Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Skating in Manhattan, Ohio - Winter, 1865

Skating in Manhattan, Winter, 1865 by Alan Borer

People who take an interest in history are habitual letter readers. The most sloppily composed letter can reveal tidbits of information to the careful researcher. It can be even more difficult when the letter is not complete. Even modern correspondence does not always contain the name (first and last) of the sender in full, nor the intended recipient. Especially daunting is a letter which no longer has the envelope in which it was mailed.

One story will illustrate this possible disconnection. I recently acquired a letter dated Toledo, December 5, 1865. It is addressed in a friendly way to “Dear Eliza,” and signed, “From your loving friend, Addie.” But the envelope, that would help me identify the full name of Eliza or Addie, was missing.


Was there enough of the contents of this letter to figure out who and where? Maybe. We’ll try.

I will not reprint the whole letter here. Some of it is just girlish chitchat. Addie was apparently living in a boarding house or rented rooms somewhere in that wintry Toledo. She, like many letter-writers, complained about her health; she had rheumatism and is tired all the time. She was a schoolteacher. That can be inferred by her complaints about rambunctious students (she calls them scholars).

She complains about the cold weather: “It is very cold here. there has been good sleighing here for a week and it looks very much like a snow storm now, I presume it will snow all day.” Addie has actually begun painting a written picture of her world. Toledo was a boom town in the 1860s. The city population, only 13,768 in 1860 had jumped to 31,584 in 1870. We can estimate an 1865 population of about 22,000. Only the wealthy residents of the city could afford a home, or house, as we think of it in 2007. People lived in rooms, boarded with friends or with complete strangers. They walked where they needed to be; streetcars had not yet made their appearance, and automobiles were 40 years in the future. So we can get a sensate snapshot of Addie walking through a fast-falling snow, cold (“The doctor says I must wear flannel underclothes, that will seem rather strange for me.”), tired, but determined to make her students behave.

What students?

Now we must make some intuitive leaps. Let me begin by quoting some of the letter:

“I have been anticipating much pleasure in skating, this winter; Yesterday I borrowed a pair of skates and Addie Case (A friend of mine) and I went out on the river to skate, got along braveley, thought I was some, went out again at noon with my scholars, was rushing along on my skates like a locomotive in full speed when, lo; away ahead of me I saw something that looked very much like my watch with the crystal smashed in an indeffinite number of pieces, I thought I had gotten enough of skating for one day so I picked up the watch and mosied back to the school house, thought I would try it again to day.”

Read carefully, this paragraph raises some questions and provides some partial answers. For example, the writer gives the first and last name, Addie Case, of a friend who went skating on a frozen river. With a last name, we have some hope of tracking down the friend in the United States Census. There was an Adelade Case (daughter of Israel and Swayton Case) in the 1870 Census for Manhattan Township, Lucas County. She was 23 the day the census taker came to her house, July 8, 1870, making her age 18 when she skated with her friend, Addie the schoolteacher, in 1865. We cannot be sure this is the same Addie Case that skated with our letter-writer, but it seems likely given the next step in our case.

After skating with Addie Case, our teacher went out again to skate with “my scholars,” also presumably on a frozen river. If a teacher took her rowdy students skating, she would not have wanted to go very far. In another paragraph of the letter, she wrote: “My scholars are none of them very large. the oldest fourteen.” So presumably, Addie would have been teaching in a school building at or near a riverfront.

There were two schools named Manhattan in early Toledo. One was a Toledo city school, located about where the High Level Bridge is today, at the corner of Erie and Tecumseh. There was also a Manhattan Township School “near Manhattan Road (1875-76 Toledo City Directory).” That is not very specific, but an 1861 Atlas of Lucas County shows a school located within walking distance of the Ottawa River in what is now North Toledo.

Manhattan School, a block from the Maumee River, or Manhattan School, in walking distance from the Ottawa River? For skating with a class of high-spirited children, with a friend, Addie Case, a resident of Manhattan Township, the signs suggests that the skating party was on the Ottawa River. Can we say with surety that Teacher Addie taught at Manhattan Township School? No, but it’s a fairly good bet she did.


The name “Manhattan” has a spotty, yet colorful history of lending itself to Toledo-area places. Even today, most Toledoans can name one easily: Manhattan Boulevard, a busy street in the Buckeye Basin. But there have also been a village called Manhattan (which existed from 1835 to 1848), the two Manhattan Schools (see above), Manhattan Township (swallowed by the city in 1874), and any number of businesses, past and present, which use the Manhattan name.

The township of Manhattan existed on both side of the Maumee. Until the 1860s, it was a mainly rural area, with the proto-village of Manhattan located on the north side of the Maumee. The Manhattan post office existed from 1836 to 1858, explaining why Addie’s letter was datelined Toledo, not Manhattan. The Stickneys and the Ketchams were large landowners; descendants of Peter Navarre owned land on the eastern side of the township. When the township land became valuable enough to become part of a growing Toledo, Toledo and Oregon divvied up the township on their respective sides of the river.

But to return to Addie the Schoolteacher: her letter is an interesting fragment of the history of the Manhattan area. Since we don’t know her last name, we can trace her neither forward nor backward in time. Where she was born and died, whether she taught all her life, married, raised children, or lived happily is beyond our knowledge. But that cold, snowy day, skating on (presumably) the Ottawa River, exists as keenly as a snapshot, and leaves a moment in her life more clearly than most of her contemporaries.

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