PORTAGE PATHWAYS: 'Natural commoner' D.C. Coolman was banker, politician and more

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D.C. Coolman's long life spanned a remarkable period in Portage County's history, from the advent of the canal era to the coming of the railroad to the dawn of aviation.

The Ravenna native -- "a man of versatile genius" -- enjoyed a series of careers that mirrored the changing fortunes of his hometown over a period of more than six decades.

He became a wealthy man, but remained a humble one. "Humanity meant more to him that pomp or proud distinction," the Ravenna Republican observed upon the death of one of the community's most prominent citizens in 1917.

Born Feb. 16, 1828, in Ravenna, DeWitt Clinton Coolman was named in honor of DeWitt Clinton, an American political leader who was the driving force behind the construction of the Erie Canal while serving as governor of New York. Clinton died five days before the birth of his Portage County namesake, who was known throughout his life by his initials.

The Coolman family's roots in Portage County dated to the pioneer era. D.C. Coolman's grandfather, William Coolman Sr., was a German immigrant -- originally named Kuhlman -- who settled in Shalersville on a 200-acre farm in 1810. His son, William Jr., the father of D.C. Coolman, was a veteran of the War of 1812 who served as Portage County sheriff, a three-term state representative and editor of the Western Courier, Portage County's first weekly newspaper. He was involved in the construction of the Pennsylvania & Ohio Canal and the Cleveland & Pittsburgh Railroad and served as vice president of the Atlantic & Great Western Railroad, the forerunner of the Erie Railroad.

D.C. Coolman left Ravenna to attend Alleghany College in Meadville, Pa., but cut short his education at 19 to begin his first career -- as an engineer with the C & P Railroad in 1847. He was said to be an exceptional mathematician and apparently had an aptitude for engineering because he held a number of engineering assignments for the next 20 years, including serving with the Clinton Air Line railroad and spending 12 years as chief engineer of the Atlantic & Great Western Railroad.

He was one of the founders of the Second National Bank of Ravenna, which was organized in 1864. He joined several of its directors in a partnership in Diamond Glass Co. of Ravenna, which manufactured window glass and later became one of the community's leading industries during the late 19th Century, when several glassworks flourished. He eventually became sole proprietor of the firm.

Shortly after becoming a leader of industry, he acquired a community landmark, the former Tappan Female Institute, a large two-story residence that had housed a school for girls. Located on the northeast corner of present-day Clinton Street and Lafayette Avenue, the structure was an imposing one set on a hillside accessible only by a private drive. Coolman bought the seven-acre site in 1869 for $15,000 -- the equivalent of roughly $250,000 today -- and spent several thousand more dollars improving it.

He bestowed a new name on his home -- Clinton Terrace. His residence soon became a gathering place for political activities as Coolman -- "a lifelong and aggressive Democrat" in a town where Republicans dominated politics -- became active in politics at the local, state and national level.

"During the Coolman years, the house was a center at which political leaders in state and national campaigns of the Democratic Party met," historian E.Y. Lacey wrote in 1929.

Coolman became a frequent candidate for office-- although never a successful one.

He ran for Congress in 1868 against a future president, James A. Garfield, who had spent much of his life in Hiram. Although the district was "hopelessly Republican," he ran ahead of his ticket in his losing race. He made a bid for state representative in the 1880s and came within 18 votes of defeating Dr. Aaron Sherman of Kent, the GOP candidate.

He set his sights on higher office in 1887, making a statewide bid for lieutenant governor. He lost again.

His involvement with the Democratic Party -- which included serving as a delegate to four national conventions -- ultimately paid off in 1892 when he was named postmaster of Ravenna, a patronage post. He served for four years until the White House changed hands.

In addition to his activities as a banker, businessman and politician, Coolman also was involved in Masonic activities, was one of the earliest members of the Order of Odd Fellows and a leader of Grace Episcopal Church. He served on the Ravenna Board of Education for several years and was a musician -- "the best bugler in Ohio," in the words of the Ravenna Republican.

He was a man of many interests with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. "He was a natural commoner," the Republican observed, "a man of versatile generosity lending his talents to whatever was intended for community interest."

D.C. Coolman was 89 years old when he died at Clinton Terrace on Oct. 4, 1917. "Few in his sphere have invited more universal esteem," the Republican reported in its final tribute to the community leader.

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