RAVENNA, Ohio – Snow blanketed the ground the first time Chris and Tom Hopes laid eyes on the old farmhouse north of Ravenna.
They stopped when they spotted the ‘For Sale’ sign posted out front. Tom toured the home with the real estate agent, traipsed up and down the house’s two staircases and admired a light fixture as old as the house itself. Chris, on crutches, explored the ground floor and admired the old cast iron hearth and the house’s country charm.
They decided the homestead would need new electric wiring, new plumbing – and both meant walls would be ripped out in certain places — plus a new roof.
The Hopeses said the price was too high, the house too dilapidated, to work in their budget.
But three months later, on another trip past the house, they saw that real estate agent’s sign was still standing. They toured the house again, made an offer, and in June 2005, the place they’d admired from the road so many times was theirs.
The Hopeses were excited with their buy. As hobby Civil War re-enactors, they saw the farm’s humongous barn with built-in box stalls as a new home for their horses, and saw the house itself as a massive remodeling project for them.
They had hopes to restore the farmstead to its old-time character, and turn it into a bed and breakfast.
Neither of them anticipated the historic treasures their remodeling efforts were about to uncover.
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The first clue to the house’s history came when the Hopeses started ripping walls and floors out of the house. There, wedged between two beams and wrapped around a hot water pipe, was a burlap bag.
Chris hoped it was stuffed with money, but inside instead were handfuls of milk bottle caps, the old cardboard discs used to seal glass bottles. Each was stamped ‘Harlan Dale Farms’ and gave the Hopeses their first glimpse into the farm’s history.
This place had been a working dairy.
“We had no idea there had been a bottling facility here at one time,” Tom said.
Chris, with help from the area historical society and library, began to research their home’s history, to find out just who these Harlan Dale farmers were.
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In the meantime, the renovation continued.
The next project was putting jacks underneath the entire house, lifting it to allow contractors to pull and replace the house’s rotted sill beams underneath.
The Hopeses, their house in shambles, went on vacation. Then came a heartbreaking phone call from their contractor: The house was lifted 5 inches, still short of their goal, but it appeared the kitchen chimney was going to fall through the roof if the house budged even a hair more.
The decision was theirs: take the chimney down or abandon their remodel. Chris and Tom came back from their vacation to a half-demolished chimney.
The Hopeses’ next find came when they removed the 1800s-era cast iron mantel and fire screen.
Hidden behind it were years of mementos from those people who once called this place home: family photos, a formal photo of a young woman, a love letter, a Sunday School report card, a Christmas card, a 4-H club mailing.
The Hopeses felt they’d hit the jackpot.
“All of a sudden, we had all this stuff that was solid clues about the history of our house and who lived here. It was thrilling,” Chris said.
After the chimney and mantel were taken down, Tom needed to pull the last piece of the structure, the hearth. That white marble-looking piece of stone turned out to be a headstone, fully engraved with the person’s age and date of death.
All that was missing was his name.
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Chris immersed herself in researching the history of Harlan Dale Farms, poring over records at the historical society and Ravenna library and piecing facts into a timeline.
Along the way, she located one of the home’s former owners, who helped the Harlan Dale story come alive.
That woman, Betty Hinman Kennedy, says she was the fifth generation of the family to live in the house at 7199 state Route 44, Ravenna. She left the farm in 1954, when she went to college.
Kennedy, now 70, made the drive from southern Ohio back to her childhood home late last month to be with the Hopeses when television crews from the cable network HGTV visited to film a show on the house’s history.
That show, If Walls Could Talk, is expected to air in early 2008.
The return was bittersweet yet exciting for Kennedy. She’d sold the house in the mid-1990s when the upkeep turned out to be too much.
“It’s good to come back, and to see someone here who will love it and live in it. I still have lots of good memories of growing up here.”
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Betty Kennedy stood along the sidelines while the television camera rolled, while Chris and Tom told the stories of her home — their home — in more detail than she ever knew.
They showed field producer Laura Chapnick a piece of paper they found stuffed behind that mantel, and Betty helped identify it as a piece of her father’s mail from the Western Reserve Farm Loan Association, of which he was a director.
The reason for keeping it? On the back, Ralph Hinman had penciled out a calendar of when his dairy cows freshened, noting dates for cows named Princess, Flossie, Delta and more.
They pulled out her brother Bobby’s church report card from the First Congregational Church, rumored to have been started by abolitionists. Research showed the Hinman family had attended the church for generations. Chris Hopes dug deeper, and found evidence that pointed to the house’s involvement in the Underground Railroad, making it an even more valuable historic landmark.
They also found Betty’s 4-H fashion revue notice — “bring your completed projects and your mother!” — and a long-lost photo of Betty’s grandmother, Myrtie.
“We know things now that the people who lived here didn’t even know,” Tom said.
Betty Kennedy agreed.
“These two know more about my family than I do!”
And it’s all because the nearly 200-year-old house has walls that talked.
(Reporter Andrea Zippay welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
1817 A structure is built, along present-day state Route 44 north of Ravenna, as the Farmers Inn, a tavern. Family records show it was a familiar landmark in the wilderness of northeastern Ohio and was a popular stop on the stagecoach route between Ravenna and Painesville.
1832 Lathrop Reed left his home in Connecticut to seek a new home in the Western Reserve. He eventually bought the inn and married the previous owner’s daughter, Helen. He tore out the bar room and remodeled the building into a home. He also started milking cows and turned the property into a dairy farm.
1845/1846 The kitchen fireplace is changed, with the addition of a discarded headstone as the hearth. The headstone is engraved with the date April 19, 1845. Modern research points to the headstone belonging to a David Miller, who died at age 30 from consumption.
1864 Harlan Hinman is born in the family home.
1873 A stone wall behind the house reveals a rock carved with the date ‘June 1873’ and the initials ELH. Betty Kennedy, a descendant of the family, identifies the initials as belonging to Elizar Hinman, probably the son relegated to build the wall.
1899 Ralph A. Hinman is born in the house, the son of Harlan and Myrtie Hinman.
1923 Ralph Hinman graduated from The Ohio State University and came back to the farm, growing the dairy herd from 20 to 75. He also ran a bottling facility on the farm and sold milk in Ravenna. On his milk route, he met Ruth, who would become his wife.
1935 Robert Hinman is born to Ralph and Ruth Hinman.
1936 Betty Hinman Kennedy is born to Ralph and Ruth Hinman. Today, at age 70, Betty lives in Lucasville, Ohio.
1996 Betty Kennedy sells the family property to Norman Webb.
2005 Webb sells a 26-acre parcel of the original farm, with the house and barn, to Tom and Chris Hopes.
(Source: Betty Hinman Kennedy, family records and Portage County Auditor’s Web site)