About the Western Reserve Historical Society
Founded in May 1867, the Western Reserve Historical Society is Cleveland’s oldest existing cultural institution. It was established as the historical branch of the Cleveland Library Association which dated from 1848. The Society’s creation was part of an important trend in the United States, the establishment of private organizations to oversee the collection and preservation of documents and objects relating to various aspects of national, regional and local history. While its original focus was on the history of “…Cleveland and the Western Reserve, and generally what relates to the history of Ohio and the Great West,” it now concentrates on the history of Northeast Ohio.
Between 1867 and 1898, the Society was located in downtown Cleveland in a building which stood on what is now (2011) the site of the KeyBank headquarters. During this period the Society’s collections grew rapidly as did its means of support as leading citizens, including John D. Rockefeller, collectors, and scholars became associated with its operations. The growth and stature of its collections were such that it obtained a charter from the State of Ohio on March 7, 1892 which made it an independent organization, one on a par with other major cultural and educational institutions that had arisen in the post-Civil War period.
In 1898 the Society moved to the University Circle area, occupying a large new building that was situated at the southeast corner of the intersection of Euclid Avenue and what is now Stokes Boulevard. It remained there until 1938 when it began a move to its current location on East Boulevard with its acquisition of the Hay-McKinney mansion to house its museum. Today, the Cleveland History Center houses Cleveland Starts Here® sponsored by the Jack, Joesph, and Morton Mandel Foundation, Euclid Beach Park Grand Carousel, WRHS Research Library, the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum, the Chisholm Halle Costume Wing (home to fashion exhibits), two historic mansions, Kidzibits Playzone, as well as a variety of rotating exhibits. The History Center also houses the WRHS administrative offices.
In 1957, WRHS received the Jonathan Hale homestead in Bath, Ohio and now operates the 90 acres of Hale Farm & Village, a living history museum depicting life in the 19th century through agricultural practices and everyday craft and trade demonstrations such as glassblowing, pottery, spinning and weaving, and more.
In addition to the two major sites, WRHS also operates Shandy Hall near Unionville. This property is available for tours on a request-only basis.
The physical and geographic expansion of the Society’s facilities was complemented by increased professionalism of its curatorial operations and an important topical expansion of its collections. Beginning in the late 1960s the Society began aggressive programs to acquire and preserve documents and artifacts that represented the histories of Northeast Ohio’s diverse populations. Specific programs were established in African-American, Jewish, Italian, Irish, LGBT, labor, and other areas of community history which have provided it with unparalleled resources relating to urban, industrial, immigration, and family history. These provide a critical complement to its collections on the pioneer settlement and early growth of the Western Reserve as well as to major topics such as the American Civil War, decorative arts, genealogy, and automotive and aviation history.
About the Western Reserve
Northeastern Ohio’s cultural roots begin with the native American populations who first inhabited the area some 10,000 years ago. In 1662 the area became part of the colony of Connecticut whose royal charter granted it a swath of land extending across the continent to the Pacific Ocean. After the formation of the United States, Connecticut ceded most of its western lands to the national government but exempted approximately 3,400,000 acres lying north of latitude 41 degrees and extending 120 miles westward from the Pennsylvania border. This became its Western Reserve. In 1795 it sold most of this land to a group of investors who had formed the Connecticut Land Company and in the following year the company began the survey of the land to prepare it for sale. The survey party was led by Moses Cleaveland, the namesake of Cleveland, Ohio.
Initial settlement of the area was sporadic and slow, however by the 1820s, the region began to prosper. The first settlers and the towns they established reflected the culture of Connecticut and New England. However, as the region prospered it became a destination for migrants of all backgrounds and the region became increasingly diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and religion. With the growth of industry in cities such as Cleveland, Lorain, and Akron during the late nineteenth century demographic diversity increased markedly – so much so that by 1920 two-thirds of the population of Cleveland was of foreign birth or parentage. In the years since 1965 new immigration streams have added markedly to the cultures and communities within the region.
Today, economists and planners see northeastern Ohio as a contiguous region, one which almost matches the borders of the Connecticut Western Reserve. The region continues to grow, garnishing recognition from national media as an “emerging destination” with one of the “10 best City Arts Districts in the USA” in University Circle, the neighborhood the Western Reserve Historical Society calls home.
Cleveland’s extraordinary mixture of cultures and histories, dating from native American to contemporary immigrants continues to be reflected in its landscape and cities, and most importantly in the collections preserved in the Western Reserve Historical Society’s collections and properties.