There is a reason why it’s called the Flats: it is the flat part of Mansfield. The rest of the city is rolling and hilly, and the topography is in continual motion like a wave; but the Flats are where the landscape bottoms out.
The location of our city was chosen because of the heights: we ride the first cresting swells at the edge of a giant plateau rising into the Allegheny Appalachian mountain range. They situated the Square with a view, up on the top of a hill, and for the first several decades of life up there nobody had much reason to go down to the bottom.
Then the railroads came and all of that changed.
Arteries of the Nation
In the 1840s, as the cutting-edge transportation system was evolving in America, a new system of cross-country rails was devised. Railroad tracks required level ground, and were necessarily laid out through the low-lying terrain, which in practicality meant: most railroads followed rivers.
Mansfield’s railroad district developed around the Rocky Fork River because that was the flattest river basin sector of the landscape.
It was at the bottom of the hill where the tracks converged, and so it was down there where all the factories were built to take advantage of nationwide shipping access.
Anyone with a product to sell wanted to be near the railroad lines. There was only one problem: the river flats in the 1840s was a huge soggy quagmire.
People up on the hill called it Frogtown.
Breaking Ground: Making Ground
Mansfield was fortunate to get one of the very first railroads in Ohio. Most of the other progressive cities had Ohio’s canal system for their transportation needs, but Richland County was too high and dry to be in on that technology.
So city planners leapfrogged the canal technology to invest in the newer system of overland rails that could give Richland farmers access to Lake Erie ports of shipping.
When the Sandusky & Mansfield train pulled into the Flats in 1846, it was still a cutting-edge engineering feat.
The city needed a terminus for the trains with a loading dock, so in 1847 a warehouse was designed at the bottom of Main Street, where the Hill meets the Flats.
That was the first cornerstone of Frogtown.
To even get a foundation laid in the soft plain, builders had to remove 1300 wagon loads of muck, and replace it with 8000 square feet of stone.
Industrializing the Flats
There was one particular place in the Flats where the three railroad lines crossed one another at a distance of a few hundred yards so as to create an actual triangle of real estate. Naturally, that was where the first major factory complex was built: right in the middle.
This was the Aultman & Taylor Company, who manufactured large farming machinery like threshers and tractors. The first factories and foundries and warehouses of theirs were built literally on the banks of the Rocky Fork, right next to Toby’s Run.
Before construction could begin, Mr. Aultman brought in trainloads of rocky fill, and Earth was pounded with heavy equipment for a month to make the ground solid. Still, it was an island of solid in a sea of soggy.
The thresher men of A&T told tales of summer evenings when the roar of frogs singing nearby was louder than their factory machinery.
When the city was setting up Fire Department zones in the 1880s, the Aultman & Taylor Fire Men were designated—officially—as the Frogtown Hose Company No. 5
The Low Lands
During those Industrial Revolution decades of the 1800s, when all the grounds along the railroad tracks were filling up with factories, it was quite natural for the city to set up its electrical plant in Frogtown among the manufacturers, where all the high-powered work was being done.
This seemed like a no-brainer solution until the spring of 1913, when the Rocky Fork joined all the other waterways of Ohio in co-sponsoring the Great Flood of 1913.
As the crisis developed, the electric plant in the Flats was one of the early places to go underwater, and the city spent the worst nights of that epic storm in the dark.
Underbelly of Frogtown
When strangers arrived in Mansfield on the train, they disembarked in the heart of Frogtown; and if they were headed to the Commercial Districts uptown, or to the Governmental District on the Square, or to the Neighborhood Districts of Mansfield, they first had to navigate across the Flats.
It was a little less than a half mile from Union Station to the foot of the Hill at Fifth Street, and for more than half of Mansfield’s history that shady bit of turf provided much of the U.S. with its first impression of our city, which gave us a reputation for being particularly wide-open and somewhat unhinged from civility.
Rent was cheap, the livin’ was easy, and the Flats filled up with saloons, brothels, speakeasies, drug houses, flop houses, and gambling joints.
They called our city ‘Little Chicago,’ because the Flats was the Vice District of Mansfield.
There was a time during the glory days of Frogtown when American popular culture suddenly focused on bullfrogs, and people started telling their frog tales: in 1866, when Mark Twain’s story, known today as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” was printed in newspapers all across the nation including the Richland Shield & Banner.
It was during this national frog outbreak in the news when local reporters began covering the Frogtown beat in earnest. In the late 1860s we learned: 1) M. Fisher and W. Wright gigged 51 bullfrogs in 1 ½ hours behind Aultman & Taylor; 2) G. Logan came home with a record bullfrog that was 22 inches long and weighed 4 pounds; 3) Mrs. R. Canter was able to sell frogs for $7 a dozen; and 4) Miss Violet Cowmeadow (her real name) had a bullfrog living in her springhouse on Surry Road that she claimed was 100 years old.
The Song of Frogtown
I have heard many stories of the Flats, both funny and grim, and some day when you have time I’ll tell you a few of the crazier ones. But I have only one story of Frogtown, because some time in the 20thcentury those generations of Mansfielders who knew about it moved out of town and into the next world.
There was one old man, however, who was able to tell me what he remembered of Frogtown from when he was a young boy. His name was Obed, I never asked his last name, and he grew up on Newman Street with the Industrial Flats in his backyard. He was very familiar with all the haunts a boy would know by the Rocky Fork, the tracks and the wetlands between.
He told me that every year when he was a boy, in the early 1900s, the circus parked its trains in the back lot of Aultman & Taylor on some spur lines. The circus needed to unload all the big animals for a parade, and the A&T tracks were the closest a train could get to the circus grounds.
Obie was up at 4 in the morning on the day the circus was coming, and he dodged across the river on tufts of marsh to get to the tracks in time to greet the train. There was always a crowd there in the early dark, and it was an excited and impromptu celebration of strangers who gathered to catch a glimpse of the elephants and listen for a lion to roar.
Obed relayed this memory to me in context of Frogtown because he said that every year as they watched the circus roustabouts hard at work, the air was filled with not only excitement, but always with the loud roar of frogs at dawn. There in the midst of all that high-blooded anticipation, the circus soundtrack was a vast chorus of frogs.
To the end of his life he never heard frogs without thinking of the circus, and he never saw a circus without remembering frogs.
There could not be a more perfect epitaph to the memory of Frogtown.