I spotted a head stone sitting by itself as I took some pictures of an ornate white-painted iron fence around a family cemetery along the main road through Grand Rapids, Ohio.
The cemetery, a small log cabin and a couple of historical markers were enough to pull off of the road as we passed through this small restored canal town just southwest of Toledo, Ohio even as a steady rain fell.
We love old-school two-lane highways that roll through the small towns and villages that grew up alongside them in the days before expressways and turnpikes.
So it wasn't unusual for us to find ourselves in Ohio's Grand Rapids as we returned home from visiting Sauder Village in Archbold, Ohio.
Grand Rapids and Archbold are in an area once covered by the 1,500-square-mile Great Black Swamp, a once-forbidding terrain in what is now Ohio's northwestern corner and the northeastern corner of Indiana.
Native Americans lived and hunted in the swamp near Grand Rapids until European settlers arrived to drain and farm the land twenty to thirty years after Ohio became a state in 1803.
Thomas Howard, a Revolutionary War veteran and surveyor in New York State, came here in 1822. Howard traveled by boat across Lake Erie to this spot by the head of rapids along the southern bank of the Maumee River, becoming the first white settler at the area. Howard's wife followed with the couple's three sons and their families, many of them walking through the woods of Pennsylvania and Ohio to join the family's patriarch.
In 1833, settlers platted the town of Gilead, which later became Grand Rapids.
The 1830s saw the major development of Ohio's canal system. The state built a feeder from the main Miami and Erie Canal route to service Gilead when the town's residents complained about the main route following the northern bank of the Maumee near the community of Providence.
Providence overshadowed Gilead through the early 1800s, but Gilead grew and thrived as Providence had more trouble surviving in the face of fires, floods, and a cholera epidemic in the 1850s. Today, little of Providence remains on the river's northern bank except for a metropark named for the community along Old U.S. 24.
The Howard family had friends among the native Ottawa tribe in the area.
In 1835, the U.S. government moved most of the area's Ottawa Indian residents further west.
One of the tribe's members, Tee-na-Beek, remained in Grand Rapids. His widow had nowhere to bury him when he died in 1850, so Thomas Howard's grandson Dresden offered space in the cemetery near the Howards for Tee-na-Beek's final resting place.
They buried Tee-na-Beek's body, wrapped in a beautiful blanket, in the cemetery where the head stone informs visitors that he was "the last Indian (Ottawa) of the Maumee Valley".
A nearby historical marker says that Thomas Howard was the first burial at this cemetery on a sharp bluff in 1825. In 1938, WPA workers leveled the ground and moved most of the graves, leaving behind the small Howard family plot and the grave of Dresden's friend, Tee-na-Beek.
The graves are on a busy corner near a gas station at the intersection of Front Street and Wapakoneta Road.
Travelers could easily ford the Maumee River here much of the year, and the community became part of an Underground Railroad route north.
Dresden and his parents were active in the Underground Railroad housing, feeding and guiding runaway slaves past a notorious slave catcher in the area. The Howards were active in this effort as early as 1816 and often worked in concert with the area's Indians to move the freedom seekers through the area and on to Malden, Canada.
By 1868, the village of Gilead gained the "more sophisticated name" of Grand Rapids.
Grand Rapids became a commercial hub for the area with the arrival of the railroad during the 1870s.
Today, traces of the town's nineteenth-century history remain like the Howard Cemetery, a log cabin operating as a tourist welcome center, and a number of Victorian-style homes and commercial buildings downtown (including an old steam-powered mill built around the turn-of-the-century that now serves as a bed-and-breakfast inn).
Our stay at Grand Rapids was short as the rain picked up again and we headed home, but we're excited about the idea of returning to explore and find out more about this historic canal town.
Want to learn more about the history of Ohio's canals? Check out A Photo Album of Ohio's Canal Era: 1825-1913 by Jack Gleck or Canals of Ohio: A History and Tour Guide by Boone Triplett.
© Dominique King 2013 All rights reserved