Around and around they go. Where they exit, nobody knows.
On an average day, more than 45,000 vehicles pass through Tallmadge Circle. Daring motorists wait their turn to go for a whirl on the eight-spoke intersection, dodging traffic as it rushes counterclockwise in a never-ending loop.
If drivers miss their exit — a common occurrence — they wheel around as many times as necessary until they find the right road.
At some point, a motorist must wonder: Why?
Why was the intersection built? Who designed it? And what the heck was he thinking?
The answers go back more than 200 years. With all due respect to geometry, the circle used to be a square.
Tallmadge began as Town 2, Range 10, of the Western Reserve. New England surveyors Amzi Atwater and Wareham Sheppard mapped out the thickly wooded territory for the Connecticut Land Co. in 1797.
One of the first settlers was the Rev. David Bacon (1771-1817), a Puritan missionary from Woodstock, Conn., who moved to Ohio after spending five years in Michigan trying to convert Indians to Christianity.
According to Akron historian Samuel A. Lane: “Mr. Bacon conceived the idea of founding, in the wilds of Ohio, a community that should be in full sympathy with his own unswerving orthodox religious notions — a sort of Ecclesiastical Utopia — to be conducted upon, and governed by, a strictly moral and spiritual code of ethics.”
He arranged to buy 12,000 acres from landowners at $1.50 an acre for the founding of a religious colony. Connecticut businessmen served as brokers of the deal, which was expected to be paid off in three years.
Bacon named the town for Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, a spy master for George Washington during the Revolutionary War, who owned 5,611 acres but never actually lived there.
After securing the property in 1806, Bacon immediately hired Seth I. Ensign of Connecticut to resurvey it.
Bacon envisioned a 7½-acre public square with a church and schoolhouse in a swampy area at the center of town. Jutting out from the square would be eight roads — 66 feet wide at 45-degree angles — corresponding to the eight true directions of a compass.
From above, Tallmadge must have been a heavenly sight when it was founded in 1807.
In every direction
According to Akron historian Oscar Eugene Olin: “He had roads laid out north and south and east and west to the middle of the township lines, and diagonal roads to each corner, giving a system of eight straight roads radiating from the ‘square’ to all parts of the township. His idea was to give every one easy access to the church, which was to be the center of the colony.”
To this day, the avenues of Tallmadge Circle bear the names North, South, East, West, Northeast, Northwest, Southwest and Southeast, making it fairly difficult for drivers to get lost as long as they know which road they are traveling.
A guidepost on the public square helped early travelers find their bearings. The unusual sign had eight fingers pointing in eight directions with the names of 20 or so destinations. It became a point of amusement for out-of-towners.
“It is related that one day the people living about the square were attracted by loud and repeated peals of laughter and on looking out of their doors and windows discovered a stranger rolling upon the ground, near the guide-board, indulging in the most extravagant contortions and paroxysms of laughter,” Lane wrote in his 1892 book Fifty Years and Over of Akron and Summit County.
“He was soon surrounded by quite a crowd, who, from his hilarious antics and prolonged and vigorous guffaws, thought the stranger must have been taken suddenly crazy. After awhile, in response to their anxious inquiries, he raised himself on end and replied: ‘I’ve often heard (ha! ha! ha!) of the (ho! ho! ho!) center of creation (hi! hi! hi!) but I never expected to (he! he! he!) see it — and now (ha! ha! ha!) I’ve got there!’ ”
Founding of church
In 1809, nine settlers gathered in Bacon’s log cabin to organize the Church of Christ in Tallmadge. The cabin was situated on present-day East Park Boulevard near Newton Street in Akron.
In the fledgling town, Bacon wanted land sales to be restricted to people of the Calvinist faith, so deeds required residents to support the church by paying $2 per year for every 100 acres. Through the land tax, Bacon expected to fulfill his contract with the Connecticut businessmen.
“Public spirit, local pride, friendly intercourse, general culture and good taste, and a certain moral and religious steadfastness are among the characteristics by which Tallmadge is almost proverbially distinguished throughout the Reserve,” Bacon wrote. “No observing stranger can pass through the town without seeing that it was planned by a sagacious and far-seeing mind.”
Unfortunately for Bacon, a court overturned the land tax in 1811 after settlers objected. He no longer could pay off his creditors in New England. When the War of 1812 intervened, all hopes for a religious colony were dashed.
A crestfallen Bacon moved his family back to Connecticut, where he died five years later in Hartford.
The wheel that he designed continued to spin. A new landmark rose at its hub.
Work was completed in 1825 on the First Congregational Church of Tallmadge, whose congregation formed in Bacon’s cabin. The historical landmark remains the center of town — just as Bacon had wished.
“To this day, the good effects of this primitive establishment of religion and order is plainly visible among this people and their posterity, and will no doubt exhibit them through all time,” wrote Charles Whittlesey in A Sketch of the Settlement and Progress of the Township of Tallmadge (1842).
The corners of the public square rounded with time. Tallmadge’s Old Town Hall, which was built in 1859, joined the church in the center.
Today, Tallmadge has more than 18,000 residents — and tens of thousands of daily visitors who circle it in cars.
Some of them might be praying for an opening in traffic at this very moment.
The Rev. David Bacon didn’t anticipate the invention of the automobile, but in a roundabout way, he was the first man behind the wheel.
Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.