The OES visited the little city of Shawnee on August 10, 2013. Located in Salt Lick Township, the area around Shawnee was not settled until 1814 due to its remoteness. Shawnee itself wasn’t platted until 1872 when investor TJ Davis chose Israel Gordon’s farm as the site of his new town. Gordon’s home later became the town’s first hotel, the O’Bear House. Homes and commercial buildings began to spring up shortly after Shawnee was platted and a formal village government was established in 1874. The newly established government immediately built a town hall and a two-story schoolhouse to serve its residents. Early businesses included dry goods stores, restaurants, meat markets, millineries, and plenty of taverns. Even with all of these businesses, two separate coal companies operated company stores in the town since their employees were paid in scrip, redeemable only at their store. Professional services included doctors, dentists, lawyers, opticians, and funeral directors. Several social groups including the Odd Fellows, Masons, and Pythians would establish lodges in Shawnee. Churches also flourished in the little city with congregations of many different denominations. Shawnee was serviced by two rail lines, each maintaining a depot and telegraph line. Four newspapers served the community at its peak with the longest tenured being the People’s Advocate, which ran from 1891 to 1944.
Shawnee’s first residents were Ohioans who relocated from the mines in southern Ohio. The town quickly became a melting pot of immigrants from the British Isles, mostly Welsh, with Germans, Scots, English, Irish and a small group of Italians rounding things out. Town sentiment and laws prevented African Americans and eastern Europeans from settling in town and newcomers were often regarded as strike breakers. Shawnee’s life-force was in mining, furnaces, and brick factories. The town boomed from its founding into the early 1900s. In just thirty short years, Shawnee had grown from a handful of settlers to a city of more than 4,000 residents. Shawnee became the region’s go-to place for entertainment with two opera houses, traveling Chautauqua and medicine shows, a large celebration and parade on Labor Day and sporting events. The Cincinnati Reds even visited the town for a game in 1906 and left victorious.
One of Shawnee’s most recognized buildings is the Tecumseh Theater. The theater was completed in 1908 as Red Man’s Hall and served as an early example of skyscraper I-beam construction. The storefronts housed a confectionary, bowling alley, barbershop, and movie theater over the years. Initially a silent movie theater, it was converted to add sound in 1930 and renamed the “New” Linda Theater. The final movies were shown there in 1959. “The Indian Theater” occupied the building’s second floor, hosting theatrical groups, vaudeville shows, high school plays and graduations, boxing matches, basketball games and concerts. The theater had become a popular venue for dancing by the 1940s when Big Bands would play there.
The era of Shawnee’s boom came to an end by the 1930s, leaving the hillsides scarred with thousands of mine openings and piles of useless coal. No one wanted the land, so the federal government began purchasing it and designated it as part of the Wayne National Forest, Ohio’s only National Forest. Many residents considered Shawnee home and wanted to contribute something to the town. They joined together in 1952 to construct Tecumseh Lake at the edge of town. The lake served as a recreation area and still does to this day. As the forest continued to reclaim the barren land, jobs were hard to come by in Shawnee. The last of the coal mines and brick factories closed their doors for good by 1972. Even as residents moved on and businesses closed, some, like the Hannah Brothers department store, continued to operate well into the later parts of the 20th century.
Today a handful of businesses call Shawnee home. There was a pizza restaurant and a few antique stores along the main strip when we visited the town, however, many of the buildings along Main Street were run-down and seemingly vacant. As of 2010, 665 people resided in the village after a resurgence of people looking to get away from larger cities. We were quite surprised to learn the original city hall and jailhouse were still standing, but the schoolhouse that had been located atop Shawnee’s hill was razed a few years prior. As we walked down Main Street, it almost felt like we had stepped back in time. We could easily imagine the hustle and bustle that the deserted road would have had 100 years ago. There was a mix of emotions as we walked along…happy that such a place still existed but sad to see what had become of the town. It seemed that with a little TLC, the town could reemerge as a tourist destination for the region. Hopefully one day it will be.
Location Information: Village
Shawnee is located at the crossroads of State Route 93 and State Route 155; Perry County.