William Garvey believes Erie reawakens every 50 years to celebrate Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s legacy to the city.
And he believes the city’s contributions in the War of 1812 go beyond Perry’s U.S. Naval victory over the British fleet in the Battle of Lake Erie at Put-in-Bay, Ohio, in September 1813.
“The greatness wasn’t just the victory, it was the building of the fleet here over great odds,” said Garvey, president of the Jefferson Educational Society.
The nonprofit is spearheading the Perry 200 Commemoration’s two-year celebration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812.
A new exhibit exploring Perry and the community’s role during the building of the fleet is scheduled to open today at the Erie County Historical Society, 419 State St.
The exhibit, “Building, Salvaging, Celebrating: Erie’s Relationship with the 1812 Lake Erie Fleet,” will be displayed through September 2013.
The museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is free admission today and each Saturday through Sept. 1.
“We want to give a little context to what it was like when the fleet was being built here,” said Melanie Kuebel-Stankey, the Erie Historical Society’s director of visitor experience.
“What these guys had to do and the conditions under which they did it, to understand that, you need to know what Erie looked like, how you got around, what was available to work with,” she said.
Artifacts from Perry, the Lake Erie fleet, and memorabilia from Erie’s 1913 centennial and 1963 sesquicentennial celebrations comprise a large extent of exhibit features.
“Our real goal is to reacquaint people with their heritage, and that’s why this exhibit is so important,” Garvey said. “It’s the first shot at reintroducing Erieites to people who helped build this town.”
Kuebel-Stankey and her staff have spent the last three months working on the exhibit.
“This exhibit is on the community, which creates the ships, who are the major players and what was is like here,” she said. “We built this fleet, and what was our community doing?
Perry helped oversee construction of a fleet of naval vessels at Presque Isle Bay in the spring and summer of 1813.
“Perry was here a very brief time,” Garvey said. “He came in to build the ships for the battle and was here for about six months and then he was gone and never came back again.”
When legions of shipwrights and carpenters descended on the region in March 1813 to begin the shipbuilding, Erie was a frontier town of about 400 people and 50 houses, Kuebel-Stankey said.
Perry’s hallmark artifacts scheduled for display are his decorative sword, its leather-stitched scabbard and a belt it hung from.
His signal lantern also is scheduled for display.
A 7-foot-long piece of wooden beam from the original Brig Niagara, raised from Misery Bay in April 1913, hangs on a wall in the exhibit.
Nearby, a wooden ox yoke used to pull logs from woods in North Springfield to the lake for use in building the Perry fleet hangs prominently.
A wooden frame of a Niagara skylight hangs from the ceiling.
Visitors also can see a small, 5-pound British cannon ball that crews wedged out of the Niagara in 1913 when it was brought up in Misery Bay. Musket balls also were found embedded in the ship.
“When you look at what Erie was like in 1812, and you talk about the 390-some people who lived here or only 50 buildings in the entire city, you get an idea of what this community really was,” said Andrew Adamus, the Erie County Historical Society’s director of education and outreach.
“This was the frontier, make no mistake about it,” he said. “When you come into this exhibit, it will give you an opportunity to see that and see the great lengths we’ve come. It will also give children an opportunity to get hands-on — to see what sailing was like, to be able to touch the Niagara, feel the wood and feel the history and become part of it.”
Visitors will see numerous items built from the wood and spikes from the Brig Lawrence, which was Perry’s original flagship during the Battle of Lake Erie, and the original Brig Niagara.
“What we have are sort of people saving pieces of the ships,” Kuebel-Stankey said. “At the time, their idea of celebrating the ships was turning the material into something.”
Erie merchant mariner Daniel Dobbins supervised the sinking of the Brig Lawrence in Misery Bay in July 1815 to preserve it.
The ship was auctioned in 1825 and sold in 1836 to George Miles, an Erie merchant captain. He raised the ship with plans to use it as a merchant vessel.
But after discovering the vessel was too badly damaged and its hold too shallow to serve as a merchant vessel, the Lawrence was re-sunk in Misery Bay.
In 1876, the Lawrence again was raised in celebration of the nation’s centennial. The ship was cut in half and transported by rail to Philadelphia for exhibit.
The Lawrence was displayed outside a building where the ship was being cut up for relics.
During the exhibit, the building caught fire one night, and the ship’s remains were destroyed.
“With the Lawrence, everything we acquired early, and if you look at the accession dates, or how we got them or when they were made and given to someone, that is all about pre-1910,” Kuebel-Stankey said. “The Lawrence is still listed and they’re still calling that Perry’s flagship. They’re not thinking about the Niagara.”
That changed, Kuebel-Stankey said, when the original Niagara was raised from Misery Bay in April 1913.
“We start to restore it, and then suddenly, the Lawrence fades from public consciousness and it’s all about the Niagara,” she said. “Now if you ask people, ‘What was the USS Lawrence,’ they kind of go, ‘Huh?’ It’s not the first ship they think of. Prior to 1913, the Lawrence was pretty much fixed in people’s thoughts.”
Items made from the Lawrence on display are a wooden sewing box, three wooden napkin rings, two nut picks, a broach and earrings set, and a miniature iron cannon affixed to a wooden base, made by Daniel Weeks, an Erie gunsmith.
The exhibit also will feature a bell taken from the British ship Queen Charlotte, which fought in the Battle of Lake Erie.
“The idea behind this exhibit is to give people an understanding of the context of the War of 1812,” Adamus said. “It’s more than just the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. It’s the commemorations in 1863, 1913 and 1963. All of those things come together to help create the community we live in today.”
Garvey said he hopes the exhibit reintroduces the community to the study of the War of 1812, the Battle of Lake Erie and Perry’s legacy.
“It’s all gotten lost,” Garvey said. “That’s why you need celebrations. It brings people back to remembering. When all the contests are over, when the tall ships have left, all we have left is our history. The activities draw attention. Our goal is we want the celebration and the people proud and knowledgeable about their heritage, so when you go down to Perry Square in two years and ask, ‘Who’s that statue of,’ nine out of 10 people are going to say it’s Perry,” he said.