This is one in an occasion series about the history of the Chagrin Valley.
Over the past few weeks, the Chagrin Falls Historical Society has received numerous inquiries regarding the history of Chagrin Falls, Chagrin Falls Park and the Park School. Chagrin Falls students, former students, village residents past and present, have emailed or called, not to mention all the traffic on social media. One concerned student posed a whole series of excellent questions to be addressed, stating that before they took action, they wanted to have accurate information.
Accurate reporting of history is important. What is happening now is that a great deal of the narrative being put forth is both inaccurate and inflammatory. Over the next few weeks, we will address some of the historical issues that are being raised.
In the early 1950s Chagrin Falls resident Judge William K. Thomas, who at the time was a Geauga County Common Pleas judge, along with the Rev. John Townsend and the Chagrin Falls Junior Women’s Club were instrumental in developing and getting funding for the Chagrin Falls Park Community Center. In 1952, the women’s club applied for and received a grant from the Kroger Co. for $10,000 to help fund their projects in the community park. Their project was entitled “Build Freedom with Youth.” Many residents of Chagrin Falls were cognizant of the condition of those who lived in the community park and put forth much effort to try and help.
A few years after the development of the community park center, Judge Thomas was having dinner with friends where he expressed disbelief that some people were still pushing the false narrative that the county line and school boundaries were redrawn to exclude Chagrin Falls Community Park. This local icon of social justice was exasperated that these rumors persisted.
In 2013, former Chagrin Valley Times Editor David Lange wrote about this same issue following the publication of a book by a former community park resident A. Hitchcock, who pressed the same false narrative. In 2016, a doctoral student at Cleveland State University produced an interesting and insightful thesis about students growing up in the community park. Unfortunately, she restated the false narrative from the unsourced Hitchcock book to draw some of her conclusions.
Full disclosure, growing up in Chagrin Falls in the early 1960s, this is the narrative that I believed.
The official record
Here is the historical record. Chagrin was settled in 1833. By 1840 the town was exploding due to the development of a variety of industries. One of the issues these early residents faced as they moved toward becoming a village, was that the county line ran right through the center of town. About half of what eventually became Chagrin Falls was in Orange Township, with the other half being in Russell Township. Picture standing at what is now Step-In, in 1840, you would be standing in Cuyahoga County, but all of Triangle Park, and everything to the East, would be in Geauga County. A proposal to the State Legislature was made for a land swap between the thwo counties. Cuyahoga County would get a 900-acre parcel of Geauga County in Russell Township and Geauga would get 900 acres of Cuyahoga County in Orange Township. This swap actually took place in 1841. The county lines had two protrusions, Russell Township west into Orange Township and Orange Township east into Russell Township. In 1843, Russell Township decided they did not like the 900 acres they got in the swap (there was not enough good farmland) so they gave it back. Orange Township kept their 900 and Chagrin Falls was able to be developed as a unified community.
This piece of history is taught to all Chagrin Fall High School students who take government.
Chagrin Falls Park
The education of students who live in Chagrin Falls Park has always been the responsibility of Bainbridge Township. School district boundaries have never been altered or redrawn to exclude Chagrin Falls Park.
Chagrin Falls Park (the name given to it by the original developers) began its development in the 1920s, 80 years after the land swap. By the mid-1930s, children in the community park were being transported to the Bainbridge Centralized School on Chillicothe Road near where Bainbridge Township Hall is located today. The community park is located in Bainbridge Township. In 1936, a group of park residents petitioned the Bainbridge Township Board of Education to build a school in the park for the 20 or so students who resided there. The school district complied and in 1937 a K-8 one-room schoolhouse was built. This was not without controversy in the community. There were concerns at the time about de facto segregation, and as the student population grew, so did the controversy. In July of 1946, an article in the Call and Post (a weekly newspaper for the African American community in Cleveland) outlined a lawsuit being filed by the NAACP against the Bainbridge Township school district to eliminate the ‘Jim Crow’ School in the Park. One of the attorneys of record for the NAACP was future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The schools were not re-integrated until the 1960s.
Much of the narrative on the schools is taken from a history of Chagrin Falls Park written in 1986 by Andy Wiese. His history is a remarkable document developed through research and interviews with more than 40 park residents. There are two copies at the Chagrin Falls Historical Society available for review. Mr. Wiese is a professor in the history department of San Diego State University.
Mr. Bourisseau is president of the Chagrin Falls Historical Society Board of Trustees.