PORTAGE PATHWAYS: Swiss woodcarver found home, career in Ravenna

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Funeral coaches helped put Ravenna on the map as the home of Merts & Riddle Coach and Hearse Co., which became one of the community's leading employers in the late 19th Century.

Charles Merts and Henry Warner Riddle were brothers-in-law who purchased the Clark Carriage Co. in 1861, upgraded its product line and expanded into the production of hearses, a niche market that proved profitable and earned the Ravenna firm a national reputation. Several presidents were carried to their final resting places in hearses made in Ravenna.

The hearses were ornate conveyances that included fine woodwork and hand-carved trim. Skilled artisans were needed for the detailed work, and many came to Ravenna from Europe.

Among them was Caleb Ebersold, a Swiss-born woodcarver who was 24 years old when he immigrated to the United States in 1878. After settling briefly in Atwater, he came to Ravenna in 1879 and went to work for the hearse manufacturer, remaining with the firm for the rest of his life.

In addition to his work with the Riddle firm, Ebersold became known as a talented artist whose carvings found homes in many residences in northern Ohio.

His creations included two major works with Native American themes. "Death of Sitting Bull," considered to be his most notable work, was a wood sculpture that was said to have been remarkable for its lifelike rendering of the Indian leader. "Oath of Vengeance" depicted seven life-sized figures, in the words of the Ravenna Republican, "each an individual of savage revenge."

Ebersold displayed them throughout the county as examples of his artistry, presumably in a bid to gain other commissions.

Two of his works, wooden figures of a boy and girl, were donated to the Portage County Historical Society in the early 1970s. They had been acquired by a Ravenna family who owned them for several decades before giving them to the society.

According to the Republican, Ebersold lived a "simple, kindly life," preferring "a quiet retreat 'far from the madding crowd' where he could think about his inspirations."

He remained employed by the hearse firm for nearly 40 years. His sons, Fred and William, who also were skilled woodcarvers, worked there with him.

Caleb Ebersold was 62 years old when he died at his home at 405 S. Chestnut St. in Ravenna on Oct. 17, 1917. "I am going home," according to the Ravenna Republican,were his final words.

"The passing of this talented citizen is a great loss to the community and the world of art," the Republican observed. "Although his hands have been stilled and his body has been consigned to the earth, the light of his genius and fine character will shine on as that of a star lost to earthly vision."

The Riddle hearse works where Caleb Ebersold was employed for nearly four decades didn't survive him by many years. Doomed by the advent of the automotive age, it passed into history in the early 1920s -- although a sign advertising its location remains faintly visible on Riddle Block No. 5, the business block at Main and North Prospect streets in downtown Ravenna that continues to bear the family name more than 90 years later.

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