Times Standard (Eureka)
An education in Thomas Edison’s early life in Ohio
More than 40 years after he invented the light bulb, Thomas Edison returned to his boyhood home in northern Ohio and, as day turned to night, asked his sister to turn on the lights.
There’s no electricity, she told him. “He was aghast,” said tour guide Mary Jo Weilnau.
The house was wired soon after.
The year was 1923, and Edison had returned to Ohio for the funeral of President Warren Harding. It was the last time Edison would visit Milan, the small Ohio town where he spent his formative years.
One hundred years after that visit, the home continues to offer a glimpse into the famous inventor’s modest beginnings, a window into one of the country’s most prolific and influential scientists.
Milan (pronounced Mylan) was in its heyday in the mid-1800s, a busy port city on a canal that connected the town to Lake Erie, about 7 miles north.
“This was a very different place during the canal era,” said Weilnau, with a population of as many as 4,000.
It was a good place for Edison to spend his early years, she said. Homeschooled by his mother, he was naturally curious and a voracious reader.” As much energy and curiosity as he had, he could find people to talk with all the time,” said Weilnau. “She gave him the confidence to do all the things he did.”
The Edisons’ time in Milan, however, was shortlived. The advent of the railroad made the canal obsolete by the 1850s; the family relocated to Port Huron, Michigan, in 1854, where Thomas Edison spent the remainder of his childhood.
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The Milan house was out of the family’s ownership until 1894, when Edison’s sister, Marion Edison Page, purchased it. Thomas Edison bought it from her in 1906, and it was opened to the public in 1947, on the centennial of Edison’s birth.
Located a few blocks northeast of historic Milan Square, the house was built by Edison’s father in the early 1840s. Though Samuel Edison was in the lumber and shingle business, the house was constructed out of brick. The home features three floors, including a basement-level kitchen.
On the main floor is the bedroom where Thomas was born on Feb. 11, 1847 — “the warmest room in the house,” according to Weilnau.
While much of the furniture inside the house did not belong to the Edisons, there are some notable exceptions, including the cradle bench in the sitting room where Nancy Edison might have rocked young Thomas, and a bedroom set that belonged to Edison’s sister.
A second-floor bedroom features two closets displaying some classic Edison items, including a chair from his chemistry lab, a derby hat, motoring cape and a walking stick.
Weilnau said the community is lucky the home is here at all — Edison pal Henry Ford wanted to relocate it to Greenfield Village, the recreated history town outside Detroit.
“Henry Ford wanted this house in the worst way,” she said. “If it had not been in the family’s hands, it would probably be located in Dearborn.”
A first-floor guestroom features a collection of Edison inventions, including an electric pen, circa 1874; an early incandescent light, from 1884; and an Edison Talking Doll from 1890, which featured a phonograph built into the toy’s back. It was a commercial flop. “You would turn the handle and hear the voice,” said Weilnau. “The voice was really creepy. Little girls were scared.”
A collection of early phonographs chronicles the evolution of the sound machine, from 1877 to 1916, from rudimentary to elaborate. “He was always improving on his inventions,” said guide Glenda Mosshart. “The phonograph was Mr. Edison’s favorite invention.”
Outside the house is a new statue of Edison on a bench created by Zanesville artist Alan Cottrill, who also designed the Edison sculpture that stands inside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. In 2010, Edison was selected to replace William Allen, a pro-slavery former governor, as one of Ohio’s two representatives in the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall (the other is James Garfield).
Cottrill created a third statue of Edison, which is located a few blocks from the birthplace home, in front of Milan Township Hall, this one featuring the inventor holding a lightbulb and phonograph. It’s located across the street from the Invention Restaurant and around the corner from the Sights and Sounds of Edison antique store.
Weilnau said many people in town continue to feel a connection to Edison, whose heirs remain involved with the birthplace museum. “Most people who have been here for a while feel a closeness to him,” said Weilnau.
Indeed, it’s been 100 years since his last visit — but his presence is felt around every corner.
IF YOU GO: Thomas Edison Birthplace Museum
Where: The museum, comprised of the birthplace home and a neighboring house, is at 9 N. Edison Drive, Milan, about an hour west of Cleveland, off I-90 or the Ohio Turnpike.
When: The museum is open noon-5 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in February, March, April, November and December, with expanded hours May through October; closed January.
How much: Guided tours are $15, $10 for students, seniors and children. Reservations are recommended.
More information: tomedison.org, 419-499-2135, shoresandislands.com