SIDNEY — Mary Ann Olding was named Shelby County Historical Society’s Historian of the Year for 2019, but her career as a historian dates back to over 50 years, to her first trip to Paris in 1968.
“It was my first introduction to a big world. I saw people living in buildings that are 500 years old, and saw cathedrals that are 800 years old, and I thought, something is wrong with the United States,” Olding said. “They have an elegance and a reverence and a classiness that we’ve totally lost.”
It was this revelation that lit the spark for Olding, who was 29 and traveling with Ohio Northern University at the time, to look into architecture from a historical standpoint. She graduated from Wright State University in 1971 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education and immediately went into teaching English and History at St. Henry Middle School for six years, before being named regional director of the Ohio Historic Preservation Office in 1977. Her resume includes teaching American Architecture at the graduate level, being director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, being a historic specialist for FEMA in wake of the Katrina disaster, and teaching English as a second language. In addition to this, Olding has contributed more than 40 nominations to the National Register of Historic Places for sites, buildings, districts, and thematic groups. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the historical contributions she’s made over a prolific career.
“I get these hair-brained ideas, it just comes to me. It’s like a little worm getting in my brain, about something that sounds interesting and I don’t know the answer to. Normally I wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning and I see it, I see the vision of how it could work,” Olding said.
One project she worked on, “German Immigrant Fieldstone Buildings in Hamilton County, Ohio”, was the result of simple curiosity while working on a historic map of Hamilton County. While driving around, she noticed several stone barns with big arches, which was unusual for Ohio, and something she couldn’t shake.
“This doesn’t come from history books, this is from my eyes and the landscape. In Germany, they have these stone barns with that big arch, and I go, ‘how come all these stone buildings and houses are around here?’ Well, you look it up, and it’s a whole German community that came here, and they’re still here. It gives context to why all those buildings look the way they do,” Olding said.
When considering someone for Historian of the Year, the Shelby County Historical Society puts a strong emphasis into a person’s contributions to local history. Olding’s resume is not lacking in that respect by any means; in the 1970s and 1980s she worked on several projects in Shelby County, such as “Land of the Crossed-Tipped Churches” which profiled Catholic churches and similar architecture in the Gothic revival style that dominate the area around Auglaize County, Darke County, Mercer County, and Shelby County. She contributed to a booklet, “Their Buildings Now,” which examines the architecture of Sidney Courthouse Square and was submitted to the National Register of Historic Buildings in 1981.
“She was partly responsible for our downtown being put as an accredited historic area. She knows people from all over the world and the state, and she has connections with all of them. Even though she travels a lot, she still has her roots in our area, and wants our history to flourish,” Shelby County Historical Society Vice President Faye Spangler said.
For Olding, when it comes to history, and why knowing history is important, it all boils down to preservation — buildings, land, water and air.
“God puts us here to protect this Earth, and we’re not doing a very good job of it,” Olding said. “My thing is, if you look at everything — it’s preservation, of what is here and given to us. And if people don’t know it’s there and why it’s different and why it’s important, they don’t have any inclination to save it.”
Reach the writer at 937-538-4825.