Saving the Keyser-Swain Farmhouse

Two Cuyahoga Falls women are leading the charge for historic preservation

By KELLY MILLER

CUYAHOGA FALLS — “That was my childhood…[the farmhouse] was the last piece of that being torn down.”

Beth Kinney’s family moved to Northampton Township in 1968. As a child, she passed by the Keyser-Swain Farmhouse nearly every day when visiting the fire station next door, where her parents volunteered.

“It really was that picture-perfect growing up, where everyone knew everybody and you could walk anywhere,” Beth said.  “It was safe.”

At age six, Beth often played with friends on the Keyser-Swain property.  It was only natural for the neighborhood kids to gather there.  After all, treasure hid in one corner of the farm.

“We called it Carrie’s Dump.”

A scattered collection of old appliances and discarded items, Carrie’s Dump became a solid source of entertainment for Beth.  Hope lingered in the back of her mind that she’d find a real treasure.

“We almost never found anything,” Beth said.  “But one day I found this little white plate.”

With a design of raised grapes around the edges, that milk-white plate was everything she had wished for.

“It wasn’t broken,” she said.  “We were just astonished and amazed…I still have that plate to this day.”

Memories like that are what filled her mind when she heard the news in early 2021: the City of Cuyahoga Falls would begin tearing down the Keyser-Swain Farmhouse.  Still a resident near the farm, for her, it was more than just an old building.  

Carrie’s Dump had already disappeared years ago when that portion of the land was sold to developers.  Houses replaced treasure.  The farmhouse is the last beacon of those warm childhood summers, those treasure-hunting thrills.  For Beth, its destruction would be the end of old Northampton, that childhood dreamscape.

The City of Cuyahoga Falls purchased the farmhouse section of property under the condition that it never be developed.  But according to Sarah Deitrick, who also lives near the farmhouse, Cuyahoga Falls “purchased the farmhouse in as-is condition, which at the time was still climate controlled and in very good shape.”

“They wanted to tear down the farmhouse because it was unsafe and neglected (but this happened) at their own hands,” Sarah said.

In its place, the city planned to build an event center.  Sitting on nearly 90 acres inside Keyser Park, it seemed unreal that this house full of important memories could be destroyed.

“On all this property, you want to tear down this cute little farmhouse to build an event center?  It’s a little absurd,” Sarah said.

Sarah Deitrick (left) and Beth Kinney at the Keyser-Swain Farmhouse. Photo by Sadie Knight

Clearly, this plan didn’t sit well with Sarah.  For her, the farmhouse is both a reminder of her great-grandparents and an architectural treasure.  It has value.

“My great-grandparents were from Northampton Township and were involved in the community,” she said.  “I have a personal love for history and architecture…[that’s] how I became familiar with [the property] at a young age.”

That passion for architecture led Sarah to understand what the farmhouse’s demolition would truly mean for the community.

“It’s a huge part of our historical fabric,” Sarah explained.  “The farmhouse…was constructed by an architect by the name of JC Johnson.”

Johnson built schoolhouses, the original Northampton Townhall, and more in Cuyahoga Falls.

“Everything Mr. Johnson had built doesn’t exist anymore,” Sarah said. “[The Keyser-Swain Farmhouse] truly is the last of its kind in the area.”

Taking Action to Save the Farmhouse

Sarah and Beth are just two people who love their community and feel connected to the Keyser-Swain Farmhouse.  They had never met.  But with demolition of a building they both love imminent, each expressed their concern at the city’s announcement over Facebook.  What else could they do?  As it turns out, a lot.

Another involved community member, Warren Capps, connected the two women through social media. 

“He (Capps) saw my comments and he saw Sarah’s comments and told us, ‘you should talk to each other,’” Beth said.

And so they did.  That led to a movement neither expected to begin, let alone lead.

“After we met and talked, we then decided to meet with the Northampton Historical Society to get the background on their previous efforts of trying to save the farmhouse,” Sarah described.  “Then we officially went forward with creating The Friends of Keyser-Swain Farmhouse.”

After realizing they could utilize the power of social media, something the historical society had not done, the creation of an official organization became a reality.  They were determined to do more.  The Friends of Keyser-Swain Farmhouse went from a Facebook group of over 200 members to an official website with pledged donations, petition signatures totaling over 754 today and more active members within just a month.  And it was all created through one thing: passion.

“There were a lot of late nights,” Sarah said.  “When I wasn’t busy at work, I was researching, making phone calls or writing proposals for the city.”

A single mom and working full-time, Sarah managed to bring her community together.  Likewise, Beth, a mother of six, two still at home, a grandmother of three and a social worker, also somehow found time in her day to save the farmhouse.

“At the time (some of) this came to fruition, I had fallen and broken my hand.  So, I couldn’t even type,” Beth said. 

But despite busy lives and broken bones, Sarah and Beth made an ideal team.

“I had the understanding of how government and politics work.  Sarah had the historical knowledge and she is an excellent writer,” Beth explained.  “We would just talk back and forth about strategy and budgets and what’s the next thing that happens.  We would make these outlines together and Sarah would type it all out.”  

That teamwork didn’t go unnoticed by other members of the organization. 

“Beth and Sarah were a true team showing passion and enthusiasm to save the farmhouse,” said Diane Orender, another member involved in the restoration efforts.  “They took charge of raising awareness and generating support for their efforts…I watched them complement each other and was especially proud of their ‘take charge’ efforts, all done on a volunteer basis.”

Those efforts may have been made easier by their complimentary skills, but more than anything, their determination made it work.

“If you feel strongly enough about something, you can make it happen,” Sarah said.  “I was hesitant at first because these were uncharted waters for me…but choosing to be fearless [paid off].”

Their efforts culminated in a 33-page proposal to the city detailing how they could benefit from adaptive reuse, in which the farmhouse would be restored and repurposed.

“They (Cuyahoga Falls) should make the farmhouse a sub-facility to generate income,” Sarah said.  “We pitched to them the idea to create the Old Northampton Historic District in Keyser Park.”

The district would consist of an already-renovated barn along with the newly renovated farmhouse.  According to Sarah, “the barn could serve as the event center that the city desired, a beautiful facility for weddings, reunions, showers, community events and more. The farmhouse could be repurposed into a smaller sub facility by itself or included with the barn rental depending on the type of event.”  By adding additional amenities to the park, the city could create a large, usable community space.

After its final meeting with Beth and Sarah, the City of Cuyahoga Falls determined it will not tear down the farmhouse.  Instead, the building will receive exterior restoration.  While a win, Sarah and Beth are not done.

“There was no mention of their grand-plan for the park,” Beth said.  “We intend to continue to be involved…We felt our plan was really beneficial.”

Beyond that, Beth sincerely hopes the city will “see the benefit of partnering with its citizens…and recognize the assets it has in those citizens and utilize those assets…that people like Sarah offer.”

What it all means

Even though their plan hasn’t been used yet, for Beth and Sarah, the benefits of this journey are more than saving a nostalgic and architecturally valuable building.

“My key takeaway is that [historic preservation] is a deep-seated passion of mine,” Sarah said.  “I knew this was something I was always interested in, but after taking the risk and involving myself in ways I never thought I could…I am going to make an effort to [continue in this field].”

The process has inspired Sarah to run for a trustee position at the Cuyahoga Falls Historical Society and become more involved with Progress Through Preservation of Greater Akron, which helped with the Keyser-Swain project.  She even hopes to make a career change into historic preservation as “an amazing end-goal.”

For Beth, this process has shown her that she is not alone.

“I really didn’t think there was anyone outside of Old Northampton people that cared [about the farmhouse],” Beth explained.  “To see that there are people who care out there…renewed my hope that these kinds of things can happen.”

With people moving away, getting older and other historic buildings all gone, Beth feared her childhood and that old way of life would be forgotten.  But in joining Sarah and so many others committed to the cause, that fear went away.

“I have hope that a sense of community still exists,” Beth said.

You Can, Too

Beth and Sarah’s success and devotion show that even ordinary people can change their community for the better.  For those interested in similar projects, they highly encourage them to get involved.  Neither had any experience with something like this, but they did it anyway.

“We had no idea what we were doing,” Beth joked.  “We figured it out along the way, primarily by just making contacts.”

They began by googling local organizations, making calls and sending emails to anyone and everyone who might have advice or could guide them in the right direction.

“[We] used the past experience of others who have done this and got help from active local organizations to come up with [our plan]” Beth said. 

Ultimately, the way to start is by asking for help.  “Make those connections with other people in the field,” Sarah said.

“The best thing we did was partnering with Progress through Preservation…which had official connections behind it,” Beth said.  “After that, we weren’t just two moms from Cuyahoga Falls.  It gave us legitimacy.”

If a community project sparks your interest, Beth and Sarah’s successful experience is all the more reason to jump in and pursue it.

“Believe in yourself and stand up for what you believe in,” Sarah said.  “See where it takes you from there.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you want to learn more about this effort or stay updated on the project, please visit the website www.foksf.org Also, subsequent to this story being written, the City of Cuyahoga Falls has appropriated $100,000 for the city parks and recreation department’s planned renovation of the farmhouse, at 783 W. Bath Road. Cuyahoga Falls’ Design and Historic Review Board approved a Certificate of Appropriateness in late November. Here’s a link to the story: https://www.beaconjournal.com/story/news/local/communities/falls-news/2021/11/26/renovation-19th-century-farmhouse-cuyahoga-falls-starts-2022/8674463002/

Kelly Miller is a student at Tri-C.  She wrote this article for her News Writing class and can be reached at S01279423@acad.tri-c.edu.

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