Sauder Village: a Living History Museum in Northwestern Ohio

The Sauder Village is "Ohio's Largest Living History Destination." Located near the small town of Archibold, Ohio, opened to the public July 4, 1976. Its founder, Erie Sauder, had established what became one of the largest ready-to-assemble furniture companies in the United States in 1934. As he neared retirement age, he became concerned that future generations would not understand what life was like during his parents' lifetime and before.

Ohio became a state in 1803, but the northwest corner was not settled until some time in the 1830s. A shallow extension of Lake Erie covered a large part of it (1500 square miles, according to the Sauder website). Needless to say, that land was very cheap, but potentially very fertile. The earliest settlers had to work to drain this swampy real estate before they could do much else. I see that the state government passed legislation in 1859 that sped up the process of getting the land drained and it took most of the rest of the century before all the swampland disappeared. Imagine farming, building, raising families, and simply staying alive in those conditions!

And so Erie Sauder worked for about seven years to acquire land and plan his village. He opened it as a bicentennial project, and it made an immediate hit. I was away at graduate school at the time, but my parents lost no time in taking me there when I returned home for breaks.

Historical plaque on the highway near the parking lot.
Historical plaque on the highway near the parking lot. | Source

Satellite view of Sauder Village

I remember a schoolhouse and buildings that housed various craftspeople such as a wood worker (using some of Sauder's own earliest equipment), a blacksmith, a potter—oh, and the glass blower who inspired my dad to take up glass blowing as a hobby. The pioneer glass blowers probably specialized in bottles and jars, but Harry Boyer (no longer working at Sauder Village) was an artist who made paperweights, vases, and other beautiful objects.

As I went there several times over the next five or ten years or so, I can't remember what was originally there and what the ever expanding village has added since. I had a chance to return to Sauder Village with my family, which had grown just as much through marriages and children, who are now themselves starting to marry, in July 2010. It is now at least double the size it was my previous visit.

Nearly every building (except the rather large museum building) has either craftspeople making things using old techniques or docents in period costumes to explain the significance of the craft or history of the building and the people who first used it.

A long line to get in
A long line to get in | Source
The original circle of buildings, with the museum in the background
The original circle of buildings, with the museum in the background | Source
The museum at Sauder Village
The museum at Sauder Village | Source
The farm
The farm | Source
The basket weaver
The basket weaver | Source
The glass blower
The glass blower | Source

We arrived in the morning and found a fairly long line of people in line to get tickets. As soon as we left the Welcome Center the familiar circle of the original buildings stood before us. I did not take great notes, but I did take a brochure and map. With the museum in the background, I suspect that the second picture in the capsule to the right shows the Cooper Shop and Anna's Spinning Shop.

Other buildings that were either the first ones in the village or that opened within the first few years include Erie's Farm Shop, Sauder's Cabinet Shop, a basket shop, barber shop, a barber shop, a tinsmith shop, a church, a school, a general store, a broom shop, a printer's shop, a railroad depot, the glass works, and the Festival Barn--all the kinds of businesses and institutions a thriving community of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would need. Sauder found authentic old buildings and moved them to their present location.

Lauber's General Store sells items made by the villages craftspeople, among other things. I'm sure the ice cream shop is less authentic as a period business, but lots of people take refreshment there.

The museum building contains a fascinating and varied collection cars, wagons, farm tools, home appliances, and home furnishings. As a musician I appreciated the pianos and other instruments, and the old wind-up record player with a horn for a speaker. It was also interesting to see the evolution of the washing machine and other appliances. I saw one that reminded me of the one my grandmother had and several others that were even more primitive. There are also displays of toys, various glass and ceramic objects (table service, vases, candle holders, etc.), and it's hard to remember what else.

I didn't spend much time looking at the farm animals at the Festival Barn, but it has the usual assortment of animals that people in Northwestern Ohio raised either for their own food or to sell meat, leather, eggs, and dairy products. Children, I'm sure, love that exhibit.

They also apparently share my enthusiasm for watching the craftspeople at work. I saw a cute little girl watching the tinsmith with rapt attention as he made a little ornament and gave it to her. The basket maker produced a number of baskets with a beautiful style of ornamentation I had never seen before. Most of the ones ladies made in frontier days must have been much plainer, but some of the more skilled of them surely made fancy ones whenever they wanted to and had time.

For readers who have not watched a glass blower in action, making glass objects requires several steps. The glass must be heated in an oven at the end of an iron rod called a pontil or punty. Between sessions in the oven, the glass worker shapes the object with various wooden tools, which are kept wet, and blows through the pontil to introduce air bubbles into the molten glass. Of course, when making a bottle or a jar, the blown air formed the insides. With art glass, the bubbles form part of the design.

Lauber settlement (August 1834)
Lauber settlement (August 1834) | Source
Covered wagon on a  corduroy road (1830s)
Covered wagon on a corduroy road (1830s) | Source
Eicher cabin (1850s)
Eicher cabin (1850s) | Source
Log school house (1840s)
Log school house (1840s) | Source
Two-cell jail, Edgerton (1865)
Two-cell jail, Edgerton (1865) | Source

Newer, and much older

Thus far, I have described revisiting exhibits and activities Sauder Village had twenty years ago. Much had been added by July 2010, and most of it much older and reflecting an earlier time. The literature I picked up does not say when the new part opened, but I was there the first day of any activity at the Peter Stuckey Farm's sawmill. The crew was struggling to get it set up so that it could actually produce usable lumber. Alas, none of my pictures came out. I didn't have the instructions for how to compensate for back-lighting with me.

I did not get to all the new part, and so can't comment on Natives & Newcomers (which features a Native American village of wigwams and a trading post), the Little Pioneers Homestead (intended especially for children), or the train ride.

The Pioneer Settlement shows life as it was from 1834 to about 1890. The Lauber settlement shows temporary housing--a quickly and crudely built hut one of the earliest families in the area lived in while they constructed a more permanent house. Nearby is the kind of wagon they would have used and the kind of log road they would have traveled to navigate this swampy land. The Laubers remained prominent for generations; Lauber's General Store is part of the original Sauder Village.

The Eicher Cabin from the 1850s shows the nicer, more homey houses that settlers built for permanent housing. I wonder if the Laubers built something this substantial back in the 1830. In any case, once enough families and their children inhabited the area, they needed a school. Alas, they eventually needed a jail, too.

The windows of the school were actually made of a treated paper. They let light in without admitting wind or rain. Students sat at a desk built right along the windows on both sides of the school and used whatever natural light the windows admitted. It was surely much easier to see on a sunny day than a stormy one. The teacher sat at a desk in the middle of the room to keep her eye on things. She would have had the additional responsibility of tending the fire in the fireplace.

In about 1865, Edgerton, a town in the county immediately west of Archibold, constructed a two-cell jail that held prisoners only until they could be transferred to the county jail. A plaque on the wall describes its somewhat unusual construction. It served Edgerton's needs for twenty years.

More than just a collection of old buildings and artifacts, Sauder Village is a "living history" museum. People actually make things, using period materials and techniques, in many of the various buildings. In the older part of the village, most of the buildings represent businesses, which I have already described. Meanwhile, at home, the women and girls had plenty of work to do.

The day I was there, a couple of young girls in one house I visited were busy making soap. It was hard and harsh. Rural people, at least, of the nineteenth century had to make their own, and then used it for everything. They washed dishes, scrubbed the floors, bathed their bodies, and shampooed their hair with the same soap.

In another house, a young lady busied herself stringing beans, while a somewhat older woman explained why it was necessary. If I recall correctly, in the days before refrigeration, drying vegetables preserved them for the winter.

Stringing beans, inside the Wittmer-Ross House (ca. 1844)
Stringing beans, inside the Wittmer-Ross House (ca. 1844) | Source
Holdeman Church--The original Mennonite church in Pettitsville
Holdeman Church--The original Mennonite church in Pettitsville | Source

According to the brochure, the Witmer-Roth home, where Anna Sauder Witmer Roth gave birth to 10 or her 15 children, dates from about 1844, or just ten years after the Laubers first arrived in the area. The quality of the furnishings indicates how much progress a pioneer family could make in that time span from a hastily built and temporary shack to a homey, and for the time comfortable house. Like the Laubers, the Roths must have been among the well-known and prominent families in the area. One of the original exhibits is Roth's Barber Shop.

Erie Sauder established Sauder Village hoping to show a posterity used to the creature comforts of the late twentieth century just how their ancestors had to live. He and those who continued to develop it after his death have succeeded in providing exhibits that are both informative and fun. I'll get back there any chance I get.

Northwestern Ohio and Archibold

A marker22611 St.Rt. 2, Archibold, OH, 43502 -
Archbold, OH 43502, USA
[get directions]

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