Birthplace Site Struggles for Recognition

Although Thomas Alva Edison's footprint is stamped most deeply on New Jersey soil - most of his inventions having emerged from laboratories there - the folks of Milan, Ohio, still take credit for giving America's greatest inventor his start in the world.

The red-brick house where Edison was born on Feb. 11, 1847, the youngest of eight children, still stands a few miles south of the whizzing traffic of the Ohio Turnpike.

"I think it's definitely part of the town's identity. It's a real treasure," said Robert Wheeler, a descendant of Edison's oldest sister, Marion. "It shows that great people can come from little places."

But 150 years later, fewer and fewer people are pulling off the turnpike to visit Edison Birthplace Museum. Annual visits peaked at 23,000 in 1967 but are now less than half that. The site operates at an annual deficit of $20,000.

"It's a struggle every year," says Larry Russell, director of the museum since 1965. So too, he says, is it a struggle sustaining the memory of a long-dead inventor in this age of MTV and cyberspace - despite the fact that Edison is grandfather to today's technologies.

"It's sad. The young people just aren't interested," says Mr. Russell, now the museum's lone employee. Others were laid off and the museum relies on volunteers to conduct tours past photographs of the young Edison and into the room where he was born.

Unlike New Jersey's Edison National Historic Site, run by the National Park Service, the museum receives no public funds - despite attempts to convince the government to buy it.

"They weren't interested," Russell says. "They probably have their hands full with one Edison site and don't need another. So now we're on our own, and doing the best we can."

A local endowment fund was started in 1993. Progress has been slow - a few hundred dollars at a time - but $380,000 has been raised, and some debts paid. More money was raised during this month's celebration of Edison's birthday, including a few thousand dollars from the $40 birdhouses sold by the Milan Garden Club.

Now Milan (pronounced MY-lan) is hoping to finally receive public support. Federal legislation introduced Feb. 11 would sell commemorative Edison coins that would bring $1 million to the birthplace. The bill still needs more than 200 cosponsors, however, and similar bills died in 1994 and 1996.

If the bill passes, says Wheeler, who chairs the board of trustees, $1 million would go a long way toward keeping the museum's doors open.

And hopefully, he says, it will help pay for improvements that could draw more visitors into a town that looks much the same as it did when Edison was a boy. A town of nearly 1,500, whose mayor is a stone mason. A town with one traffic light. A town where many of the buildings date to the late 1800s.

"People say coming here is like going through a time warp," Wheeler says. "We're not ritzy or glitzy. But we're authentic, and we're proud of that."

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