Small & historic
WATERTOWN-Walking down the main thoroughfare of Watertown feels a bit like scouting set locations for a very wide range of movie genres.
The painstakingly preserved porches on many of the village’s houses feel as though they have been plucked from a Victorian romance. The now defunct general store with its classic boomtown front still looks like the hero from a Western adventure might step out at any moment. And on other corners, crumbling rooftops and creeping foliage make some structures look like the haunted centerpieces of so many horror flicks.
Despite the polarity, the 70-plus structures in Watertown have something in common beyond their cinematic potential. They all are included in the National Register of Historic Places.
Watertown is one of six inclusive districts in Washington County that have been admitted onto the register.
Like any district, the Watertown Historic District got its spot by proving its historic significance, something Watertown has in spades, said Martin Mindling, 66, a resident of the small community.
“Watertown was not named for the water. It was named for the last settler killed by Indians in the area-Sherman Waterman,” said Mindling.
Despite not being named for its water, Watertown’s position on Wolf Creek means more than one mill sprung up in the area, which started as a hunting and fishing outpost for nearby Beverly-Waterford residents, quickly morphed into an agricultural area, and then hit its big boom when the oil industry got cozy in Washington County in the late 19th century.
At one point near the turn of the century, Washington County boasted more than 500 working oil wells and Watertown was smack-dab in the middle of it all, said Mindling.
The oil boom brought great growth to the community. At one point it contained a hotel, three general stores, a bank, a grain mill, a lumber mill and a number of blacksmiths, lawyers and doctors.
Many of the people who settled there during that time were German immigrants with impressive wood-working skills.
According to the districts’ 1985 application for inclusion on the National Register, these immigrant craftsmen were responsible for one of Watertown’s most significant features-its porches.
Fred Schweikert was responsible for crafting a handful of the town’s structures and did so with a distinct decorative flare.
“Fred Schweikert took over the family home and remodeled it according to his ability, employing his distinctive style of porch, including the lacy, sawn balustrade, turned posts, scrollwork and bracketry,” reads the application.
At one point, the prominence of such porches led the area to be nicknamed the Village of Porches, said Mindling.
Mindling, who has been restoring a Watertown house once belonging to his aunt, has such a porch. And several other examples can still be seen throughout the community. They are some of the last remnants of what is known as the Stick-Eastlake architectural style.
Schweikert was also responsible for a town building that has served many functions, including town grange hall and auditorium. At one time the auditorium showed movies and plays, which Mindling’s father acted in before moving to Chicago shortly following the onset of the Great Depression.
Today, the building is rented to the United States Post Office and is staffed by a part-time postmaster, he said.
Many residents still make the short trip to the post office to collect their mail. On Wednesday, Watertown resident John Britton took the relatively nice weather as an opportunity to take his three granddaughters on a wagon ride to the post office.
“Watertown is a great place. It’s a nice place for your grandkids to come visit and play,” said Britton.
Of the dozens of structures in the historical district, only three are brick. One of those, the Woodford House, was built by one of the earliest settlers in the area.
On a 160-acre Ohio Company land grant, William Woodford and three others platted the original lot, which contained all of Watertown village.
Woodford’s home, a two-story Federal style home built circa 1830, is currently being renovated by John and Rose Harra, who purchased the home in 2002.
John, 63, grew up about a mile east of Watertown, and the home had left an impression on him.
When the house came on the market, it had lost much of its former glamor, recalled Rose.
“He said, ‘Somebody needs to do something with that place. I remember how beautiful it was,'” said Rose.
For years, the Harras worked on the house from afar. Before moving into the home two years ago, the couple had lived Newark.
While restoring the house has been time consuming and costly, it has come with pleasant surprises. When clearing out an old shed in the back, John found what he believes to be an original mantel from the home. The nearly 200-year-old mantel has been restored and now surrounds the kitchen fireplace, he said.
Currently undergoing renovation by its parishioners, the Watertown Presbyterian Church has turned up similar historic gems. While cleaning out the church’s attic, the original 1871 gas fixtures and eight-foot tall wooden shutters were found, said Mindling.
While some of the old structures have been maintained and even restored, many others in the historic district have fallen into disrepair.
Weeds and greenery have strangled the old hotel, causing bits of it to crumble.
The general store-the one straight from the Western-went out of business about three years ago and has been empty ever since, said Mindling.
In fact, he estimates about 20 percent of the structures in the historic district are vacant.
There are funds available-grants here and there for those interested in fixing up historic properties, he said.
But those who accept grant funding need to be prepared to follow some specific instructions.
That is what the Watertown Volunteer Fire Department found out a few years ago when it decided to build a new fire house.
“We had to change the design on our fire house because of the historical designation of our town,” said Don Forshey, Watertown VFD assistant chief.
The Ohio Historical Society stipulated that the new fire house should have-what else but of course-an ornate porch.