Focus on Fostoria - Mar_7_04

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Fostoria Focus - March 7, 2004

Fostoria Carvings Bearing up Well
By Leonard Skonecki
- Related picture -

Bears inhabit Fostoria.

Easy now. Don't bar the doors. Don't sound the alarm. Don't worry at all.

There are only two of them. They've lived here for over 100 years.

They're tame, friendly and, since they're made of limestone, slow moving. Furthermore, their range is restricted to the front of the Fostoria Area Historical Museum. They're the bears that once sat at the entrance of the Municipal Building.

The Focus became curious about the bears when reader Jim Dieter dropped off an article about Henry Church, the bears' sculptor, from the January/February 2004 issue of "Timeline," the magazine of the Ohio Historical Society.

Church, it seems, was quite a character.

His family emigrated to Chagrin Falls in 1834. Henry was the second white child born there. Church was a blacksmith, sculptor, painter, harpist, bass fiddle player and spiritualist.

He was also Chagrin Falls' fire alarm. Whenever he saw smoke, he would stand in the street and bellow, "Fire!" loudly enough to be heard by the volunteer firefighters in every part of town.

He once spent months in the woods outside town secretly carving a woman resting in the coils of a serpent into a huge sandstone rock.

He wanted the sculpture to be anonymous, but two fishermen caught him at his work. Soon the whole town trooped out to see what Church was up to.

Disgusted, Church abandoned the project.

Church carved bears, dogs, frogs, a host of animals. A photograph in the Timeline article shows a bear unmistakably similar to Fostoria's bears.

Church even delivered his own funeral oration. He recorded it on a gramophone wax cylinder.

When he died in 1908 at the age of 72, it was played for the mourners. His final statement was "We will now have music and retire to the cemetery. Goodbye at present."

Church carved Fostoria's bears sometime in the mid 1880's . They're 30 inches tall, 40 inches long and weigh about a ton each.

At one time, it was thought that Church was a blind man who lived on Tiffin Street and carved the bears in 1885. This is almost certainly not the case.

Another, even more fanciful explanation said they were owned by Benjamin Hotz who lived at Tiffin and Vine Streets. Hotz supposedly came into possession of the bears which once guarded the entrance to the Czars' Imperial Palace in Leningrad.

Russian bears. Very appropriate. Highly unlikely.

A check of the city directories turns up no Benjamin Hotz. However, a molder named Bernard Hotz lived on West Tiffin around 1905.

A more plausible version says that a family named Eicher moved here from Leipsic around 1900. The Eichers were apparently friends of Church. They purchased the bears and brought them here.

There were two Eichers, George, a contractor, and Paul, an engineer. They lived at 435 W. Fremont.

The Eichers apparently didn't want the bears and perhaps around 1915 loaned them to John Peter who lived at 429 Sandusky St. The bears lived happily there for many years.

Ir's very possible that Peter and George Eicher knew each other, as both were contractors.

Eicher finally sold the bears to Peter after some years. So when Peter died in 1940, his son, Walter, inherited the bears along with the rest of the estate.

The younger Peter moved them into storage on Jones Road for a few years. He eventually moved to Florida.

Florida is too tropical for bears so Peter decided to find a local home for the bears. In 1967, he donated them to the city.

Mayor George Peeler accepted them. City Council agreed to place them on the concrete in front of the Municipal Building once it was determined the slab would (sorry) bear the weight.

The bears migrated to the museum from the Municipal Building in 1981

Mayor Ken Beier didn't like the bears, but when he tried to get rid of them, he discovered that the terms of their donation required they remain on city property. What's more, they were never to be sandblasted or painted.

Beier thought the bears would be happier in their natural habitat. A location in Portage Park was suggested, but they were thoroughly "urbanus ursinus" – city dwelling bears – and were moved to the museum.

The Peter home was located near Longfellow School. Lots of kids looked at those bears on their daily walk to and from school.

Years later, around 1970, the memory of Church's sculpture inspired a poetical impulse in Fostorian Clarence Vanderhoff. Vanderhoff, who passed away in 1996, wrote a poem about the bears some 10 years before they migrated to the Historical Museum. The poem was discovered among some papers in the museum office.

"I saw two bears downtown today, / And it filled my heart with glee. / The sight of these sandstone creatures / Refreshed my memory.

"For many, many years ago, / Half a century to tell the truth. I used to sit upon these bears / When I was just a youth.

"I recalled their former location on a street / Quite near a school, / Both of them to me seemed dangerous. / With them I did not fool.

"Ah yes! They were staunch homesite guardians, / In the daylight or the dark. / Now they guard the Municipal Building / In Fostoria's Foster Park."