The Firelands Historical Society considers itself to be the second oldest continuing historical society in the state, maintaining the oldest museum. The Society was founded in 1857 and almost immediately thereafter a “cabinet of curiosities” was assembled, which is the foundation of the present museum.
Most founders of the historical society were actual pioneers who had retired from active work after laboring many years to develop the Firelands from a wilderness. A periodical called The Firelands Pioneer was soon begun and the early memoirs in it are mostly first-hand local history accounts from the pioneers themselves. This magazine has had an irregular existence, and must be considered the prime source of Firelands history and genealogy material.
There had been earlier attempts at founding a historical society in Norwalk. Material accumulated by those persons was turned over to the Firelands Historical Society folks. Much of this earlier material was published in The Firelands Pioneer. As early as 1846 a local attorney named Charles B. Squire wrote a manuscript history of the Firelands, but apparently had been lost by 1857. It may have contained valuable stories which he had gleaned from the memories of some of the older pioneers.
Meanwhile, the Historical Society continued to gather stories and curiosities. It had little funds and no permanent home until 1899 when the Dr. Kettredge House on the site of the Norwalk Public Library was purchased in cooperation with the Whittlesey Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Young Men’s Library and Reading Room Association. The latter group was operating a subscription library and reading room for the village at the time. It occupied the majority of the house, while the Historical Society utilized the remainder for its museum.
It was decided in 1903 to build a new fireproof building for the library and museum. This was accomplished in part by the generosity of Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate. The new building opened in 1905 with a free public library on the main floor and the historical museum on the ground floor. In these quarters the Historical Society celebrated its golden anniversary in 1907.
Years of dormancy and a crowded museum brought about new thoughts in 1953 – at the time of Ohio’s sesquicentennial – of a new museum building. The Wickham Mansion at 38 West Main Street was to be torn down to make way for a new commercial building. The Historical Society and several local citizens rallied to buy the house and move the oldest part to a space behind the library. The house was thoroughly renovated and opened to the public as the headquarters and museum on May 20, 1957, the Society’s centennial.
Thanks to more generous gifts the Historical Society was able to buy a building at 9 Case Avenue and open it in 1988. It new houses the Research Center, Meeting Room and additional display area.
The Historical Society has operated all these years without public money, relying instead on investments, gifts, memberships and admissions.
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