The pages of Mansfield history hold many fascinating designs of coincidence: the phenomenon where fate spirals our timeline back on itself in order to create irony, mystery, and an almost mystical sense of balance.
Many of these stories involve the Square, and one example involves a particular corner of the Square that happened to serve as a stage for two significant bookends in the life of Mansfield’s most notable citizen of the 19th century—John Sherman.
The city’s first US Senator arrived in town, and then departed the town 60 years later, from the very same little segment of public ground; and each of these events provided a suitably dramatic moment for both entrance and exit.
To understand the Senator’s entrance, it helps to know some background on the terrain involved.
It is not easy to picture what the Square was like when the public green was still in its whole, undivided, original state, because it has been cut into pieces for several generations now; but try for a moment to imagine the square of ground as a solid block around which the city turned: like a hub, an axis, a still point at the center of our community.
During the first quarter of Mansfield’s life—from 1808 to 1858—this ground would be pictured as an open field. Actually, it is pictured as a very muddy field, and if one walked to the southwestern quadrant of the muddy field, there was a bona fide quagmire.
Two centuries of traffic and street engineering have made our Square high and dry; but 200 years ago, it was only high: certainly not dry.
The center of downtown is essentially on the top of a hill, so it seems unlikely to hold water, but there have been many times in historic rainstorms when waves washed down Park Avenue to utterly deluge the western side of the Square.
In the 1830s and 40s, this South Main acreage was simply a swamp. Early reports say crossing Main Street from the Park Avenue area to the South Park Street area required special courage in the wet season, and a complete disregard for personal appearance. Most folks walked all the way around the Square to avoid it.
Someone laid down wooden plank walkways through the mud, but that seemed to make it only more perilous.
There were different words they used to describe it, like muck and mire and marsh, because early historians said it was swampy enough to serve as a suitable home for a settlement of happy frogs.
They said the first concerts in downtown were held every evening as dusk fell, when the choir of Mansfield frogs came out to sing great choral works.
This central park swamp straddled South Main Street at the corner of the Square, which left the town’s principal thoroughfare in a precarious state for navigation during the wet and icy seasons because, in those days, the road arrived at the Square by a fairly steep hill.
Today it doesn’t look so vertical because the street was modified long ago by road engineers, but careful study reveals clues that the terrain was filled and graded so the slope of the hill has been notably softened.
From the height of the Square to the depth of First Street is a significant drop of altitude, so back when that steep hill rose through the runoff of the village Square swamp, it made a roadway more like a mudslide. It was an obstacle course that could be memorable.
One man who had cause to remember it was John Sherman.
The first time John Sherman set foot in Mansfield was in 1840 when he was 17 years old. He had been raised in Lancaster OH, but he had an older brother whose career had landed him in Mansfield, so John came here to stay with his older brother and give the town a try.
John and his sister made the journey to Mansfield by stagecoach. In 1840 the stage lines through Mansfield had been in operation for 15 years, but the horse-drawn vehicles were still not yet a very reliable way to travel. Sherman noted years later that “the coaches of that day were not worthy of the name.”
The coach he road that day was particularly unworthy.
Straining up the South Main hill into the Square, the stagecoach struck a rut, the horses flinched, the wheels twerked in the mud, and the entire coach flipped over onto its side.
In Sherman’s reminiscences written 55 years later, he didn’t spend any words detailing the muddy clambering out of the coach, or the embarrassed slog into the Square; his only understatement was, “This we considered a bad omen.”
Weighing up all aspects of John Sherman however: his fruitful career, his powerful service to America and to Mansfield; it can be said that his sloppy arrival at our doorstep was hardly ill-omened. Mansfield was a lucky talisman for him as Congressman, Senator, Secretary of the Treasury, and Secretary of State.
He was, reciprocally, a lucky star for Mansfield. On the coattails of his rising fame, the city rode to be known around the nation; and, as his hometown, it prospered in his shadow.
So when he died, the entire nation turned its eyes to Mansfield. What it saw here, was the southwest corner of the Square: the same place he wiped his boots on the welcome mat years before.
When Senator Sherman passed from the earth in 1900, and his funeral was held in Mansfield, it was such a momentous affair of state that all political races suspended campaigning during his obsequies, even though the election was only days away.
A trainload of dignitaries from Washington DC came to the city: Senators, Supreme Court Justices, even the President himself stood on the Square to watch John Sherman’s procession to the graveyard.
Many thousands watched as the venerable old statesman was carried through a memorial arch on Main Street.
Then they all saw history make its ironic reversal: he was marched in stately pomp right through the exact spot where, as a young man, he made his first humble sloppy entry into Mansfield through wallow of mud, and a chorus of frogs.
Many of the more academic historians shy away from coincidence because it smacks too uncomfortably of metaphysics or fate or karma or something; but to me it is the most rewarding prize that can appear in the research, because it hints at an inscrutable humor and order behind the chaos and randomness of the universe.