‘the bible for all things Ashtabula’

“The bible for all things Ashtabula.” That’s the way veteran journalist and author Neil Zurcher describes our new book, “Ashtabula County: A field guide.”

He goes on to say “It is a compact history of a wonderful county, the people who live there and the towns, even those that no longer exist.”

That is a reference to the final chapter in the book, which highlights a few of the ghost towns that once thrived in the county. Sometimes only a building or two remains in these places that still have a place on the map and in the memories of elderly residents.

The “Field Guide” was inspired by my wife Ruth, who decided to relocate to Ashtabula County after accepting my marriage proposal. There was much for her to learn about the county, and so we set off on adventure after adventure as I introduced her newly adopted home. Along the way, a book took form.

“This is a ‘must have’ book for anyone who loves Ohio’s biggest county, or who plans to visit in the coming year.”

Neil Zurcher

At first, I was thinking 100 or so entries, but once the lists were made and research began in earnest, the book nearly tripled in content and size.

The content is categorized as natural treasures, structures, transportation, curiosities, memorials/monuments and ghost towns. Each entry includes a picture, short story and, oftentimes, trivia about the topic or site.

It is a different sort of book for me; the stories are short and to the point, but I’ve tried to tuck into each story a nugget, bit of humor or little-known fact about the topic. The first-person interviews, which are used in my other works, are absent, yet the conversations with hundreds of residents and historians underpin many of the entries.

The book is available on amazon.com as both a Kindle ($5.99) and softcover book ($21.95). The Kindle book is not indexed and, frankly, is not very reader friendly, but that is the nature of Kindle formats. The print edition is fully indexed and includes a list of attractions for each town/township/village.

“A Field Guide” is also available in our website store. We pay the shipping on books ordered from the website, and each book is signed by Carl. If it is a gift, or you want a special inscription to yourself, let us know when you order.

Carlisle’s Home in the Harbor on Bridge Street has autographed copies for sale, as will the Ashtabula Maritime Museum for its Christmas event.

The book was launched at the Ashtabula County Covered Bridge Festival, where my frozen fingered managed to sign a couple of dozen books to folks who braved the rain and frigid temps to acquire a book from our table at the Graham Road Covered Bridge. Many of the folks commented on missing my work in the Star Beacon, which I departed more than five years ago.

And that leads me to the dedication. After I left the newspaper industry, I had the privilege of working for the three best supervisors I had in my 40-plus years of working: Ashtabula County Commissioners Joe Moroski, Peggy Carlo and Dan Claypool. They had the vision to combine a lodging tax administration and tourism special projects coordinator into a position under the county commissioners’ office. During the nearly five years of working in that job, I was part of many interesting projects that were launched with grants and private funding and have helped introduce tourists to our county’s story. Unfortunately, a new board of commissioners saw no value in the position and abruptly eliminated it … which leads me to writing books!

“I confess I have long admired the writing of Carl Feather. I have considered him one of Ohio’s secret treasures since I first became acquainted with his work at the Ashtabula Star Beacon Newspaper. He touched many lives with his stories that were filled with humanity—sometimes sad, sometimes filled with humor—but always illuminating, written in an ‘everyman’ style that was easy to read and understand.”

Neil Zurcher

While browsing online for books about Ohio, check out the many volumes by Neil Zurcher, famous for his “One-Tank Trip” books, as well as “Ohio Oddities,” “Strange Tales from Ohio,” “Tales from the Road,” “Ohio Road Trips” and “Ohio Road Food.”

The “Field Guide” is our first joint effort as co-owners of The Feather Cottage, our “retirement business.” Carl is working on two more books for release next year, and Ruth, well, she’s working in Cleveland at a day job until book sales can bring her into the land of “retirement.”

 

In good company

Pumpkins rest on the stone wall today. Other hands built the wall, but I grew the fruit, in a garden plot a hundred feet or so south of the wall.

There are less than a dozen of pumpkins; most are small, too small for carving. One small one, perfectly shaped, made it indoors, where it will serve as decor until the weekend after Thanksgiving, assuming it lasts that long.

If I were to take this harvest to market, it would not bring enough money to justify the effort. At best, this crop is worth $8 or so. And what is $8 these days?

The dirt I grew them in cost $200 for the load, and the seeds were 33 cents. I grew other stuff in the dirt, and dirt being recyclable, the expense is a pittance for such pleasure, for I enjoy pumpkins and their company. I like their variations on orange, smooth complexion, curvaceous forms and contrasting, crusty stem. I’ve not a single bad pumpkin memory, and that’s saying something, for by the time we turn 64, we’ve accumulated painful memories of most everything. From salad bars to blue cars; from Prairie Home Companion to Mahler’s First Symphony, I’ve quite a collection. But pumpkins? Not a bad one in the patch.

Judging by the popularity of pumpkin-flavored beverages, soaps, scented candles and sweets this time of year, I am in good company in my adoration of Curcubito pepo. And while I am drinking pumpkin-spice coffee as I write this, I say let the pumpkin be a pumpkin, not a flavor (artificial, at that), color chip or scent. I even prefer my pumpkins au naturel. No face painting, no carving and no sequins or googly eyes. Born a pumpkin, died a pumpkin, not a Jack O’Lantern.

And so I plant them every year, and hope to raise a crop worthy of the stone wall. That wall is one of the reasons I stay here, in a house and yard way too large for our needs. But Ruth and I find comfort in stone and wood. Truth of the matter is, this property is a lot of work, far from her job and the county real estate, city income tax and school income tax make this an expensive place to live. But we have enough to grown pumpkins and display the harvest on a stone wall come late September, then watch as oak, magnolia and oak leaves accumulate around them until only stems are visible. There is joy in all of that.

I’ll never forget Ruth’s joy early in the summer when the first orange horns appeared on the vines, followed by the fruit. One, in particular, showed great promise, and she beamed when we pulled back the prickly leaves to reveal the perfect form taking shape in the compost. It’s hard not to love a woman who gets excited about a pumpkin being born.

We had not gotten around to the pumpkin topic when we were dating, and so it was with great relief that I discovered she enjoys the company of a few good pumpkins as much as I do. She approved my exhibition of the crop, as well.

Lined up on the wall, our harvest is safe from pumpkins smashers and thieves. I can see their noggins from my office window. And down the hill, in the enclosure where they were born and raised, their vines are brown, dry sinew, ready to be discarded. I procrastinate; I would much rather harvest pumpkins and line them up on a stone wall than deal with the withered umbilical cords.

And so I wonder if we subconsciously associate the shape of pumpkins with the womb, and thereby find comfort in their presence? I wonder they take us back to that singular season of gestation? If these premises be true, I wonder why some smash and carve pumpkins, while others are content to place them on stone walls that other hands built?

 

 

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.