When Gary first mentioned that downtown Findlay, OH reminded him of downtown Keene, NH, I thought he’d surely lost his mind. What? How could a Midwestern town in the confessed Middle of Nowhere compare with the quaint charm of my beloved New England town? It wasn’t until I saw the painted ladies of Sandusky Street that I began to think that Findlay and Keene might secretly be sister cities.

Last summer, I blogged about an architectural heritage tour I’d gone on here in Keene, and I illustrated a subsequent entry with pictures of several of the restored Queen Anne houses on Court Street: Keene’s painted ladies. On that tour, I learned that Keene’s industrial heyday after the Civil War–a time when the railroad ran through town and carted off goods manufactured at local textile mills, furniture factories, and brickyards–is embodied in the architecture of Keene’s older buildings, which themselves reflect a late 19th century penchant for Italianate, Victorian, and Second Empire houses. Although factory workers lived in humble brick or wooden homes, their bosses–and the factory owners–built elaborate houses showing off the latest architectural styles. If factory work was a grind for common laborers, industrial bossmen and venture capitalists alike wanted to perpetuate the belief that a rich man’s home was his castle.

Although I knew this much about the architectural heritage of Keene, NH, I never stopped to consider that Findlay, OH might have had an industrial heyday of its own during the years after the Civil War. In my mind, Ohio has always been at least a couple generations behind whatever is happening on either coast; in my mind, the quintessential Midwestern architectural style is either the ubiquitous ranch or the inexpensive bungalow. So imagine my surprise when I took a drive around Findlay’s downtown and discovered that this Ohio town surrounded by corn and soybean fields has more than a few beautifully restored 19th century houses: the painted ladies of Sandusky Street.

As it turns out (all my deprecatory attitudes about my home state notwithstanding), Findlay wasn’t always a Midwestern backwater. Back in the late 1800s, when the entire nation was experiencing a commercial flurry that Mark Twain dubbed the Gilded Age, Findlay, OH wasn’t the Middle of Nowhere: Findlay, OH was the Middle East of the Midwest.

In Findlay, they call it the Gas Boom. Although the phrase “Gas Boom” brings to mind the unfortunate image of a match strike gone wrong, it turns out that Findlay’s petroleum reign did start with a surprise explosion. Back in 1836 when a farmer named Richard Wade tried to dig a well on his land in Ohio’s Hancock County, he was disappointed to find the well stank. Lighting a torch to investigate, Wade experienced the first oops! of northwest Ohio’s Gas Boom: an explosive upwelling of natural gas that made him look for water elsewhere.

It wasn’t until after the Civil War that industrialists discovered that oil and natural gas–the stinky stuff that polluted northwest Ohio wells–could be put to commercial use. Starting in 1884, natural gas was pumped from Ohio’s petroleum fields to neighboring towns where it fueled genteel lamps and stoves. In 1886, the massive Karg Well was tapped on the rural outskirts of Findlay. Producing some 12,000,000 cubic feet of natural gas per day at a nearly uncontrollable pressure, the prolific Karg Well led folks to believe that natural gas was an undepletable resource that would renew itself as quickly as it was spent. With a nonchalance that screams “Gilded Age,” locals left their gas stoves and lamps burning 24 hours a day, opening windows when their lavishly furnished homes overheated.

Commercially, Hancock County petroleum wells provided fuel for local glassworks: if it weren’t for Findlay, Toledo would never have become the self-proclaimed Glass Capital of the world. (During one of my walks last week, I happened upon a historical marker that proclaimed Findlay to be the world’s Glass Capital…but having lived in Toledo for some five years, I know that honor goes to Findlay’s northern neighbor.) An abundant supply of natural gas and oil from the Trenton Field between Lima and Findlay helped assure Ohio’s brief status as America’s top petroleum producer. In 1896, there were 6,456 oil wells in Ohio, leading a venture capitalist by the name of John D. Rockefeller to make his first investment in American petroleum…the industry that would ultimately make his fortune.

In a 1889 book titled Findlay Illustrated, publisher H.R. Page gushed about the splendor resulting from Findlay’s Gas Boom, pointing to the town’s lavishly stylish architecture as a sign of its opulence and sophistication:

“THE CITY HAS BECOME in a measure a kind of Mecca and men journey from long distances to view its wonders, even as the Queen of Sheba visited Jerusalem to behold the wonders of the temple and hearken to the wisdom of Solomon. But few people who come from afar to visit the city, unless they have become acquainted with its history, would imagine that it had a history dating back about a century. Everything looks as new and is so expensive, the evidence of thrift is so apparent on every hand, that the stranger imagines it to be a city of yesterday, with a growth so rapid and a development as sudden as the magical cities of the far west.

“The city has one of the widest and prettiest Main streets to be seen in northwestern Ohio and it has recently been connected with the north side by a handsome iron bridge 100-feet wide. It is divided into right and left compartments, while through the center, passes the track of the Main Street car line which extends from Chamberlain’s Hill on the south, where a number of beautiful and costly residences have been erected, notable those of Ex-Senator David Joy and R.E. Peabody to the Bigelow Hill, west of the Wetherald Wire Nail Works, a distance of about four miles.

“This elegant thoroughfare, especially south of Lima Street, abounds in fine residences on either side. They are elegant homes, surrounded by pretty grounds which in a few years will transform into bowers of beauty.”

Like most of the booms of the Gilded Age, Ohio’s Gas Boom eventually went bust. Those petroleum fields weren’t inexhaustible, and Ohio gas is tainted with a nauseating sulphur stink. (Even when I attended college in Toledo in the late 1980s, the well water pumped for campus lawn sprinklers reeked of sulphur, forcing University tour guides like me to explain why our grassy green campus smelled like rotten eggs.) Even a century after Ohio’s gas-fueled Gilded Age dimmed, however, her painted ladies live on, pristinely restored as a witness to Findlay’s faded grandeur.

Keene and Findlay just might be sister cities after all, each of them coming of age during an era of industrial wealth and architectural splendor that is gone but not entirely forgotten.