Of all the things you would expect to find inside the Bath Township Nature Preserve – plants, birds, ponds and horse trails – an outdoor brick oven capable of artisan bread baking may not be one of them.
But thanks to the efforts of a few determined township residents, the oven not only has been saved, but also restored to good working condition.
I can attest to this because I recently watched baker Kathy Lehr pull freshly baked pita bread, all puffy and charred, out of this brick structure.
It was the first time in a long time that anything was baked in the oven, and I couldn’t help but wonder what had been roasted behind its doors in the past.
It was Joseph Hostetler, one of the founders of the Cleveland law firm of Baker Hostetler, who is believed to have had the oven constructed on what was once his Bath Township property. Hostetler sold his land to the Firestone family and Raymond Firestone had a lodge building added that he named the Regal Beagle. Both men are believed to have used the land for hunting, especially fox hunts, for which Firestone was well known.
The oven was likely used for roasting the game that was caught during the hunts — pheasants, grouse, duck and the like.
In 1997, Bath Township purchased the property and turned it into a nature preserve, with the University of Akron leasing part of the land as a field station for environmental studies and education.
The Regal Beagle lodge building is used by the township, particularly during public events at the park when it serves as a staging area, explained Mike Rorar, assistant service director and park administrator for the township.
Because of the oven’s location right outside the entry to the lodge, it is kind of in the way. Because the structure had fallen into disrepair and had not been used for decades, Rorar admitted there was talk of just tearing it down.
That’s when township Trustee Elaina Goodrich put her foot down and told Rorar he needed to find a way to save the oven. “She said, ‘No way are we tearing that down,’ ” Rorar recalled.
At that point, however, Rorar said no one was even sure that the brick structure was actually an oven, much less how to operate it.
When word of the oven reached Nancy Ray, a member of the township’s Heritage Corridors Committee, she knew Lehr was just the person to call. A township resident and nationally known expert on bread baking, Lehr has even taught classes on how to construct outdoor ovens from mud.
Ray said no one was really sure if the brick hut was an oven or a smoker or whether it could ever be made usable again.
Lehr was excited with what she saw and showed township officials what a treasure the oven is, demonstrating how it could be fired up with hard wood. The structure is actually a double oven, with chambers on the top and the bottom lined with fire brick, each capable of baking or roasting any number of items, much the way it likely roasted fresh game for local captains of industry who were guests of Firestone and Hostetler some 70 or 80 years ago.
The heavy iron doors on the oven bear the markings of Donley Brothers of Cleveland, makers of fireplaces and outdoor ovens in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
Recently, the township spent $1,500 to restore the oven. Neal Kilbane, of Neal B. Kilbane Masonry, who also lives near the nature preserve, performed the work, adding new flue liners, repairing the foundation, replacing some of the brick and tuck, pointing the mortar, and cleaning and repairing the interior fire brick.
From its construction, Kilbane estimates the oven was built in the late 1920s or 1930s. “It’s Depression-era,” he explained, “It’s not from the 1940s, I can tell by the fire brick and flue liners.”
The bricks used to construct the oven came from Cleveland Building Supply, and were marked with the company’s CBS stamp. Kilbane was able to find some reclaimed brick also with the CBS marking, to replace the damaged ones to keep the structure historically pure.
Lehr tested the repaired oven last week, baking off a batch of whole wheat pita bread, and showing how the structure, perhaps 80 or 90 years old, still bakes perfectly.
Rorar said the township isn’t likely to allow visitors to use the oven, because few people have the expertise to operate it properly. However, he does hope to be able to use it for community events in the future, perhaps for the parks to sponsor classes on how to bake in an open air oven.
Ray said she would like to see events in the future like a community bread baking day, where bakers will be invited to bring their dough to the communal oven and bake it in the open hearth, much the way the residents in European villages would have.
Saving the oven, and having it as a resource in the park, will only help to draw more visitors to the nature preserve, Rorar believes. “It’s a different option for people who otherwise might not have much interested in park activities,” he said.