The Crescent Farm barn in Rome Township has a beautiful barn quilt that hints at the farm’s clandestine past.
In the fall of 2016 I embarked upon the most ambitious writing project of my life, crafting a history of Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio.
Why? For more than two decades, The Harbor was the greatest iron ore receiving port in the world. More iron ore flowed through this port and to the mills of Youngstown, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Pa., than through any other port. Immigrants built the railroads that linked the lake to the Ohio River and steel mills, and then worked on the docks unloading the vessels with shovels and wheelbarrows.
“Lively times” reported the Ashtabula Telegraph in July 1873, when the first ore boat arrived in The Harbor. Thousands more, each year progressively larger, would arrive at The Harbor. Brown Hoists replaced shovels, Huletts replaced Brown Hoists, and eventually the self-unloaders and demise of the domestic steel industry ended it all.
And before ore there were schooners and passengers steamers and a curse on ships built at Ashtabula Harbor. And during the ore boom there were saloons, murders, brothels, drownings and beachfront resorts. Lighthouses came and went, as did bridges and tugs and hundreds of Bridge Street businesses.
And they are all in this hefty volume, available for order from this site.
My friend of many years, Betty Layport Feher, recently dug out some memorabilia from Shady Beach Hotel, one of the many relatively elegant hotels that once operated at Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio’s oldest summer resort.
Shady Beach dates back to 1897 and stood where the village’s recreation park is today. It operated until the early 1970s, when the village purchased the property with the idea of transforming the hotel into a recreation center. Someone forgot that it gets cold at GOTL in the winter and that water pipes burst when they freeze. And so they did, and the old resort was ruined by that act of negligence. Only photos remain, and a few skeleton keys.
Betty allowed me to borrow the guest-room keys, still attached to their Shady Beach leather fobs (just try to lose one of these things, or carry them about in your pocket or swimming trunks all day), so I could make some photographs for the Summer Fun Heritage Trail website and interpretive signs.
There is something solemn, almost spiritual about a key. The act of being entrusted with a key can be a pure business transaction, as when we buy a new car or house, or as intimate as being handed the key to a honeymoon suite by a grinning desk clerk.
I suspect the keys I held in my hands and studied through my lens could tell many stories of happy vacations spent on the lakeshore; of comings and goings; of expectations and disappointments; of partings for a season, partings for eternity.
Here is the key to the room that Mrs. Bowers prepared especially for the newlyweds. The nervous groom drops it several times on the way to the room, rattles it in the lock; the wood door swings into the dark chamber; he will recall on his death bed the slightly musty scent of that room, mingled with her virgin sweat, that moment they became one flesh even as Mr. and Mrs. Bowers dozed on the front porch of Shady Beach Hotel.
Here is the key that the child insisted Daddy let him try in the door. It is their first family vacation; the blue-eyed boy has not seen the lake before. “Can we see it Daddy, can we, can we before we have dinner?” The father slips the key in his pocket, they walk across the street, to the annex, descend to the beach, between the two poplars, watch the mystery of water arriving and departing for no apparent reason, toss some rocks. The Shady Beach dinner bell rings; it is Sunday, and Mrs. Bowers has prepared chicken. Fried chicken, all up and down the road, from the milk-fed chicken of Mrs. Swan at the New Inn to the no-good roosters that the Leidheisers culled from their flock, it is chicken every Sunday at the resort.
Here is the key with chicken gravy stains on the fob, or is it tobacco juice from the men sitting about the spittoon while the women folks walk to the bingo parlor. Comfortable men, men of influence in their Pittsburgh, Youngstown and New Castle. Middle-aged, their children married, their business cards bearing “vice president” and “director,” gathered about the newspapers and cigar smoke and bourbon, waiting for the women to return, waiting for the dinner bell, waiting.
Here is the key to the anniversary suite. Fifty years have passed; arthritis impairs his hands as much as nervousness did on that night in 1915. They almost didn’t come back to Shady Beach, the riots, the gangs, the week before, sent a chill up his spine. Mrs. Bowers said it would be fine, that the trouble was at the other end of The Strip. Just a bunch of college kids who’d had too much to drink down at that rowdy bar.
“Yes, please come; we’re holding your room for you. We’d love to see you again. Yes, dinner will be at 2. No, we’ve not raised rates this year. The weather has been hot, but there’s a nice breeze.”
It was their last visit.
Does a key stop being a key when its lock is gone? Or is it just a story without a piece of paper? If they have no value, why do we continue to hang onto them in junk drawers, cigar boxes and museums? Do we hope the lock will one day miraculously reappear, restoring value to the key and justifying our hoarding? Or do we hold on to them because they are keys to our imagination, unlocking stories that are just as likely to be false as true?
The tumblers in my mind rattled like the keys on the fobs. For a moment, those keys unlocked something wondrous: the past.
I love old keys.
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.”
Walter S. Nicholes slid into the school bus seat next to me, nodded and asked me where I was from.
Walter is from Shaker Heights. He is a World War II veteran. He served in the Merchant Marines; entered the academy in July 1942. He saw the world but not much of the war. When the D-Day landing was going on, Walter was in the Mediterranean.
View a slide show of the D-Day Conneaut, Aug. 19, 2016, morning events.
That’s one of the reasons he and his son came to Conneaut on Friday morning, Aug. 19, 2016. Walter wanted to experience the war he had “missed” as a Merchant Marine. The re-enactors, the machinery of war, the uniforms, the invasion – they would all serve to give him a taste of the fighting to which he and other Merchant Marines had been party by supplying and transporting the troops.
Walter also wanted to bring a message to this event.
“To reveal to the public the full costs of war, and to end the use of wars as U.S. foreign policy,” Walter tells me.
He gives me his business card with contact information and the website and mission of the group to which he belongs, Veterans for Peace.
Five minutes later, the bus arrives at Conneaut Township Park, and Walter and his son are soon lost in the interpretive signs, the encampments, the souvenir stands and the events. I don’t see him again.
Some might say Walter is an anomaly in this place, just as much as the World War II equipment and soldiers are anomalies and anachronisms in a place where people come to relax and have fun.
There is tension in this park when D-Day Ohio brings its D-Day Conneaut Invasion to Conneaut every summer. There is the tension of facing down the enemy, of seeing the Germans as humans just like you and me. Of looking at the bayonets, and tanks, and guns that claimed the lives of Americans and made mothers weep rivers of tears and fathers grieve alone in the barns and pubs of our nation for decades to come.
There is tension in making the transition from talking to re-enactors who are bankers, teachers, machinists and engineers when they are not in uniform, to the real soldiers, the World War II veterans who come on canes and in wheelchairs, with wives and sons by their sides, to be honored, remember, let their stories mingle with the other billions of words that have been spoken about this war.
Walter hopes war will never happen again, at least not for money or power. He is not a pacifist, but he is no lover of war, either. And as a veteran, he has every right to speak his mind on the subject. After all, Walter S. Nicholes put his life on the line to defend that right.
He did his duty back in 1942; and 75 years later, is still doing it.
Thank you, Walter S. Nicholes. Thank you for serving; thank you for sitting next to me on that bus. I am honored to meet you.