The Beginnings of Burton

As a proud alumnus of Cardinal High School, I must start this story by stating, for the record, that I write under protest. As the next town in our history series is home to those dastardly rivals, the Berkshire Badgers, I am more than happy to casually skip ahead to Middlefield.

However, the owners of Geauga News have strong roots in Burton. So I suppose, just this once, I might be able to momentarily set aside my true feelings, muster the tiniest fraction of enthusiasm possible, and throw something together–again, under protest–for the sake of moving on.

All kidding aside, this author actually has some ties to this town as well. My parents were married in the Congregational church and lived in an apartment on Hickox Street for a short time before moving back to Huntsburg. I have family that has resided there for quite some time. And who can forget those days of 4-H and fun at the GREAT Geauga County Fair? As much as I do not like to admit it, Burton is one of those Geauga towns that played a central role in my life.

Two centuries ago, a young Burton played a central role in the lives of the settlers trickling into the surrounding countryside. Being the first town settled in what was to become Geauga County, it was also the early hub of commerce. Thomas and Lydia Umberfield were the first to break open the wilderness, arriving with their family via ox team on June 21, 1798. Several families were soon to follow, and the next few years saw the construction of mills along the Cuyahoga River and the first bridge in the area to cross it. Natural progression led to the first store, church, the town square, and in 1803 the name, taken from a Mr. Burton Street, son of the biggest financial backer in the purchase of the township. There was even an early formal school known as the Burton Academy, formed in 1806, that served as the precursor to the Western Reserve Academy and Case Western Reserve University. Before most towns were even settled, Burton was establishing itself as vital center in the Western Reserve frontier.

Peter HitchcockIn 1806, Peter Hitchcock and his wife moved from Connecticut to Burton. He had recently attended Yale University, and upon arrival established a farm, a family, a law practice, and became the first teacher at the Burton Academy. He was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in 1810, and after one term, spent three years in the Ohio Senate, serving as Speaker of the Senate in 1815. From there he was elected to one term in the United States Congress.

For the next fourteen years Mr. Hitchcock served as a judge of The Supreme Court of Ohio, with seven years as Chief Justice. After a brief return to the Ohio Senate, Hitchcock served two more non-consecutive terms as Chief Justice, finally retiring in 1852. As if this distinguished career was not already enough, he was also elected in 1850 as a Whig party delegate to the Ohio Constitutional Convention.

A year after the Hitchcock family arrived, his young nephew, Seabury Ford arrived with his family. He attended the academy where his uncle taught, became one of the first citizens if the Western Reserve to attend Yale, and returned to the area to practice law. In 1835, he began a nearly two-decade political career, serving three terms in the Ohio House of Representatives (including one term as Speaker of the House), seven years in the Ohio Senate, and in1848, by a margin of just 311 votes, became the Governor of Ohio, the first from the Western Reserve. After serving only one term in a turbulent and highly-partisan General Assembly, Mr. Ford retired to his hometown, soon after suffering a stroke and passing away.

Shortly after erecting their log cabin, the Umberfield family held what they called a “jollification,” gathering together area families for fun and celebration. It became an annual event known throughout the area and was made into an official event, or ‘fair’, by the Geauga County Agricultural and Manufacturing Society in 1823. The first official fair was held on Chardon Square and alternated between there and Burton for several years, with one year in Painesville. In 1840 Lake County was formed from the northern tier of Geauga, and sometime after, the fair found its permanent home in Burton. The GREAT Geauga County Fair is the oldest continuously operating fair in the state and boasts an average annual attendance of around 250,000 people.

BurtonIn 1876, Burton set an Ohio first when a telephone line was installed from the train station to the bank two and one-half miles away, thus leading the way for installation of telephone service in the state.

In 1932, Burton entered the history books again when the Chamber of Commerce erected a maple sugar house on the square. It serves as a great symbol of one of the industries and traditions our county is known for, and at the time was the only municipal sugar house in the world!

Through the centuries, Burton has seen its share of setbacks–repeated burnings of the Academy, a fire that took out a whole side of the business district, an epic bank crash, and legendary weather. Through it all, it has managed to carry on in the determined spirit of the original settlers and flourish. Today, visitors can enjoy many attractions. Century Village is the home of the Geauga County Historical Society along with many of the county’s original structures. The end of summer brings the GREAT Geauga County Fair (and yes, I always emphasize the GREAT!) where one can go to enjoy the showcase of area agriculture, entertainment, and of course the traditional rides and fair food. With the dawning of spring, another Burton tradition moves into high gear–pancake breakfasts! Dozens and dozens of organizations in the town and surrounding areas serve thousands of pancakes to hungry residents each year. And we locals know the secret: the flap-jacks are nothing less than a spongy medium that transports the real reason for the all-you-can-eat affairs into our veins–pure Geauga County maple syrup!

And now that this ol’ Husky has paid you Burtonites proper homage, let’s move on!

Ty Pilarczyk
Author: Ty Pilarczyk

Ty is the president of the Huntsburg Historical Society, and has lived in Huntsburg most of his life. When he is not designing, installing, and maintaining landscapes for the family construction business, Ty enjoys vegetable gardening, restoring and collecting old pressure lanterns, and spending time with his family.