June 2010 Issue
My Ohio: Storied Landscapes
Ohio’s past is often hidden in plain sight.
"Wanna see a ghost town?” What 7-year-old could refuse this invitation, especially when it came from an older brother whose obsessions were always interesting?
My brother’s love of trains had prompted him to investigate two pylons of crumbling, fitted stones at the Hancock County fairgrounds near our home in Findlay. Suspecting that they had supported a railroad trestle, Dave went to the library and found an 1887 map that identified the abandoned line as a spur of the old Cincinnati Sandusky and Cleveland Railroad. The map revealed something else that had vanished: a village named Huber. Apparently, a ghost town lay just three miles from our house.
One Saturday, we walked the faint trackbed from Findlay out to Huber. My mind teeming with images of Western ghost towns, I was certain that we would find another Deadwood or Tombstone. When we arrived at the site, however, there were no abandoned saloons or creaky boardwalks, just a cornfield and a county road with a bump where the tracks once crossed it.
Although the earth had reclaimed Huber with stunning efficiency, finding the site sparked a realization that traces of the past lay all around me. When I read the dates on the older tombstones in Maple Grove cemetery, I was surprised to learn that people were living in our town during the battle of the Alamo, the Civil War and the shootout at the OK Corral. Diamond-like sparkles that littered several lots along the railroad tracks bore witness to Findlay’s once-thriving glass industry. The Blanchard River had been immortalized as the Old Mill Stream by a local songwriter named Tell Taylor, who once owned the fairgrounds where those bridge pylons sat.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning that every place is a ghost town. The past is present wherever we live, even if we have to squint — or dig around a little — to see it.
Ohio is rich in places where there’s no need to squint to see the past. The state’s oldest human construction is probably the Serpent Mound
near Peebles. The 18th century lives on in Schoenbrunn Village
in New Philadelphia and at the site of the Logan elm
, near Circleville, where Chief Logan of the Mingo gave his famous 1774 address outlining the injustices of the white settlers. Living history from the early 19th century can be seen at Fort Meigs
in Perrysburg, Zoar Village
near New Philadelphia and the Quaker meetinghouse in Mount Pleasant
. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
and the Harriet Beecher Stowe house
, both in Cincinnati, commemorate Ohio’s prominent role in the abolition movement. And several sites bear witness to the state’s traditional nickname as the “Mother of Presidents.”
Everyday places contain history, too, even if no monuments or plaques call it to our attention. We all live in storied landscapes, where human narratives have been written and rewritten through time. Heeding these narratives reminds us that we are squatters, passing through the world just like the countless others who went before us.
Occasional trips back to Findlay remind me that my own story is already being overwritten by newer ones. Many of the places central to my childhood — Patterson’s department store, B&G drugs, Porter’s music store, the downtown theaters — are long gone. Much of my history has become someone else’s archaeology. This is no cause for sadness. It simply means that all sorts of friendly ghosts dwell where we live, wherever we live. If we study the ground, note where old brickwork joins new, and watch for telltale bumps in the road, we can see their stories all around us, hidden in plain sight.
Jeffrey Hammond is Reeves Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.