Richfield twp.: A village is under construction in this rural patch of suburban Akron.
You probably wouldn’t notice it as you whiz by on Southern Road. But there it is behind the farmhouse of Jim and Laura Fry, a little enclave that looks like something out of the 19th or early 20th century.
This is Stone Garden Farm & Village, a living history museum the Frys are gradually creating on part of his family’s 58-acre farm. It’s home to the Museum of Western Reserve Farms & Equipment, a collection of equipment used in the trades that were typically found in a small community in the mid-19th century.
The project is the passion of Jim Fry, a historian who has moved more than three dozen old buildings to the property in an effort to give people a glimpse into past life in the Western Reserve.
Actually, passion isn’t quite the word. “It’s more of an eccentricity,” he said with a laugh.
The Frys support the project with the sale of food products from their organic farm as well as seasonal items. This time of year they’re selling Christmas trees, along with gifts and decorations handmade by Hinckley residents Jean and Ken Hahn and offered for sale in a circa-1820 barn that serves as the village’s general store.
Some of the trees are harvested from the farm, and others were cut elsewhere in the area, Jim Fry said. Canaan and Fraser fir, white and Scotch pine and blue spruce are available.
The Christmas tree operation and general store are open for the holiday season during daylight hours, seven days a week.
The Frys hope customers will turn their tree-shopping excursion into a walk back in time. Tree shoppers are encouraged to wander the village and peek into the buildings, which are set up as they would have been in the 19th century.
Jim Fry has created most of the village over the last six years from buildings he’s rescued and moved from sites in five counties in northern Ohio. Many of the buildings, like much of the equipment he’s collected, have been donated by families who are happy to see them preserved, he said.
“And they’re just here for people to look at for free, or to use,” he said.
The project grew out of his longtime interest in collecting old farm equipment, an interest fostered by a lifetime in farming and a family with a long history in agriculture in this area.
His passion was fueled by seeing old farms bulldozed and burned to make way for freeways and housing development. “I started collecting it [farm equipment] just to save it,” he said.
His latest project is a blacksmith shop that stood for years in the center of Independence until he dismantled it two years ago. He’s currently rebuilding it with plans to turn it into a general store and to remake the current store into a harness shop.
“This may be the 40th [building],” he said of the crude two-story structure. “I’ve kind of lost track.”
The Frys’ farm is dotted with old buildings. A weaving mill was once an outbuilding on a farm in Medina and now holds old spinning wheels and looms, one of which dates to before the American Revolution. A small wood building from Rittman is equipped with implements for making tinware. A tiny schoolhouse from the Medina County hamlet of Abbeyville displays well-used desks, shelves of old books and a cast iron and tin stove that still works. A post office from Portage County’s Randoph Township is outfitted with a postmaster’s cabinet, a sorting table, postal lock boxes and even telegraph equipment that eventually will be set up so visitors can send messages back and forth.
The barn is crammed with the implements of 19th-century life. Buggies are lined up in the loft. Sleds hang from old beams. A “girls’ room” is filled with equipment a 7-year-old farm girl of the 1800s or early 1900s would have mastered — laundry equipment, clothes irons, rug beaters, sewing machines and more.
More of the Frys’ collection fills another building, an old blacksmith shop that once belonged to a Richfield resident named Mike Hotz and later was used as an AmVets post. Jim Fry removed the plywood that sheathed the interior to uncover evidence of the building’s origins, including ceiling joists studded with nails for hanging horseshoes and painted with numbers indicating horseshoe sizes.
The building represents an uncanny string of serendipitous events. Several times Jim Fry picked up blacksmithing equipment at sales, only to discover from talking to the sellers that the pieces had come from a sale of Hotz’s equipment years ago.
The weirdest coincidence, however, came when he passed an old stagecoach house in Richfield where workers were removing a set of doors. Jim Fry needed doors for the old Hotz building, and he thought these might fit.
They did — perfectly.
He thought that was peculiar until he saw an old picture of his building. Sure enough, there were the doors. Apparently they’d been removed at some time and reclaimed for use in the coach house.
The buildings in the historical village are rough, as they would have been when they were in use. That’s intentional, Jim Fry said.
“It’s not a museum display,” he said as he stood inside the collar shop, where horse collars once were fashioned. “It’s a working shop.”
That’s one of the features that sets Stone Garden Farm & Village apart from other living-history museums: It’s designed to be hands-on. The facilities are open and available to anyone who wants to use them, Jim Fry said, and those craftspeople often invite visitors to try.
Other museums might have a blacksmith demonstrating for visitors, he said. “Here we’d like people to come and be the blacksmith.”
The Frys also offer classes in homesteading and survival skills, such as soap, candle and rug making, animal husbandry, herbal remedies and wild edibles. In addition, a home-schooling group uses the schoolhouse on Tuesdays, and Laura Fry often teaches the children homesteading skills.
Most of the year, the village follows loosely defined hours. It’s open whenever the Frys are home, which is most of the time, Jim Fry said.
Craftspeople who want to use the village’s facilities are urged to call ahead, but other visitors are free to show up and wander around. “We’re always here and we’re always open, except when we’re not,” he said with a grin.
The Frys accept donations and recruit volunteers, but for the most part, the village and museum are labors of love.
“I’ve never been on a vacation. We’ve never bought a new car. We never go to movies,” Jim Fry said. “We spend our money on saving history.”
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.