Piece of History

A red brick building once used to hold the coal gas that lit Oberlin’s streetlamps at night during the late 1800s is getting a facelift. Just two decades ago, the 1889 Gasholder building — the only roundhouse left standing west of the Allegheny Mountains, located near Oberlin’s McDonald’s on South Main Street — was set to be demolished until residents banned together to save it. But when the Clark brothers donated it to the city in 2004, there was one stipulation: The citizens had to come up with a way to use the land.

In a nod to the city’s past, the decision was made to construct an Underground Railroad and Park-n-Ride Center in this iconic building, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Oberlin earned the reputation as a safe haven for runaway slaves in the 1850s and was seen as the last stop on the Underground Railroad before reaching freedom in Canada. In fact, many homes in the area housed fugitive slaves.

“The history is so rich, so it is the perfect place to have a center for people to come and experience what it was like from the African-American perspective,” says Darlene Colaso, Oberlin’s assistant city manager. “There are a lot of places that tell the story about the abolitionists, but there’s not really a place that really focuses on the African-American perspective … so, we’re really focused on that.”

The three-phase project is funded largely through federal transportation dollars, and the city is required to match 20 percent, or $229,400, of the $1.1 million grant. In late fall, Oberlin collected enough matching dollars through community fundraising to begin work on the first phase of renovations to stabilize the exterior. A new roof that will mimic the appearance of the old slate roof but cost much less will replace the deteriorating one. New windows will be installed, and the existing brick masonry will be repointed and repaired. Colaso predicts the exterior shell will be completed before next summer.

Phases two and three include the interior infrastructure and finishing work. Though still in the planning stages, Colaso says the center won’t be set up like a traditional museum, but instead more of a community center that pays homage to the railroad and African-American heritage. Murals and artifacts, such as shackles, will be displayed, along with possible video or written information. In addition, the city hopes to have a large space for interpretive dance or plays and space for community events. Colaso says the project should come to fruition by summer/fall 2013.

She also predicts the biggest attraction will be the Dobbins headstone. It’s a reminder of the four-year-old fugitive slave, Lee Howard Dobbins, who was left behind in Oberlin because he was too sick to travel on with his adoptive fugitive slave mother.

Plans are also under way to join forces with Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center to exchange exhibits once the center opens.

“This will not just be a community attraction,” Colaso says. “This will definitely be a regional, and I hope, at some point, a national attraction. It’s going to unite a lot of people.”

— Lyndsey Frey

Art and Ice Cream

Chocolate gestalt, caramel salt, organic pumpkin mascarpone. These are just a few of the unusual flavors offered at Lorain County’s hottest new ice cream joint, Cowhaus Creamery.

The artisan ice cream shop, which opened in Oberlin’s new East College Street project in September, serves artisan ice cream made exclusively from pasture-grazed organic milk. “We use the best stuff you can for our ice cream: great cream, great milk,” says Josef Bomback, of Elyria, who owns the creamery with his wife, Debby Krejsa.

For years, Bomback dreamed of opening a business in Oberlin, a town he fell in love with while studying international politics, psychology and jazz music at the college (he graduated in 1976). Throughout the years and a variety of career shifts, Bomback always loved making ice cream. Several years ago, he set out to learn everything he could about professional ice-cream making and took courses in the chemistry of ice cream at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Everything sold at Cowhaus is created at the couple’s 2,600-square-foot creamery in Elyria, using high-quality ingredients from the Great Lakes region. Best-selling flavors include caramel salt, righteous root beer, a ginger ice cream with plum and orange sauce called wabi sabi, blackstrap banana and bourbon butter pecan.

Cowhaus’ mission runs deeper than making good ice cream. On Mondays during February, March and the first part of April, Cowhaus will allow nonprofit organizations to host events at the shop and receive 25 percent of the proceeds from any ice cream sold. On special occasions, it also donates 99 cents from each pint of a selected flavor to a local charity of its choice.

“We want to be more than just a seasonal, local, good-ingredient, handmade ice cream company,” Bomback says. “We are a socially conscious company. We feel it is our responsibility to find ways we can help the community.”

— Elizabeth Weinstein