On May 17, 1913, the General Conference of the United Brethren Church gave official approval to the establishment of Otterbein home on the Shaker lands four miles west of Lebanon. That action was expected, as the church had purchased the vast acreage, 4,005 acres, on Oct. 15, 1912 — making 1912 the official date of Otterbein Home’s founding.
The purchase of the land and its buildings was a happy coincidence, the result of the efforts of two Christian men, Dr. James M. Phillippi and James H. Fennessey. Dr. Phillippi was an associate editor of the Religious Telescope, a publication of the United Brethren Church. Upon the suggestion of Granville Hixson, one of the employees of Otterbein Press, Dayton, whose aunt lived at the Shaker community, he decided to visit the Christian group to obtain material for a feature article in the church paper. The visit took place on Aug. 9, 1912, and the article was published in the Sept. 1 paper.
Phillippi’s main contact at Union Village was James H. Fennessey. He was in poor health but still a keen businessman, having advanced through many jobs at Union Village until being appointed legal trustee in 1898. With a dwindling number of members, Fennessey moved all remaining Shakers into one family. He was able to pay off debts, turn a profit and accumulate a bank account of $125,000. However, he realized that Union Village could not continue. The Shakers wanted the land to remain, according to the original intent of the early Christian farmers who gave the land to the Shaker community, for use in humanitarian purposes.
Dr. Phillippi was the first to become aware of the possibilities of securing the property for use as an orphanage and old people’s home. Since Dr. Phillippi was raised by his mother in a very poor home, he vowed in his youth he would start an orphan’s home. His plan for an orphanage and home for the aged appealed to the Shakers, so they agreed to sell to the church the complex for $325,000. The United Brethren church agreed the Shakers could remain on the grounds as long as they wished.
On Oct. 14, 1912, Dr. Phillippi and Dr. W.R. Funk called together James M. Cox, William H. Washinger, Frederick H. Rike, Jay M. Cogan and G. M. Mathews. They agreed to act as incorporators and trustees for the proposed institution. After an inspection tour of the property the next day, a contract was signed that day to buy the property.
Dr. and Mrs. J.R. King became the first superintendent and matron, and were charged with the task of supervising the remodeling of the building, of establishing the policies and activities of the home and of developing the ongoing program of the new institution. They were to do this with limited funds.
Mrs. J.R. King once related that they “moved from Dayton to Otterbein Home in March of 1913. The trip to Otterbein Home was at that time a very difficult matter. They made the trip by horse and buggy.”
The understanding that the Kings had when they arrived was that no children would be taken into the home for a year, but the demands for a place for children were very high. A short time after their arrival, children began to be admitted. When the first children arrived, there were no sheets for the beds, so Mrs. King used some of her own.
The first adult to enter the home was Miss Cynthia Parish of West Alexandria, Ohio. She was admitted on April 3, 1913. The first children were Carl, Russell and Leona Shimer, from Carey, Ohio. At the same time, the three sons of William Dickensheets were admitted. Both the young and old were housed in a building known as the Boy’s Building. In October 1914, the Old People’s Home was ready. One of the first things done at the home was the organizing a church. In 1915, church membership was 47 people.
Held April 28, 1915, the third annual board meeting recommended the establishment of a creamery, the erection of a power plant, the remodeling of the old post office building for establishing the home for Missionaries’ Children, provision for better and additional school facilities and a more constructive approach to the home’s debt.
Growing from that small start, what is known as Otterbein Senior Lifestyle Choices today is made up of five lifestyle communities — Cridersville, Lebanon, North Shore, Portage Valley and St. Marys; and five skilled nursing and rehab neighborhoods — Middletown, Mainville, Monclova, Perrysburg and Springboro. They also provide home health services.
The childcare program ended in 1963, but since then Otterbein Home has provided care for the aging population. In a newspaper article (April 25, 2012), Dan Sack, Otterbein Senior Lifestyle Choice charitable gift planner, said, “We are looking to honor our past, recognize the vision of today and look down the road to tomorrow.” That may well be 100 more years.
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