February 2009 Issue
Losing a Landmark
A former Ohioan mourns the passing of a quirky symbol of home.
Baughman Park is no more.
The improbable assemblage of monumental statues and carvings scattered over 62 heavily wooded acres along a ridge in remote Muskingum County has been sold to the highest bidders. Twelve of the massive sandstone pieces, some of which stood sentry for nearly 100 years, have been hauled off to private homes and strip malls and antiques dealers’ warehouses.
I have taken the death of Baughman Park hard. I am a hyphenated American: an Ohioan-New Yorker. Like many exiles, I have a strong physical connection to my native land and what I consider its sacred spaces. To me, no space was more sacred, more identified with Ohio and with home, than Baughman Park.
I fell in love with Baughman Park in 1967, when a friend and I were bored college kids working summer jobs in Zanesville. We were convinced that our hometown had long since exhausted its capacity to either interest or surprise us, so we didn’t expect much one Sunday when we set out to find “the statues,” as the site was known in local lore. Armed with vague directions from my father, we drove northwest out of town on St. Rte. 146 past Dillon Dam, built just a few years earlier when we were still sufficiently unsophisticated to consider it one of the wonders of the world. A few miles past the dam we turned right onto St. Rte. 586, then headed up a steep hill just past the intersection with St. Rte. 16. At the very top, we turned off onto a rutted and gated gravel road that disappeared into deep woods. We parked and hiked in, ignoring a “No Trespassing” sign, not at all sure we were in the right place.
Then we rounded a curve for one of those “ohmigod” moments that come only so many times in one’s life: There, looming above us from out of the undergrowth, was a statue of Warren G. Harding.
It seemed almost beyond imagining: Harding, on a high stone pedestal in the woods, in the brush and poison ivy, in the middle of nowhere.
No longer either bored or jaded, we gaped at Masonic symbols and elephant heads and Indian maidens carved into sandstone outcrops. We passed statues of Teddy Roosevelt, William McKinley and Abraham Lincoln. A recumbent lion lay at Gen. James B. McPherson’s feet. We found Teddy Roosevelt and James A. Garfield staring off into thick stands of trees. The gravel road curved to the left and climbed even higher, to a clearing where a giant Doughboy stood, flanked to his left by George Washington, to his right by Gen. William T. Sherman.
I felt like I had stumbled upon Stonehenge or the statues of Easter Island 15 miles from my front door.
These statues remained nearly as mysterious to me as those megaliths until, 30 years later, I wrote an article for the March 1997 issue of Ohio Magazine about the man responsible for the monuments in the woods: Brice Baughman.
In researching the article, I learned that the forest hadn’t been there in 1879 when Noah Baughman moved his family, including five-year-old Brice, to what was then called Bald Hill Farm. I also learned that some of the cruder pieces, like a barely recognizable Lincoln carved into an outcrop, were Brice’s first attempts at sculpture as a teenager. There was no shortage of sketch pads on which to practice, because much of the soil on Bald Hill Farm was just a shallow covering over a massive sandstone formation.
Brice’s son, Lester, who was still alive in 1997, told me that Grandpa Noah was no fool and realized fairly quickly that rocks were one crop he could raise profitably on Bald Hill Farm, so he opened a quarry. Brice learned the rudiments of stone cutting by carving sandstone blocks like the ones that still hold up many of Ohio’s older bridges, and he learned the rudiments of sculpture through trial and error. While Noah tolerated his son’s burgeoning hobby — which would grow into a lifelong avocation — he wasn’t about to pay for art lessons. That’s probably why William McKinley looks peculiarly stunted in Brice’s first full-scale statue, completed in 1898.
Brice proved himself even less of a fool than his father when he took over Bald Hill Farm. He opened a funeral home, deciding that being an undertaker would be easier than working in the family quarry. The mortuary business also provided Brice with an outlet for his gregarious nature, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. One of Brice’s fellow undertakers recalled a funeral where no one was inside at the service because they were all outside listening to Brice’s stories, which he told between spits of tobacco juice.
People often assumed that the statues had some link to Brice’s business, but there is no evidence that any of his work ever ended up in a cemetery, nor did he leave any funereal carvings such as doves or angels. The only apparent connection is that the statues gave Brice another excuse to mix with the public. As each one was completed, it was dedicated to some civic group or fraternal order, which brought great crowds to their unveilings. Some 7,000 people, including many uniformed veterans of World War I, witnessed the unveiling of the Doughboy in 1921. Newspapers report that 3,640 cars drove into the farm on the day in 1927 when Harding’s statue was unveiled, Teapot Dome scandal be damned.
By that time, Brice and his sons had set up picnic tables, dug horseshoe pits and laid out a ball field on top of the hill, with the Doughboy, Washington and Sherman as permanent spectators. In 1931, Ohio Governor Vic Donahey presided over a ceremony officially changing the name of Bald Hill Farm to Baughman Park.
Lester Baughman didn’t remember exactly when the park closed to the public, but he thought it was probably around the time Brice’s wife talked him off the hill in the 1940s. Other Baughmans lived on the property several for more years, but by the time we got there in 1967 the buildings all looked like they had been vacant for a long time. The land once known as Bald Hill Farm was anything but, which cast the park even deeper into obscurity. Before the trees, the statues could be seen from the rail line in the valley below, and passengers on trains running from Pittsburgh to Columbus would salute the presidents and generals as they rode by. Now, there was no hint of the statues until you were nearly on top of them.
My 1997 article ended on the hopeful note that the statues’ long obscurity might be coming to an end. Baughman Park had just been purchased by Dave Longaberger, who had built a financial empire on the artisan craft of basket making, and whose main factory was a few miles to the east. In those days, Longaberger seemed to be weaving not baskets but cornucopias from which poured sorely needed bounty, including thousands of jobs, for the people of Appalachian Ohio. Longaberger’s plan was to link the statues, perhaps via ski lift, to the Disney-like village he planned to build in the valley below. Sure, it was a grandiose plan, but Longaberger had already proven grandiosity’s possibilities.
But then Dave Longaberger died and the basket business slowed. The company, now run by Dave’s daughter, Tami, sold the land to a logger in February, 2008. Six months later, the new owner sold the property at a significant profit, which he increased substantially by putting the statues up for separate sale, ignoring the pleas of distressed preservationists.
On July 19, the day Baughman Park and 12 of its monumental statues were sold, the auctioneer told bidders for the land, “When the statues are gone, you’ll still have the stories.” It was a sweet line, but for a funeral. The statues are gone and all that’s left are the stories. Without the statues, the stories, too, will soon begin to weather and fade.
The statues belonged on that hill in the woods in northwestern Muskingum County because that’s where their stories were written and that’s where their stories made sense. The hill gave the statues a beauty they will not enjoy in Columbus or Oxford or Atlanta, which were among their likely destinations. Once the stories are divorced from the statues, McKinley and Garfield and all the rest will become nothing but curiosities.
It wasn’t artistry that made the statues special or Baughman Park a sacred space, but the mysterious, startling juxtaposition of pieces and place. Now that the statues have been ripped from the land, each is vastly, irredeemably diminished. Baughman Park was a treasure now lost forever. It is as if the statues of Easter Island had been sold off as lawn ornaments.
Ezra Goldstein is a writer now living in Brooklyn, New York, whose latest project is preserving the life stories of Holocaust survivors. His play about Zanesville, “Swimming With Sturgeon,” was produced in 2005 at New York’s Abingdon Theatre.