The Oviatt Family has been given their own page on this website because of their lifelong friendship with John Brown and their great importance in the UGRR of Richfield. The Oviatt House is also deserving of particular mention because of its great importance as a unique stop on the UGRR.
The Oviatt Family was among the first settlers of the Western Reserve (of Connecticut). Heman Oviatt established his family in Hudson, where he became friends with the Brown Family. In those early years both family's became outspoken Abolitionists. Heman Oviatt's and Owen Brown's sons, Mason and John, were to become close friends and when they achieved age they traveled together to Connecticut to attend Academy (high school).
By the 1830's, Heman Oviatt had decided to move to Richfield, and he acquired 4,000 acres in the NW section of Richfield. He came here because Richfield had some of the best/richest pasture land in all of N. Ohio (thus our name, rich-field). On his lands, he raised upwards of 3,000 sheep. When the sons returned from school, Mason went into the sheep business with his father, Heman. He established his residence in 1836 at the house still standing at Streetsboro and Oviatt Rd's. The lumber for the house was milled on site by Mason and his brother Erastus in a sawmill they had begun construction on three years earlier on the nearby creek.
Soon Mason asked his good friend, John Brown (The Great Abolitionist) to also move to Richfield to become his sheep business partner. At about the same time Col. Farnum also asked John Brown to come and help him with his 1,500+ sheep operation on his 2,000 acres north along what became known as Brecksville Rd.
Both family's naturally brought their Abolitionist beliefs to their new home, and with the members of the Richfield Congregational Church (now named Richfield U.C.C.), the local Abolitionists (like the Ellsworth Family) already so well established here, and now the Oviatt's and Brown's, Richfield became a major stop on the Underground Railroad. Among the important actions these family's took was to build into their homes, -hiding places for the freedom seeking escaped slaves. The remains of these hidden spaces still exist here in our town. Several examples of such spaces include at Heman Oviatt's house, on 303 nearby the Scriptype building, there was a slide down into the basement. In the Ellsworth (now Baster) house on 303 near Broadview, there (still exist) two long narrow closets in a second floor bedroom. In John Brown's house on 303 near 21, the basement was used for the hiding of the escaped. And at Mason Oviatt's house at Oviatt Rd. & 303. there was rumored to be a hiding place or "closet" also in the basement. Because our community owns this house as part of a community park it is, at this writing, being researched how to best save and preserve this monument of such an important time in our American history. And there are others. (Across Ohio we are so rapidly losing these stops on the UGRR that it is nearly a sin to let them disappear.)
During the early days of Richfield the Oviatt's were so important in the development of our community. Their farm and the sheep they raised helped draw many businesses here, including many blacksmith & harness shops and the very large and thriving tannery of John Brown. And many of the Richfield houses & barns erected in the 1840's were built of lumber milled at the Oviatt sawmill. Later their farm became the very famous and well used Hilaka and Julia Crowe Girl Scout Camps. And more recently their former farm has become the Richfield Preserve, one of "Ohio's Hidden Gems".
Mason and Fanny Oviatt raised eleven children in this house. Mason died in 1850. Fanny never re-married, but ran the farm and raised the children on her own. In 1853, the title for the house and the farm passed from Mason Oviatt's estate into Fanny's possession. A year later, she signed the title over to Mason's brother Uri who owned the adjacent land. The Oviatt's continued occupation of the house until 1919, when the house and farm were sold to Jim Kirby. And of course it still stands today, just as it has since 1836. ~It could be mentioned that there supposedly exists a report that the present house is not original, or was moved. This is mistaken. During the winter of 2020, a group of experts in old home and barn construction investigated the house to determine its age. The group, drawn from The Cuyahoga Valley National Park, two separate century home restoration companies, and the director of one of N. Ohio's largest open air museums, checked into every possible space, looked at every rafter, sill, joint, joist, floor board, siding, etc. possible to observe, and did not find a single example of reused wood. They also looked at construction methods, the saw marks on every board and all the nails that they could observe. Every single artifact they looked at clearly indicated that the house was built before the American Civil War, in the time period the Oviatt Family claims. Further, every indication was that the house had never been moved or disassembled in any way. As a long time sawyer myself, the marks left on wood during sawing have always been of interest to me. They tell quite a story. I noticed that the Oviatt boards were clearly sawn on what was most likely a water powered pit saw, just as the old story tells.
In those early days of the struggle to help free the bitterly abused and oppressed enslaved (there were an estimated 1 1/2 million slaves in the 1840's to as many as 3 million+ by the Civil War) it was very dangerous to be known as a member of the Underground Railroad. Consequently, there are few records, diaries or stories of the UGRR activities. One of the reasons why the Oviatt House is important is the Underground story told about what happened there. That story can be read under the heading, "Richfield Abolitionists", on this site. It was only recorded because long after the death of Mason Oviatt and long after the Civil War, Fanny Oviatt sat in her parlor and recounted the happenings to her grand-daughter, Jennie. Jennie Oviatt recorded that story just as it had happened so many years before in 1843. To be able to have such a complete and descriptive telling of such crucial American events and to have the house where the story begins, is remarkable.
Copyright © Jim Fry 2018