Oberlin Heritage Center
Monroe House (Museum Entrance)
Inside the Monroe House
Guided tours are tricky things. Done right, they can really bring life into the place you are visiting. Done wrong and they can bore you to tears. Nothing is worse than a tour of a historical place that has gone wrong. Back in the early nineties I recall going through a plantation house in Virginia where the guide spent the whole time talking about different architectural features she pointed to with a large spoon. Another tour gone wrong involved a detailed account of where the dinnerware came from and its unique characteristics.
Fortunately the one I took at the Oberlin Heritage Center (OHC) in Oberlin, Ohio, was top notch. I specifically took the full tour that included three buildings: the Monroe House, a one-room school, and the Jewett House. Confined mainly indoors, this was just one of many tours the OHC offers. Others include tablet tours, bus tours (so long as you provide the vehicle), and a wide variety of walking tours such as “Scholars and Settlers History Walk” and “I Spy Oberlin: History and Architecture Scavenger Hunt.” Those who wish to avail themselves of one of these tours need to go to the front of the Monroe House where, after ringing a bell to get in, you will head to the modest gift shop.
The tour my traveling companion and I took is about more than just those who lived there. It covers Oberlin’s history from its beginning until about the start of the twentieth century. And history is something Oberlin has much of. It began as the Oberlin Collegiate Institution, a center of higher learning that would be Ohio’s first school that award women bachelor degrees. It admitted men, women, whites and blacks and taught them in integrated classes. Founded by Reverend Jay Shepherd and Philo Stewart, those who chose to live here had to sign the Covenant of the Oberlin Colony. Although this document did not establish a communal society where all property was shared—Zoar Village being a good example of this sort of thing—it did call for limitations on what one owned and how much money one kept for oneself, though this bit was so vague there was surely much debate on what constituted enough. Tobacco and alcohol were forbidden save for medicinal purposes, as was tea, coffee, and “everything expensive that is simply calculated to gratify appetite.” The colonists’ original diet was so limited they couldn’t get the daily calories needed to construct an entire community from scratch, so the dietary restrictions were eased up.
Unlike most other Protestant religious communities founded in America, Oberlin welcomed people of other faiths. Its fierce opposition to slavery and open-mindedness about education attracted many outsiders, including abolitionist James Monroe, a Quaker who built the house that now bears his name. Although abolitionists such as Monroe all agreed that slavery was wrong and needed to end, not all were as open-minded. Most did not think blacks were equal to whites politically or biologically, and some wanted to send the whole lot back to Africa. Monroe was on the enlightened side of the abolitionist movement. He believed blacks and whites were equal in all ways and he had close black friends. While traveling with one African-American friend, Monroe insisted on suffering any indignities inflicted upon him because of his race. If, for example, his friend had sleep in a barn instead of as a guest in the house, Monroe would do the same.