Building Pathways: Preserving Oberlin's Heritage

by Morag Boyd '97

"To preserve and share Oberlin's unique heritage and to make our community a better place to live, learn, work and visit" is the mission of the nonprofit Oberlin Historical and Improvement Organization (O.H.I.O.), a unique community organization that has blossomed in recent years under the guidance of a small paid staff .

Created in 1964 by the merger of the Village Improvement Society (1903) and the Oberlin Historical Society (1960), the organization struggled for many years with a small membership base, few volunteers or public events, and very little community involvement. The O.H.I.O. of today is a dynamic organization, 650-members strong, that sponsors public programs and attracts 7,000 visitors for tours and programs every year.

The centerpiece of the organization is the Oberlin Heritage Center, four historic buildings that that sit just south of the Conservatory-Monroe House (1864), Little Red Schoolhouse (1836), and the Jewett House (1884) and Barn (1888). Twice-a-day tours on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays enable visitors to celebrate Oberlin's past points-of-pride, such as Jewett House exhibits, "Aluminum: The Oberlin Connection," and a typical student room from the era when male Oberlin College students lived with families in town.

Building for the Future
In the works is an ambitious landscape master plan for the Oberlin Heritage Center that was developed by the local firm, Land Concepts. Twenty-eight thousand paving bricks recycled from a 19th-century road and cleaned by armies of volunteers create the bi-axial walkway linking the nearby residential neighborhood, the downtown business district, and Heritage Center with the walkway leading to Tappan Square. Future plans include period fencing and gardens and a central garden pavilion for outdoor events.

Beyond serving as the town's historical society, O.H.I.O. works with civic improvement plans. The Heritage Center will eventually lead to a future city-wide Heritage Trail that will direct bicycle, foot, and vehicle traffic to all local historic, cultural, and recreational attractions. The Trail will also connect with the new 13-mile North Coast Inland Bike Trail that travels through Oberlin to Elyria and Kipton.

Preserving Other Historic Buildings
O.H.I.O. prepared a successful National Register nomination in 1998 for Oberlin's historic Gasholder Building. Working with the College's history department faculty and others, O.H.I.O. held a symposium on John Mercer Langston, whose home is owned by O.S.C.A., and collaborated again with the College to welcome U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to celebrate the designation of the Wilson Bruce Evans House, a major African American historic site at 33 East Vine Street, as a National Historic Landmark.

Striving to include Oberlin's diverse communities, O.H.I.O. has developed a volunteer program with more than 200 participants. Oberlin College student volunteers and interns worked on a newly published children's activity book and the restoration and sale of Bird's collectible map, "Eye View of Oberlin, 1868." Students, Oberlin residents, and local alumni from classes spanning 60 years regularly participate in assignments from giving of the Center to conducting an inventory of gravestones at Westwood Cemetery. Through the Electronic Oberlin Group local history website (, a collaboration with the College and the Oberlin Public Schools, O.H.I.O. is able to share its collections and activities electronically.

Working with the city, college, and other local organizations, O.H.I.O. endeavors to make Oberlin's rich and diverse history more accessible to visitors. For a free copy of the O.H.I.O. newsletter, The Gazette, please send a self-addressed stamped business-size envelope to: O.H.I.O., P.O. Box 0455, Oberlin, Ohio 44074.