Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Plank Road Revisited – Part 4

There’s still one last aspect of this myth-busting topic left to discuss: what involvement Russell Penfield had with the plank road that justified naming the small park containing the monument after him (as requested by the Nathan Perry chapter of the DAR).

At the time of the monument’s dedication, the Lorain Journal & Times-Herald noted that the name was “in honor of the late Russell Penfield, the one-time prominent Lorain civic leader who was organizer and president of the association which built the old plank road between Lorain and Elyria.

“Believing that some honor should be paid to the man who built the road, the Nathan Perry chapter officials requested permission from the Lorain Park commission to give the name of Penfield to the park.”

The question, of course, is whether or not Russell Penfield really was “the man who built the road.”

T. Derby doesn’t think so, but admits that his research is still a work in progress.

As he notes, "I am not sure that Mr. Penfield was the man in charge of its planking, although Mr. Penfield was apparently the man directly responsible for enabling/establishing the section of present Broadway south of that boulder-plaque. But that "Penfield Road" era is somewhat later than the "Plank Road" era of the 1850s.

"I checked the incorporation documents, and they mention nothing about Mr. Penfield. And because the roadway itself had been established long before Penfield had even owned any of that land, therefore it is safe to say that he was not the man who should have been credited with the Plank Road.
"But Penfield Park is perfectly-aptly-named. It is at the very north end of the old Penfield Road.”
Mr. Derby acknowledges Penfield’s prominence as a major landowner in central Lorain.
As he states, "I checked the County tax-records for Penfield's ownership of that land – about 800 acres! Penfield didn't start paying taxes on it until about 1863. But it was still under Chas. Olmstead's name prior to 1863, so I am not even sure why the 1857 map shows Penfield as owning it, that early."
Mr. Derby did discover one link to Russell Penfield’s involvement with the plank road, although apparently with a portion of it south of Elyria. He consulted History of Lorain County Ohio (1879) as compiled by the Williams Brothers, which stated, "In 1850, a saw mill was built and operated by R. H. Penfield, Horace Penfield, Orrin Starr, Lyman Hayes and Almond Lindsley, for the purpose of furnishing lumber for the plank road leading north through Lagrange.”
The History of Lorain County Ohio did identify one person involved with the construction of the plank road – Artemas Beebe. The book notes, “In 1849, becoming a stockholder in the Plank-Road running from Black River, Lorain Co., to Homer, Medina Co., he was largely instrumental in bringing the advantage of said road to his fellow-citizens, and in completing it, being appointed superintendent of its construction.”
My other history pals weighed in on this Russell Penfield aspect as well.

Seeing as Lake Shore Rail Maps webmaster Drew Penfield (mentioned on this blog all the time) is related to Russell Penfield, at least one of my contributors was hoping Drew could help clear up the plank road timeline.

Dennis Thompson humorously observed, “Maybe Drew will come forward with a signed and dated plank handed down through the generations to settle the date issue!”

Unfortunately, as Drew noted, Russell Penfield was not one of his direct ancestors, and the plank road topic was really outside the area of his focus (the Lake Shore Electric Railway).

I hope this online discussion about the plank road was interesting to my regular readers, as well as providing a little window into the world of local history buffs. These are people who care about perpetuating local history and getting it right, and consequently are only too happy to help out with research.

By no means do I wish to be seen as finding fault with the good ladies of the Nathan Perry chapter of the DAR regarding the date on their plank road monument. Who knows? There may yet be some document or news item out there that led them to their conclusions. But thank goodness they erected as many monuments in Lorain County as they did, or much local history would be simply forgotten. Their contribution to making sure Lorain history is remembered is impossible to measure.

Rick Kurish put it best in an email to me a few days ago. He wrote, “While it would be great if all historical plaques were 100% accurate, the plank road itself is the focus of the monument. Since at least a few of us are still talking about the plank road in 2016, or including it in a blog, the plaque has fulfilled its purpose.

Amen to that.

Thanks to T. Derby for his suggestion to write about the plank road, and for sharing his research.

For more myth-busting fun, be sure to download T. Derby’s fascinating online booklet, “Lorain City’s Earliest History: A New Look at the Old Myths and the Truth (2015). 

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