Early History of Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ashtabula County, Ohio
The marsh on the west of the village, now the Geneva State Park, has Cowles Creek streaming through it, so named for Noah Cowles who settled on its banks. Prior to the opening of the State Park the area was known as Chestnut Grove, a popular resort camping area that originated in 1882. It was so named because of the abundance of chestnut trees.
Geneva Township was formed in 1816 with the lakeshore being one of the last areas to attract permanent settlers. It has been said that at this time one group of four or five families attempted a settlement at the northeast section of the present village but stayed only a short while, leaving their cabins to the elements. Having some bearing on this may be the fact that the year 1816 was the year of no summer.
The house, which is now known as The Jennie Munger Gregory Memorial Museum, was the first frame house erected in the area in 1823-1826. Solomon Fitch, a pioneer from New England, purchased several hundred acres in this area including one hundred acres on the lakefront Soon after purchasing this land from Joseph and Sarah Battell in 1818 he built a log house about two thousand feet south of the lakefront. Solomon deeded the one hundred acres on the lakefront to his son Thomas Makepeace Fitch and they proceeded to build the first frame house at the lake. It will be noted that the house had Christian doors, which show the cross and open Bible. People in the early days felt safer when they were traveling if they stopped at homes, which were Christian, and they could tell these homes by the doors. One notes that the porch facing the lake is the front of the house. The road having been along the lakeshore and later moved to its present location because of erosion. The front half of this house is the original building constructed with huge beams which can be seen in the ceiling of the basement. At a later date the back half was added and the home has nine bedrooms upstairs.
Fitch’s Landing (Early 1800’s)
Also on this lakefront property they built a pier for dockage and it was known as “Fitch’s Landing”. The whole area of the present village was abundantly forested with whitewood and white oak trees. The whitewood was used for building material and the oak for ship timber and for barrel staves. “Stave Boats” were built especially for shipping staves. Adjoining the Fitch property on the east Harvey Spencer, a brother of the renowned Platt R. Spencer the famous penman, purchased land and established his home. Backed by the Connecticut Land Company, Fitch and Spencer established a flourishing lumber shipping industry. At “Fitch’s Landing” small boats would transport the lumber to the Stave Boats which were anchored as close to shore as possible. Another type of boat was called the “Coaster” and these boats would travel between the landing and the harbors of Ashtabula and Fairport. At these ports the lumber was loaded on large ships with some of it going to Buffalo and thence to the East Coast and some to England.
In the mid 1800’s there was a shipyard on Indian Creek at the east end of the Village. The stream is said to have been named through a tragedy of the early days. When the settlers of the white race came they soon formed the acquaintance of a young Indian lad whom they knew as “Little John” and was a favorite among his own people and soon gained the esteem and confidence of the new settlers. A falling tree killed the young buck and his body was buried beside the mouth of the creek.
A number of small vessels were built here and launched directly into the lake. The boats of that period were small and equipped with sails. They were not of deep draught as most of the great lake harbors were shallow and the vessels could easily become grounded on the sandbars which formed at the harbor entrance. Although these boats were small compared to the big fellows of today, they were just as vital to the commercial trade.
Captain Perry White of Ashtabula built a number of vessels at this location. Among them being a large scow named “Vampire” which was completed and ready for the water in the summer of 1867. She was the largest boat that had been built at this location and her launching had been heralded along the shore and overland, resulting in a large crowd including many from Ashtabula, her home port.
At the appointed time the blocks were knocked out and the rope cut and the vessel glided smoothly down the ways exactly in accordance to calculations. But alas instead of gliding majestically out to sea, the Vampire dropped off onto the bottom, the water being too shallow to float so heavy a ship.
It took many hours of shoveling and jacking to put the boat afloat. Then she was towed to Ashtabula Harbor to receive her final fitting out. That was among the last of the vessels built at the mouth of Indian Creek.
Schooling was provided in the early years at the brick school that still stands at the Township Park on the east end of the village. The brick building was built about 1883 on the same foundation that had held the wooden school building, which was built in 1838.
What is now known as Mapleton Beach in the center of the village was formerly called Sturgeon Point. So named by Harvey Spencer an avid fisherman who came to know that the area was a spawning ground for the big fish. The sturgeon grew to two and three hundred pounds and became known as “fighting monsters”. In later years they became an important commercial factor and their capture a business. The fish was found to make a fine fertilizer and settlers thereabouts became fisherman on a large scale.