. He told me that there was one older house in Ohio than this one, and that was in Marietta. I don't know whether that is standing or not, but think likely that it is. I suppose we ought to give in to Marietta, and we take the next to the oldest. It has been used as a dwelling house for thirty-eight years. After I had used it for six years as a joiner shop, I used it myself as a dwelling for ten years, and it has been used as such ever since. From another source it is learned that John Jacob Astor bought and sold merchandise in this old warehouse when it stood on the flats."

Here is a house that is certainly older than one hundred and forty years, probably nearly two hundred; it has been moved four different times, a distance of over two miles, once across the river and once up a hill; it has been taken apart and put together again, it has been used for a warehouse, store, shop and dwelling house, and with all this age and moving about, a person passing it would never take it to be over thirty years old, and there are houses even younger which look much worse for wear. This old relic bids fair to stand many years of use yet, and who knows but what it may stand its third century out yet? It certainly ought to be allowed to stand as long as possible. - West Side Sentinel
Annals of the Early Settlers Association, Number 4 (1883), pages 49-52.


In the "Annals of the Early Settlers Association of County," published in 1883, is an account of an old house at the corner of Hanover and Vermont streets in Cleveland, (West Side,) said to be about two hundred years old. That a house that age exists within the borders of the Western Reserve will news to most of its citizens.

Mr Robert Sanderson is its present owner. Many may have doubts of its antiquity. We have some evidence - not exactly corroborative - regarding an old house which once stood near the site of this: Colonel James Hillman, Youngstown's earliest settler, in a letter written in 1843 (found on page 353 of Colonel Whittlesey's Early history of Cleveland), relates a journey as pack-horse man, in 1796, from Pittsburgh to the mouth of Cuyahoga river with goods, to be taken thence to Detroit by water. He says that near the mouth of Tinker's Creek "we crossed the Cuyahoga and went down the west side to the mouth. In going down we passed a small log trading house, where one Meginnis traded with the Indians. He left the house in the Spring before we were there." He adds, that on a subsequent trip that Summer he, and those with him drew, small logs and built a hut at a spring near where Main street comes to the river, "which I believe was the first house built on the Cleveland side."

He speaks of the Meginnis house as a "small log house." The "old house" described by Mr. Sanderson was a two-story house with chestnut siding - a very different house. If it had been at or near the mouth of the river Mr. Hillman would probably have seen it and mentioned it in his letter. And yet it may have been built where stated by Mr. Sanderson and have been one of the age named If it was about two hundred years old, it was erected, say in 1683. If one hundred and forty years old, in 1743.

More than two hundred years ago the French possessed Canada, which they called "New France." They were pushing their settlements and trading posts westward along the great lakes and rivers. In 1683 they founded Detroit, and had probably at that time visited the mouth of the Cuyahoga. About 1753 they had erected Fort Duquesne, at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela, near Pittsburgh. It is not improbable that they may have had trading posts on the south shore of Lake Erie, and perhaps the "old house" was one of them.
John M. Edwards, Youngstown, O.
Annals of the Early Settlers Association, Number 5 (1884), pages 84-85.

How much of this can we be sure of? Was the house really as old as has been suggested? What can we say that we actually know about this house? I'll answer these questions and more on Friday.

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