Akron, OH: Perkins Stone Mansion and John Brown House

Despite attending the University of Akron for four years, there are still a surprising amount of museums in Akron that I haven’t visited until recently, and the Perkins Stone Mansion is one of them.  It’s usually closed for the season by the time I’m home for Christmas, so I wanted to make sure and squeeze in a visit while I was there in September. It is a stone house (as you may have guessed from the name) built in the 1830s by Colonel Simon Perkins, the son of the founder of Akron. The area was once known as Mutton Hill because Perkins kept sheep, which is where John Brown (of Harpers Ferry/Bleeding Kansas fame) comes into the picture, as he was hired to manage the flocks and was given the house across the street to live in while he did so, from 1844 to the early 1850s. Both houses are included on the tour, but let’s begin with the Perkins Mansion, shown above.

  

Just like at Sherman House, we arrived just as a tour was starting, so we simply paid our $6 admission and joined the tour, without having time to watch the introductory video. We ended up watching it at the end of the tour instead, but I kind of wish we’d gotten to watch it beforehand, because the tour might have made more sense. My mother has been there a few times before, and commented that the quality of the tour varied dramatically depending on what tour guide you get. Unfortunately, I don’t think we ended up with one of the better ones. She was perfectly nice, but said off the bat that her degree was in architecture, not history, so she couldn’t tell us much about the history of the house, and she wasn’t joking. She made some pretty glaring errors both about the type of furnishings that would have been common in a house at that time, and just general historical ones; for example, she stated that John Brown was captured by the Confederate Army, which is odd, since the raid on Harpers Ferry took place two years before the Confederacy was founded (he was actually captured by U.S. Marines, though many officers who would later become prominent in the Confederacy were involved, like Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart). I didn’t say anything about it at the time, so as not to embarrass her, but I’m mentioning it here because it would be one thing if she was new, but she said she had been working there for over a year, and I would hope that the historical society equips its employees/volunteers with at least a basic grasp of the historical facts relating to the property in the future.

 

But I digress…we did indeed begin with the Perkins Stone Mansion, and she did at least give us some background on the architecture, including the unusual inclusion of the widow’s walk, which is far more common in New England, where, you know, you can actually look out to sea (I guess in Cleveland you could at least look out over Lake Erie, but you’d be hard-pressed to see it 40 miles away in Akron). It was probably there because the Perkins family was originally from Connecticut, which, like I mentioned in the Sherman House post, was pretty common, because NE Ohio was originally part of the Western Reserve given to Connecticut after the Revolutionary War.

   

Also like Sherman House, it was a fairly standard historic home tour, with even less to distinguish it, because unlike William Tecumseh Sherman, the Perkins family isn’t particularly well-known, even locally (hell, I studied history at U of Akron, and except for a few things named after them on campus, I’d barely heard of them either). Unfortunately, most of the furnishings aren’t original to the house, so except for a few portraits and things, we were mostly looking at random Victorian (or American equivalent) crap (well, not crap maybe, but nothing terribly memorable aside from that clock above the previous paragraph). Once again, we played the “guess the ye olde implement” game in the kitchen, and I was kind of shocked when our guide couldn’t identify wool carders, given that they were prominently displayed and labelled over in the John Brown House (they weren’t part of the game, but the other people on our tour spotted them and asked what they were).

 

To be fair to our guide, she was giving us information about the Perkins family the whole time, but because I hadn’t watched the video, I had no idea who the hell the various family members were that she kept referencing (but I’d like to know who the guy in that middle portrait above is. He almost looks like Andrew Jackson, but with a ridiculous expression). Not only did they found Akron, but the Perkins family also had a lot to do with its growth. Apparently one of the women founded a children’s home that later became the Akron Children’s Hospital, and one of the men (maybe Simon?) convinced BF Goodrich to come to Akron, which is part of the reason why Akron became such a big rubber town (there’s also Goodyear and Firestone there).  The guide also told us some story about how one of the daughters came back to live in the house after she was married because her father didn’t want to lose her “feminine touch,” so he gave her and her husband a couple of rooms there, but it confused me because I thought she mentioned that one of the other daughters remained unmarried and lived in the house her whole life, so there would have already been a woman living there. She did kind of blur successive generations of the family together, so maybe I’m mistaken about who was actually living there at any given time.

  

After we finished with the Perkins house, we headed over to John Brown House, which is located across a busy street. To get there, we passed the field where sheep are kept in the summer, to stay true to the house’s heritage (though sadly, they were already gone at the time of my visit), and a nice wooded area on the grounds (which used to include most of Akron, but are now limited to a few acres), including the tree shown above left, which she said was planted by the Perkins family, and might be a poplar. I don’t know much about trees, but I’m not convinced by poplar. If anyone can identify it, please let me know! The house also has a couple of outbuildings, namely an office and a laundry/pool house, but they weren’t open to the public when we visited, so we couldn’t see inside either.  There was also once a pool on the grounds (hence the pool house), but the Summit County Historical Society decided to cover it up when they took over so they didn’t have to pay for upkeep, so instead of a lovely pool area there is just a grassy rectangle.

  

John Brown House was more interesting, both because of the John Brown connection (he actually lived in Ohio for 35 years, spending time in Kent, Richfield, and Hudson) and because there was actual signage in here to tell us about John Brown’s life (I love the cartoon version of him, above). I didn’t know that he had travelled to London whilst working for Simon Perkins to attempt to sell their wool, and although Perkins wasn’t publicly involved with abolitionism, there is evidence that he may have donated money to Brown at some point to help his cause. Although Brown comes across as kind of a flake about everything except abolition, he was actually a pretty diligent shepherd, even staying up all night with the sheep during lambing season. Unfortunately, his business sense didn’t match his shepherding skills, and he was eventually fired when the business failed, and they got kicked out of the house, which was a pity for his family because his long-suffering wife (2nd wife, actually) said it was the nicest house she’d ever lived in (they moved up to North Elba in New York, to the cabin that I blogged about some years ago with the incredibly nice and knowledgeable ranger working there who really put this tour guide to shame).

  

We watched the video when we returned to the visitors’ centre, which did clear up some of the confusion I had about the Perkins family, and told me a lot more about their sheep business. I also appreciated all the sheep themed merchandise in the museum shop, because I’m kind of a sucker for farm animals (we went there right after visiting the Howe Meadow Farmers’ Market, which is very nice and was where I was able to procure an excellent shirt with Ohio turned into a chicken on the front). Although the Perkins House isn’t terribly interesting in and of itself, John Brown House does have a fascinating history (mainly because of John Brown), and I was glad to see it at last. However, I think they really need to do something about the training of their guides, because the quality is evidently vastly inconsistent (my mother says she once had a guy who was actually from the area, and he was awesome, but the others have not been from around there and don’t seem to know much about Akron or the house). I’m not blaming the guides themselves so much as whoever is training them (or not, as the case may be)…if it was free, it’d be one thing, but a paid attraction should aim to provide a consistent experience. So I’ll give them 2/5, and hope that they improve in the future. I’d be willing to try it again with a different guide just to see how the experience changes.

10 comments

  1. Wow, that is some misguided guide you had. You’re right, after a year there it’s pretty embarrassing how little she picked up. On the plus side, I guess she’ll be memorable. It reminds me of a tour I was on of one of our historic homes where the guide told us that it was the first Toronto house to get linoleum in the 1930s. The ‘30s?! Pfft – listen sister, everyone had linoleum by the ‘30s. … sorry, still annoys me.
    Well, I don’t know much about trees either, but that doesn’t look like any poplar I’ve seen. If no one else answers first, I’ll ask my mom – she’s great at identifying all manner of green things.
    The poor Browns – I know I wouldn’t have wanted to leave there. It really looks like such an idyllic spot – probably even more so when the sheep are in.

    1. Yeah, I did feel kind of bad about writing this, because I was quite harsh, but I always aim for honesty, and she just did not know very much about history for someone who worked at a historic home (at least learn something about the era the house was built in!). I’d be lying if I pretended that it didn’t affect the tour. The linoleum comment is exactly the sort of thing that would have annoyed me too!
      I wouldn’t have known whether it was a poplar or not, but my mother whispered to me during the tour that there was no way it was a poplar (she was pretty annoyed with the guide too), and after looking up pictures of poplars afterward, I’m inclined to agree. I’d love to know what it actually is though!
      It’s weird, because the area is now basically a little pocket of loveliness in the middle of a not very nice neighborhood, and I’m sure it was idyllic when the Brown family lived there, since there wouldn’t have been a busy road in front of their house!

  2. Oh dear, she sounds useless. We had poplars in the garden of a house I lived in as a child and they are tall and thin, so like everyone else I agree that is not a poplar but have no idea what it actually is. I’ve been to Harpers Ferry so was interested to read more about John Brown.

    1. I’ve never been to Harpers Ferry, but I’d like to go! Seems like I’ve been to all the John Brown sites up north, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been south of the Mason-Dixon line. At least 15 years, probably more!

  3. It’s been my experience that when you’re talking about local historical figures, most people don’t really have a clue about them. They may know a few fun facts, but all the cool (or uncool) personality traits and things that made those people interesting – no idea. From what you’ve said, these folks really need to get a better training program together for their tour guides!

    1. You’re absolutely right, and it seems like a good few generations of the family lived in the home, so there should have been lots of stories to tell, but this guide just could not provide them. The video was more informative than she was.

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