Christina Wilkinson, a lifelong resident of Lake County and former secretary of the Willoughby Historical Society, wanted to tell the story of how Willoughby evolved with new technological advancements such as the automobile and the development of strip malls that in turn changed the downtown streetscape. Willoughby Today (WToday) had an opportunity to question Wilkinson about her new book Images of America: Willoughby. Here is what she has to say.
WToday: What is your connection to Willoughby?
As someone who loves old buildings, it should come as no surprise that I gravitated to Willoughby years ago. My interest, though, became more personal when I began working on family genealogy and discovered that my great-great-grandfather, John A. Wilkinson, settled in Willoughby around 1850. When Civil War broke out, he enlisted, but died in Tennessee less than a year later, leaving a young widow and five small children. His name, albeit misspelled, is on the monument at Point Park; the book is dedicated to his memory.
WToday: What has been your favorite part about writing this book?
The many wonderful people I met along the way. I am very grateful to them for taking the time to look through photo albums, desk drawers, and old boxes to find images and memories to share with me.
WToday: Why did you decide to write this book?
Arcadia Publishing is known for preserving the history of towns across the country with their Images of America series. Each time I encountered their display in a bookstore I would wonder why no one had ever done a book for Willoughby. Then, a couple of years ago, Arcadia approached the Willoughby Historical Society about finding someone to put their town into print. I served as the society’s secretary for several years and, in writing this book, was at last able to put my notebook of Willoughby-related research to good use.
WToday: Why should people buy this book?
From the beginning, I decided to focus on not just the architecture of the town, but also the individuals who provide a sense of community through ordinary, everyday activities, because they really make up the heart of a city. To accomplish that, I searched through private collections in an effort to find photographs never seen before that will give my readers a better understanding of how Willoughby grew from a tiny settlement into a city that once bustled with an unbelievable amount of activity due to a proliferation of hotels, restaurants and stores that provided anything and everything residents and visitors could need. Automobiles changed all that, prompting the construction of malls and strip centers that drew consumers away from Erie Street. I hope people will find it thought-provoking, and maybe just a little sad, to see how progress changed the appearance of downtown, taking away buildings and so many trees and replacing them with the necessary acres of asphalt.
WToday: What is your favorite Willoughby story?
There were so many great stories, but my favorite is about the 1967 South High School Choir. It began with one of the many photographs that had little or no information, but this one captured my heart because of it spoke of such youthful optimism. I did have a few clues. I knew the young people were from South High, they in the process of boarding a plane in Cleveland, and the date was June 14, 1967. For weeks, I asked of everyone and anyone: who were these kids, and where they were going? After receiving blank looks in exchange, my quest was at last rewarded when I was referred to someone who answered the question before I finished asking it!
The photograph, which appears as a double-page spread in the book, was of the South High School Choir, under the direction of Romeo Pallante. In 1967, they were invited to perform at the World Expo in Montreal, Canada and in this photograph, they were on their way. Their excited faces say better than words how they felt about this adventure.
Following Pallante’s death, a tribute concert was held in 2010 with choir members reprising their 1967 performance. Recordings can be found, along with a tribute to Pallante, at www.romeopallante.com.
WToday: What else would you like to add?
I loved that residents of Willoughby crawled out of their beds at 3:00 a.m. to greet a famous visitor – Weston the Pedestrian – who earned his living by walking long distances for prize money. Men and boys – the article from 1907 was very clear about that – walked to the eastern village limits to greet him and escort him into town, where women and children had gathered to celebrate his arrival!
Considering that young people today have computers and mobile phones to occupy their time, it was amazing to hear one resident talk about scrounging through the city dump, pretty much where Todd Field is now, to find cigar wrappers because the company that produced them was running a contest. Five wrappers were required to accompany your entry, and the prize was a racehorse from Kentucky!
During World War I, Lewisite, a deadly compound used in chemical warfare, was manufactured under a high level of security at the JHR factory in Willoughby. Government records are a bit sketchy about exactly what happened to the Lewisite that wasn’t used. Some maintain there are still canisters of it buried in Willoughby!
Because the Images of America series is just that, a collection of photographs that tell the story of a town, people will find that many stories were left untold, many buildings were not featured, and many individuals and groups were not honored because there were no photographs to support their story. When people read this book, I want them to begin thinking about what matters to them and then make a point of taking a photograph with a date that will create a record of that time and place in history.
People who are interested in seeing additional photographs that were not included may connect with the author on Facebook, or read more about the book on the author’s personal website: www.rosewoodpress.com
The book is published by Arcadia Publishing and is available for $21.99 on the author’s website.
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