THE FOLLETT/LINCOLN STREET STORY
by Phyllis Yarber Hogan
Even in the year 2000, the name "Lincoln Street" still creates haunting images in the minds of Oberlinians who grew to adulthood during the 1940s and 50s. "It was a dark place," states one white South Professor Street resident, "we used to look down there, but we never went down there. It was scary. Even today, when I drive down there just to look at some of the nice houses, I still find myself locking my door."
For those who called Follett/Lincoln Street home, the name is almost magical, evoking feelings of joy, hate, happiness, sorrow, love, pain and shame all mingled together. It creates an overwhelming yearning for home. It was a place apart; maybe not heaven, but neither was it hell.
During the 1940s and 50s, the section of Follett/Lincoln Street between South Professor and West Hamilton Street, was considered the worst slum area in the history of Oberlin. In 1955, an Oberlin Review article states that ""Follett St." in Oberlin carries a stigma somewhat similar to that of "Harlem" in New York."
Situated in Oberlin's southwest quadrant, Follett/Lincoln Street has the only sizable minority population on Oberlin's westside. Generally considered a "Black neighborhood," Follett/Lincoln has always been integrated. Cutoff from other neighborhoods, Follett/Lincoln became a lost world. Besides the isolation and unimproved street, some of the other reasons for Follett/Lincoln's bad reputation may be due to several tragic incidents that occurred on the street. Three incidents worth mentioning are the murder of Jack Bradley in 1952, the starvation death of an infant in 1954, and a fire in 1960 that took the lives of seven children.
Another reason contributing to the negative image of Follett/Lincoln Street was the poverty of the residents. Many residents would be what we now call the "working poor" with large and extended families. Residents that owned their home, were not able to afford the cost of improvements necessary to bring city services to the neighborhood. Others were forced to rent houses and apartments that would accept large families. One such apartment complex was a converted Riding Academy commonly referred to as "The Barn."
Despite the poverty and stigmatism attached to living on Follett/Lincoln Street, many residents have moved into other areas of Oberlin and beyond and become productive members of society. However, there are those families that will always carry the stigma of being "from Lincoln Street." The paving of the street and installation of sanitary and storm sewers eventually led to the development of the Presidential Estates area, opening access to Follett/Lincoln and changing the landscape and reputation of the area forever.
This paper will study the emergence and development of Follett/Lincoln Street from its beginning to 1960. Particular attention will be paid to the 1950s, when the the city of Oberlin begins to wrestle with the moral dilemma caused by poverty and safety.
This paper has several aims: First and foremost, to help me make sense of the world in which I grew up.
Second, to the learn the history of the area. The name of the street was changed from Follett to Lincoln during the 1950s. This created a street with three different designations.
Third, to show how the neighborhood changed from an underdeveloped area to a desirable neighborhood.
Fourth, to take a brief look at how the dynamics of race, class and poverty affects the extension of city services to this area.
Eliphalet Follett was born in 1805 and came to Ohio in 1831 settling in the area of Granville, Ohio. He was a dairy farmer and a distant relative of newspaperman Oran Follett of Sandusky, Ohio. Follett was the father of six and eventually moved to Oberlin to educate his children.
According to the Alumni Register of Oberlin College, three of the Follett children attended The Academy: Howard, 1864-65, and twins, Frank, 1865-68, 1869-71, 1872-73, and Fannie (Mrs. Frank S. Sallade) 1868-71 the Preparatory School, and 1870-71 the Conservatory.
The 1873-74 Oberlin City Directory lists E. Follett as residing at 103 South Main Street. By this time he had already purchased Follett's First Addition and Follett's Second Addition, which together encompassed land bordered on Main Street on the east, NYC Railroad on the north and Hamilton Street on the South. Follett eventually left Oberlin and moved to Colorado, then to Kansas. He died in Cleveland in 1887 and is buried at Granville, Ohio. Though Eliphalet Follett had removed himself from Oberlin, his original ownership of the land gave title to the one street that developed in Follett's First and Second Addition.
The 1874 Atlas of Lorain County shows Follett Street traveling west to east beginning at Hamilton and crossing Main Street. The map also shows that in 1874 two main streets, Prospect and West, were expected to connect to Follett as well as two other shorter unnamed streets. The 1894 City Directory is the first with house numbers for Follett Street. There are eight dwellings with five adult females and five adult male named.
A look at a series of maps of Oberlin will clearly reveal the evolution of isolation of Follett Street. In 1874, Prospect and West, two main streets on the Westside were proposed to intersect with Follett. Three additional minor streets would also have fed into Follett. The 1877 proposed map also indicates the connecting streets.
By 1888, the development of the Morgan Street Waterworks halted the progression of West Street, however Prospect is still expected to connect. The 1959 City of Oberlin Zoning map reveals that not only did Prospect end at Morgan Street, but the small connecting streets never developed. This effectively isolates Follett/Lincoln. Whether the isolation was intentional or not, it is clear that after the development of Morgan Street Waterworks and Westwood Cemetery, Follett Street was never a candidate for connection to any streets running north to south on the westside of Oberlin. Once there is no longer any hope of being connected to other neighborhoods, Follett Street is forgotten by the City of Oberlin.
Though commonly thought of today as a black neighborhood, Follett/Lincoln has always been integrated. It was also in 1894 when the dwellings on Follett/Lincoln were first given house numbers. Of the ten adults listed in the 1894 City Directory, I have identified two, one male and one female as black, and four, three male and one female as white. The other three have yet to be identified.
Of the 69 persons counted on Follett in the 1920 Census, 21 were Black, 2 were Mulattos, 41 were White, and 4 were Indian. The white families were of German, French, Swedish, and English ancestry.
Several of the City Directories also reveal that not only was the street integrated, but a number of the households were as well, with black and white living in the same home. While Oberlin has always espoused racial harmony, it would appear that the less fortunate were able to put it into practice. Perhaps it was necessitated by the need to share limited resources. Whatever the reason, Follett/Lincoln, continues to be a wholly integrated neighborhood.
One of Oberlin's major issues of the 1950s was improvement of City services. It is told that about 1943, there was a fire on Follett/Lincoln that destroyed the home of the Tom Parker family at 269 Follett. Follett had no water lines, and, therefore no fire hydrants. Hoses had to be dragged from Professor Street all the way down to 269 Follett. By the time the water reached the fire, the pressure was so low that there was little more than a trickle of water. The house burned to the ground.
In 1946, residents of Follett/Lincoln approached City Council requesting water, sewers, sidewalks and a paved road.
March, 1950, City Council had authorized a survey to estimate the cost of installing water and sewer lines on East and West Follett Street. By August, 1950, an estimate had been received. However, no action was taken by the City until a commitment on paying for the project was obtained from the homeowners. This problem was to plague the development of Follett/Lincoln Street for the next fifteen years.
By 1951, water lines had been approved for Follett because of the hopes for developing of the area. There were still no sanitary or storm sewers in the area and sidewalks and a paved road were never even considered.
In 1953, Council became embroiled in a struggle over who was responsible for paying for installation of water and storm and sanitary services. Up until this point, there had been no hard and fast rule on the matter. An ordinance was proposed that would require property owners to pay for installation of water and storm and sanitary sewers. Those opposed to the ordinance felt that the cost of installation of these services had been paid for by the city in the past and the city should continue to bear the costs. It was also felt that some low-income property owners would not be able to to bear the costs and, therefore, would always be without water.
April, 1955, Council adopted the ordinance for installation of water and storm and sanitary sewers that required property owners to pay for new mains and extensions that become the property of the City. Any property owner who wants to tap in must pay the City its proportionate share of the cost based on front property footage.
March, 1956, Council received two petitions for installation of sanitary sewers and pavement of Follett/Lincoln Street. One from residents of the section between Main and Professor and another from the residents of the section between Professor and West Hamilton.
May, 1956 the petition from the residents of the section of Follett/Lincoln between Main and Professor streets was accepted by the City and plans for improvements begun. However, as to the petition for improvements of the section of Follett/Lincoln from Professor to West Hamilton, the City Manager reported that the installation of a sanitary sewer and street construction would not benefit the City because the property on Follett/Lincoln was valued so low.
In 1960, a Committee on Needed Street Improvements, recommended that the City take the initiative in assisting property owners with seeking financing for improvements.
In 1962, a Citizens Improvement Council requested that no further building permits be issued for Follett/Lincoln Street until improvements were made. They also inquired if there was anything else the City could use to keep the dust down on Follett/Lincoln other than oil.
For many years Follett/Lincoln Street was commonly referred to as the "bumpy road." There were open ditches and the street was a mass of ruts and potholes. During the summer, automobile traffic produced enormous clouds of dust. In the 1940s, the City applied rock salt to the road to keep down the dust. The salt would absorb moisture in the air and help to make a harder surface on the road. In the fifties, the City used tar or oil on the road to keep down the dust. Children walking in the tar would cause small stones, sticks and dirt to attach to their shoes. Children had tar on their legs and clothing as well as tracking it into their homes. Oil was not much of an improvement.
The problem of how low-income property owners would pay for the water and sewer line extensions plagued the City for many years. It is clear that residents of Follett/Lincoln Street desired improvements. It is is also clear that prior to the adoption of the ordinance of 1955, the City of Oberlin could have provided these services, had they been willing to spend the time necessary to find an acceptable solution to the problem.
In 1967, Lincoln Street was finally paved.
During the 1930's a Riding Academy was established at 133 Follett. This was very possibly connected with the Race Track that was already in existence on Follett. The track, listed in the 1899 Oberlin City Directory as 117 Follett circled the field lying between Follett and Hamilton Street.
By the 1950's after the Riding Academy closed and ownership changed hands, the building was converted into a five apartment complex with with three apartments down and two up. Two of the apartments had one bedroom and three had two bedrooms. Because horses had actually been stabled on the lower level, after its conversion, the apartment complex continued to be called "The Barn" for as long as it existed.
All three lower level apartments opened into a central hall called the utility room, where women did their wash after heating water outside over an open fire, and where children played during inclement weather. All apartments had cold water and indoor toilets.
During this period, the proprietor was a Mr. Willoughby Harris, a successful Pittsfield farmer, who owned a good deal of property on Follett. Each apartment rented for about $33.00 a month which may have been higher than comparable rental property in other areas of Oberlin. But Mr. Harris voiced no concern over the number of persons living in each apartment. In 1953, at least one, one bedroom apartment housed ten persons, a father, mother, and eight children.
The Barn became Oberlin's most notorious tenement. When it was finally demolished, in the late 1960s, one Lincoln Street resident claims a flood of cockroaches swarmed from the ruins into the street. The Barn may not seem like a pleasant place to live, but many Follett residents considered it a step up from outhouses and hand-pumped well water.
Besides The Barn, there were other privately owned dwellings that, in some cases, were in need of major improvements. In 1959, when Oberlin began work on a Housing Code, the enormity of the problem was finally realized. The city faced a moral dilemma. Should the the housing code be enforced, where would the displaced families go? On the other hand, the city was permitting families to live in dwellings that were unfit for human habitation. A fire in February, 1960, forced Oberlin to take a closer look at the problem.
Early in 1950, the portion of Follett between Main and Professor Streets began to be developed. Small, single family dwellings were constructed. The cost was reasonable and this attracted more middle class families. The new housing may have been suitable, but the reputation of the neighborhood was not to their liking. In a move to completely disassociate themselves with the other sections of Follett, in March of 1955, a group of homeowners petitioned the City to change the name of only that section of Follett falling between Main and Professor Streets to "Lincoln" Street. The reason given was that they maintained their homes and lawns and the residents of the west end did not, thereby devaluing all the property.
As Council considered the petition, Willoughby Harris attended a Council meeting and opposed the change of the name for only one portion of the street. In his opposition, Mr. Harris implied that the race of the residents of the West section of Follett was the reason for the request to change the name of the street. This, of course, is flatly denied by the petitioners.
Ultimately, the name was changed to Lincoln from Main to West Hamilton Street. Changing the name did only that. The image of the area remained the same. What was Follett, became Lincoln. Residents of the east end of Lincoln did not achieve their goal of disassociation, they only inconvenienced the street department and map makers.
Several tragedies have occurred on Follett/Lincoln Street over the years that add to the negative reputation of the area.
In 1953, Jack Bradley Jr., a long time, Native American, resident of Follett, was shot and killed by by a young man from Cleveland.
In about 1954, a child died of starvation.
In 1960, a tragic fire took the lives of nine young children.
These tragedies as well as the many instances of domestic violence helped to make Follett/Lincoln Street a place where some children were strictly prohibited to visit. Known as a "tough, white neighborhood" in the thirties, by the 1950s, Follett/Lincoln was considered a "Bad" Black neighborhood, even by Black Oberlinians.
RACE, CLASS AND POVERTY
It is my opinion that the perceived race of the residents of Follett/Lincoln had much to do with the length of time that it took for the City to figure out a way to extend services to the area. Willoughby Harris, a white man, was brave enough to identify the problem openly. Oberlin has always been reluctant to admit to racism even when it is blatantly obvious. Fear of damaging the city's historical reputation as being a haven for blacks, has damaged our ability to deal with our problems honestly.
What is more abundantly clear, is the impact that class and poverty had on the decisions that were made regarding Follett/Lincoln petitions. Isolated from most of the City, residents of Follett/Lincoln lived in their own private world. Other community members did not have to drive down the Street and could not get there by accident. You only got to Follett/Lincoln Street if that was your destination. It became a place about which most heard but had never seen, out-of-sight and out-of-mind.
The needs of the residents were dismissed as if their problems were not also the City's problems. Because their property did not have enough value to generate a large tax revenue, services were denied to residents of the Westend of Follett/Lincoln Street before the 1955 ordinance was adopted, when the decision was still at Council's discretion. To deny a request for basic services based solely on the value of what a person owns is akin to saying, "you don't have enough money, so you are not worth our attention." In my opinion, this translates, "you are poor and, therefore, you are worthless."
True evidence of how Follett/Lincoln Street was viewed by the community was strikingly revealed after the Lincoln Street Fire of 1960. Aaron Wildavsky quotes The News-Tribune in "Leadership in a Small Town," (1964):
"Others found it difficult to feel compassion because the victims were who they were--little children in circumstances which would forever make theirs an uphill battle for survival. Did life hold any more promise for them than death?"
Lincoln Street still has no sidewalks, but it is considered to be a safe neighborhood of lower and middle income folk. There is even a church there now that lends to the Street's respectability. There are still a few dwellings that could use some work, but none that appear to be in need of condemnation. For the most part the lawns are cared for and one gets a feeling that residents take pride in their neighborhood.