By Don Radebaugh — It’s the mother of all metroparks in northwest Ohio. While the area is well known for its beautiful parks and recreation, none can compare to Wildwood Preserve, and that’s because none has the heart and soul that Wildwood has…a bona fide heartbeat left behind by the family who called it home. A family that arguably did more for the citizens of Toledo and northwest Ohio than any other single family before, or after.
At the center of the 500-acre preserve stands the park’s showpiece, the 32,000 square foot Manor House (cover photo), constructed for R.A. and Page Stranahan during the Great Depression. The beautiful Georgian Colonial style home was built over a two-year span, from 1936 – 1938. For more than three decades, the Manor House served as the Stranahan Family’s refuge from the world around them. And like any home, each one comes with a story. And behind every story comes a back story. No exceptions here.
For the most part, this story starts in 1910 when R.A and his brother F.D. Stranahan left their Boston roots and steered for Toledo, Ohio. Neither the Stranahans nor Toledo would ever be the same. Both would benefit greatly from the other. Back to the beginning.
R.A. and F.D. Stranahan are essentially the founders of Champion Spark Plug Company…sort of. At the very least, they ended up with the patent on the Champion name which they legally and wisely used to eventually create the largest spark plug manufacturing company in the world. But it certainly didn’t start out that way. More than 20 thousand dollars in debt, and with a company that was fledgling along at best, the brothers had little choice but to move to Toledo when Willys-Overland Motor Company offered R.A. and F.D. a contract under which Champion would become the exclusive spark plug of automobiles manufactured at Willys-Overland. The deal came with the stipulation that the Stranahans must make Toledo their home, the same city Willys-Overland called home. About two years later, Ford Motor Company, under the direction of its founder Henry Ford, offered up a similar contract. In no time, R.A. and F.D. paid off their debt and eventually made a fortune beyond their wildest dreams.
But there’s more to the story, which is why we’re going to back up to 1905 when French track bicycle racer Albert Champion incorporated the Albert Champion Company in Boston to make porcelain spark plugs with his name on them. His partners were, you guessed it, R.A. and F.D. Stranahan. From here it gets a little fuzzy. Whether Champion was forced out or left on his own accord, Champion left the company while the Stranahan brothers retained ownership of the Champion patent/name. It wasn’t until 1922 that Albert Champion changed to AC Spark Plug Company, named after his initials (AC), after settling out of court with the Stranahans, his original partners in the Albert Champion Company. In other words, Champion could not legally use his own name going forward, which is why he opted for his initials while R.A. and F.D. marched off in the sunset with the Champion brand.
However the deal went down, Toledoans, without question, became the benefactors of Stranahans’ success at Champion, and to this day, folks from the area and across the country continue to reap the rewards of one of the prettiest parks on planet earth…one that almost never came to be. More to the story ahead.
After paying off their debt and with profits piling up, the Champion Spark Plug Company became wildly successful. It also didn’t hurt that by the time the Stranahans arrived in Toledo, the economy was soaring. In fact, the first half of the 20th century was an amazing time in American history. Through the “roaring 20s” the country produced incredible industrial growth, and as a result, the economy boomed, and certainly in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan where Willys-Overland and Ford were pumping out cars by the thousands, equipped with Champion Spark Plugs. Over the next 50 years, the Stranahan’s great business success shaped the future of northwest Ohio and influenced developments across the globe.
But as bright and promising as those times were in the early days of Champion in Toledo, it all came crashing down when a sell-off in the stock market in October of 1929 triggered the Great Depression. Especially hard hit was Toledo which relied on its industrial and manufacturing strength to fuel the local economy and feed local families. Overnight, Toledoans went from full-time work and full dinner plates to unemployment and bread lines.
The story of the Stranahans encapsulates these times and continues to shed light on how the country went from economic feast to famine; and finally emerged to lead the world in manufacturing and innovation through the remainder of the 20th century.
Fortunately, brothers R.A. and F.D. didn’t just bask in their wealth while their neighbors went hungry. They became great philanthropists, using their money and influence to help Toledo and the nation forge through the troubling times of the Great Depression and World War II.
In 1936, with the nation still in the middle of the Great Depression and so many Toledoans out of work, R.A. hired a local architectural firm to design the Manor House. Over the next two years, he employed as many as a hundred local craftsmen to build the house, which became the centerpiece of the estate the Stranahans named Stranleigh. The title included half the family’s last name and an old English suffix meaning meadow or clearing in a forest.
During construction of the mansion, workers also diverted a section of the Ottawa River so it flowed through the backyard, creating an island behind the home. This was not only aesthetically pleasing, the waterway eventually provided a cool-air system in the home during hot summer days. The Stranahans had a tunnel built from the waterway that provided the path for the cool air to find its way to the home’s basement and eventually throughout the house.
During World War II, R.A. Stranahan also bussed in German prisoners of war daily, not to torture them — which was what was going on across the Atlantic to American prisoners of war — but to work in favor of the allied war effort. During this time, R.A. Stranahan sat on all seven successful war bond drives in the Toledo area.
Just west of the home stands the family’s horse stables, which quite fortunately have been preserved, adding yet more personality and charm to Wildwood. While visitors today walk, run and bike across the preserve, imagine covering the property by horseback, which the Stranahans so often did.
A little further to the west of the stables, a small clearing with a posted sign marks the very spot where the family Ballroom and riding arena once stood. The Stranahans used the site to host big parties for business clients and their elite social circle. One can only imagine the local industrialists and business tycoons who were entertained inside the ballroom, possibly members of the Ford family although, interestingly enough, there is no proof available (that we know of) that places Henry Ford, his son Edsel or anyone else from the famous Ford family at Stranleigh. That said, it would be hard to believe that no one from the Ford family ever visited the Stranahans at Stranleigh considering how connected the two families were over the decades. That’s still a mystery yet to be solved. At any rate, the ballroom included and orchestra stand, large fireplaces and built-in tables. The ballroom overlooked a riding arena where horse shows entertained the family’s guests.
Headed back in the other direction, on the east side of the home are the formal gardens, visible from the second level windows, a great view from R.A. and Page Stranahan’s bedroom. The gardens were designed by famed landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman, who also designed gardens for the Rockefellers, Fords and other wealthy families across the United States. At one time, more than 600 of her gardens could be found across the American landscape; however, today only a handful remain in their original condition, and one of those surviving gardens quite fortunately lives at Wildwood. The beautiful gardens are now restored to their original luster, complete with lights that illuminate the gardens at night just as they did when the Stranahans were home.
And talk about adding a touch of class. The metroparks were also wise enough to relocate a beautifully-restored turn-of-the-century brick school house to the southeastern end of the park, moved from its original nearby Corey Road location a half-mile up the road.
It all sounds so magnificent and amazing, and it truly is. It also almost didn’t happen.
During the post World War II boom years, the Champion brand continued to flourish. The good times remained good times until the recession of the early 1970s hit. An energy crisis turned into a global recession fueled by double digit inflation. Toledo taxpayers were in no mood to hear talk about raising taxes. Hungry investors, developers and builders — chiefly the Cavalear Development company — were very much in tune to this and were a heartbeat away from turning the Stranahan Estate into ‘condo country’.
In an effort to save the property from commercial development, a grass-roots campaign began to take hold, compliments of local veterinarian Dr. Bill Mewhorn, local businessman John Lusk and Bob Metz, who got the issue on the ballot. The trio became a force which would spearhead the movement. But it was 1974 mind you, and with no internet to boost the message, it came down to a door-to-door march from Mewhorn’s inspired team of preservationists. Stories like the family who had foregone its Christmas money to buy full page ads in the Toledo Blade became common. Countless meetings, speeches and presentations to anyone who would listen became a formidable force to be reckoned with.
Despite the brutal groundwork, it remained unlikely that the issue would pass in the face of worldwide recession, a recession some were starting to call a depression. But in the nick of time, the unlikeliest of sources became the battle cry for thousands who swayed their support to the other side. As the story goes, Mewborn, as one of the most respected veterinarians in the area, was called to Olander Park in Sylvania, Ohio to rescue a deer trapped in a concrete culvert. Mewborn rescued the deer and then engineered a brilliant plan to engage the media. He placed the deer in the back of his station wagon, then called the media to meet him on the future Wildwood site. With the media loaded up on site and their cameras cocked, Mewborn released the deer on the property (probably illegal). The deer rallied from the blanket it was wrapped in, stood to attention, and by the script, turned to the cameras, posed just long enough to get the shot of the century — phoof! — the cameras went off at the precise moment when it mattered most. A perfect close-up shot of the deer’s adorable face, and just in time before the scared and elegant animal bounded over the nearest wood rail fence and leaped off into the prairie grass meadow beyond. The mug shot showed up in the Blade the next day, and the rest is history. There was an immediate shift in local public sentiment and attitude in favor of the park. The tide turned. And on November 6, 1974, by a narrow margin, the .5 million levy passed.
Today, the park is home to so many wonderful things…picnics, weddings, parties, people in pursuit of health, beautifully-preserved gardens, exquisite wildlife areas, all connected by well-planned walking paths that weave through the prairie grass, wild flower meadows and adjoining wooded areas. The path below the mansion along the Ottawa River is especially nice. Bird watchers from around the world come to Wildwood to see the hundreds of different species that also call Wildwood home. Deer are as comfortable on the property as their human friends.
After all that, I hope Toledoans, who wisely continue to support the metroparks at the ballot box, understand how fortunate they are to, not only have all the gorgeous parks in the area, but to have Wildwood Preserve as its centerpiece, a park with a heart and soul…not just the heart and soul of the philanthropic family who brought it all to life, but the collective hearts and souls of the thousands who banded together to preserve it.
R.A. Stranahan died February 9, 1962 at the age of 75. His wife, Page, died May 11, 1968 at the age of 79. They are buried together, along with other Stranahan family members at historic Woodlawn Cemetery in Toledo.
Wildwood Preserve Metropark
Wildwood: Land as Good as Gold at PBS.org
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