The section of SR 303 just west of I-271 has experienced dramatic changes during the past century. What began as a row of farms, transformed into sharp angles of concrete and a field of pavement as the Richfield Coliseum rose above the treetops. Those who stayed on their land had a close up view of the huge arena's rise and eventual fall. By the early 21st century, Congress adjusted the boundaries of Cuyahoga Valley National Park to include the vacant Coliseum property. Following a dramatic demolition, the site was restored to nature, home to swaying grasses and singing birds.
Before the Richfield Coliseum, several farms occupied the over 327-acre site. The Bigelow, Roller, and Emmett families owned the largest farms on SR 303. These farmers raised vegetables, pigs, sheep, chickens, and Herford cattle. By the late 1960s, most families, including the Bigelows and Rollers, had sold the last of their farms to Nick Mileti, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Below hear former and current Richfield residents talk about life before the Coliseum.
Neighborhood of Farmers
Daniel Emmett remembers how Richfield used to look, why neighbors sold their land.
“As I said, in our neighborhood at one time there were eight or ten farms across there, and everybody was in the farming business so you had a common bound [sic]. When they bought the land for the Coliseum, and they offered the neighbors two thousand dollars an acre, there was a line. ~laughs~ That was a lot of money!”
Keeping the Land
Daniel Emmett remembers how Richfield used to look, why his family refused.
“Well, Gulf Oil came to my father and wanted to buy two acres for a gas station. Unfortunately, the two acres he wanted were the barn and the house. So my dad said that he wanted to sell the whole property. Now, you have to remember that wages were two bucks an hour, two-fifty an hour, three dollars an hour. That kind of a thing. Gulf Oil looked for buyers for the rest of the property, and he found Nick Mileti who owned the arena in Cleveland. And he was lookin' to build out, a way out of Cleveland, so people could get to and from the facility. And then they agreed on a price and my father sold the farm.”
The Coliseum's Heyday
From 1974 to 1994, the Richfield Coliseum served as the leading entertainment center for residents of the Cleveland-Akron area. Built for the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team, the Coliseum also hosted concerts and other memorable events. Surrounding residents heard the rumble of rock bands, battled heavy traffic, and even witnessed circus elephants walking up SR 303.
Walking through the Construction
2011 Oral History Project: Richard Bigelow describes walking through the area while the Coliseum was being built.
“The Coliseum for, I can't remember how many years, it was a great . . . 'cause I, at that time, was living in the farmhouse, so I watched every day. And Nick Mileti and I became friends. I prob'ly was in every section of that Coliseum, you know, as it was built, you know. I walked through there every Sunday. He would come. He and I'd have coffee, and we would walk through when it was mud and stuff like that. Hard to believe what the end results ended up being.”
Plans Not Realized
2011 Oral History Project: Warren Roller describes additional plans for the Coliseum complex.
“There was other plans. There was plans that where the Halesky farm was, there was supposed to be the Cleveland Indians baseball diamond, baseball field. And that property's parking lots were now supposed to join the Coliseum's. They did buy a lot of property along there. Dan Emmett, the next door neighbor, wouldn't sell. They bought across the street from us. And then the Rousch farm. They were supposed to put the football stadium, and it never materialized.”
2011 Oral History Project: Richard Bigelow remembers the parades of animals when the circus came to the Coliseum.
“Peninsula became pretty famous when the circus came to town. You know, they'd bring, they'd take, the animals would come in on the train, and they would walk 'em up 303. There was, you know, a lot of people came to Peninsula to watch the uh, when the circus came to town. Because they would, you know, bring 'em off the train and they would parade 'em all the way up 303 to the Coliseum when they had the circus.”
Going Up and Coming Down
2011 Oral History Project: Daniel Emmett recalls watching the Coliseum's construction and demolition.
“Well, when they were building it was interesting, seeing the steel work go up and the grading of the land. And it was also interesting when they tore it down. We saw it go up, we saw it come down.”
From Basketballs to Bobolinks
Once the Cavaliers moved to downtown Cleveland, the Coliseum stood vacant for several years as its owners, the Gund family, decided what to do with the property. To protect the neighboring national park and small communities from a major commercial development on their doorstep, they worked with the Trust for Public Land which acquired the property and oversaw the site's transformation. Workers tore up 80 acres of asphalt parking lots, swung the wrecking balls that demolished the arena, and added 5,000 pounds of topsoil.
As originally planned, The Trust for Public Land soon transferred ownership to Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which restored the property as natural habitat. Sixty acres of grassland now attract several species of rare birds, including the bobolink, Savannah sparrow, and eastern meadowlark.