History, progress collide on battle site; 2 cities tug at Fallen Timbers

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 1

All there is to see are slowly moving cars, a few bushes, and endless rows of beans.

But Dr. G. Michael Pratt can see the past.

“Over there would have been the original line of Indians,” he says, pointing at a small thicket off in the distance. “The major fighting would have happened about there, from those trees to there.”

Dr. Pratt knows these things because he’s the man who discovered that on this patch of land in Maumee, in 1794, two armies met. It was called the Battle of Fallen Timbers, and it changed American history. And he wants to make sure others know about it too.

“Even after I’m dead, some body’s going to remember,” he said.

The question, it seems, is whether they’ll just be able to remember the battlefield, or if they’ll be able to walk across it. When the city of Toledo asked developers to make it an offer for the battlefield late last month, it made Mayor Carty Finkbeiner’s intentions clear: to sell the land to developers who will fill it with factories and businesses.

Mr. Finkbeiner repeatedly has said his goal is to make money from the sale of the battlefield. The city has had to foot the bill for the disastrous 1987 land deal that put the battlefield into its hands – an agreement that saw Toledo spend more than $14 million for land the courts said it could not annex.

Twice now, men have fought over Fallen Timbers. Their tales twist together; talk of armies and Indians segues into progress and development, then back again.

Left to decipher it all is an array of professors, politicians, businessmen, and history buffs. They will decide which is more important: the site of a 204-year-old battle or the millions of dollars to be made by selling it.

*

It was a tornado a few years before the battle that earned the spot the name Fallen Timbers. When U.S. General Anthony Wayne and 3,000 soldiers slowly made their way through the thicket of felled trees on the morning of Aug. 20, 1794, they knew that the enemy – a confederation of eight Indian tribes fighting to keep whites from settling on their lands – was close. Historians can’t agree how many warriors were at Fallen Timbers; estimates range from 400 to 1,600, including a small number of British Canadians dressed in Indian garb.

General Wayne faced a daunting task. The last two armies to try to control the Indians in the Northwest Territory had been decimated – with more than 1,500 casualties.

But General Wayne justly inspired fear in the Indians, who knew of his prowess in battle and his attacking style. Little Turtle, a superior tactician in his Miami tribe, told his fellow chiefs six days before the battle that General Wayne was “the chief who never sleeps…. We have never been able to surprise him. Something whispers to me it would be prudent to listen to his offers of peace.”

The first sighting on the day of the battle was about 11 a.m., when Ottawa and Potawatomee warriors fired on an advance team of Americans several hundred yards ahead of the rest of the army. The Americans turned and, as planned, ran back to the rest of the force, drawing the Indians into a chase.

By drawing out the Indians, General Wayne had forced them from their strong defensive position – a powerful, well-structured line – into the chaos of running among the fallen timbers. And they were running straight toward Americans waiting for them.

General Wayne ordered a bayonet charge. Indians started to fall, overpowered by more advanced weaponry and a superior plan. The ones who remained turned and ran east, toward the mouth of the Maumee.

It was a short battle. When it was over, it was not yet noon.

The Indians were running toward Fort Miamis, a British fort in present-day Maumee, two miles east of the battle site. They believed the British would help the fight, or at least give the Indians refuge inside the fort’s walls.

They did neither. The Indians kept running. Soon, General Wayne’s troops made it to Fort Miamis too, but seeking to avoid a war, he and the British commander simply exchanged insulting letters.

After a few days, General Wayne advanced back up the Maumee River, heading toward what he would later name Fort Wayne. He had lost 44 men; the Indians had lost 40 or 50. The numbers were similar, but their effects were not. General Wayne headed west a conquering victor. The Indians had begun to understand their fate.

Historically, the Battle of Fallen Timbers was less important for its casualty count than for how it convinced the Indian forces that white settlement was unstoppable. General Wayne had burned their fields, and food was scarce that winter. And the British response at Fort Miamis showed the Indians that their “allies” were unwilling to give full support.

Within a year, with the Treaty of Greeneville, the natives had agreed to let whites take southern and central Ohio, as well as the most desirable parts of the rest of the state. And, historians say, the fate of the Midwest’s Indians was sealed.

*

General Wayne couldn’t have known, of course, that 200 years later, the site of his victory would feature such terrific access to an interstate highway.

The battlefield’s proximity to I-475 and the trail that bears Anthony Wayne’s name has long made it a prime candidate for development. When the city of Toledo, worriedly looking to expand its industrial base in the late 1980s, tried to find fresh land, it turned its attention there.

In 1987, in a arrangement since vilified by nearly everyone in city government, Mayor Donna Owens and City Manager Phil Hawkey spent more than $14 million to buy 1,130 acres of farmland in Monclova Township. The idea was to annex the land into Toledo’s borders to give factories – including a new Jeep plant – someplace to go.

But the purchase met one snag after another, most notably a judge’s ruling that the city could not annex the land because it was not contiguous with Toledo’s borders. The industry that was supposed to flock to the site didn’t materialize, and the city set about selling off small parcels to businesses, trying to recover its investment.

Then, in 1995, came a discovery city officials privately consider a roadblock, but historians might call one of northwest Ohio’s most significant finds. Dr. Pratt, an archaeology professor at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, was given permission to dig through a patch of land he had long suspected was the site of the battle.

A historical marker had been set up on the south side of the Anthony Wayne Trail years earlier, on park land. But some historians had believed the battle took place on the north side.

Dr. Pratt and a group of volunteers spent days sifting through soil and running metal detectors across the land. They found tell-tale signs of an army’s presence – arrowpoints, bullets, buttons from army jackets. Some of the buttons still were spaced evenly apart in a row, all that was left from a fallen soldier hurriedly buried or left to die as the forces ran down river.

By September, 1995, after plotting artifacts and running through data, Dr. Pratt could safely proclaim: “We have found the Fallen Timbers.”

This was a problem for the city of Toledo. The battlefield Dr. Pratt found was located in the middle of its land, the property it had been pushing as the potential site of a shopping mall, or a factory, or an office park.

A loose-knit group of history buffs began talking about the need to preserve the battlefield to commemorate the conflict. They found an important ally in Maumee Mayor Stephen Pauken, whose city had annexed the battlefield.

Mr. Pauken, with the support of U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur and U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, has pushed for the land to be turned into a historical park affiliated with the National Park Service. Senator DeWine has twice submitted federal legislation that would give that affiliated designation to Fallen Timbers, Fort Miamis, and Perrysburg’s Fort Meigs.

But, in a March letter to Mr. Finkbeiner and Mr. Pauken, Senator DeWine said negotiation would “need to bring the two cities together” before the designation could go forward, as Toledo officials fear it would make the land unsellable.

That’s a tough proposition, because Mr. Finkbeiner and Mr. Pauken have had an often tempestuous relationship over the battlefield. Their letters back and forth are filled with tense language, with the Toledo mayor at one point accusing his colleague of “highly inappropriate” meddling in Toledo affairs and “a most adversarial approach.”

Each side has, for more than a year, had a standing offer to the other on the table. Mr. Finkbeiner has offered to donate 15 acres of the battlefield for a monument. It would be located along a ravine where little fighting occurred, but which marked the rear guard of the advancing Americans, and which would be more difficult to build on.

As a counter, Mr. Pauken and other supporters have offered to buy the land at $15,000 an acre, a commitment of more than $2.5 million.

That’s the price per acre the city got the last time it sold some of its Maumee land. In January, The Isaac Group Holdings, Inc., purchased 430 acres just west of the battlefield, across Jerome Road. The Isaacs Group and another developer propose turning the land into a mall and an office park.

A $15,000-an-acre sale still would provide the city of Toledo with a healthy profit on the land, Mr. Pauken said. When the battlefield was purchased in 1987, the city paid $1.22 million for 177 acres – a cost of $6,921 an acre.

Mr. Finkbeiner, however, said he did not consider the Maumee mayor’s offer to be a serious offer, because “no legal presentation has been put in front of us.”

He said the city of Toledo has been “extremely generous” with its offer of 15 acres, and said that no one else has “offered anything of value.”

Mr. Pauken said Friday that Mr. Finkbeiner’s comments are “absolutely ridiculous.”

“I am insulted and ashamed to be from the same county as a guy who can’t recognize the contributions of so many legitimate people,” the Maumee mayor said.

Toledo-area real-estate professionals and developers said Mr. Pauken may be underestimating the land’s value.

“Realistically, if the mall gets built, this property will be worth even more than $50,000,” said Mark Zyndorf, president of Zyndorf/Serchuk, Inc., a commercial-industrial real estate and development firm.

“The value today is closer to $50,000 than $15,000. If they keep the property, it’s not going to do anything but go up.”

Mr. Zyndorf estimated that the Isaacs Group would probably be able to sell land adjacent to the new mall for more than $100,000 an acre.

Mr. Pauken said getting a developer to lay out that kind of money for the land will be next to impossible because of the battle’s historical significance.

“That particular site is so well established as an important historical site that no developer is going to touch it,” the mayor said. “When developers call our office, once they’re told what happened there, they say, `Thank you very much, do you have anything else you can show us?”‘

But real-estate professionals said there are plenty of developers that would be willing to make an offer if it makes financial sense.

“If you’re Walt Disney and you’re very public relations sensitive, maybe they’d resist,” said Harlan Reichle, Jr., a managing director for CB Richard Ellis, Reichle Klein, a local commercial real-estate firm. “But if you operate in a segment of the market where public relations is inconsequential to your success, no, it’s not going to have anything more than perhaps a marginal impact.”

The biggest impact of developing the battleground, historians say, would be the loss of part of America’s heritage.

“All my sentiments and natural biases are in favor of keeping that land as pristine as possible,” said Dr. George Knepper, a retired professor of history at the University of Akron who wrote the state’s definitive history, Ohio and Its People.

“Why do they have to pick on a site with this much significance?” he asked. “Isn’t there a less significant area out there?”

Dr. John Dann, director of the prestigious William Clements Library at the University of Michigan, said this month that the Fallen Timbers battlefield needs to be preserved as an important part of America’s heritage.

He and a group of eminent American historians have called for the preservation of the battlefield, saying it would be “a crime” if it were lost.

“Fallen Timbers was a real turning point in American history and led to the white settlement of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and even Illinois,” Dr. Dann said.

What will happen to the land is uncertain. By the end of the month, developers will submit their proposals for the property to Toledo officials. The Isaacs Group still will have a first right of refusal, and any potential purchase would have to be approved by Toledo’s city council.

Several council members said they would not vote on selling the battlefield until a series of public hearings, at which citizens would be allowed to voice their own objections.

“I don’t want to see it turned into office parks,” council President Peter Ujvagi said. “But the reality is that we have a fiscal reponsibility.”

Mr. Pauken said he will continue to fight for National Park Service affiliation and for preservation.

And Dr. Pratt will continue to tell people about what happened 204 years ago, long before development and history seemed to be on a collision course. He said plenty of archaeological work still needs to be done on the land, but officials won’t let him dig on it again.

“They have a lot of options, but so far it seems they don’t really want it to be preserved,” he said. “I’m not sure why.”

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