Developers Reconstruct and Update Historic Kinsman

KINSMAN, Ohio — The first pages of an autobiography written in the 1930s best sums up the idyllic charm of northern Trumbull County, especially the small community of Kinsman: 

“Kinsman is a quiet, peaceful and picturesque spot. The landscape is gently rolling, the soil is fertile, beautiful shade trees line the streets, and a lazy stream winds its way into what to us boys was the far-off unknown world,” the author writes. 

Were it by choice, the author, Clarence Darrow, acknowledges that he would have preferred growing up in a fast-moving city teeming with noise, action and excitement. Yet these reflections on his formative years in Kinsman shows how he remembers the bucolic simplicity that characterized small town America during the mid-19th century and laid the foundation for his storied life in law.

“My mind goes back to Kinsman because I lived there in childhood and to me it was once the center of the world,” Darrow wrote in his 1932 book, “The Story of My Life.” Although Darrow’s career as one of the most famous trial attorneys of the 20th century would take him far from northern Trumbull County, his thoughts often returned to Kinsman, noting the town “never fully lost that place in the storehouse of miscellaneous memories gathered along the path of life.”

It’s this image of Kinsman that residents and investors want to recapture, as several projects are in the works to restore the splendor of several 19th century structures, including Darrow’s boyhood home at 8405 Main St.

“Kinsman is a sleepy hamlet with much of the same housing stock as 150 years ago,” says Gary Moss, who along with his wife, Donna, purchased the Darrow home – commonly referred to as the Octagon House – in 2016. Moss, a native of Champion who lives in North Carolina, says he bought the house because of its historic value. The couple has also purchased a home built in 1828 and an adjoining 25 acres along State Street, which they are planning to remodel and then live there.

Moss says the goal is to convert the Octagon House – so named for its eight-sided design – into a bed and breakfast. “There are three bedrooms upstairs, and we’re hoping to draw people who are interested in history, interested in Darrow’s career,” he says. It would also create interest from aficionados of 19th century architecture. 

Gary and Donna Moss own the Octagon House where Clarence Darrow grew up.

What makes the house so important is that Darrow spent his foundational years here, Moss says. Born in neighboring Farmdale in 1857, Darrow moved with his family to Kinsman and the Octagon House in 1864 and lived there until 1873. “His mother and father were free thinkers, and there was an anomaly of social thought here,” he says, noting that the region was mostly conservative and devoutly religious. Darrow, following the lead of his parents, broke from this convention and would earn his mark in history by acting as defense attorney in some of the most sensational trials of the 20th century.

Moss says the objective is to finish the projects by 2023, just before the 100-year anniversaries of Darrow’s two most prominent cases: Illinois v. Leopold and Loeb in 1924 and Tennessee v. Scopes in 1925. 

The Leopold and Loeb case involved a diabolical murder concocted by two college students from prosperous Chicago families. While they were found guilty, Darrow’s argument spared them from the death penalty. The Scopes case proved to be the landmark “Monkey Trial,” in which Darrow defended John Scopes, a high school instructor who was charged with teaching the theory of evolution. Although Darrow lost that case as well, the verdict was eventually overturned on a technicality. 

“I think there is historical substance that this house can bring back to life,” Moss says.

Clarence Darrow, a defense attorney for the Leopold and Loeb murder case, leans on a courtroom counter in Chicago. The photo was taken in July 1924.

The interior of the old home is completely gutted and a new roof has been added, Moss says. Still, there’s plenty of work to do on the outside structure, especially the porch that wraps around most of the odd-shaped house. 

“This house is a representation of an architectural fad during the 19th century,” Moss says. Octagon houses such as these – there were about 30 built in Ohio, of which 25 survive today – were intended to add natural ventilation and efficient use of interior space. The Darrow house, built around 1854, was constructed of chestnut beams between layers of concrete. Concrete was used since it was a less expensive building material to use than timber.

“There are all different ways to get people curious about it,” Moss says.

Another undertaking, less than a mile north from the Darrow house, is scheduled for completion this year and should be occupied and in business by next spring.

Floyd and Amy Davis, owners of Red Basket Farm in Kinsman, plan to open a marketplace to sell their fresh vegetables and greens at the former Kinsman Town Hall, built in 1874. 

“We had been looking for four or five years for a retail location,” Floyd Davis says. “We looked at other towns around the area and nothing felt quite right.” Red Basket Farm has secured a strong following not just in Trumbull County, but also as a supplier to restaurants in the Cleveland and Pittsburgh areas, he says. 

The farm, at 6311 Mayburn Barclay Road, grows a variety of greens and vegetables on 15 acres outdoors and another 20,000 square feet of greenhouse space. 

Simultaneously, the owner of the Town Hall was looking for a reason to renovate the old building, which was purchased 30 years earlier when it was a used-car lot. 

“We talked to them about what we wanted to do, and they thought it was a great idea, so we put the two together,” Davis says. 

Once finished, the renovated Town Hall building will house a restaurant, café and market where Red Basket will sell its fresh produce and fruit from other farms, adds Amy Davis. 

“Our next venture as a farm is to provide a wonderful place for people to come and enjoy fresh, local food,” she says. “All our food will be created with what we grow, and incorporate other farms to do great things for us.” 

Kinsman resident Dick Thompson purchased the Town Hall about 30 years ago and was looking for a reason that could justify renovating the building. When the Davises presented their plan, he thought it would be the perfect fit.

“A feature of this town is that it has wonderful century homes and buildings, many of which need a little help,” Thompson says. “After we restored our own home, we decided we could take on additional projects.”

The first large-scale restoration project Thompson undertook was renovating and repurposing the Kinsman Tavern into a professional building on the north side of the town center. “That project is 16 or 17 years old. If you look at it, it anchors the town square.”

Purchasing and renovating these structures is sometimes the easiest part of the process, Thompson says. “The hard part is trying to repurpose it for something. It’s very difficult.”

The Town Center project, for example, came at the right time and proved a great idea, but that was after years of trying to establish the right function for the building, Thompson says. “Strategically speaking, it fits to what we’re trying to accomplish – and that is Kinsman as a destination.” 

The Town Hall’s location along state Route 7 is a heavily travelled thoroughfare, especially in the summer as weekenders and vacationers head north to Pymatuning State Park or Lake Erie. 

Thompson’s most ambitious project to date is the restoration of the Dr. Peter Allen house and its conversion to the Peter Allen Inn and Event Center, a bed and breakfast, events center and tavern. 

“We acquired the home in 2008, but we did not start the restoration until 2015,” he says. “We struggled to find a purpose – we had lots of suggestions. Then we came upon this idea.”

The house was constructed for Allen in 1821 and is today meticulously preserved with all of its original woodwork and flooring. The major exceptions are two new private bathrooms adjoining the two bedrooms upstairs, Thompson says.  Fortunately, the building records of this particular house were stored in the Library of Congress, so the original building prints were easy to find. 

“Peter Allen was the first doctor in Kinsman,” Thompson says. “He arrived here in 1809 and built this house in 1821. To think it was still all here is remarkable.”

The renovation included an addition to accommodate a dining hall, while an elaborate stone and brick tavern was created at the lower level looking out on a large patio and green lawn. The Peter Allen Inn hosts events such as weddings, group outings, overnight stays and evening dinners. 

“The Inn has three overnight rooms and a full restaurant and bar,” says Katie Dodd, general manager. “We do a lot of house events, we have live entertainment every Friday, Saturday and on Sunday afternoon.”

Dodd says there are plenty of attractions in the area – whether it be the wildlife or an Amish country getaway – that draw tourists to northern Trumbull County. “It works as a destination,” she says. 

Sales, Dodd reports, are up 200% compared to last year, largely because of a new marketing plan and establishing quality service and food at the Inn.

“People are discovering Kinsman,” Thompson says. “I would hope that we would all celebrate the heritage of the community and the wonderful buildings here. We’re hoping that by making some of these restorations, it will spark other folks to do things and the town will get some traction.”

Pictured above: Built in 1854, Clarence Darrow’s childhood home is one of 25 octagon houses in Ohio. About 30 were built.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.