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Island Photo Op:
Father’s Day is often considered a Hallmark Holiday, but here in Put-in-Bay we have long connected “Fathers Day” with our annual “Founder’s Day” island celebration. And in case you are new here or missed out on the backstory, our island’s founder was José De Rivera St. Jurgo. Born in 1813 in Barcelona Spain, De Rivera made his fortune in the mercantile business between Spain, Puerto Rico and New York where he lived and worked.
The story goes that DeRivera wanted to buy a southern plantation managed by Spaniards, but was opposed to slavery. A principled man, he looked for other opportunities. According to author Thomas Langlois, he was fortunate to be introduced to Alice Glover Edwards, the great granddaughter of Pierpont Edwards. In 1811, Pierpont Edwards, who was from Connecticut, had originally “won” land here in Ohio in a “Firelands” land lottery near what today is Avon, Ohio.
Long story short, Edwards’ lottery land included part of Avon Lake. Unhappy that his “win” included a portion of Avon Lake, unusable for farmland, he complained and was given the six islands we call Middle Bass, South Bass, Gibraltar, Starve, Sugar and Ballast as extra compensation.
Flash forward two generations to Edward’s great granddaughter Alice. In 1853 she expressed an interest in selling the islands for a dowery to attract a husband. According to “Isolated Splendor” author Robert Dodge, DeRivera came here in 1854 to see the islands and was smitten by their beauty. Author Charles Froman quotes DeRivera, “It was a case of love at first sight, and in forty eight hours after I first set foot on Put-in-Bay I owned the five islands at a cost of $44,000.” DeRivera was excited about the opportunity to settle and came to South Bass in the spring of 1855 along with a surveyor in tow to begin the task of creating 10 acre lots for sale.
In fact “Langram Road” known then as “Site Road” was the original road surveyors had built back in 1844 and that “line” is what all other island properties are delineated from. DeRivera brought sheep to the island, started planting peach orchards and set aside land for the first school (which still exists). A philanthropist and entrepreneur, DeRivera saw that Perry’s Cave could be used to attract tourism and leased the cave farm to Phillip Vroman, according to “Caves of Put-in-Bay.”
Most importantly, DeRivera had a plan for how to layout the town which included five acres of what we now know as our town center called “DeRivera Park.” And if he did nothing more here, we would still be impressed. But he persisted and sought out an ambitious young merchant clerk from Sandusky named Valentine Doller to assist him in this enterprise.
As luck would have it, German farmers who had started vineyards along the Ohio River near Cincinnati, suffered a terrible grape fungus blight about the same time. Doller went out and recruited a number of German farmers to come to Put-in-Bay.
DeRivera was a generous and thoughtful businessman who was willing to sell plots of land with little or no money down in exchange for a “future” percentage of crop yield. He established the island’s first press house and winery and created a farm coop to buy and sell the farmers’ grapes and juice to make wine. In a perfect world this long-term approach to cultivating business would be seen as visionary.
The reality was that as much as he loved being here, his family was not really interested in being here which forced him to split time between here, NYC and even Spain. DeRivera allowed his eldest children to run his mercantile business while he was at Put-in-Bay. Turns out his family made some very bad deals and DeRivera’s mercantile business fell into debt.
Late in life, DeRivera was forced to sell off his holdings here on the island to pay his debts. A shrewd businessman himself by this time, Valentine Doller bought his land at a bargain price and became the main buyer of grapes and control of many island businesses. When DeRivera died in 1889 he was essentially broke, but he was regarded as a local hero. The island turned out in great numbers for his funeral. When you visit Crown Hill Cemetery across from Joe’s Bar ( a former grape press house) you will see adjacent to the cemetery fence the large DeRivera crypt which was paid for by islanders for the beloved DeRIvera, the father and founder of Put-in-Bay. In 2003 as part of Ohio’s Bicentennial celebration, DeRivera was honored with a historic marker. He is the first Hispanic person in Ohio to be so honored. This year we celebrate “Founders Day” in DeRivera Park on June 11th.
The previous piece is published in this month’s Put-in-Bay Gazette. The Gazette has been producing incredible independent Put-in-Bay island news for over 40 years. If you have any interest at all in what is happening on South Bass Island, we urge you strongly to subscribe to the Put-in-Bay Gazette. One-year online subscriptions are only $15, and print subscriptions are available as well. To subscribe please click here.
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