Historic Bedford, located in downtown Bedford, Ohio, is a terrific example of the power of small-town preservation. Bedford, which has been around for more than 190 years, may be a small town, but it has connections to a big history. Indeed, much of the history of the United States unfolded in smaller towns such as Bedford. Historic Bedford’s preservation success owes much to the hard work of the Bedford Historical Society (BHS) in safeguarding the town's historic buildings. The historical society’s work uses the town’s landmarks, including the Hezekiah Dunham House and Old Town Hall, to tell Bedford’s story. The survival of small-town history begins with small-town preservation.
Historic Bedford is just a small strip along Broadway Avenue, but that small strip is filled with much rich history. The first settlers arrived in 1813 in what became Bedford, which was given the temporary name of Township 6. It wasn’t until 1823 that Township 6 finally became a village, which was soon named Bedford. One of the most famous houses in Historic Bedford was the Hezekiah Dunham House, which was built in 1832. Four years later, Hezekiah Dunham and wife Clarissa signed a document that gave grant of the land in Lot No. 46 to the trustees of the Township of Bedford. With the land deeded by the Dunhams, residents of Bedford began to build houses, churches, businesses, the Old Town Hall, the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway depot. By the mid-19th century the village of Bedford quickly turned into a prosperous town where several illustrious historical events occurred.
Certainly, one of the most noteworthy moments in Bedford’s history was when President Abraham Lincoln stopped in the village on February 15, 1861, at the Wheeling & Lake Erie train depot. The newly elected president was on his way to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration and stopped in Bedford that day around 3:30 p.m. to greet the townspeople. According to an account by Bedford historian Dick Squire, “The train slowed as it neared the Bedford station. The tall figure of Mr. Lincoln emerged from the warmth of the coach and stood on the rear platform, acknowledging the cheering crowds.” Lincoln only spent a few minutes in town, but his presence turned those few minutes into a historic event.
In addition to Lincoln’s visit, the story of Julius Caesar Tibbs, the Strawberry Festival, and the Spirit of ’76 were other highlights in Bedford’s history. Julius Caesar Tibbs was born into slavery in Virginia in 1812. Tibbs escaped the plantation and was later found at the Burns Farm in Bedford. Bedford was known for its strong anti-slavery feelings, which is why the village became a stop along the Underground Railroad. There the Burns family gave Tibbs food and provided him with a place to stay on their farm. The Strawberry Festival is an annual festival, sponsored by the Bedford Historical Society. The festival was created in June of 1964 in hopes of raising funds for the Bedford Historical Society to use towards preserving historic buildings in Bedford. In another example, by 1976, as America celebrated its Bicentennial, the BHS made copies of the famous painting, “The Spirit of ‘76”, and even created items using the theme “Spirit of ‘76”. During this time many small towns were finding ways to contribute to the celebration of the Bicentennial. Historian M.J. Rymsza-Pawlowska states in her book History Comes Alive that, “…individual states were also preparing for 1976 and began to use their own regional histories to find relevance Bicentennial in ways that often diverged from the federal vision.” The Spirit of ’76 is an example of Bedford connecting to the nation’s history at one of the most important commemorative moments.
The importance of preserving small-town history begins with the small history that contributes to the town. Historic buildings are the physical markers of the town’s history, and these buildings become daily reminders of a place’s past. It is important to remember that preserving a town's historic building provides a sense of pride for the community. Although the businesses contributed to the growth of Bedford’s economy and history, the buildings that stood out the most must be the Hezekiah Dunham House and the Town Hall. Both buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, but each contributes differently to the history of Historic Bedford. For example, in 1832 the Hezekiah Dunham House was built by one of Bedford’s earliest settlers, Hezekiah Dunham. While the Dunham House began to gain notoriety, the establishment and construction of the Town Hall started. By 1874, the Town Hall was finally complete and became the tallest structure among the local landmarks. The Town Hall was used for public meetings, speeches, lectures, and productions at the opera hall located inside of the Town Hall.
By the early 1970s, following the Historic Preservation Act of 1966, many small towns decided to preserve historic buildings. Bedford was no exception. The Dunham House became the first phase of a restoration project launched by the Bedford Historical Society. In order to accomplish restoration of the house, the Bedford Historical Society created a Restoration Fund Account (RFA) designated solely for preserving and restoring historic structures. With the RFA, the BHS fixed the Town Hall for $35,000 and turned the building into Town Hall Museum, which is filled with collections such as extensive forms of lighting, clothing and textiles, military uniforms, small arms, and assorted memorabilia. The museum also contains a library, archive, and became the home for the Bedford Historical Society. Along with the Town Hall the Dunham House was restored and used as a museum, which transport individuals to the mid-1800s with its period furniture and gorgeous stenciling. Although less commonly cited than Chagrin Falls and Hudson, Historic Bedford is a great example of a small town that used its small and big history to preserve building structures, and shine light on the importance of small-town preservation.