Buckeyemuse Road Trip: The Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton, Ohio

The Paul Laurence Dunbar State Memorial in Dayton, Ohio.

The Paul Laurence Dunbar State Memorial in Dayton, Ohio.

To visit the Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton, Ohio is to step back into the world of late Victorian America. You can almost hear the clop of horse hooves on cobblestones, smell the heavy tobacco of cigars and taste the earthy bite of old fashioned root beer as you walk through these rooms and look out the old windows at the cobblestone street and narrow side yard. Dunbar lived in this house for the last two years of his life and died on the first floor in the family parlor. His mother Matilda resided there until her death in 1934, after which the house was purchased by the state of Ohio in 1936. It has been since that time under the control of Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society) and is now managed for Ohio History Connection by the National Park Service. It is the country’s first publicly owned memorial to an African-American. It is more than well worth a visit for anyone who is interested in Dunbar, in American and African-American history and literature, or Ohio history. It opened in 1938.

“Candle-Lightin’ Time,” Dunbar’s first book to be published in the 20th century. It came out in 1901.

Paul Dunbar is one of America’s important late nineteenth century poets. He was born in Dayton on June 26, 1872. His parents had both been slaves. His father, a Civil War veteran, divorced Paul’s mother Matilda, and Matilda raised Paul on her own.

Matilda and Paul Dunbar. Matilda made every sacrifice she could to help her son succeed--a remarkable woman.

Matilda and Paul Dunbar. Matilda made every sacrifice she could to help her son succeed–a remarkable woman.

She did all she could to give him opportunities for success. Paul became an outstanding student and graduated from high school, where he edited the school newspaper and served as president of the literary society. But the young man found the outside world after high school to be much less welcoming. The hard realities of the color line closed off many options for the gifted young man.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar

He worked as an elevator operator in a downtown Dayton office building while continuing to write. He gave public readings whenever possible and self-published his first two books of poems, the second of which—Majors and Minors—found its way to prominent American novelist, critic, and man of letters William Dean Howells, himself a native Ohioan. Howells praised the book in the pages of the Atlantic, and Dunbar’s career took off. He became a popular and prolific poet, short story writer, journalist, and novelist. He also wrote lyrics for musical theater productions. He courted and married Alice Ruth Moore, later known as Alice Dunbar Nelson, a writer from New Orleans. He was a friend of Presidents and celebrities.

Alice Ruth Moore, Dunbar's wife, later known as Alice Dunbar-Nelson.

Alice Ruth Moore, Dunbar’s wife, later known as Alice Dunbar-Nelson.

By the time Dunbar returned to Dayton to live in the house he purchased for his mother for $4100, he was in bad shape. He was suffering from tuberculosis and his marriage to Alice Moore had fallen apart. The couple had separated, and Dunbar never saw his wife again after returning to Dayton. Dunbar had also become an alcoholic—doctors prescribed whiskey and other spirits for TB in those days—which worsened the condition—and Dunbar had also become dependent on drink to cope with the pressures of fame and heavy work demands. Dunbar died on February 9, 1906 at the age of thirty-three.

Dunbar and unidentified friend resting in yard outside of what is now the Paul Laurence Dunbar State Memorial.

Dunbar and unidentified friend resting in yard outside of what is now the Paul Laurence Dunbar State Memorial.

The Dunbar House is located at 219 Paul Laurence Dunbar Street, formerly North Summit Street. The site is part of the National Aviation Heritage Area, a historic district of eighteen sites centered on the Wright Brothers and the area’s importance in the development of flight and subsequent aviation history. Dunbar’s home is included within the district given his importance to Dayton history, his importance and excellence as a writer, his rise to fame in the years when the Wright brothers were at work developing their machines, and his friendship with the two men. Paul Dunbar and the Wright brothers were classmates. There is also an excellent display on Dunbar in the Wright Cycle Company and Visitor Center nearby. The Dunbar House is also part of a specific complex of six sites known as the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park.

Paul Dunbar's bicycle.

Paul Dunbar’s bicycle.

A visitors center was built next to the Dunbar House in the early 2000s as the house underwent restoration. The center has an excellent collection of Dunbar artifacts and handsome large-scale reproductions of covers of some of Dunbar’s books. The artifacts in the collection help bring Dunbar the man alive. Visitors can see his shoes, pipes, bicycle, baby dress, a slate tablet, a cane with flask and also the ceremonial sword he wore in President McKinley’s 1901 inaugural parade. Another displays case contains items Dunbar acquired on his travels in the western United States. Visitors also get to watch an interesting fifteen-minute film that relates details of Dunbar’s short life. Because Dunbar’s mother lived there for twenty-nine years after his death and preserved the house much as it was in his time, the house is a particularly compelling example of a well-preserved literary site. The early 21st century preservation effort helped restore the look of the rooms during the time Dunbar lived there.

Dunbar's cane with built-in flask.

Dunbar’s cane with built-in flask. Although hard to see, the flask is a small glass tube lying at the base of the cane.

The tour first takes you into the area of the house containing the parlors. There is a large formal parlor room where visitors can see the family Bible prominently displayed. Here Paul Dunbar and his mother would receive guests formally.

Formal parlor area in Dunbar home.

Formal parlor area in Dunbar home.

This room has pocket doors that separate it from a more intimate and private family parlor space. It was in this family parlor that Paul Dunbar died on February 9, 1906.

Fireplace in family parlor area.

Fireplace in family parlor area.

The tour next wends into a dining room, which features a rocking bench that belonged to Matilda Dunbar with a place where a baby could rest. Matilda rocked Paul on this bench when he was a child.

Rocking bench with board used by Matilda Dunbar.

Rocking bench with board used by Matilda Dunbar.

The dining room table is the centerpiece here, but another interesting feature is the hutch, which actually has a hideaway bed in the back.

Dining room in Dunbar house.

Dining room in Dunbar house.

Hutch with foldaway bed in back.

Hutch with foldaway bed in back.

Next is the kitchen. Because of Dunbar’s success, the family could afford not only a nice two story house but also a number of creature comforts that were unknown to other people, African-American or otherwise. The family had a phone, a gas stove, and a hot water heater.

Gas stove and water heater in kitchen of Dunbar home.

Gas stove and water heater in kitchen of Dunbar home.

Additional view of Dunbar kitchen including phone.

Additional view of Dunbar kitchen including phone.

Beyond the kitchen is a summer kitchen, where cooking was done in warmer weather, and where washing was done as well.

Summer kitchen in Dunbar home.

Summer kitchen in Dunbar home.

The tour continues upstairs. The first room is Matilda’s sewing room, and then her bedroom.

Matilda Dunbar's sewing room.

Matilda Dunbar’s sewing room.

Her bed features a striking quilt, and a number of smaller family photographs are displayed on the dresser.

Matilda Dunbar's bedroom.

Matilda Dunbar’s bedroom.

Next are two of the most remarkable rooms in the house: Dunbar’s bedroom and his study, or “loafin” holt.” In the bedroom sits Dunbar’s Remington typewriter on a small desk. One of his hat boxes and a pair of shoes rest on top of a chest at the foot of his bed.

Dunbar's bedroom desk and Remington typewriter.

Dunbar’s bedroom desk and Remington typewriter.

Paul Dunbar's bedroom.

Paul Dunbar’s bedroom.

Dunbar hat box and shoes.

Dunbar hat box and shoes.

Table in Paul Dunbar room with bowl and pitcher. A docent on one visit told me the smaller pitcher to the left was used for mixing scented waters as a kind of after-shave treatment.

Table in Paul Dunbar room with bowl and pitcher. A docent on one visit told me the smaller pitcher to the left was used for mixing scented waters as a kind of after-shave treatment.

The next room is the study that Dunbar referred to as his “loafin’ holt.” This is where Dunbar liked to read, write, and rest. During the past two times I have visited the house, docents have jokingly referred to the loafing holt as his “man cave.” The term is apt. Dunbar liked to spend long hours in the holt. The room has bookshelves containing many of his books, and souvenirs from his travels. Photos of his friends and family are displayed.

The daybed in Dunbar's

The daybed in Dunbar’s “loafin’ holt” upon which he died in February of 1906.

Desk and additional bookshelves in the loafing holt.

Desk and additional bookshelves in the loafing holt.

Dunbar often moved back and forth from the holt to his bedroom as he worked on his writing. The holt also contains the daybed Dunbar liked to relax on. He died on this daybed in the family parlor.

Shelves of Dunbar's books in the loafing holt.

Shelves of Dunbar’s books in the loafing holt.

Wall of loafing holt. The head is probably a souvenir from travel in Europe.

Wall of loafing holt. The head is probably a souvenir from travel in Europe.

The bathroom is the final stop on the upstairs tour. Visitors can see the old time sink, toilet, and bathtub, along with Dunbar’s large old fashioned toothbrush.

Sink with Dunbar's cup and toothbrush.

Sink with Dunbar’s cup and toothbrush.

The room also has a special hot water tank. A docent on one of my past visits informed me that the tank could also release quantities of steam into the bathroom, serving as a kind of humidifier.

Hot water tank and steam device in bathroom.

Hot water tank and steam device in bathroom.

Old fashioned toilet in Dunbar bathroom. Pipe is made of lead.

Old fashioned toilet in Dunbar bathroom. Pipe is made of lead.

One special item of interest is the wallpaper in the room. A small section of the original wallpaper was found behind a cabinet during the early 2000s while restoration was occurring, giving preservationists valuable guidance on the room’s original look. Reproductions of the original wallpaper were made.

Original wallpaper found in the Dunbar bathroom that proved invaluable to preservationists in the early 200s.

Original nautical-themed wallpaper found in the Dunbar bathroom that proved invaluable to preservationists in the early 2000s.

Reproduction wallpaper in Dunbar bathroom.

Reproduction wallpaper in Dunbar bathroom.

There are varying dates on when the house was constructed. One of the displays at the visitors center indicates that the house “was constructed in about 1880” and is “designed in a transitional style between Queen Anne and Italianate.” Other dates I have heard of include 1888 and 1894. The two story stable building where Dunbar kept horses and a sulky is still standing behind the house. The neighborhood during Dunbar’s time was middle class and also home to a number of immigrants from eastern Europe. The neighborhood today offers striking contrasts between well maintained older homes and more run-down properties, some of which are vacant and in the process of decay.

Dunbar stable.

Dunbar stable.

I first visited the Dunbar State Memorial in 2002 during the restoration period, twice in 2013 and then on June 26, 2015 to get some fresh photos for this blog entry and to double check some information. There have been some changes since my visits in 2013. At that time, the house was managed for Ohio History Connection by Dayton History, an agency within Montgomery County devoted to local history and historical preservation. Dayton History manages a number of the historical sites within the Aviation Heritage National Park. However, this agency no longer operates the Dunbar House. Day to day operations are now conducted by the National Park Service, although Dayton History still does some custodial and maintenance work at the Dunbar House site.

Cobblestone street running past the Dunbar House. The past is palpable here.

Cobblestone street running past the Dunbar House. The past is palpable here.

Admission is free. As of the date of this publication–June 27, 2015–the site is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Current information for the site is still listed on the Dayton History site. Here is that website: http://www.daytonhistory.org/destinations/paul-laurence-dunbar-house-historic-site/.

AS ALWAYS, call first to double check information if you are coming upon this entry at a later date. I always want folks to have smooth traveling!

During my last visit to the Dunbar House, I found myself reflecting on, and being grateful for, the people who had the foresight to recognize the importance of this house in the 1930s. We are the beneficiaries of their vision.

The Dunbar House is a wonderful example of a well-preserved literary site that has much to offer visitors. I think you will find it more than well worth your time to pay a visit.

Patrick Kerin

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