This is the entirety of the talk I presented for the Erie County Public Library on July 17, 2021. In it, I go through the steps I use when researching an old home or property. I should, hopefully, provide you with some tips for using internet resources to research the history of your Erie County home.
317 Frontier Drive :: Weber Semple House
317 Frontier Drive was built in 1927 by the RB Way Company, who initially had their offices in the Commerce Building in downtown Erie. They referred to their homes as “WayBuilt” and were responsible for building homes in a number of neighborhoods in Erie, particularly in the area south of 26th Street near the Sigsbee Reservoir.
As you can see in the advertisement from the builders, the original of the home still remains as advertised back in 1927. “It’s light brick exterior, red tile roof, and attractive design have still further established the claim of this company for the building of homes of individuality.” Also mentioned is the use of stucco cornices, rather than wood.
The home was purchased shortly after it’s construction by Carl and Florence (Baumgartner) Weber. Carl was the president of the American Motor Sales Company at 521 French Street (which is now Erie Insurance) where they began selling cars as early at 1912. These would likely have been some of the first automobiles available in Erie. They were a prominent and active couple who held parties and gatherings at the home on many occasions.
Carl and Florence lived in the home for about 10 years, when it was purchased by Charles Palmer in 1937 and then Vedder and Mary White in 1944. They only lived in the home for 3 years, when in 1947 it was purchased by a very notorious Erie family: Joseph Semple (and his wife, Elizabeth “Betty” Mester Semple).
As you can see from this article, the Semple Family were very creative in their methods for smuggling alcohol into the city during prohibition.
Joseph A Semple was born in 1904 and died in 1998 at the age of 94. His wife was Elizabeth “Betty” Mester Semple. They purchased the home at 317 Frontier in 1947. Joseph and his brother John (and really his whole family) were notorious bootleggers during prohibition. They lived for many years in the W 3rd and Cascade area of the city, where the trolley line stopped and there was a direct line from the foot of Cascade down to the waterfront, where they would receive and distribute alcohol from Canada. They had a number of run-ins with the law and at one point purchased and connected two homes on 3rd and Raspberry, where they built a tunnel between the homes in the basement, which also contained a bank vault and storage room. Semple was also the owner of the Owls Club at 116 W 8th St and owned a number of income properties, including cottages near Waldameer for summer rentals. (for more on this area of 3rd and Cascade as well as history of the Semple Family, check out David Frew’s multitude of essays on the subject at https://www.jeserie.org/quick-reads).
Joseph and Betty’s son, Joseph Semple, went to medical school at Temple University to become an Obstetrician and is still in practice in Erie today. This home recently sold and, from the real estate photos, you can see that much of the original character of the home still remains including the unique arched windows and doors, french doors and hardware, built ins, red tile roof, and hardwood and tile floors.
Home History Research Resources
On Saturday July 17th, 2021, I gave a presentation through the Erie County Public Library about how to use free/mostly free internet resources to research the history of your old Erie home. I am listing the resources I most commonly use here as a reference for anyone working on their own house history.
Erie County Tax Assessment Website
Historical Erie County Newspapers on Newsbank via ECPL
The Heritage Room :: Raymond M Blasco Memorial Library
The Colby Piano Company, Erie PA
From 1888 through the turn of the Century, Charles C. Colby brought high quality piano production to Erie.
In the 1880s, Charles C. Colby brought piano manufacturing to Erie. Colby was born in Vermont and spent parts of his youth in East Springfield, Erie County. He lived for a large part of his adult life in Missouri, and worked as a teacher “but his natural bent and desire was music and he embarked in business in St. Louis as a piano manufacturer with indifferent success” (Erie Times News April 9, 1895). He then went to Europe to hone his skills and became a true artisan of piano making. When he returned from Europe, he started out in New York City and began the “Colby and Duncan Piano Company” in 1888 and was very successful. “In finish of case, perfection of action, and purity of tone the instrument had been brought up to Mr. Colby’s ideal of what a piano ought to be.”
It was then, in 1888, that Charles decided to move his family (wife Ellen, and children Charles, Maggie and Pearl) to Erie and begin a manufacturing plant here to supplement business in New York. He purchased the old Derrick and Felgemaker Pipe Organ factory at 25th and Ash, which is still standing and in beautiful condition, and began production of his prized pianos. “The building, which is 35×150 feet and four stories high, with a large addition to the south, will be commodious enough to supply all the immediate demands of the company.” (Erie Morning Dispatch, Sept 19, 1888). The company’s sales and showroom was originally at 921 State Street, later moving to 1222 State Street. It was the factory’s location at 25th and Ash that is largely credited with much of the home construction in that area of the city, as employees of the company chose to build their homes close to the factory where they worked, and for a while, it was a large and busy workforce. “The capacity of the works will be between fifty and sixty instruments every week–it will be one of the largest piano factories in the United States. This important addition to the business of Erie will be learned of with satisfaction by every citizen.”
In the 1890s there was an economic downturn and the Colby Piano company struggled to remain in business. However, business started to look up in 1894. Colby was quoted in the Erie Times on Sept 28, 1894 in a candid conversation that gives you a sense of his personality: “When people are hungry and it takes all they can earn to supply bread, there is no demand for such things as pianos among the masses. We have been fairly busy during the recent depression, but we, of course, suffered the same as all other institutions. During the past two months, however, we have noticed a decided change for the better. Orders have been coming in so rapidly that we have not been able to fill them and we are far behind at present … A piano manufacturer can tell the pulse of trade as nearly as anyone I know, because his business is the first to feel the effects of a panic and the last to recuperate.”
The pianos were of impeccable quality and were largely made with imported, exotic woods. “The company finishes its cases almost entirely in rosewood, St. Jago Mahogany and in Sicilian walnut, and special pains are taken to have this portion of the work done in a manner which will ensure its durability.” To give a sense of the value of a Colby piano, in 1889, the Erie Commercial Travelers Association held a fundraiser and raffled off a Colby piano which was valued at $800 (which would today be equal to $24,000).
While the Colby family lived in Erie, their homes were largely in the E 8th and Parade Street area. In 1891, Charles and Ellen Colby bought a home from Joseph B Crouch, who owned a number of residences on E 8th Street, was a Civil War veteran and was a successful flour mill owner. Two homes are associated with the Colby family: 348 E 8th Street and 332 E 8th. According to tax records, these homes were both built in 1812, although accurately, they were likely built in the mid to late 19th century. Both are still standing, one is a single family home (348) and one is a rental, split into apartments (332). Both are Italianate in style, with 348 being the more grand and ornate home. By the time Charles died in 1895, he was living at 332 E 8th Street. He was described as a “model man, considerate and loving as a husband, and kind and indulgent as a father.” (Erie Times News, April 9th 1895)
After Charles died, his son, Charles took over operation of the company for three years before turning over the property to the Secretary/Treasurer of the Colby Piano Company George Diehl, who took on some financial issues that the company had accumulated. The Colby Company remained in Erie through the turn of the century.
960 E 21st St :: The Wakefield House
This was once the home of W.W. and Flora Wakefield. W.W. began his career as a manager at Warner Brothers Dry Goods and Carpets on the northwest corner of 10th and State. He quickly got into other ventures and eventually took over his brother-in-law’s company, The Carey Roofing Company/Carey Manufacturing. Flora was an active suffragette, often using the couple’s home as a meeting place for organization.
They first moved to this area of the city after purchasing the old Martin Warfel Homestead, which was a tract of land extending from Buffalo Rd to 28th Street and from East Avenue to Elm Street. Apparently, an Eriez burial ground was unearthed in the gravel banks between 25th and 28th Street east of East Avenue. According to “The History of Erie County” by John Elmer Reed: “Just beyond Warfeltown, in Erie, used to be a famous place for school children, and others, to search for skulls and other human remains. Many burial mounds were to be then found thereabouts, which when disturbed yielded many a treasure as a reward for efforts of the searchers. It is said a very large human skeleton was found there, and with it two copper bowls which had been perforated around their edges and held together with a buckskin thong laced in and out of these perfo- rations. The bowls held about a pint of beads each ; but what has become of either bowls or beads, we have been unable to learn.”
This home was built in 1914 and the Wakefield family lived there through the 1930s. They also owned a summer home on Lakeside Drive, on the bluff overlooking the lake, which was demolished in the 1960s.
262 W 3rd St :: The Tallman House
I initially researched this property for Preservation Erie’s 2021 Endangered Properties List, but found that, although it hasn’t been occupied since at least the mid 1990s, it has been maintained enough to keep it standing, it meets all code requirements, recently had a new roof, and the owner has no intention to sell or demolish it. So, while it is not endangered, it does have some majorly unfulfilled potential.
This home was originally built around the turn of the 20th century by William and Caroline Tallman. William was a naval Captain and had a maritime towing business. He came into a great fortune when a wealthy relative from Virginia passed away and he inherited a great deal of money. It was at that time the home on West 3rd Street was built. He was married to Caroline Melaven Tallman, who lived in the home after William’s death in 1916 until her own death in 1933, with her sister Frances Melaven. Neither the Tallmans nor Melaven had any children and after Frances’ death, the home was purchased by Carl E Warner who converted the large family home into apartments.
Eventually the home went up for sheriff’s sale in 1992 and was purchased by Peter Kubeja, who is the current owner. The home is a prominent corner lot and has some distinguishing exterior characteristics, including a corner turret with topper, and a large curved wrap around porch. This is a prominent historic home in the core of Erie’s downtown and adjacent to many Gannon properties. It has great potential to be a showpiece in an area where empty lots are gaining more and more ground every day.
232/234 W 4th Street :: The Hill House
I initially researched this property for Preservation Erie’s 2021 Endangered Properties List, but found that, although it hasn’t been occupied since at least the mid 1990s, it has been maintained enough to keep it standing, it meets all code requirements, recently had a new roof, and the owner has no intention to sell or demolish it. It is a beautiful home with a ton of potential, that I genuinely hope it fulfills that potential someday.
According to census, directory, and newspaper resources, this home was originally built by Captain William H Hill and his wife, Mathilda Byers Hill in 1897. William H Hill was born in England and settled initially in Buffalo, NY. He was a member of the Buffalo fire department for 10 years, during which he received the title Master Mechanic. In 1884, he came to Erie to become the superintendent of Erie’s first Water and Gas plant. He then became the fire commissioner as appointed by the Mayor in 1889 and was manager of the Great Lakes Towing Association. William died in 1916 and his wife and three children lived at the home on W 4th Street until shortly before the widow’s death in 1931. It seems the home was converted into apartments around that time and had many residents over the years.
The exterior of the home shows glimpses of how grand it once was: intricate carvings along the top border the front porch and above the front door. There is a three story turret on the eastern side and bay windows on the facade of the first and second floors. It has a brick paver sidewalk spanning it’s length.
The property was purchased for $15,000 in 1996 by Peter Kubeja and he is the current owner. The home is a three unit apartment, with 3,772 square feet of living space.
Lincoln Ave with Liz: A Historic Walk Through a One-of-a-Kind Neighborhood
By: Erin Phillips (with Liz Allen)
“Keep your eyes open and your feet moving forward. You’ll find what you need.” This graffitied sentiment is spray-painted on the side of the old Hollywood Ceramics building on 13th and Lincoln streets in the row house community there. These words can take on a lot of meaning, but for the timing of my walk on Lincoln Avenue with city councilwoman, preservationist, and journalist Liz Allen, it is particularly appropriate. A pandemic, protests, a civil rights movement, an election. Keep your eyes open and feet moving forward. Aside from the deeper meanings of that statement, that is quite literally what Liz and I are doing today. We are taking in the stories of a unique neighborhood in our city: Lincoln Avenue. Liz Allen grew up on Lincoln Avenue, lives on Lincoln Avenue now, and every time she found herself back in Erie, she never lived too far from it. It is a part of who she is and, since both of us enjoy taking walks through our neighborhoods, both enjoy historic architecture and both like to write about those things, it felt like an eventuality that we should take a walk together (socially distanced and mask-adorned, of course). Kindred spirits in a way, I couldn’t wait to hear Liz’s perspective on this area of our city.
Lincoln Avenue could easily be described as one of the most unique streets in our city. There are so many stories that live here, but on our walk today we’ll focus on three: the architecture of C. Paxton Cody, the planned row house community south of I-79, and Ferncliff. We’ll start our walk in the middle, around Fourth and Lincoln, head south past the highway, and then turn around and come back towards the bay.
The general feel of Lincoln Avenue is working class. While nearby live the mansions of South Shore and the exclusive gully of the Erie Yacht club, the simple style of houses, duplexes, cottages, bungalows, and row houses of Lincoln Avenue feel more blue collar, with a character that is unlike any other street in Erie. In large part, that character and feel is due to the work of architect C. Paxton Cody who lived on Lincoln Avenue and designed a number of the houses on the street. C. Paxton Cody was born in Ontario in 1854 and became a long time resident of Erie. He worked and designed buildings all over Erie, but also in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and served as the president of the State Association of Architects. One could speculate that his favorite projects were on Lincoln Avenue, as he chose to build his own home there in 1918: a gambrel-roofed cottage at 133 Lincoln. As we walk past, perhaps the most notable and recognizable of his homes is at 538 Lincoln built in 1910, which is a quintessential Craftsman with its mixed stone and brick pillars supporting the covered porch, deep, overhanging eaves, exposed rafter tails, single dormer, and earth tone palette. Also noteworthy is the slate blue, well-loved Arts and Crafts style home at 526 Lincoln built in 1920. And the Craftsman bungalow at 445 Lincoln, with some standout original windows, built in 1910. As you walk along the street, you will notice many more remarkable homes that were likely designed by Cody, who had a strong hand in making this street what it is.
The cozy feel and tree-lined warmth starts to shift a bit as we move further south on Lincoln and cross over busy West Eighth Street toward Liz’s childhood home at 929 Lincoln, a modest bungalow with a magical, enclosed front porch built in 1924. When Liz’s family moved into it 1956, she recalls that the road then was unpaved. Standing outside the house, Liz shares two stories that reveal she is no stranger to disease epidemics. Liz points out the “Beware of Dog” sign by the front door and it reminds her of when she was young and her mother placed a sign in the same spot that said “Under quarantine for Scarlet Fever” to warn potential callers. The home’s backyard has a view of the back entrance to the Shriner’s Children’s hospital and Liz remembers a time when the children who were patients there were being treated for polio. The nurses would roll them in their cribs out onto a sundeck and Liz and her siblings would talk to them through the fence.
As we continue on, I note that it is my first time crossing I-79 on foot, but Liz points out that it is a reality that Harding elementary students face daily. She also points out that it wasn’t always this way. Before the highway was extended in the 1970s, this was a residential and commercial area. There were complete neighborhoods that were eliminated and current neighborhoods whose streets now end abruptly at a barricade for the highway.
It is also due to the highway extension that one of the most unique areas of our city, the planned row houses that begin at 13th and Lincoln, is often overlooked. The original vision for this neighborhood was meant to be a “Garden Suburb” planned and funded by the Federal Government’s United States Housing Corporation during World War I (with houses built mostly in 1918) and executed by architect Albert H. Spahr and landscape architect Charles Downing Lay, who also served as a town planner. The USHC initially planned for Spahr and Lay to build 1,500 houses in Erie on 3 different sites, but due to the abrupt armistice and end to the war, those visions were not fully executed. The duo is responsible for some of the row houses in Lawrence Park, and for all of them on and around Lincoln Avenue.
Initially the plan was for a 72 acre site containing 200 row houses, 172 semi-detached, 95 detached, and 32 apartment units intended to house the massive wartime workforce employed at American Brake Shoe and Foundry and Erie Forge Companies nearby, as those shops had joined the war effort and needed manpower to crank out weapons, munitions, and equipment. The original plan was for 12th Street, at the time a new thoroughfare, to bisect the site with houses extending to Eighth Street, and a commercial area to be built along the north side of 12th Street. There were also plans for a school, church and community building. The civic buildings were not completed, but there were some storefronts built on 12th Street that have since been removed for the highway. In the end, 161 of the planned 200 row houses were completed. Most of these exist south of 12th Street, but one can recognize the few outliers north of the highway by the signature buildings materials used: brick and slate (most recognizably the houses at 917 and 937/39 Lincoln). The USHC report on its record of operations notes: “to these materials (brick and slate) one may attribute part of the good effect of this project – the color, the appearance of stability, and the lack of newness; but more important than any of these desirable qualities is the beauty of the design of each individual building.”
It really is a unique area to walk around. The row houses all look a little different from each other at this point in their history, and some are noticeably more well-loved than others. I can’t help but imagine what it could have been like had the highway not been extended through the neighborhood. What could have been a unique “Garden Suburb” neighborhood, one that could have been a celebrated remainder of America’s history, instead, ended up isolated between a loud highway overpass to the north, and railroad tracks to the south. When you walk down the streets of the site, lined with beautiful mature oak trees and dedicated open green space, you can almost see how it could have been: a one of a kind historic suburb right in the city.
Here we turn around and head back north. The houses become more spread out as we approach the bay, situated on larger, tree-filled lots. The street ends on a bluff overlooking the bay and Liz points straight down through overgrowth to the bayside community of Ferncliff below. While not technically on Lincoln, it certainly is part of the neighborhood. According to Liz, “The story was that if you bought a house in the area you got a Fercliff lot.” Before there was a road built by the Erie Yacht Club, there was a rickety staircase leading down to the water from the foot of Lincoln which was the only means of access. The early residents were quite hardy to brave both the access stairs and the weather. The houses on the water at Ferncliff date back to 1893, and back then, Liz says, the houses were described as a “shanty town” often made with whatever materials were on hand. Now the property is more highly desired, and while many residents today use their Ferncliff houses part time, there are a few intrepid souls who stay year round and experience the front lines of the unpredictable weather in Erie. Liz makes the point that today, many of these houses are experiencing difficulty with the unprecedented high water level of the bay. Although many are on stilts or raised foundations, they are still struggling to keep the water from putting this historic community in peril.
From here, after two hours of walking and talking, windblown and sweating through our masks, we say goodbye and separate at Liz’s house and I am so grateful to have gotten the opportunity to see these places through the lens of her experience. Lincoln Avenue starts off at a very unique waterfront settlement, and as you pass architecture unlike anywhere else in Erie, you end up in an uncommon row house neighborhood. Lincoln Ave is undoubtedly a one-of-a-kind kind of place in our city. While we all keep healthy and distant through summer, one thing you can do safely is to get out and take a walk. Enjoy a different neighborhood in Erie at human speed and notice the details that don’t exist anywhere else. Keep your eyes open and your feet moving forward. You will find what you need.