The 150-foot-tall steel structure erected in front of the Portage County Courthouse in 1893 was more than a flagpole. Its lattice truss work — inspired by the new Eiffel Tower in Paris — soared over the horses and buggies, signifying the rural county seat of Ravenna was moving into the industrial era.
Several miles to the north, Mantua erected its own massive flagpole in 1910, a 125-foot four-legged tower of steel that also held a fire bell, then later an electric fire siren. It sits in front of the oldest public structure in the village, an 1867 former schoolhouse that now serves as village hall.
In both communities, neighbors on state Route 44, citizens groups are rallying to raise money to care for the poles.
They are also trying to raise awareness for why these hunks of metal matter.
Van Dorn Iron Works Co. of Cleveland built the steel-riveted Ravenna flagpole.
At the time, it was the second-highest structure in Ohio — a matter of pride for a community that had only 4,000 residents.
“It made a visual statement,” said Jack Schafer, who said the flag atop the pole can be seen at least six miles away in some directions. “A simple but elegant structure.”
Given that some artistic works by Van Dorn are in museums around the world, Peggy DiPaola said the flagpole should be considered “civic art. We say, ‘We have a Van Dorn.’ ”
Schafer, president of Trexler Rubber, and DiPaola, an attorney, founded Friends of the Flagpole, a group planning to raise $150,000 for repairs and upgrades for the structure that — in 1893 dollars — cost $800 to build.
The pole would need to be taken down in three pieces. The group wants to sandblast off the lead paint, repaint the pole, replace the round-the-clock lights that keep Old Glory lit 24/7 and build an ornamental fence to keep adventurers off it.
“Almost since Day 1 people have been trying to climb it,” Schafer said.
The fundraising effort has garnered $85,000. After the flagpole was featured in national media, including a segment on National Public Radio, donations have come from all over the country.
A new batch of solicitation letters went out a couple of weeks ago, Schafer said, and the committee is optimistic it will have the funds needed to begin work on the flagpole this fall.
“When you live in a community, you take for granted structures you see every day,” DiPaola said.
“Some people have no idea of the history here,” Schafer added, “and they’re surprised when they hear about it. It’s really very unique.... It’s a character-defining element” of Ravenna.
To help educate the community, the history of the pole and photos are at the group’s website, http://ravennaflagpole.org.
Among other trivia: The pole is not quite in its original spot.
As Ravenna grew and electric cars replaced horses and buggies, the pole, which had been sitting in the street, became a traffic hazard. In 1923, the entire thing was lifted 8 inches onto some railroad rails, slid back 15 feet and settled into its current spot.
Unlike Ravenna’s pole, the flag doesn’t fly atop Mantua’s historic structure. That’s because nobody is quite sure how to reach the pulley at the top.
The pulley broke years ago — community activist Jim Oster guesses the flag hasn’t been flown since the 1990s — but the tower is in a difficult place, away from the street and atop a hill.
Police Chief Harry Buchert said the tower is too far from the street for fire equipment to reach.
“We’ve even joked about flying a helicopter over it and lowering someone down,” he said.
A crane probably could be rented to reach it, but at a cost of up to $10,000 or more. Considering the village this year came off the state’s “fiscal watch” list, that money is not going to come out of the city’s coffers.
“It’s got to be our priority to get city services back up to where they should be,” Buchert said, noting the village is down eight positions, including five police officers.
The fire department was located on the site until recently, and the Firefighters Association helped fix what could be reached. The fire siren, which sits on a wooden platform partway up the pole, was repaired and repainted in 2010.
Now a group called the Downtown Mantua Revitalization Committee has taken over. It is committed to revitalizing the High Street district, and that includes the flagpole.
A five-person committee met in January and was waiting for the weather to break so an assessment of the structure could begin in earnest. As soon as the evaluation is complete, a fundraising campaign would be the next step.
Oster said it’s possible the single pole that rises above the fire siren would need to be replaced with an aluminum alternative. Removing and returning the current solid, steel pole could be a problem, he said.
Generating support for the project also will be needed, agreed Oster, Buchert and Mayor Linda Clark.
“Not everyone appreciates it,” Buchert said. “Some people think it’s an eyesore.”
But residents might find a newly painted, and perhaps lighted, pole that actually flies a flag to be an iconic symbol for the village of 1,000.