This is part two in an occasion series about the history of the Chagrin Valley.
“A Place of our Own: The Chagrin Falls Park from 1921-1950”
The title is from a monograph written by Andrew Wiese in 1986. Dr. Wiese spent a summer researching and interviewing residents of the park in order to create a historical record. All of what follows in this article is taken from his research. Copies of Dr. Wiese’s 50-page monograph are available to read at the Chagrin Falls Historical Society. Dr. Wiese graduated from Chagrin Falls High School in 1983 and is a professor in the history department of San Diego State University.
During the winter of 1920-1921, R. G. Gardner sold a tract of land in western Bainbridge Township to the Home Guardian Corporation of New York. A total of 81 acres was surveyed and streets graded. They named their proposed development Chagrin Falls Park. Home Guardian worked with Samuel Rocker, the editor of a Cleveland newspaper called the “Jewish World’ and they came up with a promotion for subscriptions. If you purchased a six-month subscription, you would receive a deed for a lot in Chagrin Falls Park. A number of people took advantage of the opportunity, and a few even built homes, but for whatever reason the development never took off.
The year 1916 is generally thought to be the beginning of the black migration to the North. Conditions in the South were increasingly hostile with Jim Crow laws and crop failures. In the North you could find a job and support your family. These migrants increasingly lived on the east side of Cleveland, and while work was available, living conditions became increasingly expensive and difficult.
During the 1920s, properties in Chagrin Falls Park began to be marketed to the black residents on the East Side of Cleveland. Land prices were considerably lower in the “country” and the black population enjoyed the idea that they could own their own land. The lots were extremely small and had no improvements. The roads were little more than widened dirt paths. Without running water and electricity, residents used kerosene or coal oil lanterns for light and coal stoves for heat. They dug shallow wells for water and pits for outhouses, often within close proximity. The water was sulfuric which affected drinking and cooking. Some residents utilized rain barrels or built cisterns to get around this problem. Early residents shared that they liked the land because there was room for chickens, pigs and gardens.
Many of the early residents bought lots with houses already on them, but many others labored long hours after work and on weekends building their own homes from whatever materials they could find. Neighbors pitched in, either with labor or with food. The 1930 census shows 57 black residents living in Bainbridge Township, most were living in the park.
The developing Chagrin Falls Park was not well received by the surrounding communities. The 1920s brought with it a period of “Americanism.” Newspaper accounts chronicle an active Ku Klux Klan throughout the area. One of the Klan speakers in the early 1920s, the Rev. Dr. Turner espoused “law, morality, freedom and education.” (A more detailed account of this period in Chagrin history will be included in a future article.)
Also in 1920, the Henry Furnace Company, which was located at the south end of the Village of Chagrin Falls, imported black workers to work in the foundry. Initially, the workers and their families lived on the foundry grounds. When the foundry fell on hard times, the workers were furloughed from their jobs. A few resettled in Chagrin Falls Park. Early park residents were quick to point out that in the early years, the white population was larger than the black population in the park.
Most of the early settlers continued to work in Cleveland. Eventually, many began to find work in Chagrin, particularly the women. Many residents of the park and the village began to form relationships that enhanced their lives. Many white residents worked through their churches and civic groups to play instrumental roles in the later development of the Chagrin Falls Park Community Center.
By the mid-1930s, the park community was beginning to take shape. Two church congregations formed. The church communities complimented each other, assisting in building and community projects. Religion played an important role in people’s lives. Sunday was an all-day thing, according to an early resident.
The 1930s also brought the hardships of the Great Depression. One of the side benefits was the reduction in price of the lots. In the early 1930s, lots were selling for $100 each. By 1937 they were being sold for $25. But many of the earlier lots, which had not been developed, became available at sheriff sales in Chardon, the Geauga County seat, for as little as $1 or $2. This led to an increase in the movement of the black population from Cleveland. Unfortunately, many of the homes being built during this period were little more than shacks.
The increased population nurtured social and recreational activities. Besides additional churches, the park formed its own baseball team which would play throughout the area. They had their own uniforms and would play anyone. Small stores began to open up selling items like pop, candy and potato chips. There were even a few places with a juke box where you could listen to music and dance. In May of 1940, the Geauga County Republican Club was formed, which allowed residents to gain better access to county and local politics. The club was involved directly and indirectly with several major developments including the Chagrin Falls Park Community Center, the Chagrin Falls Park Fire Department, as well as street improvements and a voting booth in the park.
The community was also becoming more visible to Cleveland’s black community. Columns about community activities were published in Cleveland’s black community newspaper, “The Call and Post” and also locally in the Chagrin Valley Herald. By the late 1940s, there were over 700 residents, four churches, a fire department and numerous small businesses. Residents formed a PTA, Masons, Elks and active involvement with the NAACP. A women’s quartet called the Echo Singers raised money for food baskets to be distributed during the holidays. Another group of park women, who called themselves the Thrift Sisters, raised funds through barbecues, the sale of baked goods and handicrafts. The community was alive and flourishing. All of these active residents formed the nucleus of what would eventually lead to the development of the Chagrin Falls Park Community Center.
Mr. Bourisseau is president of the Chagrin Falls Historical Society Board of Trustees.