A knock at the door and the handing over of an old portrait that a family didn’t want prompted Loraine Ritchey to launch her own history scavenger hunt.
“No one wanted a picture of this Gen. Gillmore,” she says of one of Lorain’s founding families.
Ritchey was surprised and frustrated. Her curiosity and sense of duty about uncovering Lorain’s past and preserving its stories, sharing them with others, prompted research that eventually rolled into a series of 12 blog posts she published about the Gillmores.
“You know, I get my teeth into something, and then I just go at it, basically, until I find out the whole story, or as much of the story as I can find,” says Ritchey, who is known as “That Woman” after her blog “That Woman’s Weblog,” which houses more than 1,400 posts (usually published on Tuesdays and Thursdays) and is a labor of history love and a creative outlet for the English woman.
Ritchey made her home in Lorain 40 years ago as a young bride, married at age 19 to her U.S. Air Force sweetheart. They returned to his hometown of Sandusky and, soon after, her husband hopped a bus to Cleveland to interview for jobs there.
“The bus broke down in Lorain,” Ritchey says with a laugh, relating the happy accident of their settling here. “While he was waiting for the bus to be repaired, he looked in the phone book — he was into electronics — and he got a job with Lorain Products.”
They bought a Tudor “starter home,” as Ritchey describes, on Fourth Street in Lorain — the house where they still live, along with Ritchey’s 95-year-old mother — and the couple built a family and life in Lorain. Ritchey knew nothing of its history, which felt rather odd for a woman who grew up where castles and stories of centuries past were important parts of one’s identity.
She immediately threw herself into being Lorain proud. As she saw it, there was no other choice.
“My father said to me, ‘This is your new country, you’re going to have to adapt to it — you can’t go, ‘Well, in England we do this, or in London we do that,’” Ritchey says.
There was nothing English about Lorain, no cultural or architectural reminders of home — except, perhaps, her quaint Tudor address. “I just really turned my focus to Lorain because, you know, it’s my name, too,” she says, half joking. “And frankly, I found her history interesting, and in the 1970s there wasn’t a lot of great history available.”
Over the years, people of Lorain have come to Ritchey with questions, artifacts and news bits. Her discoveries about Lorain’s past piece together a rich patchwork of stories with brave heroes, and she shares those accounts on her blog.
Through her research she learned that Lorain is actually 67 years older than anyone thought and deserved a bicentennial celebration in 2007. This discovery occurred while researching Veterans Memorial Park. Peggy Gillmore, a descendent of one of Lorain’s “first families,” told Ritchey that the plot of land that is the park today had belonged to her family. (This was an important detail to Ritchey, who protested the building of condos on that park in 2005.)
Gillmore’s historic records unveiled a hand-drawn map of Charleston Village, Lorain’s oldest neighborhood. “Back in those days, you had to meet certain criteria, including having public green space and a meeting house,” Ritchey says. The green space/park was donated in 1811 and deeded in 1812.
But the Black River Trading Post was founded in 1807. “And we were about to go into Lorain’s bicentennial year and no one knew it!” Ritchey says. Celebrations were planned, “and we made it special,” she says.
One historical find leads to another. “That’s usually how it happens,” says Ritchey. “We are finding out new things about Lorain all the time — she’s got a wonderful history,” she says, speaking of the city like it’s an old friend. “She’s got the history that movies are made of, you know…”
Uncovering the Stories
Ritchey began finding herself in Lorain, and the search for information about the place she and her husband decided to call home began right in their own neighborhood. Fourth Street and its surroundings are part of an original settlement that eventually grew into Lorain, and is known today as Charleston Village.
“A friend of mine came over [from England] to visit, and he was on the planning department for London, so I took him to downtown Lorain to the community development office and they took him around town that night,” Ritchey recalls. “That night, we were sitting with neighbors, having a glass of wine, and he told me he was amazed at the lack of planning in this community — and also that 50 years old was considered historical here in the States. The discovery of Charleston Village evolved from there.”
Ritchey began researching Lorain and its plans, reviewing documents and finding the platting for her neighborhood, which was the original settlement of Lorain and the city’s oldest part of town. “But more people were interested in it and had information, which they funneled through to me and to others, and it just kind of went from there,” Ritchey says.
The Charleston Village Society Inc. was established in 1987, became a 501(c)3 in 1993, and Ritchey serves as co-chairwoman. The organization has resulted in a grassroots community effort to preserve this pocket of Lorain, including offering guided tours of the city’s oldest neighborhood.
Peggy Gillmore shared bundles of Civil War-era letters that had been carefully wrapped in ribbon and stowed away in the Wilford-Bartenfeld home next to the old Masonic Temple on the corner of Washington Avenue and Fourth Street. These letters told the story of a shipwreck and a hero, Captain Thomas Wilford, who was rescued from a sinking ship with his wife and two daughters.
The letters, addressed to Fanny Gillmore, Wilford’s wife, share accounts of the war prior to their 1870 marriage. Ritchey shared the letters on her blog, piquing the interest of her readers. Ritchey says people can satisfy their thirst for this country’s history right here in Lorain because, “there is such a wealth of it right here in this little community.”
That is exactly what she has found. And she keeps digging — quite literally. Through her efforts, a city storage lot was developed into one of Lorain’s green spaces, Settlers’ Watch near Hamilton and Oberlin avenues. There are three sections to the space and one of the three, The Eric Barnes’ Hero Walk, memorializes Lorain soldiers who died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Barnes, a 2004 graduate of Admiral King High School, was killed in action in Iraq in 2007.
“I like going over there [to Settlers’ Watch] because I’m proud of it,” Ritchey says. “It’s a project that is very special and close to our hearts.”
Writing Against the Grain
Ritchey is a fixture in town, and in 2010 she was awarded a key to the City of Lorain for her positive impact on the community. Ritchey passes credit to the supportive people who volunteer and get their hands dirty — literally planning, mulching, cleaning up, building — to improve Lorain.
That said, Ritchey was never one to keep quiet about issues in Lorain that she found unsettling. She began storming the mayor’s office while nine months’ pregnant to protest the service director’s suggestion that no city worker or their families could attend city council meetings. (By then, her husband worked for the City of Lorain. “That policy was changed,” she says.)
In a June 30, 2014, blog, Ritchey wrote about her strong-minded presence in the city. “I have been battered and bruised, called names as I continued my journey trying my best to preserve, promote and support Lorain, Lorain’s earliest green space and the saving thereof caused such angst.”
When Ritchey learned of the growing presence of registered sex offenders in her neighborhood — and that a young woman was attacked walking to school in 2005 — she put her research skills to work. Ritchey created a blog called Lorental, “Who is Who in the 052” (a reference to Lorain city’s postal code of 44052) to cross-reference information supplied by the Lorain County sheriff, auditor and police. Ritchey counted 130 sex offenders in the area in 2013, up from 78 in 2006.
Ritchey is passionate about preserving Lorain. It’s one of her core values, and what initiated her earliest history ventures. “I had two children and I wanted them to be as proud of their home, because they were born here, as I am of London,” she says.
Today, Ritchey says she’s just as much a “Lorainite” as a Brit. Lorain comes first. It’s her home. And she works to get the city’s stories right for future generations. Ritchey is a hardworking, fact-checking journalist when she’s reporting history and publishing her blog.
“I don’t write anything that I can’t document or back up,” she emphasizes.
Living Lorain’s History
Ritchey has pondered why she dives into the history of Lorain so deeply — why it matters so much to her. When Ritchey finds letters from U.S. presidents to Gen. Gillmore, her heart skips a beat. When someone from town turns her on to a bit of information that she can sink her teeth into and find a story, she’s off and running.
“I think it all goes back to theater, because when I’m doing a reading in a play I have to take on the character that the script is portraying,” she muses.
As Ritchey passes neighbors’ homes, she thinks about people who have lived there. She sees the original plat of Charleston Village, and when walking through Lakeview Park she imagines the 200,000-some grape vines once planted there. She can see the cabin built on the land now called Lorain and the woods surrounding it — the Indian trail that was the only path leading to this place.
“I can see this — and I know that others who are very interested in history also look at [the city] this way,” she says. “They look at these homes and streets and they can see neighbors who were there 100 years ago. History comes alive.”
Loraine’s Sweet Spots
Sweet home Lorain is where Loraine Ritchey would rather be than most anywhere else. Here are a few of her favorite spots that honor the city’s rich history.
The space was dedicated in 2009 and grown from a vacant city lot that had become an informal dump of sorts, filled with rubbish. Creating the green space was a grassroots effort thanks to volunteers, donations and the labor of locals who care about preserving city history. Ritchey is particularly proud of this spot.
A rose bush planted in the name of a woman’s daughter is in that green space. She called Ritchey to let her know that, while walking the path, she was engulfed by a crowd of butterflies. “Well, there have been a lot of butterfly bushes planted there, and so the butterflies were going to eat, but she said to me, ‘I never thought I would walk in Lorain in a cloud of butterflies.’”
Ritchey says, “Things like that please me; it makes me very happy that an area that required getting truckloads of garbage out has become someplace where you can walk in butterflies.”
The Rose Café at Lakeview Park
The summer of 2008, Ritchey visited the Isle of Wight, an island in the English Channel off the coast of Hampshire. Two weeks after returning home, she sat at the Rose Café and took in a water view that she says was equally stunning. “I realized that I had paid a couple thousand dollars for a view and had very much the same view sitting in the Rose Café,” she says, laughing. “You know, sometimes it takes someone who is not from here to appreciate it.”
The Charleston Cemetery
Known as the Old Bank Street Cemetery, the land between Sixth and Seventh streets is where some of Lorain’s founding fathers and their families are buried, Ritchey shares. But by 1836, the cemetery was neglected, and over the years the cemetery was overgrown and became a space where children would use the headstones as “baseball pieces,” Ritchey says.
The cemetery, established in 1828, has been refurbished through donations and the city, and dedicated volunteers. It is a Lorain County Historical Landmark. “I think what happened to the cemetery is what happened to Lorain’s history — it got buried over and people forgot about it,” Ritchey says. “It was sort of the icon of what has happened in Lorain.”