South Newbury Union Chapel Becomes National Historical Icon

South Newbury Union Chapel
photograph taken by Chuck Mintz

In 1858, South Newbury Union Chapel made history by being built as a “foundation for free speech”. In 2012, it made history again by being listed on The National Registry of Historic Places with a plaque marking it as so, being placed on the building October 3, 2012. Within these years, this single room building has made much more history; history that changed not only our county but also our country.

The history of Union Chapel began when James A. Garfield was refused access to speak at a Congregationalist ‘Brick Church’ on fear that his topic would be controversial. Anson Matthews, who invited Garfield to speak, then donated the land in 1857 so that they could build a place where the people had a voice. The Union Chapel was built by local people through their donations of materials and labor. It became personal to them, and from that moment, it became a foundation for the biggest change in women’s history.

James A. Garfield and Susan B. Anthony were among the many speakers at the South Newbury Union Chapel
James A. Garfield and Susan B. Anthony were among the many speakers at the South Newbury Union Chapel

Women’s Suffrage Movement

At the time this all took place, it was illegal for women to be able to vote. With the presidential election coming up, it reminds generations of women about the struggles they had to endure to have the right to vote. The South Newbury Union Chapel became the center for the local women to fight for a right they have always deserved. The first female voters of Ohio cast their first votes here in 1871. All nine women’s ballots were “lost” en route to the Board of Elections. This didn’t stop these women from fighting. I would like to think it made them fight harder. On January 4, 1874, the second oldest Women’s Political Suffrage Club was founded in the Union Chapel with eleven members including one man. The goal of the organization was to do whatever it took to make women equal with men.

July 4, 1876, the Women’s Political Suffrage Club planted the Centennial Oak Tree which is located across the street from the Union Chapel. This was to symbolize the planting of the roots of a movement that would change America forever. Stay tuned for another article that will be posting soon about the Centennial Oak Tree.

centennial oak tree

In 1879, Susan B. Anthony came to speak at Union Chapel while on her speaking tour about women’s suffrage. Anthony was the president of the National Woman Suffrage Association. Most people know her only as a woman on a dollar coin. She was very essential in this movement and those who were able to see her speak in South Newbury took what she said and made sure that it awakened others’ views on the issue. She wasn’t the only woman to come through the Union Chapel to speak on this issue. Harriet Taylor Upton, who was from Warren, Ohio, came in 1919. She was respected at a national level on this movement also. While here, Upton visited the Centennial Oak to honor the strong women who were part of the group that would change history for women forever.

Many other organizations held meetings in the building. The Women’s Temperance Society was founded here in 1875. Other temperance groups were the Cold Water Army, Friends of Impartial Suffrage, and the Independent Order of Good Templars. Now you can see why this little white building on Route 44 in Newbury is so historical not only to Geauga County and Ohio, but also to the United States. The South Newbury Union Chapel was built for no one in particular but for the use of everyone and that was exactly what happened.

The Trustees

Thanks to the work of the trustees – Mike Fath, Beverly Ash, and Sandra Woolf, we are still able to visit and be part of this historical building. Anson Matthews stated in his trust that The Union Chapel would stand as long as it was under trustees. In 1998, the Geauga Park District bought the 16.5 acres around the Union Chapel, and in January 2010, the trustees and the park district partnered to preserve the building and its history. The Friends of the Chapel came together in August 2010 to dedicate an Ohio Historical Marker on the site.

South Newbury Union Chapel Trustees
South Newbury Union Chapel Trustees – Beverly Ash, Michael Fath, and Sandy Woolf

The trustees all have great ties into the Union Chapel. Mike Fath’s family bought the property in 1934. His first memory of the chapel was shortly after World War II. He was so happy and eager to talk to us about how the little chapel meant so much to him. I couldn’t help but fall more in love with the building after talking to him. As for Beverly Ash, she has lived around the chapel for 70 years now. She has always seen the chapel as the place we see now. In 2004, Sandy Woolf became a trustee. She was just as eager as Fath was talking about the little white building. I want to thank these three individuals for their hard work and dedication to this building. Because of them, generations will be able to see a part of history in their own backyard. I also want to thank the Geauga Park District for their hard work. With this pairing, this little white South Newbury Union Chapel will always be recognized nationally as part of history for everyone, but mostly for the women of our country. Rachel Toth also needs to be thanked for her part. She helped with the application to get the Union Chapel on the National Registry.

Take a Tour

For those who are interested in this great history, the building is open for tours May through October by appointment only. Call Sandy Woolf at 440-286-9516 to schedule your tour. There is only a short time left for this year and you don’t want to miss this opportunity. Fath also stated that they made a powerpoint presentation of the chapel and they will come to your group to show it and talk to you about the history of the Union Chapel.

Future plans of the Union Chapel include additional parking and a new driveway. If you would like to make donations to the Union Chapel through the Geauga Park District Foundation, you can do so by contacting Emilie Gottsegen at 440-279-0835.

Trent Ford
Author: Trent Ford

Trent is a graduate of Madison High School and a new resident of Geauga County. He enjoys spending time with his family, history, and the outdoors, but his passion is sports, both local and professional.