My Ohio: Star of Solace

A holiday decoration had special meaning for a young resident of Glenwillow.

The huge white star hung near the top of a tall silo. The Austin Powder Co., today the second-oldest manufacturing company in Ohio, hung the electric star for many years on the farm that was once part of its property in Glenwillow.

The appearance of the star began the Christmas season for me when I was a child. On clear frigid winter nights I could see the lit star if I stood on Cochran Road, not far from my home. The silo rose from a snow-covered hill, across a pasture and behind a row of company houses. The star was holy, peaceful and reassuring to me. It watched over the company houses and the families, many from the backwoods of southern Ohio and West Virginia.

On quiet December nights, the star’s beauty made you forget.

In 1893 the Village of Glenwillow, extracted from Solon Township, became the company town belonging to Austin Powder, an explosives manufacturer. Dangerous black powder was made in the rural area for the country’s canal, construction and mining industries. The town had a church, company store, school, train station and a boarding house for single men who worked at the company.

And it had death.

There had been fatalities at the company long before I lived in Glenwillow. But it was the two blasts in 1968 that killed six men that seared into my soul. I didn’t know all the men who were killed. But I went to school with their children. And many of their wives befriended my mother, who drove a car and could take them to the doctor and or drug store.

A siren sounded whenever an explosion at the plant occurred, but it wasn’t necessary. Women poured from their homes, running down the narrow roads toward the company, not knowing the fate of their husbands, sons or grandsons. Some wiped their hands on faded aprons as they ran barefoot.

The explosions broke windows in houses and buildings miles away. People in nearby homes fell out of beds and chairs or thought an earthquake had occurred. There were stories of hens not being able to lay eggs for months afterward and panicked horses breaking out of their stalls. Older women held young, recent brides who cried in their arms. My mother took food to families suddenly without a father. Black wreaths hung on white front doors.

But I marveled at the town’s closeness and resolve. 
By the 1950s, it was apparent that testing and making explosives in increasingly populous southeast Cuyahoga County was no longer acceptable. In 1972, Austin Powder moved its manufacturing operations to McArthur, Ohio, and a chapter in Glenwillow’s history came to an end.

Glenwillow fell asleep for several decades until a master plan between developers and local government created a new community. Glenwillow Village Center was built in 2005 with an industrial parkway, new homes, a community park complete with requisite gazebo and a multi-purpose trail.

Many of the old company houses with slate roofs were renovated and changed into modern homes or small retail, including a barbershop and dog groomer. The old company store is now the Glenwillow Grille, where white-collar workers and yuppies discuss favorite wines. There are talks of the village becoming a tourist destination based on its unique history. All that, I suppose, is good.

But on the coldest night of each December, I drive to the old company town. I park my car alongside the road where I gazed in wonder as a child at the huge white star. To me, it shone like a celestial body, not just a simple holiday decoration.

The prayer I say for those touched by the explosions hangs suspended in icy white air. The silo is gone. The star is gone. I close my eyes. I see those bright five points protecting the souls of those who may still walk forever unseen through the town to shadows of buildings where they worked and died. I want the star to protect those of us who remember as well.

Jill Sell, an Ohio Magazine contributing editor, is based in Sagamore Hills.