I find it fascinating how, over a few short generations, our perceptions of value can change. These days, Russell Township is a tapestry of beautiful, rolling estates and picturesque subdivisions. Its properties are among the most valuable and sought-after in Geauga County. With its plentiful natural beauty, it is hard to picture the opposite could ever be true. And yet, two hundred years ago, this was precisely the case.
Before Russell was the town we know and love, it was a desolate, rugged, uninhabited forest. While surrounding townships were being established, this area, known to surrounding settlers as West Woods, sat idle. In fact, not only was the town the last to be settled, but it also was the last to be incorporated.
A Wasteland or the Perfect Spot for a Scenic Retreat…
How, you may be asking yourself, could that be possible? The answer lies in the differences in values between two centuries. Today, most of us view the function of property surrounding our homes as beauty, recreation, or investment. But in those days, land served a much more practical purpose– to feed, shelter, and otherwise provide for a family’s survival. To look at West Woods from this perspective provides the major reason why it was passed by. The area, with its hills, creeks, rivers, and rock outcroppings was difficult to travel, clear, and farm, especially when compared to other townships. Without the benefits of modern machinery and tools, and with survival on the line, the primitive pioneer would choose the path of least resistance. Adding to the lack of interest were the premium prices the proprietors of the township put on its lots. With more manageable and affordable properties abundantly available, newcomers saw the West Woods as a wasteland.
Eventually, however, settlers did come to this portion of Geauga. Gideon Russell brought his family into the West Woods wilderness in 1818. For almost two years, they remained the sole inhabitants. Soon, however, families by the names of Norton, Bell, Robinson, Rathbun, and more came to stake their claims. At long last, on April 2, 1827, an election occurred, and Russell Township was officially formed.
Finding Ways to Use the Land
In that same period, settlement was occurring in the southwest corner of Russell along the Chagrin River. Several mills began to flourish here, harnessing the power of the beautiful river. A new village took form around the rushing rapids, and through the 1830s, Chagrin Falls took shape. Great wealth was attained here by proprietors, investors, and landowners. In 1840-41, land was officially set aside to form Chagrin Falls Township. The new town was given over to Cuyahoga County, and as compensation, Geauga County was reimbursed with 900 acres from Orange Township to the west. However, this move being made unbeknownst to the people of Geauga County, and the 900 acres being substandard to say the least, county citizens protested the move. Their efforts were unsuccessful, but they did manage to decline the acreage from Orange.
Elder Willard was a Baptist minister and an early setter of Russell. It is said that his son Archibald plastered the walls of the home with drawings and paintings during their tenure there. If you study art, you well know that Archibald Willard went on to paint one of the most cherished pieces of American historical art—The “Spirit of 76”.
The turn of the 20th century marked the beginning of a multi-decade riff between Russell residents over the issue of the centralization of schools. The idea was brought to vote and defeated several times through the decades, when in 1923, after a passionate and heated campaign, the issue was finally approved. Despite this, the Russell Board of Education, which stood staunchly against the move, refused to issue the bonds that would fund construction of a new school. By 1924, new board members eventually allowed bond sales, but the damage had already been done, and the effort was too late. The southern portion of the township incorporated as South Russell, and was added into the Chagrin Falls school district.
When the Cleveland & Eastern Electric Railroad was constructed around the turn of the last century, one of its lines ran north of Russell Center. Mail was delivered to the station here, and a post office developed and was named Novelty. Novelty Post office still exists today, and the area is sometimes still referred to by this name.
One of the county’s most picturesque areas is located in Russell. Known as Ansel’s Cave, the landmark is rich with local legend. The sandstone ledges are said to have housed slaves on the Underground Railroad, Civil War soldiers, and bootleggers during America’s prohibition years. Today, the cave is protected by the Geauga Park District within the 902-acre park and preserve known as The West Woods.
Next in the Geauga Series, we will explore the town of Newbury!