From its start as pioneer town to its reign as the cheese center of the nation, Aurora has seen many changes in its 200 years. Before 1799, Aurora was merely a spot on the map of the Connecticut Western Reserve, a parcel of land drawn in a lottery by members of the Big Beaver Land Co. comprised of citizens of Suffield, Conn.
The new landowners contracted Capt. Ebenezer Sheldon, a former Revolutionary War soldier, to settle their land and act as their agent. Having suffered business reversals, Sheldon at age 45 looked to the Western Reserve for a fresh start.
Leaving his family behind, Sheldon traveled the south route to Ohio through Pittsburgh and had the distinction of being the first white man to enter the township for the purpose of settling.
The site of Sheldon’s first log cabin, built with the help of Elias Harmon, lies east on Pioneer Trail near the edge of the township on prime property straddling the Chagrin River. After carving out a bit of civilization in the wilderness, Sheldon retrieved his family from Connecticut and they became the first family in Aurora.
For three years the Sheldon’s nearest neighbors were in other townships. Eventually, more pioneers moved west, lured by stories that trickled east and told of rich soil, abundant game and powerful waterfalls to run mills.
They came by wagon and ox cart through Pittsburgh as Sheldon had done, or through New York and down rivers to Aurora, their dreams of a land of milk and honey packed with their precious few possessions.
Seventy-two people came in 1807 alone, beginning the exodus that would carve roads from forests and sprout cabins throughout the township.
Much of the township’s settlement edged the three main roads of Aurora, the first being the Cleveland-Warren Road (Pioneer Trail and Route 43 north), constructed in 1802 by Ebenezer Sheldon.
The second was the Chillicothe Turnpike, which began at Lake Erie, splitting the small towns it passed through as it ran south until it reached Aurora, where it swerved southwest to Hudson and ended at the state capital of Chillicothe. The local segment is now called Aurora-Hudson Road.
The third was Bissell and David (Old Mill) roads. By opening up landlocked property for settlement through road construction, the Connecticut Land Co. encouraged purchasers of the land to actually settle and not just hold the property for speculation.
The land at the intersection of the early roads was a breeding ground for commerce as taverns, inns and stores were built to service settlers and travelers. Aurora developed three major areas of commerce; the first along Chillicothe Road is what is known as the Town Center area.
By the middle of the 1800s, this road was lined with two tailors, wagon and paint shops, a blacksmith, a harness maker, three shoemakers, two doctors, an attorney, the Aurora Academy School, a farmer’s store, two general stores, two hotels and two taverns.
The second major commercial area was Aurora Station, also called Howardville after the Howard family, which operated a grist mill and sawmill; and Slab City, so named because of the waste slabs of lumber from nearby mills stacked in piles in the valley.
This area centered around the intersection of Garfield Road and the Chagrin River, a major source of water power. Along this river, waterwheels churned out the products of two sawmills, a grist mill, a tannery, shoe shops, an ashery, a wood shop, a woolen factory, a blacksmith, a cheese factory and warehouse, and a general store.
Centerville Mills was a third commercial area, located near Chillicothe and Crackel roads and the Chagrin River. Prior to 1820, mills began to spring up along this hilly stretch.
Between the Aurora Station area and northwest up the river toward Solon, five sawmills and grist mills turned their waterwheels like gears in the industrial engine that was springing to life.
At one time, the Centerville Mills area boasted a cluster of homes, a brickyard, tannery, school, blacksmith, shoemaker and carding-woolen mill.
As lucrative as this myriad of business was to Aurora, the town owed much of its fame to one industry – cheese.
Oddly enough, tradition relates that in 1819 this industry got its start from two young apple thieves who skipped town to avoid apprehension. They traveled south to New Orleans, where they noticed English cheese selling for $1 a pound.
After returning to Aurora and making amends for their misdeeds, Harvey Baldwin, the entrepreneur of the duo, gathered up one ton of cheese and journeyed down the Ohio River selling his cargo along the way.
Back in Aurora, the seed of profit was planted, and gradually more and more homes were converted to accommodate the new industry.
Cheese making was a laborious process carried out mainly by the pioneer women, but the main obstacle to the growing industry was distribution to increasing numbers of markets. The arrival of the steam railroad in Aurora in 1856 alleviated much of this problem.
Local cheese barons such as Hopson Hurd and his son Frank, and Willis J. Eldridge were instrumental in the industry’s growth, building local factories to make cheese in uniform sizes and grades to command higher prices than the products sold by local farmers.