THOMAS EDISON’S LIFE
The Edison Family
John Edison, great-grandfather of the inventor, originally settled in New Jersey during the colonial era. In the 1730s, he farmed a large tract of land not far from West Orange, New Jersey. (This is where Thomas A. Edison made his home some 160 years later.) Family fortunes fluctuated with the politics of the times. Like many well-to-do landowners, John Edison remained a Loyalist during the Revolution. Because of this, he was imprisoned and was, for a time, under sentence of execution but he was saved from this fate through the efforts of prominent Whig relatives. His lands were confiscated, however, and the family migrated to Nova Scotia. The Edisons remained in Nova Scotia until 1811, when they moved to Vienna, Ontario. Edison’s grandfather, Captain Samuel Edison, served with the British in the War of 1812.
In Ontario, Edison’s father, also named Samuel, met and married Nancy Elliott, a school teacher and daughter of Ebenezer Matthews Elliott, who was a captain in Washington’s army. The younger Samuel became involved in another political struggle — a much later and unsuccessful Canadian counterpart of the American Revolution known as the Papineau-MacKenzie Rebellion. Upon the failure of this rebellion, he was forced to flee across the border to the United States. After innumerable dangers and hardships, Samuel finally reached the town of Milan, Ohio, where he decided to settle. In Milan, Samuel established himself as a manufacturer of roof shingles and sent for Nancy and their five children to join him.
The Town of Milan
When the Edison family arrived in town to join Samuel (about 1840), Milan was entering the period of its greatest glory. Due to its location on the Huron River and the canal (built to link Milan to the Great Lakes), the town became a busy grain port. All sorts of commodities from every point in the state were conveyed to Milan in long wagon trains, then loaded aboard ships from warehouses that lined the banks of the canal. (One of the warehouses still stands by the abandoned canal basin.)
In 1847, 917,800 bushels of wheat were shipped from this port, making it the second largest wheat shipping port for an inland sea in the world after the Ukranian city of Odessa. Milan had also become a shipbuilding center, producing 75 lake vessels from 1840 to 1866.
By 1850, the advent of the railroads and consequent changes in transportation methods had put an end to the town’s great prosperity. The canal and the shipyard were eventually abandoned and the warehouses disappeared. Milan’s “golden age”, which had lasted only about ten years, was over — though shipments of grain continued until 1865.
The Birthplace House
According to records, the lot on which this house stands was bought in 1841 by Nancy Elliott Edison, mother of Thomas Alva Edison. Nancy and Samuel Edison started building their home, designed by Samuel, in the fall of the same year. Thomas Alva Edison was born in the house on February 11, 1847.
Edison’s parents sold the house in 1854, and the family moved to Port Huron, Michigan. The Birthplace was out of family ownership for the next forty years. In 1894, Edison’s sister, Marion Edison Page, bought the house and added a bathroom and other modern conveniences. Edison became the owner of his birthplace in 1906, and, on his last visit, in 1923, he was shocked to find his old home still lighted by lamps and candles! After the death of Thomas A. Edison from complications of diabetes on October 18, 1931, opening his birthplace to the public as a memorial and museum became the private project of his wife, Mina Miller Edison, and their daughter, Mrs. John Eyre Sloane. The Edison Birthplace Museum opened on the centennial of the inventor’s birth in 1947.
The house has been restored as nearly as possible to its 19th Century appearance. Because much of the Edisons’ original furniture was lost in moves and to a disastrous fire at their Port Huron Home, it was impossible to assemble much of the original furniture. Therefore, gifts and loans from members of the family have been supplemented by gifts and loans from friends and, in some cases, purchases of household articles of the period.
Today, this National Historic Site is maintained by the Edison Birthplace Association, Inc., a private, non-profit organization.