Mansfield’s (Pre) Historic Sundial

Roeliff Brinkerhoff was one of the men most influential in making Mansfield what it has become. Even beyond the parameters of our town he lived a notable life, and he saw a great deal of American history in his lifetime.

As a young man he lived on Andrew Jackson’s estate to tutor the President’s children; during the Civil War he was stationed in Washington DC and watched history unfold from a front row seat; and he was in Ford’s Theater to witness in person the nation’s climactic turning point when Lincoln was murdered.

Yet for all of the amazing moments of America that he had witnessed, the event he talked about till the end of his life—that touched his inner being and his imagination—was in August 1869 when he traveled to Iowa in order to place himself in perfect position on the earth to watch the moon pass exactly in front of the sun.

As the worlds aligned, something deep and significant moved in his soul.

It was his moving and life-altering experience of the total eclipse that awakened Brinkerhoff’s fascination with the heavens, and inspired within him the desire to create an opportunity in Mansfield for his neighbors, so they could also engage a more personal and meaningful bond with the Earth, the sun and the cosmos.

So in 1888 he supervised the creation of Mansfield’s sundial.

A Place in the Sun

All of these events took place at a fortunate time in Mansfield’s development: the city was just in the process of developing its first civic park system. The brand new Sherman-Heineman Park on the west end of town stretched from the railroad tracks by Fourth Street clear south to Maple Street.

A lovely new pavilion on the shore of North Lake provided an ideal setting in the sun for Brinkerhoff’s unique sculpture of light and shadow.

He had no trouble getting a brass clock face made for the sundial. The carefully calculated plate was fashioned by Frank Black at his north end foundry that was at the time evolving into The Ohio Brass Company.

To get the brass sundial face solidly mounted into the daylight Brinkerhoff had an inspired idea: he wanted the base to be carved out of a unique and historic boulder that had already become a curious feature at North Lake.

This granite boulder had been dug up out of the Mansfield earth when the North Lake itself was being excavated. The huge rock excited considerable attention at the time when it was hoisted up out of the dirt, and Brinkerhoff conducted a very public scientific query into the stone’s origins so people in the community could share his sense of wonder and awe.

The Boulder

The heavy piece of granite had obviously come from somewhere else. Many people in town were already very aware that the bedrock of Mansfield was made of classic pink sandstone, and there was nothing like native granite to be found anywhere within a hundred miles from here, unless it was straight down more than a thousand feet.

In the 1880s the science of prehistoric glaciers in America was a relatively new field of exploration, and even though geologists and farmers recognized that the surface of Richland County had been altered and decorated by glaciers, they didn’t yet have enough hard data to figure out just where all this non-native dirt, gravel and rocks had originally come from.

The unusual pinkish granite boulder from North Lake was clearly dumped here by a glacier, and it had enough unique qualities—shiny crystal chunks and dull gray flecks—that it made an ideal subject for investigation. It seemed highly likely that the identical mineral properties of granite could be located far north of here in order to determine just exactly where the glacier had picked up the rock.


The Science

The leading authority on this subject of Ohio’s glacially re-placed boulders was a professor from Oberlin College. After careful examination of the North Lake granite he determined its place of origin to be a vast shelf of granite known as the Canadian Shield—some of the oldest landmass on the planet.

Furthermore, he could tell by the rock’s mineral composition that our boulder originated in an area along the northern shores of Lake Superior. In order for the rock to travel from Lake Superior to Mansfield, Ohio it most likely hitched a ride on more than one glacier over the span of possibly as much as 300,000 years. This would help account for why the boulder was not particularly rough: it had been tumbled, scraped, ground and sanded for over 600 miles.

Professor Wright was so enthusiastic about the information he was able to glean from the Mansfield granite he wanted to put it on display at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

Sadly Brinkerhoff had to disappoint the professor, because Mansfield was in need of the boulder. It was to become the base for the city’s public sundial.

Mansfield’s granite boulder was one of the resources used by Professor George Frederick Wright in establishing his groundbreaking studies of the Canadian origins of Ohio’s glacial-era boulders.  This map is from his 1896 book, The Ice Age in North America.

The granite stone of our North Lake sundial originated somewhere around Thunder Bay on Lake Superior.  The distance there is 937 miles if you’re driving, and takes 15 hours and 40 minutes.
If you’re flying, the distance is only 635 miles and requires a trip of 1 hour 32 minutes.
Our boulder made the same journey in a span of 150,000 to 300,000 years.
Inscribed on the sundial pedestal are the words: I POINT THE HOURS THOU LIVEST: GOD RECORDS.

The sundial, seen on the right, was placed on the shore of North Lake in 1888 shortly after Sherman-Heineman Park opened on what was then the far west end of Mansfield.  Since this photo was taken in the 1890s, the background of the scene has become entirely obscured by forest, and the rural park has been mostly surrounded by residential neighborhoods.

(Relatively) Recent History of the Sundial

The celebrated boulder was suitably inscribed, the sundial was carefully aligned to Mansfield’s global position in relation to the sun, and it was all unveiled and dedicated on July 3, 1888.

It took about 3 generations before some punks pushed the monument over and the brass sun plate disappeared. Another generation passed before it was set back up in its place but other than that, the boulder is today much as it was a hundred years ago.

Though the calibrated face and time-signifying arm of the sundial are no longer in place to catch the sun at North Lake Park, the cycles of light and shadow are the same today as they were when Brinkerhoff dreamed up the city’s cosmic clock, so the boulder itself still serves to cast on the ground a shadow that changes minute by minute as the sun moves across the sky.

The sundial pavilion has been replaced through the years: seen from the west in 1896, and from the east today.


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