Restoring Pride: Cornelia Dettmer '53

By Corinne Militello '98

Unlike so many small towns & villages across America that are disappearing with the expansion of shopping malls & box stores, Manchester, Ohio, has been given a second chance.

The historic Appalachian town lured Cornelia Dettmer ’53 out of retirement & into the roles of town physician, flood plain administrator, & finally, mayor.


Cornelia Dettmer '53
Cornelia Dettmer '53

For decades, Dettmer, a radiation oncologist, treated cancer patients and directed hospice services in her hometown of Cincinnati. She first visited Manchester (about an hour east of Cincinnati with a population of just more than 2,000) in the 1960s. When she returned to Manchester 20 years later, she found the house she had long admired was up for sale, and she bought it. “The Ridge,” as it was called, is a “big, beautiful brick house” built by one of the town’s founding families in the 1850s. Dettmer, who still lives there, turned it into a bed and breakfast.

When the town’s only local doctor moved away, Dettmer acquired his practice and became part of the fabric of Manchester life. She recalled one of her first days on the job, when a patient emerged from her office and allayed the fears of curious waiting room of patients. “She’s okay,” he told them. The acceptance and trust that Dettmer earned as the town physician helped her connect with many long-time residents — and ultimately led her into local politics.

Business was slow at the bed and breakfast, and Dettmer realized that to attract tourists, someone had to “straighten up the town.” In 1998, she volunteered to be Manchester’s flood plain administrator. The Federal Emergency Management Authority had threatened to stop providing assistance to the town because residents failed to comply with building regulations designed to prevent flood damage. “We had laws in place but no one ever enforced them,” Dettmer said.

“Dr. Dettmer appointed new committees because the old ones were not doing what they were supposed to be doing,” said Darla McFarland, a lifelong resident of Manchester whose family has been involved in local politics. “She has quite a vision to see the community grow and prosper.”

Manchester is the fourth oldest settlement in Ohio. Its main street, US 52, is about 15 blocks and three traffic lights long; it was once described in the Columbus Dispatch as “pocked with empty storefronts, broken glass, and deteriorating buildings.” “We were pretty ugly,” Dettmer recalled. But she approached Manchester political life with care and optimism. “I saw a terminal town,” she said, “and all my cancer instincts came to the fore. I have a hospice here for Manchester.”

Ultimately, Dettmer ran for mayor, on the platform “Restore Pride in Manchester.” She defeated the incumbent mayor, winning more than 75 percent of the vote, and took office in 2000, just after the town’s police department folded.

Manchester Mayoral Office
Manchester Mayoral Office

In the early 1900s, Manchester was home to a factory that produced buttons from Ohio River mussel shells. Over the years, two furniture factories, a pottery factory, and a mill were among the town’s major employers. Industry is long gone now, and most residents travel 50 to 90 miles to Cincinnati or adjacent Kentucky towns for work. “I just wish they all could work here,” Dettmer said. Realizing that tourism was the town’s most promising means of moving toward that goal, Dettmer was creative in her approach to improving the town.

A tourism consultant told her, “The Ohio River should be our front yard, not our backyard.” Dettmer “invented” three townwide events — Spend Saturday in Manchester, Founder’s Day, and Kinfolk’s Landing Days (named after the steamboat and showboat landing that flourished in the mid-1800s); established the town bird (blue heron) and the town fish (blue catfish); and encouraged fishing off of Kinfolk’s Landing and two small islands in the Ohio River. With a grant from the Ohio Arts Council, she commissioned a local artist to paint historical scenes in the second-floor windows above the storefronts. Another grant allowed the town to buy benches and new awnings, clean up the sidewalks, and install historic plaques. “If I suggest a project, people will pitch in,” Dettmer found. In 2001, US 52 was designated a national scenic bi-way.

Overall, Dettmer said, the work she’s doing now — as a physician and politician — is a culmination of her life experiences. She cited the Vassar motto of years past — “Everything Correlates” — saying proudly, “All the things I’ve learned, I’ve correlated into this.”

Dettmer’s decision to attend Vassar was driven by an early desire to go to medical school. At the time, she steered away from the University of Cincinnati, fearing rumors that the university failed women in biology class to prevent them from getting into medical school. With a partial scholarship from a local Vassar club, she made her way to Poughkeepsie. Dettmer was conditioned to working so hard at Vassar, she said, that she was first in her class in graduate school. She went on to earn her medical degree from the University of Cincinnati and a Ph.D. in physiology from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.


Cornelia Dettmer '53
Cornelia Dettmer '53

Dr. Cornelia Dettmer at home at “The Ridge,” which was owned by four generations of the same family prior to her purchasing it. She bought the 1850s home complete with many of its original furnishings.

“I’ve always been involved in any community I’ve gone to,” Dettmer said. In Cincinnati, where she raised her two children, Dettmer founded the Hospice of Cincinnati. She also volunteered on the state boards of the American Cancer Society in Ohio, Maryland, and Florida. “What you give comes back to you,” she said. “I’ve been richly rewarded and I just thoroughly enjoy it.”

More than 20 projects were completed to celebrate Ohio’s bicentennial in 2002, and Manchester’s place in Ohio’s history — including readings by local authors, tree plantings, and a bell casting. The town got its police department back, too, in the years since Dettmer took office, and she has been directly involved in town cleanup efforts with the new police chief. The town is building a Nature Works fitness trail on land it recently leased from the Army Corps of Engineers. Development of the waterfront area continues, and Kinfolk’s Landing will soon be home to a floating restaurant. “We’ve never had public places like that for people to go to,” Dettmer said. “I think we have pride now. As you look better and do things, then people come to you.”

As if being mayor and physician wasn’t enough, Dettmer also owns the Manchester Emporium, which features consignment sales of regional arts, antiques, and crafts. When she purchased the building in 2000, it housed Kirker’s Hardware store, one of the oldest continually operating hardware stores in Ohio. While the store didn’t make it (“Wal-Mart did us in,” said Dettmer), she’s paid homage to it with a hardware museum in the Emporium. She hopes that the combination of shopping and history will be part of what attracts tourists to Manchester.

Dettmer said she loves living in a small town—where a doctor still makes house calls, and where, in her role as mayor, she judges science fairs, marches in parades, and fields complaints about stray dogs or loud music.

For a while, she even found time to breed Shar-peis at her “Jade Terrace Kennel.” In 1998, one of her Shar-peis won Best in Show at the Virginia Dog Fancier Dog Show, and was ranked eighth best in the country. “I’ve been an overachiever — or a hyperactive adult,” she confessed.

Dettmer is up for reelection in November, and though she pondered giving up her post and moving a step closer to retirement, it will have to wait. “I’m not going to retire yet,” she said. “I couldn’t. I’d like all of the hard work I’ve done to come to fruition. It’s just really starting to come together, and I’d like to stay and see it completed.”