‘Kent, Home of Hump and Hustle’

Kristine Gill

Editor’s note: Every week throughout this semester, the Daily Kent Stater will be taking a look back at Kent State’s history in honor of the Centennial celebration. This article is the first of the series.

It used to be you could go anywhere in Kent for a bluegill fish fry. The pervasive breed inhabited the Cuyahoga River, the Twin Lakes and neighborhood ponds. You could catch them in the morning with your own fishing pole and have them for dinner that night.

The Tavern at Twin Lakes used to do just that. But owner Richard Gressard doesn’t serve bluegill anymore. He said the fish is a small breed that is tedious to prepare and requires a commercial license to raise or catch.

“I would love to serve them again though,” Gressard said.

The fish were big enough on Sept. 27, 1910, when Gressard’s great-grandparents, Frank A. Merrill and Ida Haymaker Merrill, served up a memorable meal that became part of Kent State’s lore.

That day was a rainy one. Fog and mist overshadowed the beauty of the scenic hillside in Kent where three men were waiting anxiously for five very important guests to arrive.

Those guests comprised the Ohio State Normal Commission and they were to survey Kent as a potential site for a new teacher training school.

The Lowry Bill had been passed in the Columbus Statehouse in January of that year, calling for the establishment of two normal schools to train teachers for the state during a time when the need for education was growing. One school was to be in the west and one in the east. The commission would visit 13 other sites including Ashtabula, Canton, Chagrin Falls, Geneva, Hudson, Massillon, Medina, Poland, Ravenna, Salem, Wadsworth, Warren and Youngstown.

Kent jumped at the chance to start fresh. A fire had destroyed the Seneca Chain Company in December of 1909, and 250 men and boys lost their jobs, devastating the town.

The loss sparked Mayor Martin Davey of the Davey Tree Expert Company to begin a board of trade, which would later become the city’s chamber of commerce.

“They started this board of trade with the idea that this could be a stabilizing influence in this part of Kent,” said Sandra Halem, current president of the Kent Historical Society.

“It would be a source of jobs, and then people would move to the town.”

Davey helped organize a committee that author Frank Vazzano writes was “to persuade the Ohio State Normal Commission that their village was perfect for the new town,” in his book “Politician Extraordinaire: The Tempestuous Life and Times of Martin L. Davey.”

As part of a town competition around the same time, residents were challenged to come up with a new slogan for Kent. The winning phrase was, “Kent, Home of Hump and Hustle.”

Halem pointed out the slogan would have a much different meaning today. At the time, it signified a renewed vigor. The Kent Courier editor in 1910, John Paxton, challenged the city to go after the normal school when the Lowry Bill was passed, citing the town’s new slogan as a reputation it needed to prove.

“If Kent wants a state normal school, there’s no use being bashful about it,” Paxton wrote. “Let’s go after it.”

Halem said education was the most stable “industry” Kent could invest in.

“Education is not subject to fire and unemployment and depression,” she said. “There was the idea that the school would continue.”

Professor Emeritus William Hildebrand, author of “A Most Noble Enterprise: Kent State University, 1910-2010,” wrote in his book that the new school’s site should have sufficient infrastructure and a good public health system among a few other things but “perhaps most important, a large parcel of suitable land available for the campus.”

William S. Kent, son of Marvin Kent for whom the city was named, offered more than 50 acres of his farmland as the site, but the commissioners couldn’t see it through the fog that afternoon in September. They made it to the site, but muddy, wet and eager to make their noon appointment in Ravenna, the commissioners were unimpressed by the view.

Sensing their discomfort, the Board of Trade members convinced them to stop for a prepared lunch in Twin Lakes, which they claimed was on the way to Ravenna. Vazzano wrote that it had been a bold-faced lie.

But it was over that fresh fish fry and cigars — and untold amounts of spirits — the Kent men wined and dined the commissioners from the state, who showed up late for their meeting in Ravenna and refused the cold meal that had been waiting for them there since noon.

“They actually got drunk here (in Twin Lakes),” Gressard said. “But no one likes to talk about that.”

Regardless, it was a fish fry, Hildebrand said, that likely sealed the fate of the struggling city.

“I think it was definitely a turning point, because it gave the men who took them to lunch a chance to talk about (Kent) and make their case in a happy frame of mind,” Hildebrand said. “They were much more receptive than they would have been otherwise and it delayed Ravenna. There were lingering feelings of resentment over that.”

But the bluegill luncheon was not the only reason Kent won the bid for the normal school. Fog had obscured the commissioners’ view of the town, and so they planned a second trip to see the land. The commissioners had narrowed their search to Kent, Wadsworth and Warren by then.

As Hildebrand wrote in his book, it was the second visit that brought Kent its school. On Nov. 25, 1910, Ohio Gov. Judson Harmon announced Kent as the location for the eastern school and Bowling Green for the location of the western school.

“The best evidence points to the Kent farm itself as having made the decisive impression: its proximity to the village, its spaciousness, its rich forest of virgin timber, its free-flowing spring, and, preeminently, its sheer natural beauty …,” Hildebrand wrote. “Although what (the commissioners) heard at the bluegill feast may have persuaded them to give Kent a second look, it was the magnificent land itself that won the normal school.”

The feelings of resentment Hildebrand mentioned from neighboring towns and competing universities would last well into the 1920s, but for now, the city had reason to celebrate.

A few hundred Kentites gathered on Normal Hill days after the governor’s announcement to take a look at what would become the school’s campus — Normal Hill, they called it.

“I enjoyed writing that part of the book very much,” Hildebrand said. “I enjoyed bringing out the beauty of that hillside. It was really the reason why the city got that school and the townspeople knew it. It was a day of thanksgiving.”

Kent Normal School was named after William S. Kent, not the town, for his donation of land. The first building would be constructed a few years later and named after the couple who prepared the bluegill that afternoon in September. Merrill Hall still sits atop the semicircle of buildings at the front of campus.

Contact enterprise reporter Kristine Gill at [email protected].