Awakened from the grave on a chilly October evening in 1975, the ghostly manifestation of Western Reserve pioneer Thomas Briggs greeted trespasser at the Frostville Museum complex in Cleveland Metroparks Rocky River Reservation with scowls and threats of retribution over the displacement of his beloved home. Brave tour leaders steered visitors towards the not-quite-living history exhibition of Briggs’ partially-renovated residence, regaling them with details from letters penned by the phantom docent. The writings, compiled by the Olmsted Historical Society, recounted the labors involved in constructing the home and the settler’s joy upon its completion. The specter could have shown a bit more gratitude – the house was previously slated for demolition, but had been rescued by the historical society. With funds scraped together by hosting events such as annual antique auctions, members had managed to relocate a 20 x 40 foot section of the 139 year old home from Lorain Road in North Olmsted to museum grounds in 1969. Efforts to restore the Greek Revival style building in accordance with its original design were well underway. The sturdy home’s new neighbors included a farmhouse erected in 1877, a small storage shed containing a horse-drawn hearse, and a recently-constructed barn that displayed farm tools and a vintage fire engine. The tiny pioneer village of Frostville was slowly being assembled within the rural terrain of the Cleveland Metroparks System.
Since the allocation of Frostville's grounds for use as a public museum in 1962 by Cleveland Metroparks, a handful of Olmsted Historical Society members stationed out of a farmhouse worked tirelessly to resurrect ghosts of the region’s earliest European and American settlers. The group was founded in 1953 as the North Olmsted Historical Society; its members were not alone in their efforts to unearth a world that's demise was symbolized by highways and generic housing stock. In North Olmsted, and across the United States, the changes wrought by suburbanization spurred the establishment of organizations dedicated to preserving relics of local history. By the end of the postwar suburban boom, Cuyahoga County had no less than 28 historical societies devoted to conjuring up the restless souls of a distant - and often imagined - past.
This post World War II era marked the beginnings of rapid change in North Olmsted and its surrounds, and offers the backdrop for the historical society's invocation of the Briggs ghost. Across the United States, urban sprawl and suburbanization transformed the character and landscape of small communities situated outside urban centers. Consumer spending that had been restrained during the Great Depression and World War II was unleashed. Demand for homes and consumer goods skyrocketed.
A slight complication quickly came to light. The construction of new housing had been at a relative standstill in an economy marked by rationing. The public not only had freshly available reserves of money, but depression era federal policies offered Americans greater access to affordable, long-term loans. The passage of the G.I. Bill further encouraged home ownership among veterans through a guarantee of low interest mortgages that did not require a down-payment. In 1946, it was estimated by the United States Senate that over three million homes were immediately needed to meet consumer demand. America was amidst a housing crisis.
As post war manufacturing switched back to the production of consumer goods, a burgeoning automobile industry stimulated home building in places such as North Olmsted. The annual production of cars in America grew from 70,000 in 1945 to over two million the following year. This output rose to over 3.5 million by 1947. To accommodate the new surplus of cars clogging the roadways, vast sums of federal and state funding were allotted to the construction of highway infrastructure during the 1950s. The outmigration of Cleveland residents to the suburb of North Olmsted centered along Lorain Road, which provided a fairly direct route between the cities. The opening of the Ohio Turnpike to traffic in 1955 further accelerated the growth of residential and commercial development in the region.
With demand for housing compounded by new transportation networks into and out of cities, construction in suburbs flourished. The grounds that once sustained North Olmsted’s farming community were quickly subdivided and dissected with roads. Barns disappeared from the horizon. In their place, neighborhoods were platted and quickly erected using contemporary construction methods. Feeding the building frenzy, North Olmsted — declared a city in October of 1951 — witnessed an influx of new residents. A 1950 Census population of approximately 6,600 residents, which had nearly doubled during the prior decade, increased to over 16,000 by 1960. The trend continued, and the population reached almost 35,000 in the following ten years. Both commercial activity and the infrastructure of the city grew in turn. Notably, the late 1950s saw the beginnings of what would become the Great Northern Mall. The shopping complex helped transform North Olmsted into a regional retail center.
Suburban growth also left a wake of destruction in its path. Long-standing structures were regularly razed to make way for residential, commercial and retail developments. Open lands previously used for farming, greenhouses, and hunting disappeared. New settlers couldn’t entirely be blamed for vestiges of the past vanishing from the landscape. Time had taken its toll on many of the region’s oldest buildings, necessitating either demolition or the pouring in of funds for rehabilitation. Countless structures had grown decrepit through years of owner neglect or abandonment. The oldest buildings that remained in the increasingly suburban landscape, however, took on new meaning. They came to symbolize the community’s rural past. In North Olmsted, the death knell for idyllic rural society was countered by the historical society's efforts to salvage physical representations of the past.
The village of Frostville was a response to the changes brought on by suburbanization; the historic enclave was born from an endeavor by the North Olmsted Historical Society to prevent the demolition of a vacant home standing within the Rocky River Reservation. The aged farmhouse sat on land purchased by the Metropolitan Park Board in 1925. The homestead was maintained as a rental property until the 1950s, despite not having electricity or indoor plumbing. The historical society rallied upon learning of the building’s imminent doom, and incorporated as a non-profit association in 1961. The Cleveland Metropolitan Park Board agreed to spare the structure for use as a public museum and cultural center, even though policies enacted during the 1950s curtailed the allocation of park lands for exclusive use by private groups.
The relationship between the two organizations was forged on common ground. The Park Board was also reeling from the unsettling impact of suburbanization, and searching for ways to promote preservation and conservation of its lands. By the mid 1950s, parking lots in the Metropolitan Park System overflowed with cars during the summer months. Lines formed at picnic areas for use of grills and public amenities, and the many pairs of feet trampling through green lawns were decimating the flora and eroding the soil. The ever-present threat of environmental degradation escalated as increased populations settled adjacent to park land, especially in connection with the pollution of rivers, creaks and streams. By the late 1950s, park director Harold W. Groth expressed concern that there were “too many people for too little land.” Nature wasn’t being given a chance to recover from the seasonal onslaught of humans. For the first time in its history, the Park Board found it necessary to deviate from the original Metropolitan Park System plan. A proposal was published in 1961 recommending an 8,400 acre park expansion project. Land for the Bradley Woods Reservation in North Olmsted and Westlake was acquired by 1962 to help alleviate overcrowding at Rocky River Reservation and Hinckley Reservation.
Just as the Park Board tirelessly worked to recreate an idealized representation of the region’s lost natural environs through landscaping, the North Olmsted Historical Society labored to materialize an interpretive memory of the suburb’s frontier past. As an affiliate of the Park Board, the historical society took on the financial responsibilities of running and maintaining the on-site museum. The farmhouse — known as the Prechtel House — was remodeled, painted, vanquished of bees, and connected to the electrical grid. Descendants of Olmsted Township's earliest settlers donated antiques to furnish its interior. The homestead was named Frostville to commemorate the area’s first post office, which opened in 1829 at the home of Dr. Elias Carrington Frost. The museum was officially opened to the public as part of North Olmsted's sesquicentennial anniversary celebration in 1965. During these early years, the scope of the society’s mission broadened to encompass the historic preservation of the entire original township. The organization’s name was trimmed to Olmsted Historical Society in 1968.
Guided by Olmsted Historical Society's vision for recreating a small village representative of 19th century life in Ohio, Frostville steadily grew and took shape as a living history museum. In 1976, a one-room cabin built during the mid 1830 was placed in the company of the Prechtel House and Briggs House. A two-story federal style home known as the Carpenter House, which was also erected during the 1830s, was transported to Frostville in 1987. A church dating back to the mid-1800s was relocated to the homestead in 2005, and was soon-after neighbored by a carriage house traced to North Olmsted’s first settler. The restoration process for each historic building was long and costly, with many a rummage sale, haunted house, and auction held to acquire necessary finances. Additional structures built on-site included a general store, an events barn, a workshop, and a display barn. All the while, the historical society continued to curate a collection of antiques representative of the region’s history. Plans are currently underway by the Olmsted Historical Society to both construct a one-room schoolhouse and rebuild a detached summer kitchen annex of the Carpenter House.
After over half a century in operation, Frostville is no longer haunted by the ghost of Thomas Briggs during the Halloween season. The turmoil created by the rapid suburbanization of North Olmsted in the 1950s and 1960s subsided. The rush of newcomers slowed to a crawl; the population peaked in the 1980s at over 36,000 residents, and proceeded to decline. While traces of the region’s agricultural past have all but disappeared from the city's landscape, members of the historical society continue their efforts to keep the past alive at the museum complex. Visitors to the living museum in Rocky River Reservation are invited to surround themselves in a world pieced together through the research. physical toil, and craftsmanship of Olmsted Historical Society members. By curating an environment illustrative of 19th century Americana, the village of Frostville offers park-goers a physical link and sense of continuity with the bygone days of Olmsted Township's earliest settlers.