As many locals know, the Ohio City area (a historic neighborhood on the near west side of Cleveland, Ohio) has a special connection to the American football game. One of the major shapers of the present way it’s played, including the audible calling out “hike or hep” to initiate a play, the foreword pass, and dividing the game into quarters, to name a few, were all the innovations of John W. Heisman, who was born on October 3, 1869 to Michael and Sarah Heisman, who lived in a house in Ohio City on Bridge Avenue. In fact, there is a large bronze plaque, known as an Ohio Historical Marker, at 2825 Bridge Avenue that proclaims that “Here was born” the namesake of the coveted trophy annually awarded to the best player in college football (the trophy was given his name after his death on October 3, 1936).
Heisman bronze marker at its present location - 2825 Bridge Avenue
This seems to have been the pet project of Court of Common Pleas Judge Earl R. Hoover (who died in 1989). It is not clear how he learned that Heisman was born in Cleveland, but he notes that up to the mid-1970s no Ohio or Cleveland history mentioned Heisman. He set out to change this by having a bronze marker installed in front of what he perceived as the Heisman birth site. At the time, Hoover was also a member of the City’s Landmarks Commission and, in a 1984 Cleveland Plain Dealer article (more on this later), he states that he got the location of the house from an unnamed “city worker”, with no reference to any research sources. On May 11, 1978, with great celebration, the bronze plaque was unveiled in front of 2825 Bridge. At the time, knowing that there was a 1916 City permit (Number 11680-B) for the front house, it was thought that the smaller structure behind 2825 Bridge was the birthplace. It is noted that part of the early overall plan was to develop a Heisman museum, and have the front house demolished. Judge Hoover would later learn that neither structure was old enough, which led him to the assumption that some older house, in which Heisman had been born, had been razed and replaced by the later structures (see illustration below).
A November 7, 1974 photo of both structures (left side of
photo). The rear house was destroyed by an arson fire
September 24, 1994. Photo by Robert Grywalski
Now, it is possible that the Heisman family may have walked passed this location when they lived in the neighborhood for all of about 3 years before moving to Pennsylvania, but, in reality, they had no official connection to the site or any structure on it. The following traces some of the highlights of the twists and turns, the primary documentation, and the researchers that eventually led to identifying the correct location of John Heisman’s birthplace.
While it is true that John W. Heisman was born in Cleveland, as noted on primary sources like his Cuyahoga County Probate Court birth record or the application for his 1924 passport, there is no evidence that 2825 Bridge had anything to do with him or his family. Some believe that this site was chosen based on a mistaken belief that the city-wide address conversions of 1905 were the ONLY address changes in the history of the city. If one assumed the Heismans’ circa 1869 address would remain unchanged through 1905, it would have become 2825 Bridge. But, the truth is, it had changed at least one of more times before 1905.
The trouble with the placement of this plaque at this location is the lack of “primary” documentation or evidence to substantiate what is factual. What is accepted documentation? It is generally broken down into two major categories. The first, “primary sources”, are that which were created at or very near the time in question, documents or first-hand eyewitness accounts. “Secondary sources” are works made later in time and may interpret or analyze an historic event or phenomenon. The strength of a secondary source is only as strong as the primary sources it cites (assuming it does – sometimes they don’t!). Even a primary source may have its own slant, bias or human error, so, the more primary sources one can find to support a conclusion the better.
I became aware of this problem while on the staff of the Cuyahoga County Archives. In the fall of 1984, I met Thomas S. Andrzejewski, at that time a staff writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who came to the Archives in response to rumors that the Heisman marker was on the wrong site. He was preparing to write an article on the subject and was seeking reliable documentation to determine the real Heisman property. Telling the story of both sites became the focus of his Plain Dealer article of November 30, 1984, entitled “City’s landmark signals mixed – Heisman birthplace not on target.” To justify the correct site, Tom and I consulted historic City Directories found at the Archives (a complete set is at the Cleveland Public Library). If you know the name and a particular year, such as 1869 (year of Heisman’s birth), you can find a copy of that year’s directory. The names are arranged alphabetically. Also, they will commonly yield information such as the person’s address and their occupation at the time. In the 1869-70 Directory, Michael Heisman (John’s father) is listed as having a cooperage (barrel-making company) at 187 Bridge and his house, as indicated by an “h”, was at 183 Bridge.
The Cuyahoga County Archives holds other primary 19th century sources that Tom and I utilized, including some city and county maps, and most importantly, county property tax information. The 1869 Cuyahoga tax duplicate documents that Michael Heisman paid property taxes for sub-lot 594 in the Lord & Barber Allotment. This is one of the strongest pieces of evidence proving that the Heismans owned property on Bridge, but sub-lot 594 as identified on several Cleveland maps is about 4 blocks west and on the other side of the street from where the plaque now stands. One of these maps is the 1881 City Of Cleveland Atlas, the oldest map showing all of the city’s buildings, the layout of the formal subdivisions, and sample house-numbers. Plate 13 of this map shows three buildings depicted on sublot 594. It was surmised that one was the cooperage, the second a barn, and the third a house located at the rear of the lot. Without going further, it was assumed that the house shown was that of the Heismans. Unfortunately none of those structures have survived. With the publishing of Tom’s P.D. article in 1984, it seemed that Heisman’s birthplace was found, but that his house was gone. Eighteen years would pass, but fortunately this was not the end of the story.
Two people should be recognized for discovering and promoting the correct location. Local research specialist, Craig Bobby, should be credited as the first to correctly determinethat the old address 183 Bridge is 3928 Bridge today, and that the house where Heisman was born in is still standing. In 2002, Craig found that the Heismans owned another piece of land (sold to Sarah in 1868) just a half a lot east of their cooperage property (the east half of the sublot 593). Christopher Busta-Peck posted similar information on his blog, Cleveland Area History, on November 2, 2009. Although Christopher discovered this a number of years later than Craig, he has been a leader in publicizing the correct location of the Heisman house through his blog and related internet connections.
Heisman's property on Bridge Avenue. Red box (left) - the cooperage property - sub lot 594; red box (right) - the Heisman house - east half of sub lot 593 --- 1881 Hopkins, City Atlas of Cleveland, Ohio, Plate 13
There’s a very important postscript to all of this. Along with finding the original sale to Sarah in 1868, Craig also tracked down the deed that documents when Michael and Sarah Heisman sold the property on sublot 593, recorded on October 14, 1870,to George F. Crauk. This particular deed contains a small, but most unusual and significant piece of information. In general, deeds simply identify the seller and the buyer with a straight-forward description of the length and directions of the boundary lines of the piece of land in question. However, this deed includes the rare addition of describing a building standing on the property: “… and thereon a one story and a half frame house.” The front portion of the present house that occupies the east half of sublot 593 (3928 Bridge) is a one story and a half frame cottage.
1870 deed of the sale of their house from the Heismans to George Caulk with the unusual description of a building on the property
As for the condition of the house itself, time always takes its toll for better or for worse. It’s been nearly 150 years since the time the Heismans lived at 183 (now 3928) Bridge, and it’s doubtful that Michael and Sarah would recognize the present appearance of their former home. Unfortunately, the house has been added to and remodeled many times over, including the addition of a typical late-19th century front porch and paired windows above it on the second floor. The decorative curved bump-out detail under the peak of the roof (now covered with mid-20th-century asphalt shingle) is associated with the Queen Anne or Shingle Styles – both popular long after the Heismans had moved out of town.
3928 Bridge Avenue. Although altered, the birth place of John W. Heisman still stands.
In 2002, in an effort to get the marker moved to the correct location, Craig sent an e-mail to the Ohio Historical Society, including a detailed account of all of the historic documentation. Their response was to point out that the marker could not be relocated without the permission of the owner of the correct property, and that this would have to be paid for privately, as is the case for the installation of all Markers. More recently in 2012, Christopher Busta-Peck found out that there were three separate groups responsible for enacting this marker and that all three groups would have to agree that it should be moved.
For those of us who value all factors that make “Historic Ohio City” historic, it has been very gratifying to finally get the story straight. However, despite having convincing primary documentation in hand, certain questions remain — after thirty-six years at the wrong site, do we have the will to take our neighborhood history seriously enough to relocate the marker? Or, will we just let it remain at the wrong site and continue nurturing this embarrassing and woefully false urban myth?