A look back at Kent’s history

A panoramic view of the city of Kent from 1882.

Kaylee Peterson

The story of Kent begins in 1790 with Captain Samuel Brady.

Brady — often revered as an iconic symbol of Kent history — was actually a Native American killer, whose famed leap across the Cuyahoga River was the result of being chased by Native Americans seeking revenge — not a heroic race.

As the story goes, Brady landed on the other side of the Cuyahoga and fled to a nearby a lake, now dubbed Brady Lake. Brady served as inspiration for several other once-landmarks in Kent, including Capt’n Brady’s, a coffee shop that once stood where Starbucks on East Main Street does now, and Brady Lake Village, which recently dissolved.

Shortly after Capt’n Brady’s leap, the Haymaker family arrived to what would soon become Franklin Mills. Jacob Haymaker originally bought the land from Aaron Olmsted but was unable to return to settle the town himself, so he sent his son, John. John and Sally Haymaker were the first settlers of what they named Franklin Mills — later becoming Kent. In 1807, the Haymakers built the first mill, planning to create a settlement based around the Cuyahoga River and the resources it provided. They were successful, and their investment in the mill, as well as the growing community, lured Zenas Kent to Franklin Mills. 

Zenas Kent was a successful businessman from Ravenna who saw a future in Franklin Mills. Zenas had 13 sons, including Marvin and William, who became prominent members in Kent’s history. Zenas partnered with John Brown and began building several new buildings throughout the city, including a tannery which has since been turned into Tannery Park. Zenas was also responsible for Kent National Bank’s construction, of which he was the president, alongside cotton mills and a flour mill. During the boom of Franklin Mills, Zenas sold much of the land he owned to the Franklin Land Company, a group of investors and capitalists, whose biggest idea for the city was the addition of a silk mill.

The silk mill, whose building still stands on the other side of the Cuyahoga River, failed upon the discovery that the silkworms could not survive in the Northeastern Ohio climate.

Marvin Kent, someone artist Henry Halem described as “prescient,” foresaw the importance of a thriving railroad. He said he believed it was the key to connect Franklin Mills to the rest of the country. 

The track for the railroad was laid in 1853, although it took 10 years before the first train came through. At that point in time, the A&GW Rail Yards — built by Marvin Kent — employed one in every three people in the town. Because Marvin Kent employed so much of the town, and because he had been the force behind so much of the city’s growth, the town of Franklin Mills was renamed Kent.

The depot, which still stands as a historic landmark in Downtown Kent and is now owned by the Kent Historical Society, was built in 1875. When the two-story building opened, its first floor features ticket offices, a dining room and a kitchen, while the second floor held living quarters for the owner of the restaurant. After the railroad business came to an end for Kent, the depot was abandoned and would have been demolished if not for the Kent Historical Society purchasing the building in 1975.

The depot housed Pufferbelly, a restaurant, until recently but is now undergoing renovations to turn the building into a new Italian restaurant. 

Shortly after the depot opened, the Main Street bridge construction began in 1877. The bridge, which is over 120 years old, is one of the only stone bridges left standing in Ohio. Again, Halem said Marvin Kent had the forward-thinking and did things a little bit differently. While the majority of stone bridges in Ohio were at most 30 feet wide, Marvin ordered the Main Street bridge to be 60 feet wide. If they hadn’t, the bridge would have been gone long ago, Halem said.

The bridge is made of stone “casing” and filled by debris and the leftovers from demolition, which were poured inside in order to fill the casing. 

John Davey arrived in Kent in 1881 after being commissioned to construct what is now Standing Rock cemetery. Standing Rock, a historical landmark in Kent located in the center of the Cuyahoga river, has been a piece of Kent history since before the Haymakers. Davey was also the founder of the Davey Tree company, which planted hundreds of trees around the community. His son, Martin L. Davey would go on to be a prominent political figure from Kent. 

The Opera House, constructed in 1889, hosted traveling entertainers, magicians, silent films and eventually, “talkies” — movies where actors’ voices could be heard. However, due to financial restraints and changing entertainment preferences, the building was abandoned in the 1950s and eventually demolished in 1964 to make way for a parking lot and eventually what is now the Hometown Bank drive-through.

In 1901, at the peak of his philanthropic giving businessman Andrew Carnegie gave a $10,000 gift to the city of Kent to be used to build a public library. Marvin Kent offered the land and that library, now known as the Kent Free Library, has since added on expansions and grown but remains a free public space for the community.

In 1910, the city of Kent took its first steps towards becoming a college town. William Kent, a son of Marvin Kent, sold the land to the state of Ohio to build Kent Normal College, a teacher’s training school and what would become Kent State University.

Martin L. Davey, the son of John Davey was elected the mayor of Kent in 1913. He went on to be elected (and re-elected) to the House of Representatives in 1918, and eventually became the Governor of Ohio in 1934. 

In 1913, the city of Kent had a major flood — one of the first to be captured on camera. The flood, a result of the nearby river, were a contributing factor to the way property was purchased and owned by different people within the economic sector. The houses that stood on higher ground, such as the row of homes at the top of the Main Street hill, were reserved for the most wealthy in the community. The homes, the majority of which are currently occupied by fraternities, are the original homes that stood in the 1900s.

The 1920s saw a boom of development and growth for downtown Kent.

The Franklin Hotel was constructed in 1920, and had many different owners, one of whom, Cornelius P. Patchin, died in an elevator malfunction. The hotel was condemned in 1979 and remained vacant until recently. The city of Kent purchased the property and sold it to Ron Burbick, who refurbished the space and added a Buffalo Wild Wings to the lower floors. 

In the same boom, the Kent Theatre began to take shape. Originally built to be a modern movie location, the theatre has since become the home of the Kent Stage. The Kent Stage, which opened its doors in 2002, found its place in Kent following the emergence of the Folk Festival — an annual Downtown Kent event. The venue has since seen multiple big name performers and frequently hosts a shadow-cast production of Rocky Horror Picture.

As Kent State began to grow and take shape, the community followed. A city’s available education and economic benefit are directly correlated, Halem said.

The university saw a massive amount of expansion in the 50s and 60s, following the post-war boom. Students flocked to the university and in turn, filled the town with new consumers. It was at this point in time that businesses like Ray’s Place started to grow and become iconic marks of the town.

In 1972, Kent saw one of its most historic fires to date. The Kent Block — a series of buildings constructed by Marvin Kent — fell to the blaze, which burned the entire block to the ground. In its place now is the Hometown Bank Plaza, the only corner of the four-way intersection of Main Street and Water Street that does not house the original building.

The next big expansion of downtown Kent is more recent, beginning in 2007.

Several surveys were conducted over the years and the answer almost always came back the same: Kent residents wanted to see a revitalized Downtown Kent, said Kent city manager Dave Ruller.

During the survey and formulation of a strategic plan to bring new life to Downtown Kent, Lester Lefton took office as the president of Kent State and brought with him an ambitious goal to take on the downtown area and leave a lasting impact. Lefton was a positive influence for the project, Ruller said, and led the charge for getting the university involved in the overhaul of Downtown Kent.

Though it didn’t come without twists and turns, Ruller said one of the biggest successes of the strategic plan and redevelopment came from making an effort to change the community and being willing to spend money to make money.

“We really tried to get this consistent message across to rally around your community,” Ruller said. “It was a risk to spend this money and acquire the land, but the interesting thing about a financial crisis is that people are more willing to take risks and be bold.”

The revitalization, which found some inspiration from similar college towns such as Normal, Illinois, the home of Illinois State University, was completed based on an agreement between the city of Kent, Kent State and a developer. A prominent private investor, Ron Burbick, also took part in the project.

Burbick, the head of the Phoenix Project, was the benefactor of a $6.5 million project that brought Acorn Alley to Kent. He is also the owner of the previous Franklin Hotel, which now houses Buffalo Wild Wings. Burbick purchased a large portion of East Main Street and restored the first floors as well as adding second floors to many of the buildings. 

Ruller said there is a certain sort of charm about Downtown Kent.

“Downtown Kent is all about the people,” Ruller said. “There’s a sense of an oasis where the bohemian hippy, the retired grandma and the young family can all peacefully exist.”

As for what’s to come, Ruller said there’s always room for growth and momentum.

“Downtown was intended to be a platform for the kind of progressive thing we want in our community,” Ruller said. “A sense of humor, personality, that’s Kent.”

Kaylee Peterson is the downtown reporter. Contact her at [email protected].