Historical Figures


Birthplace Of Lester A. Pelton


Lester Allan Pelton (September 5, 1829 – March 14, 1908), considered to be the father of modern day hydroelectric power, is one the most famous inventors of American history.  Pelton invented the impulse water turbine.  Lester Pelton was born in Vermillion, Ohio in 1829. His father was a farmer.  He lived on Risden Road and attended the Cuddeback School on the northwest corner of Risden and Lake Roads.  He had seven siblings.  His grandfather, Captain Josiah S. Pelton, located in Vermilion in 1818. In ill health, his oldest son, Josiah S. Jr., assumed the role of family patriarch. The family prospered and all figured prominently in the development of Vermilion in business and government.  But it was Lester who would become world famous.

When Lester grew up he decided to travel by wagon train to California. He was a quiet person who liked to study and read books. At first he went to Sacramento and became a fisherman. He was not successful at fishing so he decided to move. He went to Camptonville in Nevada County after he heard about a gold discovery along the North Fork of the Yuba River.
In 1860 all types of mining were going on, placer, hardrock, and hydraulic. Pelton did not want to be a miner so he decided to improve mining methods. He watched, studied, and learned about methods needed to power hydraulic mining. Hardrock mines also needed power to lower the men into the mines, bring up the ore cars, and return the workers to the surface at the end of their shift. Power was also needed to operate rock crushers, stamp mills, pumps, and machinery.

At the time the steam engine was used by many mines for their main power source, but the hillsides were running out of wood and trees. The Empire Mine in Grass Valley used about twenty cords of wood a day. Pelton knew the forests were disappearing so he began thinking about inventing a water wheel. In 1878 he experimented with several types of wheels.

According to a 1939 article by W. F. Durand of Stanford University in Mechanical Engineering, “Pelton’s invention started from an accidental observation, some time in the 1870s. Pelton was watching a spinning water turbine when the key holding its wheel onto its shaft slipped, causing it to become misaligned. Instead of the jet hitting the cups in their middle, the slippage made it hit near the edge; rather than the water flow being stopped, it was now deflected into a half-circle, coming out again with reversed direction. Surprisingly, the turbine now moved faster. That was Pelton’s great discovery. In other turbines the jet hit the middle of the cup and the splash of the impacting water wasted energy.”
As the story goes, Pelton was further inspired one day when chasing a stray cow from his landlady’s yard. He hit the cow on the nose with water and the water split, circled the cows nostrils and came out at the outer edge. This gave him an idea. He rushed to his workshop and began to make a water wheel with split metal cups.  The wheel was proven to be the best and most efficient in a competition. The Nevada City Foundry began to manufacture the wheels and ship them all over the world.

The Pelton wheel introduced an entirely new physical concept to water turbine design (impulse as opposed to reaction), and revolutionized turbines adapted for high head sites. Up until this time, all water turbines were reaction machines that were powered by water pressure. Pelton’s invention was powered by the kinetic energy of a high velocity water jet.

A patent was granted in 1889 to Pelton, and he later sold the rights to the Pelton Water Wheel Company of San Francisco.  Today Pelton wheels are used worldwide for hydroelectric power with not much change in design from the original wheels.  Later evolutions of the Pelton turbine were the Turgo turbine, first patented by in 1919 by Gilkes, and the Banki turbine.  Pelton was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.  His invention is on display in museums throughout the world, including the Smithsonian.
Pelton and his family are buried in Maple Grove Cemetery on Mason Road in Vermilion, Ohio.  His birthplace home has been fully restored by Tom and Jean Beach.  The Lester Allan Pelton Historical marker is located at Cuddeback Cemetery, Risden and Lake Roads, Vermilion Township.  The marker reads:
“Lester Allan Pelton”

Lester Allan Pelton, “the Father of Hydroelectric Power,” was born on September 5, 1829, a quarter of a mile northwest of this site. He spent his childhood on a farm a mile south of this site and received his early education in a one-room schoolhouse that once sat north of this site. In the spring of 1850, he and about twenty local boys, left for California during the great gold rush west. Pelton did not find gold, but instead invented what was commonly known as “the Pelton Water-Wheel,” which produced the first hydroelectric power in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California in 1887. The Water-Wheel was patented on August 27, 1889. Currently variations of it are still commonly used to generate electric power throughout the world. Pelton died in California on March 14, 1908. He is buried at Maple Grove Cemetery in Vermilion.

Capt. Austin & The Friendship Schooner


During the Revolutionary War in the late 1700s many Connecticut residents were burned out of their homes by the raiding British. To compensate these citizens for their losses, the Connecticut Assembly awarded the “Sufferers” 500,000 acres in the western most portion of the Western Reserve, which came to be known as the Firelands.  Settlement was slow due to the remoteness of the tract and the difficulties in reaching it.  Capt. William Austin, of New London Connecticut, was one of the first settlers in Vermilion.  He arrived with his family in 1809 and built a home a half mile west of the mouth of the Vermillion River which flows into Lake Erie.  His wife, Elizabeth, was the first white woman in Vermilion.

The greater part the lake’s southern shore was at one time occupied by a tribe of Indians called the Eries. The word translates to ‘cat’, likely in reference to the wild cat or panther that once roamed the area.  The lake was referred to as “Lake of the Cat” by the Indians.  Vermilion was named by Native Americans for the red clay along the river banks.  Oulanie Thepy (Red Creek) in the Indian’s language was translated by early French explorers as “Vermilion River.”
Capt. William Austin was a man of energy and built the first schooner along the river in 1812. She was the “Friendship”, a schooner of the times, about a fifty footer registered at 57 tons in Cleveland in 1817. Where the ship was built is not exactly known but the builders chose a flat place along the riverside. This most certainly had to be near the foot of Huron Street where the later shipyard stood when ship building became the main industry in the village. Small schooners were ideal for scudding along the lake shore bringing in supplies from Buffalo and other ports. They were as large as the natural river bars would allow and enough cargo capacity to supply the needs of the early settlements.
Mr. Austin, a Master Seaman, made nineteen trips a year to Newfoundland, Canada and Spain.  He was known for having visited every port on the globe.
Many settlers left the area during the War of 1812 and did not return until after Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory over the British fleet.  Capt. Austin was not one of them.  He remained in Vermilion and sailed the famous “Friendship” during and after the War of 1812.  He carried soldiers to the battle on the Peninsula. This famous naval battle was fought in the waters of Lake Erie just a few miles from South Bass Island. It marks the only time in history that a British naval fleet ever surrendered and inspired the Star Spangled Banner and the song we know today as our National Anthem.
In 1821 Capt. Austin built the first stone house in Vermilion.  He opened the first public house at or near the mouth of the Vermillion River. The first religious meeting in Vermilion was held at his home.
The captain was a very genial man, but it was unsafe to cross him.  His rule aboard his ship was to have everything in its place.  Any deviation from this rule resulted in certain punishment.
He would never admit to flatteries and was as outspoken and abrupt as honest.  On one occasion when a man attempted to get favor by appealing to his pride, saying to him how obliging and clever a man he was, the captain replied, “CLEVER!, CLEVER! SO IS THE DEVIL SO LONG AS YOU PLEASE HIM.”
He was a full believer in premonitions and warnings from unseen agents, and believed he was always warned of danger by a raving white horse in his dreams.
Around 1814 he was on his way to Detroit with several merchants as passengers.  It was a delightful Indian summer day.  On the way to the Islands the old white horse paid him a furious visit in his sleep, and about noon he tied up in Put- Away- Bay.  The passengers were indignant; fine day, fair wind, and nothing to hinder but the old man’s obstinacy or laziness.  But he was immovable, not a foot would he stir out of the harbor that day.  Just after nightfall came a furious snow storm and gales which so frequently destroyed ships and numerous lives on Lake Erie. In the morning the deck was covered with a foot of snow, and the wind was blowing a hurricane outside the harbor.  His passengers were now very thankful for the escape, and the next day with a fair sky they landed safely in Detroit.
Once as he was returning to America, the ship making good way with a favorable wind, he retired after dinner and fell asleep.  The old white horse came, with mouth wide open and in great fury.  The captain bounded from his bunk, hastened to the deck, and sang out “about ship in an instant!” The order was instantly obeyed and when the ship rounded the fog, the breakers were less than eighty rods ahead, and the iron bound coast of Labrador in plain sight just beyond. Ten minutes more and “we would have never been heard of again” said the captain.
Under the protection of his white horse, Capt. Austin never met with a serious disaster, and had escaped very many.
28 years after Capt. Austin built the legendary “Friendship” schooner, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the two piers at the mouth of the river which provided the bar depth builders needed to take crafts to sea. Thus began the “Golden Age” of ship building on the river, in tune with the great demand for shipping on the lakes. In a period of 36 years 48 large lake schooners were built.  This provided jobs and growth for the community.  The harbor was a beehive of activity and the sound of the maul on caulking iron was a musical note that rang throughout the valley.  The schooner was the “work horse” and a very important transportation means in the opening of the vast Great Lakes Country.  They reigned supreme until a new form of transportation arrived along shore, the steam railroad.
Capt. William Austin couldn’t have known in 1812 that his ship would become a cherished symbol of a town that had not yet even been incorporated.  The “Friendship” schooner flies on Vermilion’s official flag and welcomes visitors on our city signage.

John Mercer Langston


John Mercer Langston was one of the most extraordinary men of the 19th century. Slim and debonair, and of mixed-raced parentage, Langston was highly educated, an expert in constitutional law, a community organizer and a gifted orator who sought to unify a divided country after the Civil War. He was the first African-American elected to a local office, winning the office of Clerk of Brownhelm Township on April 2, 1855.

Langston was the son of Ralph Quarles, a white plantation owner, and Jane Langston, a black slave. After his parents died when Langston was five, he and his brothers moved to Oberlin, Ohio, to live with family friends. Langston enrolled in Oberlin College at age 14 and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the institution. Denied admission into law school, Langston studied law under attorney Philemon Bliss of Elyria. Langston became the first black lawyer in Ohio, passing the Bar in 1854.  He became actively involved in the antislavery movement, organizing antislavery societies locally and at the state level. He helped runaway slaves to escape to the North along the Ohio part of the Underground Railroad.
Langston married Caroline Wall, a senior in the literary department at Oberlin, settled in Brownhelm, OH and established a law practice. He quickly involved himself in town matters.  In 1855 Langston became the country’s first black elected official when he was elected town clerk of the Brownhelm Township.
Langston moved to Oberlin in 1856 where he again involved himself in town government. From 1865 – 1867 he served as a city councilman and from 1867-1868 he served on the Board of Education. His law practice established and respected, Langston handled legal matters for the town. Langston vigilantly supported Republican candidates for local and national office. He is credited with helping to steer the Ohio Republican party towards radicalism and a strong antislavery position. He conspired with John Brown to raid Harpers Ferry.
Langston organized black volunteers for the Union cause. As chief recruiter in the West, he assembled the Massachusetts 54th, the nation’s first black regiment, and the Massachusetts 55th and the 5th Ohio.  He was a founding member and president of the National Equal Rights League, which fought for black voting rights. During the Civil War Langston recruited African Americans to fight for the Union Army. After the war, he was appointed inspector general for the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal organization that helped freed slaves.  He was the first African American to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Selected by the Black National Convention to lead the National Equal Rights League in 1864, Langston carried out extensive suffrage campaigns in Ohio, Kansas and Missouri. Langston’s vision was realized in 1867, with Congressional approval of suffrage for black males.
Langston moved to Washington, DC in 1868 to establish and serve as dean of Howard University’s law school — the first black law school in the country. He was appointed acting president of the school in 1872. In 1877 Langston left to become U.S. minister to Haiti. He returned to Virginia in 1885 and was named president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University). In 1888 he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as an Independent. He lost to his Democratic opponent but contested the results of the election. After an 18-month fight, he won the election and served for six months.  Langston was the first black Congress member from Virginia and a diplomat. He lost his bid for reelection.
The town of Langston, Oklahoma, and Langston University, is named after him.  The John Mercer Langston Bar Association in Columbus, Ohio, is named in his honor along with Langston Middle School in Oberlin, Ohio, the former John Mercer Langston High School in Danville, Virginia, and John M. Langston High School Continuation Program in Arlington, Virginia. His house in Oberlin is a National Historic Landmark.  Langston was the great-uncle of poet Langston Hughes.
It took 153 years to get from John Mercer Langston to Barack Hussein Obama, a journey that endured the dashed hopes of Reconstruction and the oppression of Jim Crow to arrive at a moment that has stunned even those optimistic about America’s racial progress.

The John Mercer Langston Ohio Historical Marker is located at Brownhelm High School, 1940 North Ridge Road, Vermilion, Ohio.  The marker reads:

“John Mercer Langston”
The first African-American elected to government office in the United States, John Mercer Langston (1829-1897) won the office of Clerk of Brownhelm Township on April 2, 1855. Born in Virginia and raised in Chillicothe, Langston graduated from Oberlin College in 1849 and was admitted to the Ohio Bar in 1854, becoming Ohio’s first black attorney. He served as the first president of the National Equal Rights League in 1864, and subsequently as professor of law, dean, and acting president of Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1890, he became Virginia’s first black congressman. Throughout his career Langston set a personal example of self-reliance in the struggle for justice for African-Americans.

Phoebe Judson: Pioneer


Phoebe Goodell Judson grew up in Vermillion, Ohio.  Her pioneer story begins when she married her husband Holden Allen Judson. After three years of matrimony they both decided “to obtain from the government of The United States a grant of land that “Uncle Sam” had promised to give to the head of each family who settled in this new country.”  With this the Judson’s set out to pursue the vast uncultivated wilderness of the Puget Sound, which at that time was a part of Oregon. They departed March 1,1853. As Pheobe Judson recollects, “The time set for departure was March 1st, 1853. Many dear friends gathered to see us off. The tender “good-byes’ were said with brave cheers in the voices, but many tears from the hearts.”

Born Phoebe Newton Goodell on October 25, 1831, Phoebe was born in Ancaster, Canada, the second eldest of eleven children with her twin sister Mary Weeks Goodell, and named after her father’s sister, Phebe Goodell.  Her parents were Jotham Weeks “J. W.” Goodell, a Presbyterian minister descended from British colonists, and Anna Glenning “Annie” Bacheler.  In 1837 her family emigrated to Vermilion, Ohio, where she and her siblings where raised.
On June 20, 1849, at the age of 17, Phoebe married Holden Allen Judson (born mid-1827), with whom she had grown up. (Holden’s only sibling, Lucretia “Trecia” Judson, had been a close friend of Phoebe’s in Vermilion.) The Judsons lived in Holden’s parents’ home in Vermilion. Their first child, Anna “Annie” Judson, was born the following year.
Following the Donation Land Claim Act, the Goodells traveled to the Oregon Territory in 1851, leaving Phoebe and her elder brother William behind. Phoebe’s twin sister Mary and her fiancé Nathan W. Meloy settled in Willamette, Oregon and J. W. Goodell named and established the town of Grand Mound, Washington with his wife and younger children, where he took up a job as postmaster and part-time minister alongside George Whitworth.
Inspired by her family, and Holden’s desire for independence from his parents, Phoebe set off for the month-old Washington Territory with Holden and Annie on March 1, 1853, a few days following her brother William’s wedding to Maria Austin, both of whom would take the same Westward route the following year and witness the Ward Massacre.  They left Ohio and, traveling on the Overland Trail once they passed Kansas City, made their way west with a small party of others.  The journey in and of itself was an adventure given the primitive conditions and threat of an Indian attack. But late in June the party did pause for a day at La Bonta Creek in southeastern Wyoming when Phoebe gave birth to a son, Charles LaBonta Judson.
Phoebe Judson was the first non-Indian woman to settle in the Lynden area and became known as the “Mother of Lynden” during the half century that she lived there.

Pioneering in Washington Territory

The Judsons arrived at their new home in Grand Mound (Thurston County) in October 1853.  About 1856 they moved to near Claquato (Lewis County) and late in 1858 moved to Olympia when Holden was elected to the territorial legislature on the Democratic ticket.  They would remain in Olympia for nearly eight years. Holden served at least two terms in the legislature, and subsequently operated a store in Olympia.
In 1866 the Judsons moved to Whidbey Island, where Holden may have operated another store.  By the end of the 1860s, their biological family was complete. They had four children: Annie (1850-1937), Charles (1853-1933), George (1859-1891), and Mary “Mollie” (1862-1894). (A fifth child, Carrie, died of whooping cough one month and one day after birth in 1869.) But note the distinction “biological family,” because the Judsons would subsequently adopt an additional 11 children.
On March 1, 1870, the Judsons left Whidbey Island, bound for Lynden. They traveled by the steamer Mary Woodruff to Whatcom (now part of Bellingham), then obtained three canoes, with two Indians apiece, to paddle, pole, and portage them up the Nooksack River to Lynden.
The Judsons moved into a rough log cabin that they had acquired in an unusual trade with Colonel James Alexander Patterson, the first white settler in Lynden. Patterson had built the cabin in 1860, and he and his Native American wife had lived there for most of the decade. But at some point in the late 1860s his wife left him, and he began to search for a foster home for his two young daughters.  By this time he was a frequent visitor to the Judson’s home on Whidbey Island. Patterson made an offer to the Judsons that he would swap his home and land in what was then known among the settlers as “Nooksack” or “Nootsack” if the Judsons would care for his two daughters, Dollie (age 7 in March 1870) and Nellie (age 4 in March 1870) until they came of age. The Judsons agreed, and Patterson executed a quitclaim deed to his land in favor of Phoebe Judson in March 1870.
The Judsons settled into what Phoebe Judson would famously refer to as her “ideal home.” It was located just south of 6th and Front streets, near the southwestern edge of today’s Judson Street Alley, and had a view of the Nooksack River, which at the time ran farther north than it does today. Holden became postmaster of Lynden in 1873, and Phoebe was asked to select the name of the new town. She chose a name that she had heard from a poem, Hohenlinden, written by Thomas Campbell, which begins “On Linden, when the sun was low …” But she changed the “i” in Linden to “y” because she felt it looked prettier.

Aunt Phoebe, the Mother of Lynden

Since Phoebe Judson was the first white woman in Lynden, she became known as the “Mother of Lynden,” and her presence in the community was established. Almost from the beginning she was called “Aunt Phoebe,” someone you went to when you needed something, be it a pail of buttermilk or help during childbirth. She also became known for writing letters to the Bellingham Bay Mail during the 1870s, describing the joys of life as a “Pioneer’s Wife,” as she usually signed her letters.
But she was more that that.  She took a considerably more active role in the community than did many women of the day.  During the 1870s log jams plagued the Nooksack River, preventing steamers from making their way upriver to Lynden.  One of the biggest jams was downriver from Lynden, near what is today Ferndale.  In March 1876 Phoebe began to solicit funds for the removal of the jam. Aided by a $50 donation from Holden, $1,500 was raised by the end of April from settlers in Sehome and Whatcom (both now part of Bellingham) as well as from settlers along the river.  Phoebe also suggested that the man who donated the most work on the jam be given votes for a county office. History doesn’t record whether or not this happened, but work on the jam began, and it was gone by early 1877.
Phoebe’s son George Judson platted Lynden in 1884, and as the town site developed, the Judsons donated parts of their land for churches, schools, a printing office, a blacksmith shop, and for various private purposes. They also built the Judson Opera House in the late 1880s, and when it was completed in 1889 it became the community nexus for lectures, entertainment, and celebrations.
Phoebe has been described as a gregarious crusader for many causes.  Known as religious, she took an active role in her opposition to saloons in early-day Lynden. But she is also known for taking an active role in the early development of its churches and schools. She arguably became more well-known than her husband, Holden, perhaps because she outlived him by 26 years and had the opportunity to accomplish more, and perhaps also because of her book of her life, A Pioneer’s Search for an Ideal Home, which was first published in 1925, the year before her death.
During the 1880s the Judsons moved to a new two-story frame home on the north side of Front Street, midway between 5th and 6th streets.  Holden died there on October 26, 1899, and Phoebe peacefully passed away there on January 16, 1926, having remained physically active and mentally alert until the time of her death.  Services were held two days later, and the entire city of Lynden shut down to mark the occasion:  Stores were closed, schools were dismissed, and hundreds of people from miles around made the pilgrimage to pay final tribute to the “Mother of Lynden.”

The Simon Kenton Boulder


One of the first explorers of the Vermilion area was Simon Kenton (April 3, 1755 – April 29, 1836,) a famous United States frontiersman and friend of the renowned Daniel Boone, the infamous Simon Girty, and the valiant Spencer Records.

Simon Kenton was born in the Bull Run Mountains, Prince William County, Virginia to Mark Kenton Sr. (an immigrant from Ireland) and Mary Miller Kenton. In 1771, at the age of 16, thinking he had killed a man in a jealous rage, he fled into the wilderness of Kentucky and Ohio, and for years went by the name “Simon Butler.”
Kenton served as a scout against the Shawnee in 1774 in the conflict between Native Americans and European settlers later labeled Dunmore’s War. In 1777, he saved the life of his friend and fellow frontiersman, Daniel Boone, at Boonesborough, Kentucky. The following year, Kenton was in turn rescued from torture and death by Simon Girty.
Kenton served on the famous 1778 George Rogers Clark expedition to capture Fort Sackville and also fought with “Mad” Anthony Wayne in the Northwest Indian War in 1793-94.
In 1782, he returned to Virginia and found out the victim had lived and readopted his original name.
In 1784 Kenton chiseled his name, S. Kenton 1784, on a boulder about 2 miles south of the Vermilion River mouth on the southern border of the old Rossman farm in a spot about 600′ east of the State Road.
Presumably, Kenton marked the boulder to substantiate his claim to a 4 square mile area surrounding the river mouth, a likely settlement someday. Kenton claimed similar areas throughout the State but lost his claims due to his lack of education. He was too early and too ignorant of drawing up legal claims of his discoveries.
We do have the satisfaction of knowing that he was the first to find and realize that the Vermilion River would some day be the nucleus of a growing community. How right he was!
In 1937 the Vermilion Centennial “Stone Committee” discovered the stone. The stone now stands as a memorial to Kenton at the Ritter Library.
Kenton moved to Urbana, Ohio in 1810, and achieved the rank of brigadier general of the Ohio militia. He served in the War of 1812 as both a scout and as leader of a militia group in the Battle of the Thames in 1813.
Simon Kenton had 6 children in his second marriage. Kenton died in New Jerusalem, Ohio (in Logan County) and was first buried there. His body was later moved to Urbana, Ohio.
He died a poor man and might have been governor if he had had the proper background. As it was, though, he was an outstanding explorer in the Ohio wilderness and his efforts added considerably to the opening of the country to the settlers.