Curator Jessica and I were headed to the Discovery Park of America so she could steal some ideas for the new museum the Athens County Historical Society was moving into. We decided to avoid the Interstate, which put us going through Cairo and Wickliffe.
About half a mile south of Wickliffe on U.S. 51, we spotted a 90-foot cross off the right side of the road. At first, I thought we might have made a wrong turn and had hit the Bald Knob Cross in Alto Pass, Ill. (Click on the photos to make them larger.)
First cross was at Ancient Buried City
No, it wasn’t the Bald Knob Cross. It was the Fort Jefferson Cross at the Confluence. This project started in 1937, when a small cross was erected in Wickliffe at what was then called the Ancient Buried City. It was replaced with a 35-foot cross in 1951.
After almost 15 years of planning and fundraising, this 90-foot cross was erected on a two-acre site leased from the city of Wickliffe for 100 years. By the time the project was completed, the costs had nearly doubled, to about $300,000.
The goal was to create an object large enough that it could be seen from the tri-state area of Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri, and be close to the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
Impressive at night
The cross was eye-catching in the afternoon light, but I figured it would be even more impressive if it was lit at night. It was. Admission is free. There is plenty of parking.
I suspect one or two of my readers will grouse again this year, “Why are you bringing up Kent State? It’s ancient history.”
Dean Kahler has a good answer for that: “History will hurt you if you don’t learn about it. It’s important that you learn about it, and it’s important that you don’t forget about it so you don’t repeat it.”
Dean was one of nine students injured by National Guard gunfire on May 4, 1970, at Kent State University in Ohio. He was a first-quarter freshman, a farm boy from near Canton who was a conscientious objector because of his religion. He had read about demonstrations in the newspapers and national news magazines. “As a farm boy, you don’t get a chance to go to protests,” he said, ” because the cows have to be milked.”
Classes were supposed to be held as normal on May 4, so Dean decided to drive onto his campus to see what was going on. He was in the parking lot behind him in this photo, 300 feet away from the closest National Guardsman, when he saw them turn “with their deliberate motion.”
When he saw them turn, “I knew they were shooting.” He dropped to the ground because there was nowhere to run to and no cover for him.
Like when you pith a frog
[Watch the video to hear Dean tell about the shooting in his own words.]
“I knew I had been shot because it felt like a bee sting. I knew immediately because my legs got real tight, then they relaxed just like in zoology class when you pith a frog,” he said. He never walked again, but he has turned into a highly competitive wheelchair athlete.
After the shooting stopped, he called out to see if there were any Boy Scouts around who could turn him over. “The only thought that came into my head was if I was turned over, would I bleed more internally than externally? I thought (shrugs shoulders) there’s a 50 / 50 chance that you’re going to die one way or the other. I knew I might die. I had a really good chance of dying, so I wanted to see the sky, the sun, leaves, peoples faces. I didn’t want to be eating grass when I died.”
Dean and my old publisher
I was honored that Dean drove down from the Canton area for the opening of the Athens County Historical Society’s exhibit The Sky Has Fallen that contained scores of my photos. Dean, who was a well-regarded Athens county commissioner for eight years, is talking with Kenner Bush, my old publisher at The Athens Messenger.
Curator Jessica and I met Dean when we went up to the Kent State May 4 Visitors Center to talk about how the historical society’s museum could work with the visitor center on future exhibits about the protest era. I thought he was just a helpful volunteer until it became obvious that he had more than book knowledge about what happened that day.
The man who prevented a massacre
The Center had one of the most powerful videos I’ve ever seen anywhere. When they played the sound of the gunfire, I lost it. That was followed by a clip of professor who probably prevented a massacre. He stood between the guard and the students and begged the students to sit down. When the situation somewhat stabilized, the students took off in different directions “so that someone would be alive to tell the story.”
So, how long am I going to ride this story. Probably every May 4, just like my old chief photographer, John J. Lopinot will send me a message that just says, “Never Forget.”
I never know what I’m going to find when I pull into my Athens, Ohio, No-Tell Motel. These folks greeted me in October of 2013.
What are THEY doing?
After spending the day helping Curator Jessica and the other fine folks at the Athens County Historical Society and Museum get set up for Thursday night’s exhibit of my photos, I headed back to the motel to put on a non-rumpled shirt and some clean pants.
When I pulled into the parking lot, I first encountered a guy with a noisy leaf blower. In my parking space and a couple of adjacent ones stood a circle of singing or chanting arm-wavers. Great, I thought, it’s some crazy religious nuts.
From the University of Wisconsin
It turns out they were from the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire, in town with about 1,500 other students from 79 schools to compete in the National Forensic Association’s finals.
They were doing warm-up exercises that included chants, some obscure elimination game and emoting that involved making expressions that looked like a poodle passing a peach pit.
When I was in the Central High School forensic program, about the only warming up I got was getting whacked with a ruler by Ruby Davis when I said “warsh” instead of wash.” Times must have changed.
Gallery of photos
Here are some more photos of my neighbors (who were amazingly quiet, by the way). They include Kelly Wright, assistant forensics director, in polka dots. Click on any photo to make it larger, then use your arrow keys to move around.
Back in 1955, just about the time I was becoming aware of music, Tennessee Ernie Ford came out with the song 16 Tons that contained the lines
You load sixteen tons, what do you get Another day older and deeper in debt Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go I owe my soul to the company store
I ended up living in two parts of the country where company towns and company stores were common: Southeastern Ohio and North Carolina.
The Eclipse Company Store
There is an excellent website that gives the history of the Eclipse Company Town, built by the Hocking Valley Coal Company between 1900 and 1902. This building, now occupied by Kiser’s Barbecue, was the pay station and general store for the miners. Married miners without children rented the two front rooms on the second floor.
Curator Jessica said that workers were frequently paid in “scrip” that could only be spent at the company store. The Athens County Historical Society and Museum has some coins and one very rare $2 scrip in its collection. (Click on the photos to make them larger.)
Building saw various uses
The mine operated from 1900 until the early 1930s when it and other area mines fell victim to the Depression. It was called back into service in 1940 as part of the World War II effort, and continued to operate until 1948.
After the mine closed, the store was used as a barn, a machine shop, and then a VFW Hall in the 1950s. It is a very popular restaurant these days.
Located on Hocking-Adena Bike Path
One reason for its success is its location on the rail-to-trail Hocking-Adena Bike Path. Live music was playing the evening Jessica and I went there. Bikes of every description – a triplet, recumbents, cruisers, beater bikes and kid bikes with training wheels – were parked all around.
Eclipse Company Town today
The website says the town is comprised of 12 company houses, one shotgun house and the company store.
Company towns came about for several reasons.
The mines were in relatively isolated areas with little transportation available, so the work force needed a place to live.
Because they were self-contained, the use of scrip was common. The stores allowed workers to buy on credit, so they came to “owe their soul to the company store,” making for a captive labor force.
At the first hint of any union organizing, workers would be put out of their company houses, so they not only didn’t have jobs and were in debt, but they and their families were homeless.
Nearly 2500 company towns
I’ve read that the United States had more than 2,500 company towns, housing 3 percent of the U.S. population at one time.
I remember the neatly-kept company town of McAdenville just outside Gastonia, N.C.. It was incorporated in 1881 to house workers at the McAden Mills, which has been known as Pharr Yarns since 1939.
It’s still known as Christmas Town USA, for the huge Christmas lighting displays that attract some 300,000 automobile visitors a year.