The early 1800's was a time of development in Ohio. Many men planned, plotted and promoted tracts of land in the hope of selling lots or even entire communities for a profit. Such was the case with the Village of Hartford. Joseph Wardlow sold his claim to Horace Walbridge and Ira Smith who were land speculators from Toledo, Ohio. They in turn passed the land to Adolphus Kraemer. Kraemer owned several pieces of property in Lucas County and operated a store on St. Clair Street in Toledo. He was an industrious man who dreamed of establishing a thriving, prosperous city and with his purchase of the Hartford area, he meant to realize his dream.
Having sold his holdings in Lucas County, Adolphus Kraemer brought his family to Hartford in 1838. Leaving the Toledo area, the family traveled by turnpike to Perrysburg, Ohio where they crossed the Maumee River. Then on to Woodville, Ohio on the Perrysburg-Fremont Pike. From there, no roads were cut through the timber, so he followed the north bank of the Portage River, going inland only to get around the many bayous and creeks. Arriving in Hartford, Kraemer settled his family and went about the business of improving his town. He had goods sent by boat from Toledo up the Portage River and opened a general store. Next to his store he built a saw mill. In addition, he also farmed, practiced medicine and law. By 1850, Adolphus Kraemer was the wealthiest landowner in Salem Township, with his holdings valued at two thousand dollars. In the early years of his Village's development, he would, until his death in 1885, be the driving force behind every improvement, be it the building of a school, donating land for churches, sponsorship of charitable doings, establishment of Village services, or influencing railroad locations.
One issue that Adolphus Kraemer was unable to resolve in Hartford’s favor was the placement of the county seat. When Ottawa County was formed on March 6, 1840, Port Clinton was named the temporary seat of justice. Kraemer thought his Village had a good chance to be made the permanent county seat and he even set aside a large tract of land for the erection of the court house in Hartford. Such was not to be the case and instead of the growth associated with a town being the county seat, Hartford would develop in another direction.
Sawmills and various lumber related industries were started to clear the timbers around the village. River traffic to the mouth of the Portage River, and beyond, moved the products to national and world ports. With the growth of the village, it became necessary to establish a post office. Because there were three other Hartfords in Ohio, the Post Office Department requested a name change. After much discussion, heated debate and research in the Post Office Directory, the name of Oak Harbor was chosen. "Oak" to emphasize the prominence of that wood in the surrounding area, and "Harbor", the importance of the river to the Village. Thus in January 1845, the Hartford Post Office ceased to exist and the Post Office named Oak Harbor came into being. The name of the Village itself was changed from Hartford to Oak Harbor on March 27, 1863. Oak Harbor was incorporated April 17, 1871.
From two or three cabins in the wilderness and only a dream of Adolphus Kraemer, Oak Harbor had, by 1850, become a community of thirty eight dwellings with one hundred eighty seven people. It had plotted streets, two churches, a school, lumbering, farming and some manufacturing. All but fifteen people over twenty years of age could read. Wood related products were becoming very prominent in the Village's economy. Many businesses were using the vast amounts of timber that surrounded Oak Harbor. Some of them were: Charles Roose Stave Factory, Adolphus Kraemer Saw Mill, Anspach Brothers Hoop Factory, John R. Hoans Planing Mill and Shingle Factory, and G. B. Heller & Company Wood Bowl Factory. After the Civil War, some one hundred sixty six workmen were employed by these businesses, and during a one year period four million barrel staves were shipped to eastern ports.
Up until the 1870's, the Portage River was the only way for local businesses to ship their products. The first boat on the river was the "John Marshall", run by Adolphus Kraemer. The scow "Mary Berkhead", was, in pre-Civil War times, the fourth largest on the Great Lakes. It shipped white oak staves from the Charles Roose Stave Factory to Buffalo, New York. Poplar plank were also sent to Buffalo sometime later during the Civil War. Oak went by the Welland Canal to Scotland to be used for ship building. Thousands of cords of wood were sent to Cleveland, Sandusky and the Lake Erie Islands to be used for fuel for the Buffalo/Detroit steamships. A great number of the products from Oak Harbor manufacturing went down the Portage River and on to world ports.
Besides the commercial use of the river, numerous excursion boats docked in Oak Harbor. Worldly travelers of the time could go from Oak Harbor to Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo, and the always popular Lake Erie Islands. Two of the early vessels, the "Ferris" and the "Hayes", sometimes sold as many as seven hundred tickets for an Oak Harbor to Put-In-Bay excursion. As with any town that was by a river, the river was also used for recreation. Swimming, boating, fishing and ice skating were popular. Many 4th of July celebrations included swimming and boating races on the Portage.
By the 1880's, with a population of nine hundred eighty seven people, the majority being of German decent, many changes had taken place. Numerous churches were organized. The wooden one room school buildings were consolidated in 1875 into a large brick building on the corner of Walnut and Church Streets, then near the edge of town. The Ottawa County Exponent was founded in 1871 as a stock company that bought out the Port Clinton Republican. The Charles Roose Hose Company, formed in 1866, was supplemented with the formation in 1873 of Portage Fire Company #1. Adolphus Kraemer had used his influence to bring the railroads to Oak Harbor. They had originally been surveyed to bypass the village. The Lake Shore & Michigan Southern ran its first passenger train to Oak Harbor on March 12, 1872. The Wheeling & Lake Erie built through town in 1882. Most of the local businesses made great use of the railroads, terminating the commercial use of the Portage River. Many of the brick buildings in Oak Harbor were built at this time to replace the original wooden structures. Many streets were bricked and curbed. The last quarter of the 1800's was a fast changing growth period for the Village.
One of the most important changes was that the Village became an agricultural center, serving the surrounding area. Much of the land that originally supported virgin timber had, by this time, been cleared and turned into small farms. Many of the timber related businesses were still around, such as the Gordon Lumber Company, founded in 1868, the Oak Harbor Basket Factory, started in 1895, and the Anspach Brothers Hoop Factory. Other businesses were created in response to the needs of agriculture. Michael Thierwechter built a flour mill and grain elevator by the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad tracks. John Maggie and Henry Paffenbach, both from Elmore, built an elevator by the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad in 1902. Jake Weller moved his pickle and tomato factory to Oak Harbor in 1898 from Cincinnati. In 1912, the Oak Harbor Fruit Company was formed by area farmers to sell the peach and apple crop of the area.
With the many timber and agriculture related businesses, of course, came many other enterprises typical of a Village of this era. Oak Harbor at one time had a glove and mitten factory, a glass factory, buggy factories, a whip factory, cigar factories, hatcheries, hardware’s, blacksmith shops, banks, hotels, coal yards, tile yards, brick yards, dairies, saloons, and general stores. The Thierwechter Company, founded in 1867 and moved here in 1877, was one of the largest general stores in the county. Another, the Kramb Company Store, dating from at least 1875, had the various dry goods, grocery, and clothing departments found at most general stores. It also had an ice house and a blacksmith shop.
Oak Harbor was indeed a growing town. The new town hall, with an opera house, was built in 1907, the new high school in 1911, the armory in 1913, and a Catholic Church in 1917. A municipal water system went into service in 1911. Natural gas, electric lights, and the telephone were available to its citizens. The new electric railroad, along with the other rail lines, was able to offer service to just about anywhere one would want to go. The Oak Harbor Business Men's Association, incorporated October 10, 1910, reported the following facts about the Village to prospective interested parties:
"An electric railroad (38 passenger, 6 baggage and express and 4 freight cars daily), two steam railroads (12 passenger trains daily) - L.S. & M.S. (New York Central Line) east and west, with a total of 90 trains every 24 hours, and the W. & L.E., north and south, with 6 passenger trains daily and a total of 20 trains every 24 hours. Situated 90 miles west of Cleveland, 25 miles east of Toledo. Has a $60,000.00 public school building, excellent grade schools - accredited High School, five churches, seven factories, two newspapers. Good hotels, Bell and Independent telephones, electric lights and power. Western Union Telegraph. American and Wells Fargo express. Two strong banks. Public library. Up-to-date water works system. Good fire protection. Good sewer system and river drainage. Miles of paved streets. Opera House. In peach, general fruit and vegetable belt. On the beautiful Portage River, near Lake Erie. Stone roads into town. Good motoring, boating, hunting, and fishing. Pleasant place to live, at low cost. Industries solicited."
Oak Harbor, like every other town in the United States, did its duty during the First World War. Prior to the war, on July 1, 1916, its Company M, 6th Ohio National Guard was called up to serve along the Mexico-U. S. Border. It later became part of the 147th U.S. Infantry and eventually, during the war, served in Europe. On the home front in the summer and fall of 1918, many patriotic sings, lead by Professor J. Ballmer, Professor George Ashbacker, and Judge Carl Sperling were held at the local armory and in school house park. On November 11, 1918, parades formed, fire crackers were set off, and church bells rang to celebrate the signing of the armistice.
But all was not right with Oak Harbor. In the summer of 1918, cases of Spanish Influenza were reported in Ottawa County. By October, the disease was so bad that the Oak Harbor Board of Health closed all churches, schools, dance halls, pool rooms, and picture shows until further notice. The epidemic lasted through the 1918-1919 winter. An average of three people died every week. During the late 1920's and through the 1930's, some of the well known businesses in the village also closed. The Bauch Company, successor of the Thierwechter Store, went into receivership. The Kramb Company Store, forced into smaller quarters because of the hard times, went out of business for good around 1932. The Michigan Headliner closed and its buildings burned to the ground around 1930 just as the equipment was being tagged for auction. The village also suffered the cut off of passenger operations on the Ohio Public Service electric line, the last run was on July 11, 1939.
Even with the loss of those ventures, however, Oak Harbor began to regain some of its pre-war spirit. The auto, introduced to the village around 1905, had by the 1930's almost completely dominated over the horse and buggy. Gone or going were the blacksmith shops, the liveries, the carriage makers, and the harness shops. These were replaced by machine shops, garages, and auto dealers. The auto and its farm counterpart, the tractor, would reinforce Oak Harbor as an agricultural center. The auto made the village more accessible to the surrounding area and to its farmers. Many tractor sales & service businesses and farm implement stores were in the village at this time.
To make the town more accessible from the south, a new modern concrete and steel bridge was built across the Portage River in 1932. At the time of the dedication of the bridge, attended by State Governor George White, a celebration, the first Oak Harbor Fall Fair and Festival, was held. Combined with the Community Fruit Fair and the village's 100th year of founding, the Fall Fair was a three day event which was held October12,13 and 14, 1932. A street fair, racing on the river, and various other events marked the start of a tradition that lasted in Oak Harbor for over thirty years until the first county fair was held in 1965.
Many improvements were made in the village itself by the 1930's. Two churches had built new larger structures. St. John's Church was dedicated in 1927 and St. Paul's Church was dedicated in 1930. The high school added a new gym/auditorium wing to its building. The National Bank of Oak Harbor was founded July 2, 1934. The United States Post Office finally acquired a permanent home in 1939 on Church Street. 1939 also saw the completion of the10 inch water line from Port Clinton Water Works to Oak Harbor. This waterline replaced the two fresh water wells the village had been using since 1911. The old wells were put on standby emergency status where they have remained to this day. Thus by the 1940's, Oak Harbor had once again become a modern, up-to-date, typical small American town.
World War II rekindled the spirit of patriotism in Oak Harbor. Everyone pulled together for the country's good. Housewives saved their grease for the production of munitions. Children gathered milkweed pods for floatation collars. A large scrap metal pile was amassed behind the high school. An airplane observation tower, built on top of the Huck Building, was manned by local high school students and practice air raid drills were conducted. Everyone in the village contributed in one way or another to the war effort. At the end of the war, on VJ Day, the people of Oak harbor stood outside in the rain to listen to the raucous celebration of church bells, sirens, whistles, and horns.
Following the war, the United States industrialized and so did Oak Harbor. In the area, Erie Proving Grounds and Brush Beryllium Company provided many men and women with jobs. In the village itself, with a population of 2370, the Oak Harbor Development Company, incorporated in 1950, spearheaded the drive for industry. Northern Manufacturing started production in 1952. The Anderson Boat Company in 1953, and Myca Products Company in 1955. Two of the older industries, the J. C. Weller Company and the Gordon Lumber Company were still going strong. By 1955, the value of the products manufactured totaled nearly $10,000,000. Products included boats, dehydrated alfalfa meal, processed foods, hardwoods for boat and dock construction, extruded rubber products, lumber and logs, CO-2 type factory fire systems, metal paneling, truck bodies, brackets and bracket holders for Fire trucks, roll formed metal moldings, butt seam and lock seam tubing, special shapes of metal stampings, metal for prefabricated windows, star sash balances, centerless grinding, thread rolling, truck decks, truck trailers, tanks, cannery systems, and "Brikcrete" building blocks.
Other advancements made in the village during the post-war period saw the replacement of older buildings and new construction in response to the demands of an increasing population. The school system built a new elementary school in 1957 to handle the baby boom. Churches also responded to this growth. St. Paul's Church built a new Sunday School addition in 1957 as did St. John's Church in 1960. The Methodist built a new church on the east side of town in 1961, and the Catholic Church opened a parochial school for grades one and two in September, 1966. The Oak Harbor State Bank, established in 1887, and Bassett's IGA started in 1898, both relocated into new larger structures. A new modern high school was opened on the west side of town in time for the 1975-1976 school year. Municipal services also kept up with the times. Utilities were improved and the village municipal building located on Church Street was erected in 1976. Twenty-four hour radio dispatching for police and fire protection was initiated. An Emergency Medical Service, using highly trained volunteers was formed in 1979. With these and numerous other improvements, the village's 2678 citizens were ready to enter the 1990's.
Oak Harbor in the 2000's has changed in some respects. No longer is the emphasis on manufacturing. While there are some small companies in the village, gone are the many varied enterprises that were here in the 1870's. The shift has also been away from agriculture. There are very few farm related businesses in town, unlike the early 1900's. Gone are the blacksmith shops, the machine shops, and the many stores that served the farmer. In their place are small specialty shops, convenience stores, and service businesses that compete for the more mobile population. The village is being influenced more and more by the outside world as many of its citizens look to nearby cities for their work, shopping needs and even for their entertainment and recreation. But the dreams of the original citizens of Hartford are still alive today. They are visible in the churches, schools, the Apple Festival, and in the daily lives of the people. Much is being done to improve upon those dreams and yet to retain the spirit of the village that has grown from the swamp and the forest on the bank of the Portage River. If Adolphus Kraemer were alive today, he would be proud of the village he helped to create - Oak Harbor, "the biggest little town in Ohio".