By BARRY GOODRICH
Dan Ruminski’s first Cleveland storytelling session came in front of members of the Gates Mills Historical Society. “I was expecting about 40 people,” he said. “And over 100 showed up.”
More than a decade later, Ruminski is a sought-after speaker for both public and private events and has appeared before more than 50,000 people. Known as the Cleveland Storyteller, he brings to life the people and places that made the city a haven for millionaires at the turn of the century and beyond.
A former history teacher at Gilmour Academy, Ruminski majored in political science at John Carroll University but has always been intrigued by the area’s history. Growing up in Wickliffe, he was exposed to old estates that captured his imagination.
“I’ve been bumping into Cleveland’s history all my life,” says the Chagrin Falls resident. “When Cleveland was getting beat up in the media, I thought I could use this (city’s history) to make people proud of the city. A lot of that negativity came from within Cleveland itself. Rather than get angry about the negativity, I wanted to arm people with responses, like the fact that we are the most generous city in the world when it comes to philanthropy.”
Ruminski specializes in the city’s heyday – from the late decades of the 19th century through the first three decades of the 20th century. His tales of John D. Rockefeller, Samuel Mather and Leonard Hanna have informed and entertained audiences from Chardon to Bay Village.
In 2018, Ruminski received the Herrick Memorial Award, a civic honor presented to a person whose accomplishments have promoted and brought honor to the city of Cleveland.
Many of Ruminski’s stories center on the city’s once iconic Millionaires Row, situated on Euclid Avenue. In an age before the automobile, mansions were built from Public Square to what would one day become Playhouse Square. Euclid Avenue had once been an old Indian trail that stretched all the way to Buffalo, N.Y.
“Rockefeller would walk to work, come home for lunch and a nap and walk back to work,” said Ruminski. “The millionaires all did business together and bought stock in each other’s companies. Building a mansion on Euclid was a way to show your status.”
A frequent visitor to Euclid Avenue was none other than Mark Twain, who declared it the grandest avenue in the land. “Twain spent a lot of time with the Severances and once thought about living on Euclid,” said Ruminski.
Many people forget that the automobile industry started in Cleveland, said Ruminski. “There were over 60 manufacturers of electric, steam and gas automobiles here. The word automobile was invented by a “Plain Dealer” writer. Henry Ford once applied to work for Alexander Winton here. He later ended up putting Winton out of business.”
Ruminski’s stories include that of Garrettsville native Clarence Crane, who invented Lifesavers. “It was originally invented as a breath mint,” he said. “Lifesavers were in all the bars in Cleveland…when a man went home to his wife, his breath smelled like a Lifesaver.”
Crane went on to build cottages in Chagrin Falls that would become the popular Gamekeeper’s Tavern and Inn. “One of Crane’s favorite visitors at the cottages was John D. Rockefeller, who drove out from his estate in Forest Hill,” said Ruminski.
One of Ruminski’s favorite stories is the time a young Bob Hope was selling newspapers downtown. Rockefeller approached Hope and handed him a $20 bill to buy a paper. When Hope said Rockefeller could pay him another time, the millionaire insisted Hope go and get change to complete the transaction. “Hope told that story for years,” said Ruminski.
Whether he’s speaking at a senior center or a corporate event, Ruminski begins each presentation by sitting in a comfortable chair, establishing an immediate rapport with the audience. And he speaks with no notes – all of his stories are memorized.
“I’ve never forgotten a story, although I do go off on tangents,” said the man who is never at a loss for words, particularly when it comes to his favorite subject – Cleveland.