Coliseum History


       On September 23, 1935, Congressman William A. Ashbrook of Ohio’s 17th district announced the approval of fourteen Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects for Ashland County. The largest of these was the construction of a “large exhibition building” at the county fairgrounds. [1]

            Construction of the building that became the Coliseum began on November 6, 1935. According to records kept in the National Archives, the building was to be used year round as well as during the county fair. It was expected that it would be useful because it was far larger than any other assembly hall then located in Ashland. It would accommodate about 2,000 people. Prior to its construction, the largest assembly hall in the city held only 400 people. The federal government allocated $6,880 for the project, while the local sponsors—the county commissioners—were to match those funds with an additional $10,686.[2]

            According to a history written by Frank Telakowicz in the Ashland Times-Gazette on September 26, 1987, the coliseum was “a pet project” of John Lincoln Smith who was a fair board member during the 1930s and 1940s. He wanted “an enclosed arena to show off his Percheron draft horses.” He was undoubtedly not the only person in the area who wanted such a venue.

            The building was placed on the former site of a large barn owned by C. J. Latter. That barn had been destroyed by a tornado on January 18, 1929. Latter could be called the father of the Ashland County Fair, since he had been instrumental in starting the county fair with a racetrack he laid out on his own farm in the 1920s. Latter loved horses and was a racing enthusiast who worked tirelessly to form the Ashland Racing Company, which sponsored an annual fair from 1923 to 1927. Out of that organization sprang the Ashland County Agricultural Society which has managed the county fair under the auspices of the County Commissioners ever since.

            Contractor Don D. Hootman of Polk was the foreman for the Coliseum project. He was involved in construction of many buildings on the fairgrounds, including the grandstand and several of the horse barns. His son Myron remembered that at the time there were only two electric saws in Ashland County. Ohio Edison owned one of them and Hootman had the other. The wood for the project was donated by local farmers and hauled by John Dinsmore and his father Robert.[3]

            Laurence Russell was the architect for the Coliseum and M. P. Lichtenwalter was the structural engineer. At the time, both men were engineers with ODOT. Russell was an architect in Ashland for fifty years and during that time designed more than 900 projects in the area. Among his work are prominent buildings including the Municipal Building, the YMCA, Taft, Edison, and Dale Roy schools, several buildings on the Ashland University campus, and First Federal Bank (now First Merit) on Main Street. He studied architecture at Ohio State University and worked for a Mansfield firm for eight years before opening his office in Ashland.[4]

It seems likely that Russell and Lichtenwalter’s experience with bridges inspired the use of the bowstring truss that creates the distinctive rounded roof of the Coliseum. That truss allowed the roof to span the arena without the need for internal posts in the wide, open space. Metal trusses were used in the Coliseum, but Don Hootman later developed his own wooden adaptation, which was used in several commercial buildings in the Ashland area, including Mozelle Hall on the fairgrounds, constructed by Don’s son Myron in 1955.

The Coliseum cost $20,000, with funds provided by the county commissioners, WPA funds, and local subscription. The completed building was 141 feet wide and 200 feet long, with an arena 80 by 200 feet. It featured stands seating 800, plus 24 private boxes, as well as accommodations for 60 horses in 40 single stalls and 20 box stalls.

Dedication


The Coliseum was dedicated during a two-day horse show sponsored by the Ashland Riding Club and held at the fairgrounds on June 26-27, 1936. Exhibitors from around the state brought 78 horses to compete in 18 classes for $550 in cash prizes as well as silver trophies and ribbons. Ashland competitors included Mary Miller, P. C. Fritzinger, Joe Brown, and Burris and son.

A special notice in the Times-Gazette on June 25, 1936 encouraged Ashlanders to feel a sense of public ownership of the new Coliseum. It boldly noted that “Your ticket to the horse show is your subscription to the Building fund….The huge building…will be a sight to behold….you’ll be greeted by the committee and made to feel that the place is yours.”[5]

The Coliseum building committee really put on the ritz for this horse show. The building was professionally decorated by the J. W. Thompson company of Columbus with red, white, and blue bunting that nearly hid the great steel girders above. The newly installed lights shone brightly, and the arena and seats had been carefully watered to prevent a speck of dust (according to the Times-Gazette article of June 27, 1936.)

The newspaper account testifies that the crowd that filled the Coliseum was treated to a fine show. The crowd was especially pleased when Judge Samuel L. Haynes of Cincinnati awarded blue ribbons in two classes to the chestnut mare Sweet Senorita, owned by Mary Miller of Ashland.[6]

The formal dedication of the Coliseum was held at 2:30 on Saturday. Chairman H. M. Clark of the building committee plugged the generous spirit of Ashland County and the donors of materials, time, and money who enabled the structure to be built. He concluded that “this Coliseum was cooperatively built and should be cooperatively used.”

County Commissioner W. W. Barnhill then expressed gratitude to all who contributed to the building, and formally accepted it on behalf of the county.

            As part of the dedication, the crowd was treated to a special exhibition of Peter-at-Law, the champion Standardbred owned by C. P. Gongwer and David Reed. He was supposed to have been driven by Matthew Laird, a native Ashlander who was then the oldest driver competing on the Grand Circuit, but Laird was unable to attend due to illness. Mr. Laird was 81 years old at that time![7] 

            As an interesting side note, Peter-at-Law made a return appearance at the fairgrounds three years later to inaugurate the new track and grandstand, which was also built by D. D. Hootman.

            Ironically, on the same page of the newspaper that carried the above glowing account of the dedication of the Coliseum building, there was a small article under the headline “Fire Destroys Hootman Barn.” It related that on Sunday—the day after the dedication of the Coliseum—the barn on Don Hootman’s farm near Polk burned to the ground when a new load of hay spontaneously combusted.

***

The Coliseum at the Ashland County Fairgrounds thus celebrates eighty years of use in 2016, and although I may be biased (being the great-granddaughter of Don Hootman), I think it has been a fine addition to Ashland County’s heritage. It was constructed of native Ashland County timber donated by local farmers. The laborers who built it were all local. The architect who designed it and the contractor who directed construction were Ashland County born and raised. The federal government supplied $6,880 for the project, but the majority of the funds were raised by Ashland taxpayers and local donations. This was obviously a project dear to the heart of Ashland’s people.

 Furthermore, in the past eighty years the Coliseum has proved a valuable asset to the people of Ashland. It is the site of countless horse shows throughout the year, as well as the many events it houses during the fair each year. This year, auctions of Morgan horses, Haflingers, and Dutch Harness horses are all scheduled to take place in the Coliseum, drawing buyers and sellers from far and near. As the speakers at its dedication hoped, it is “cooperatively used” by the people of Ashland County, and is a center of this community. It is a fine gathering place for the people of Ashland to enjoy and be proud of, because it is truly theirs, from foundation to roof!



[1] Ashland Times-Gazette, September 23, 1935.

[2] National Archives (69-N-43-7056-C)

[3] Telakowicz, Ashland Times-Gazette September 26, 1987.

[4] Laurence Russell obituary. Ashland Times-Gazette, February 28, 1992.

[5] Ashland Times-Gazette, June 25, 1936.

[6] Ashland Times-Gazette, June 27, 1936.

[7] Ashland Times-Gazette, June 29, 1936.

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