Category Archives: The Feather Cottage

Elmer Backlund

I met him about 15 months ago, when I interviewed Elmer Backlund and two other A&B Dock employees for an Ashtabula Wave story.

Elmer brought a surprise to that meeting at Norman Millberg’s house: The log he had kept while machine foreman on the dock, 1975-1982.

Elmer recorded the arrival and departure times of every freighter that pulled up to the dock’s Hulett unloaders. Not only that, he noted how long it took to do the unloading, the delays that occurred due to electrical, mechanical and railroad car shortages. He even made note of how much time the crew devoted to lunch, and occasionally where they got take-out (Perkins).

One of the most interesting visits recorded in this piece of handwritten history is the entry for the Edmund Fitzgerald’s final visit to Ashtabula Harbor. Indeed, it was the last time the Fitzgerald would deliver a load of ore to any Great Lakes port. After leaving Ashtabula, the Fitzgerald took on a load of ore at Superior and disappeared in the storm of Nov. 10, just six days after its visit to Ashtabula.

Elmer says he talked to the first mate of the ship at great length the night the boat was being unloaded. The first mate had little good to say about the vessel’s condition; rivets were failing throughout, but the owner had tried to coax another season out of the freighter before sending it to dry dock for repairs.

These stories were captured on video in February, when I interviewed Elmer, Norm and “French” Lesperance for a new document about the Hulett unloaders at A&B Dock.

Why such a film, and an exhibit at The Lodge and Conference Center? First is the book, an incredible piece of Great Lakes maritime history. Second is the story of the Hulett unloaders, invented by a Conneaut man. These machines were so huge, their power demands so intense, each dock company had its own powerhouse to provide the direct current power consumed by the motors.

Further, the A&B Dock was the first installation of the third and final generation of Hulett unloaders. The A&B Dock machines also were first to use a Larry car system for weighing and transferring the ore to the cars. Further, the cars were moved by a system rarely used at other docks, where a narrow gauge railroad ran next to the standard rails and a small locomotive pushed the cars along. At Ashtabula, however, a continuous cable was  used to move the cars, which were pulled onto the cable by grippers.

The dock also need shovelers, bulldozer operators, oilers, bridge operators and laborers. Their stories are preserved in this new  documentary.

Before I left Elmer at his assisted living home, he presented me with the journal. I was stunned by his generosity. After using it for the filming of the documentary and exhibit at The Lodge, it will be donated to the Ashtabula Marine Museum. It belongs there, along with the patterns from the Huletts, the metal identity plates and models of these amazing machines.

Elmer has been very ill, in and out of intensive care. On Easter, I will visit his room at Saybrook Landing, and I hope to find him there and give him my gift, the story of his story, a story I am honored to commit to the Internet, hard drive and optical media. I call it “The Boat Book.”

The Feather Cottage

cottageAs 2015 comes to a close (sigh), I am reminded that we never know where life is going to take us.

A year ago, I was living in a tiny house on a dead-end street in Ashtabula. Two bedrooms, a postage-stamp sized lot. 700 square feet, two people, one dog of 100 pounds or so.

This afternoon I write from one of the four bedrooms in the Feather Cottage in Geneva, Ohio. It’s actually my study, but could qualify as a bedroom. The upstairs bedroom is as large as the two small bedrooms in the other house. And the unfinished upstairs room, which was once two bedrooms, is probably about 2/3 of the total floor space of the entire house I was in before.

I won’t go into the details of how I ended up in this stone cottage. I’ll save that for later blogs, perhaps. Stories about how people get where they are can be found elsewhere. Today, I just want to write about where it is that I am.

Geneva, Ohio. Never thought I’d live here. It was too close to the big urban county, Lake County.

But here I am, on two acres, of what is mostly oak tree-shaded land set along Cowles Creek. Most passersby don’t realize there’s a house back in there. A while ago, I stepped off the driveway and it is roughly 400 yards long. I am dreading the first big snowfall.

It is a stone house I live in. I ought to say rock house, or boulder house, for the stones, especially those of the foundation, are massive. On the first level, there is a mix of large rocks, bricks, sandstone pieces and even a big wrench that must have gotten stuck in the wall by accident.

The house is rustic and I love it that way. My study is lined in knotty pine that is probably 65 years or older. It has a lot of defects, then again, so does the resident.

Neighbors and Chuck Buck, who lived in this house some 20 to 30 years ago, tell me it was built by Clarence Helwig. Clarence ran an apple orchard on this land, and in the process of working the ground, he collected rocks and boulders — or so the story goes. And, over time, he built a foundation, a stone fireplace and a house.

A great story, but I find it hard to believe that boulders and rocks the sizes of those in this house could be found around here. The variety of the rocks also raises my suspicions about the story.

City directories confirm that Mr. Helwig, his wife and their children lived here. But there is no mention of the orchard itself. However, the orchard story is confirmed by neighbors, the few surviving, aged apple trees found along Sherman Street and the cold storage unit in the back of the garage, also built of stone.

Another neighbor tells me it was a Christmas tree farm, which explains why there are so many tall, dying evergreen trees on these lots. Such trees line a portion of my long driveway and create a tunnel to the cottage.

Perhaps I ought not worry so much about how the cottage got here, or I got here, but just focus on being here. This much I know: it feels like home. Need it be anything else?

The house feels like a pair of fuzzy slippers at the end of a difficult day at work; like a kitten curling up on your lap. It reminds me of my beloved West Virginia mountains. The tall oaks speak their own language to the wind, and the stone walls feel like a cradle, just as I feel cradled and mothered by the mountains of stone.

It is a good place to meet God and listen, gather with family and friends, slumber and dream, read and write. Nap.

It also is a consuming fire, sucking in all my available financial resources and days upon days of labor late into the evening. Prior to my purchase, the house had sat vacant for four years, a victim of the foreclosure crisis. A hole in the roof admitted the melting snow and summer thunderstorms, leaves and acorns, and untold critters, one of which died on the bedroom carpet. Black mold sprouted in the damp environment. The water trickled onto the first-floor ceiling and soaked the hardwood floor underneath. The floor buckled; the skin of the drywall separated from the body and fell off.

Thieves stole the copper water lines from the house, and the bank that owned it paid little attention to maintenance. By the time it became mine, the house was a bona fide disaster area that would contribute  some 70 cubic yards of demolition debris to the landfill.

A month into the renovation project, my other house sold and we had to move into the mess. It brought my wife to tears, and rightly so. That was the scenario I wanted to avoid. But it’s hard to argue with a cash buyer.

For months we ate and breathed sawdust, plaster dust and dirt. It has been only in the past three weeks that the living room has come together, and it still awaits the red oak trim, at that. There is much to be done upstairs, as well as in the garage and the landscaping, but smoke now goes up the chimney on chilly nights, there are Edison lamps burning in the living room windows and two hot showers. Life is good, even when incomplete.

Incomplete. That’s a good word for 2015. Something has been missing. Rest, for certain. Direction, as well. Self-discipline, the kind that facilitates one being true to oneself. And so much more.

Goodbye to the incomplete year; welcome to the year of completion.