Pleasure Grounds marks 150 years

The smoke from the July 4th fireworks has cleared, replaced by the oppressive humidity and haze typical of July along the Lake Erie shoreline.

The bursts of fire and glimmer over the Geneva-on-the-Lake business district was witnessed by thousands of motorists and their passengers who’d paid $10 or more for a spot to park their vehicle close to the heart of the commercial district.

People on the Strip at GOTL.
Thousands of people walked The Strip in the hours before the fireworks on July 4, 2019.

They came to drink, eat, listen to live music and find the best spot for watching the fireworks, which began at 10 a.m. Some might have known that it was the birthday of the nation that was being celebrated, not their arrival at The Resort. Even fewer knew the significance of the date to the story of Geneva-on-the-Lake, the “Pleasure Grounds” opened by Edwin Pratt and Cullen M. Spencer exactly 150 years earlier, July 4, 1869.

Ad for the Pleasure Grounds.

Their Pleasure Grounds amounted to five acres on Sturgeon Point. It was a shady picnic grove on this point of land that extends into Lake Erie and was named for the huge lake sturgeon that congregated around the landmark. The proprietors offered a horse-powered merry-go-round, tables and benches, lemonade and ice cream. Below the point, the wide beach beckoned, as did a small boat.

Sturgeon Point was sold for private development some 30 years after the Pleasure Grounds opened for business. By then, the business district had shifted to the west and was under the control of Warren and L.C. Spencer, Cullen’s sons, and several others. Sturgeon Point was renamed Mapleton Beach, which became a densely packed cottage development that exists to this day.

Sunset at Sturgeon Point, GOTL, July 4, 2019.

Knowing and having written about the beginnings of GOTL and the historical significance of the July 4, 2019, holiday, I focused my documentary photography of the celebration on Mapleton Beach. Dozens of boats, including one or two large ones in the distance, gathered off the point as dusk fell over the historic land. Young adults, their faces illuminated by the LCD screens that fed them entertainment and news from distant places, glanced at the panorama only long enough to acknowledge the occasional explosion of consumer fireworks being shot off from the point.

Mapleton Beach (Sturgeon Point) guests and property owners gather outside their cottages to watch the fireworks July 4, 2019.

When the first of the professional fireworks appeared in the southern sky, the cottage owners and guests left their beach chairs behind and flocked at the entrance to the Middle and West Drives of Mapleton Beach, which provided a clear view of the fire showers over Strip businesses.

Fireworks explode over SportsCenter, one of the vintage businesses on The Strip at GOTL.

The display came to a close and long lines formed at the order windows of Eddie’s Grill, Katie’s Korner and many other eateries that stayed open late to capture the post-fireworks business. Routes 534 and 531 became traffic jams from The Strip to downtown Geneva as the spectators returned to their beds and prepared for the day of work on Friday.

Spencer and Pratt would have been amazed by it all.

Sunset at Sturgeon Point, GOTL.
Pleasure Grounds book Karaoke Queen.

Karaoke Queen

Bill Allison hates karaoke, and with good reason.

The speakers from the The Time Square Patio karaoke at Geneva-on-the-Lake are aimed at his Grumpy Grandpa’s Lemonade Stand across The Strip. Bill “retaliates” with signs that express his disdain for the wailing and screaming.

“Karaoke” And on the 7th day God created earplugs.”

“Karaoke” is a Chinese word meaning “tone deaf.”

“Karaoke is the bane of my existence.”

Man reading in lemonade stand at Pleasure Grounds
Bill Allison of Grumpy’s Lemonade and the miniature golf course at Geneva-on-the-Lake, tries to read while karaoke singers belt out tunes across the street.

When it comes to Judy Allen, however, Bill’s in tune with her music. “Judy ‘The Karaoke Queen’ is a good karaoke singer.”

The Karaoke Queen is Judy Allen, who lives to the east of The Village and comes down to The Strip whenever she can get a ride from a friends. She’s at Time Square Patio most Saturday and Sunday afternoons and evenings.

Bill says there’s just one problem with Judy’s singing: She knows only a handful of songs, most of them sad country ballads made famous by Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline.

The Karaoke Queen is one of the many stories from GOTL’s 150 years of history that are featured in “Pleasure Grounds.” Want to hear Judy sing and tell her story? Check out this Pleasure Grounds video.

Good Question band photo

Memorial Day and a Good Question at GOTL

One of the traditions at Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio’s oldest summer resort, is the band, Good Question.

Although not quite as old as the 150-year-old resort, Good Question is nearing its golden anniversary, says Paul Bodnar, one of the band’s original members.

Bodnar, of Saybrook Township, grew up at GOTL during the years his parents owned the Hungarian Restaurant at the east end of The Strip. He became interested in the new rock-and-roll sound while a young teen exploring The Strip and listening to bands play in iconic bars like The Cove and The Sunken Bar. At the time, the early 1960s, Bodnar was too young to enter the bars, so he had to listen to the music from the sidewalks. After paying his dues in a few small bands that played mostly school dances, Bodnar pulled together several other northeast Ohio musicians to form Good Question. They became the house band at the legendary Castaway Nightclub. After a couple of years at Castaway, Good Question was enticed by Cove founder and owner Peter Macchia to move their smooth sound to his bar on The Strip.

Good Question was Macchia’s favorite band, and the group always played a birthday concert for him in October. Most recently they opened the season at The Cove with a concert in April.

Paul says that there are GOTL visitors who book their cottages and lodge rooms around when Good Question is playing at The Lake. Mike and Bob Beer of western Pennsylvania confirm that tradition in Pleasure Grounds.

“Good Question, that band is the best in the world,” Bob Beer said in an interview for Pleasure Grounds. “I know of people who have scheduled their vacations around that group being here.”

Pleasure grounds book cover.

Pleasure Grounds, 500-plus pages, fully indexed, hundreds of photos. 8 1/2 x 11 inches, silk laminate paper cover

Because Good Question and GOTL are so intertwined, Pleasure Grounds devotes several pages to Good Question, which also had a long run with the Swiss Chalet. Over Memorial Day weekend 2019, Good Question will play three nights at the historic bar, the former New Inn, which also receives much attention in Pleasure Grounds.

The Pleasure Grounds history of GOTL book will be for sale during the band’s first break Saturday and Sunday evenings, starting around 9 p.m. The cost of the autographed book is $42.65. Cash is preferred, but credit/debit card processing will be available.

If you can’t make the Good Question performances, Pleasure Grounds is available on The Strip at:

  • Lakehouse Inn
  • Treasure’d Island
  • Anchor Inn
  • Eagle Cliff Hotel

In Ashtabula, the book is at Bridge Street Art Works, 1009 Bridge Street; in Harpersfield, at the Covered Bridge Shoppe (Harpersfield Covered Bridge Metropark).

Paul Bodnar with photo of Good Question.

Paul Bodnar, “the glue” that has held Good Question together for nearly 50 years, stands with the band portrait that once adorned the front of The Cove.

Pleasure Grounds

Bathing beauties enjoy Lake Erie near Sturgeon Point, where The Pleasure Grounds got their start in 1869. It grew into GOTL.

Our newest book, Pleasure Grounds, arrives May 22 and will be available for purchase from this website, at Bridge Street Artworks and several vendors at Geneva-on-the-Lake, which is book’s topic.

July 4 of this year marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of these Lake Erie picnic grounds, referred to as a “Pleasure Grounds,” by the founders, Edwin Pratt and Cullen Spencer. Our new book traces the history of Ohio’s first summer resort town (it beats Cedar Point by a year through more than 500 historical and recent documentary photographs, maps and brochures. The book has 578 pages, is 8.5×11 inches and weighs nearly five pounds!

Exhaustive, and exhausting for the author/designer, Pleasure Grounds is our biggest book yet. It grew out of the work I did with my former employer, The Ashtabula County County Commissioners, who loaned me the Geneva-on-the-Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau to work on interpretive signage about key events, people and attractions at “The Lake.” This work became known as the Summer Fun Heritage Trail.

The many bars along The Strip provide a Pleasure Grounds during Thunder on The Strip, one of the topics explored in the new book.

After a new board commissioners decided to eliminate my position, I decided to use my new status as a freelance writer to delve much deeper in The Resort’s story and provide readers with a narrative that looks at all aspects of this unique town and resort.

I sparingly use the word “unique” when I write, but when it comes to GOTL, it earns it.

Where else can you find an incorporated Ohio village without a single franchised business except Dairy Queen? It has no banks, no payday loan joints, no doctor’s or dentist’s offices, no traffic lights and no big-box stores, not even a pharmacy. Yet there are 17 bars, hundreds of cottages to rent, a state park, a lodge, wineries, zip lines, mom-and-pop stores and what appears to be the nation’s oldest miniature golf course. GOTL even has a magic store!

This little microcosm has developed totally independent of outside investment, until recently, when Delaware North Companies began building high-end amenities like the zip line/challenge course and cottages development. Most of GOTL’s commercial district is operated by families in the third and fourth generation of ownership. They have created the businesses vacationers associate with GOTL: Eddie’s Grill, The Cove, Firehouse Winery and many more.

This little resort soon became a vacation destination for blue-collar steel-mill towns of Western Pennsylvania and the Youngstown region. Many of them camped at Chestnut Grove. Their voices and stories run flow through the book like 3.2-beer once flowed through the village. Topics covered in the book include dance halls, alcohol, lodging, amusements, beaches, the riots, cottages and much more.

There is both pleasure and sadness in this place, a microcosm of human experience and emotions, joys and disappointments.

Pleasure Grounds will be available at select merchants at GOTL this summer. We have chosen not to distribute through Amazon at this time. It can be purchased through this website as well as our retail location, Bridge Street Art Works, 1009 Bridge Street, Ashtabula. Books will be in stock starting May 23.

Confirmed GOTL locations selling Pleasure Grounds are the Eagle Cliff Hotel and Anchor Inn. The Covered Bridge Shoppe at the Harpersfield Covered Bridge also will stock the book. .

In the weeks ahead, I’ll be posting supplemental videos and stories about GOTL as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of this unique town and resort.

See you on The Strip!

Pleasure grounds book cover.

Pleasure Grounds, 500-plus pages, fully indexed, hundreds of photos. 8 1/2 x 11 inches, silk laminate paper cover

‘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.”

 

Barn quilt marks northern end of trail

Ashtabula County’s latest barn quilt requires a boat to view it.

At 4-by-4 feet, the barn quilt can’t be seen with the naked eye from Lakeshore Park. With a pair of good binoculars, you can just discern the outline of the object on the east side of the Ashtabula Lighthouse.

The barn quilt was painted by John Carpenter, who volunteers with the Ashtabula Lighthouse Restoration and Preservation Society. John chose the mariner’s compass pattern, a fitting motif for an object that guided freighters into Ashtabula Harbor for more than 60 years.

The nonprofit group has been in control of the lighthouse since 2007. Grants and fundraising resources were used to the structure/crib and add a staircase and floating dock. But there is much work to be done before lighthouse can open for education/interpretation.

Joe Santiana, president of the group, took me and a newspaper reporter to the lighthouse on Sept. 14 for a look at the structure and barn quilt. I have visited the lighthouse on prior occasions, and each time left wishing that in my younger years I’d turned my lens toward documenting life on the structure before it was automated in 1973.

A bald eagle claims the former foundation of the lighthouse.

On our way out, we passed the lighthouse’s former foundation, approximately 1,750 feet closer to the shore than the current location. Ashtabula Harbor’s docks and railroads experienced a surge of expansion and growth starting in 1908, and that required a larger inner harbor and expansion of the breakwater. In 1916 the lighthouse was moved to its current location and doubled in size. A 50-foot-square concrete crib was built to accommodate the lighthouse, which was doubled in size. Further, future expansions of an emergency generator and air compressor to run the fog horn would need to be accommodated. The stone breakwater was extended from Walnut Beach, and while it is possible to walk the long, jagged breakwater to the lighthouse, it is very dangerous.

Joe Santiana, president of the Ashtabula Lighthouse Preservation and Restoration Society climbs the ladder to the upper lamp room in the Ashtabula Lighthouse.

While an iconic and lovely bump on the west breakwater of Ashtabula Harbor, the metal structure was built for functionality. Its interior is spartan. The first floor is a big, dark empty room that once provided the living and sleeping quarters. Above it are the two levels that accommodated the light and fog horn. The Fresnel lens ended up in the Ashtabula Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum. The fog horn and related equipment were possibly dumped in Lake Erie.

The white structure was recently painted, but the large population of gulls and other birds at this point have coated the lighthouse in white excrement. Not the most pleasant place to be, even on a beautiful September afternoon on Lake Erie.

The view of Ashtabula Harbor from the top of the lighthouse is stunning; perhaps why the spot is so popular with birds!

Then again, the life of a lighthouse keeper was not as pleasant as we might imagine it to have been. The lighthouse lacked comfort facilities. The keeper bathed in the lake, which also served as the restroom facility. The same lake provided dinner, a fresh-caught fish and provisions brought from the shore via the boats that also brought a fresh crew to man the light. In the final years of the manned lighthouse, a transistor radio provided some “entertainment.”

The Ashtabula light was the last on the Great Lakes to be automated . A solar-powered light glows in the top room of the structure and is maintained by the US Coast Guard. Otherwise, it is the society’s responsibility to care for the lighthouse, which was purchased as government surplus.

John Carpenter painted the Mariner’s Compass barn quilt that is on the Ashtabula Lighthouse.

The presence of a barn quilt this far north of the city and at the entrance to the harbor suggests the start of a truly unique barn quilt trail, one that could stretch from Lake Erie to the Ohio River. This 100-mile journey is rich in heritage and stories, not to mention some lovely, well-kept barns in Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbia counties. These four stacked counites have been linked for centuries via the stagecoach turnpike, Underground Railroad, the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads and Route 11. Iron ore that supplied the steel mills of the Ohio River towns came through Ashtabula Harbor, and coal that moved up the river and railroads moved through Ashtabula Harbor.

 

End of Line Junction Barn Quilt

Life at the End of the Line Junction

If you look closely at the roof and siding boards in the former machine shop, you’ll notice evidence of a prior life: charred sections, soot, nail holes indicative of a violent extraction.

And if you walk down the hill from this place, where East Ashtabula Street dead ends in Jefferson Village, Ohio, you’ll see through the foliage massive sandstone blocks in the stream valley.

Sandstone blocks, much smaller and inscribed, stand at this dead end in the Oakdale Cemetery.

A junction for dead ends, 150 North Market Street could be a depressing place. But the owners, Fred Bliss and Carol Utterback, welcome visitors to their “eternal life” at Dead End Junction. A barn quilt measuring 8-by-9-feet hangs on the building constructed from those second-hand boards. The theme of the barn quilt is redemption, salvation and life: A Christian cross with a descending dove to represent the Holy Spirit.

“Neither one of us is an artist,” Fred admits as he shows me the pattern he used for a dove that was cut from plywood and added to the barn quilt using brass screws. “We looked at a lot of doves before we found one we liked.”

The barn quilt expresses the couple’s Christian faith, as well as a new beginning. The Ashtabula County natives fell in love around the age of 9.

“It was puppy love,” Fred says. “But we didn’t miss a chance to be together. We used to meet at the Austinburg Skating Rink. She was always the girl for me.”

When Fred and Carol were 16 or 17 years old, they split up and went separate ways. Carol married Edward Lance Utterback on Sweetest Day, 1969. A mechanic, Edward owned the Texaco Service Station that once stood in the center of Jefferson. In 1974, he went into the excavating business, which grew to the point he needed a garage and land for his equipment. That led to the purchase, in 1978, of the North Market Street building and land. They built their house there in 1985.

Edward died April 20, 2016, at the of 73. Fred took note of the passing and wondered how his puppy-love friend was doing.

“I called her, just to make sure she was OK,” Fred says.

That call opened the door to rekindling the relationship severed back in the 1950s. In May 2017, Fred and Carol were married. Fred can’t help  but feel it was God bringing things full circle at the End of the Line.

He and Carol went to work on the property, clearing decades of mud and stuff from the garage. As is often the case in life, when clutter is cleared, the treasure of heritage emerges. Carol’s research into the building revealed that the previous owner constructed it from reclaimed lumber that came from the New York Central roundhouse in Ashtabula. Constructed in 1906 as part of a massive NYC expansion on the lakefront, the roundhouse stood on West Avenue and was reported to be the second largest in the world.

The advent of diesel locomotives in the early 1950s quickly antiquated the roundhouses. The NYC’s at Ashtabula was razed in 1953, and the lumber was evidently made available to whoever could use it. The soot, charring and prior nail holes on the boards attest to its prior environment.

 

Charred boards with nail holes tell a story of recycling. The boards came from a NYC roundhouse in Ashtabula, razed in 1953.

This discovery was significant for Carol; she comes from a family of railroaders. Her late father, Carl A. Martin, who lived south of Jefferson, worked at the NYC Collinwood Yards in Cleveland. And all his sons worked for the railroad.

The building’s NYC connection fit the landscape around this place, as well. When the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad decided to build a line from its mainline to Ashtabula Harbor, it also built a line from Ashtabula to Franklin, Pa., to connect to the coal fields. This line was called the Ashtabula & Franklin High Grade, or J&F (Jefferson and Franklin) Branch of the NYC. These lines went into service in 1873. (A low-grade line was built in the early 1900s to shorten the route and provide relief for passenger trains on the busy railroad. The high-grade line is used by the Ashtabula, Carson & Jefferson Railroad.)

The high grade trestle in Jefferson, Ashtabula & Franklin Division, LS&MS Railroad. Photo source: Jefferson Historical Society

At Jefferson the high-grade line had to cross a ravine in Oakdale Cemetery. A wooden trestle was constructed, along with a stone culvert to handle the flow of a Mill Creek tributary.

In August 1899 the trestle was the site of a train wreck that was the “end of the line” for the trestle. The wreck occurred amid a labor dispute. A scab brakeman fell asleep at his post and failed to heed the signal from the engineer, who saw the collision coming.

A south-bound train had stopped north of the trestle and unhooked its string of freight cars. The engine was thus freed to proceed to take on water at the depot, across the trestle. The engineer of the north-bound train saw the idled cars ahead of him and signaled for the brakeman to stop the locomotive. The snoozing scab didn’t respond, and the north-bound engine struck the locomotive that had arrived at the depot. It pushed the behemoth into the rail cars; the impact buckled the trestle. Freight cars and locomotives spilled into the ravine

The damaged trestle had to be removed and the ravine was filled with stone and slag to create the rail bed that exists to this day. Photo source: Jefferson Historical Society.

All personnel on the trains were able to jump from the engines and cars before the collision, so there was no loss of life. The railroad decided to fill the ravine with stone and dirt rather than build another trestle. A detour required a month to build and it took a year to fill ravine with slag from Youngstown steel mills and stone from the Windsor quarry. Irish laborers performed much of the work.

As a tribute to the spot’s and family’s railroading traditions, Carol and Fred put a metal pole at the end of the driveway and placed on it a railroad crossing sign, antique finale and flashing signal, which will be electrified and functional (no gate, however).

Fred says he’s doing these things as an acts of love for the woman he always knew “was for him.”

“It’s for Carol. She wanted to have the sign and call this place the End of the Line Junction,” Fred says.

The barn quilt also is for Carol.

“I enjoy looking at them as we drive through the countryside,” she says.

Fred designed, built and painted the barn quilt, which was raised on Labor Day, 2018. He and Carol hope it will draw visitors into the history of the region and the fascinating section of Oakdale Cemetery across their driveway.

Stephen Asa Northway’s grave, and the monument to his wife, are among the interesting stones at “The End of the Line Junction,” Oakdale Cemetery, Jefferson, Ohio. Photos by Carl E. Feather

The stones mark the graves of prominent lawmakers of the 19th century. Abolitionist Representative Joshua Giddings rests here, as does his former law partner and US senator, Benjamin Wade. Family members surround the men’s substantial monuments. The unusual large rock monument to Stephen Asa Northway—a state representative, US congressman, scholar and lawyer—and the metal sculpture of a Greek female figure, are among the unusual monuments in this section. Near the edge of the ravine is the grave of Charley Garlick, the former slave who fled from a plantation in western Virginia, served in the Civil War and lived out the remainder of his life in the Giddings Law Office. And across a small ravine that holds an underground, walk-in crypt is the stone for the child who was the cemetery’s first burial, in 1812.

They all rest here, at the End of the Line Junction. Yet the barn quilt and couple’s story of re-kindled romance suggests endings are only beginnings cloaked in suffering and grief. That a cross somehow pulls together all these stories and gives us hope amid the tears.

What a strange paradox, this spinning junction pieced by a cross.

A newer stone marks the grave of the first recorded burial in the cemetery, Timothy Hawley, a 3-year-old.

 

The Story Quilter’s Threads

I love a good barn.
My paternal grandfather had a lovely one, perched on a hillside of the farming village of Eglon, W.Va.
I recall him telling me that he and his wife, Maud, built the barn in the 1930s, when they married, moved to the land, built their home and started farming and raising a family.
Traveling to the farm as a child, I always went to the barn with my grandfather, where he kept a few beef cattle and an assortment of barn cats. The cats often got a few dinner-table scraps, which I’d enjoy placing in a bowl and then wait for them to come out of hiding for the food.

My grandfather, Russel Feather, farmed this hillside for decades. His barn is at the far right of the photo, taken in 2004. The farm has been trashed and it makes me sad to go by there and see the disrespect that the new owners have shown to the place, once my grandfather’s pride and joy.

The barn was a bank barn, with access to the pasture off the back, facing Route 24, which ran along the ridge behind the barn. The first floor, below bank grade, was block foundation and provided stalls for the cattle. The second floor and haymow were timber construction and provided storage for the revered tractor. Theframed part was sided with vertical wormy chestnut boards.
Aside from the smell of dusty hay and petroleum products, the most vivid memory of that barn was watching the way the sun played through the cracks in the siding. I played “peek-a-boo” with the sun as it traced its morning course across the barn siding, peaking in and out of the cracks and casting slits of yellow, dusty light onto the hay and cats.

Thus it was that I choose to open my feature documentary about barn quilts, The Story Quilter’s Threads, with a time lapse of a sunrise through barn siding. The barn is a circa-1900 German-built dairy barn owned by Dale and Margaret Toukonen. The segment was filmed on a Sunday morning in September. While the camera shot a frame every second for an hour, I worked outside capturing the stirrings of the horses and solitary sheep on this equestrian retirement resort, “Wind Horse Farm.” Aside from the horses owned by the Toukonens, the elderly horses on this farm were working horses, in a circus or on a race track, for examples, and are living out their days in the comfort and care of this Williamsfield Township former dairy farm.
I got know the owners through the Ashtabula County Barn Quilt Trail, the steering committee of which I am a member. The Toukonen barn was one of the first to receive an 8-by-8 barn quilt. Barn quilts are quilt patterns painted onto high-quality sign board. They usually tell a story, and in this case the story is that of the farm’s name and its branding symbol, enclosed by a quilt pattern.
The Toukonen farms’ story is one of several selected for The Story Quilter’s Threads, which focuses on southern Ashtabula County barn quilts. The barn quilt trail steering committee did not design it this way, but most of the barn quilts that are actually on barns and have a story connected to them, are in the southwestern section of the county.
From March to November of 2017, I interviewed barn quilt owners about their choice of pattern, quilting heritage and the story of the barn itself. They are stories from a bygone era, a time when a family could still make a living from the family farm, and when a man’s word meant something. Several of the stories are about loss and commemorating the life that was snuffed out by age or farm injury.
The landscape in Williamsfield Township, where much of this film takes place, is gently rolling and well watered, thanks to being near Pymatuning Reservoir and the swamps that feed it. Footage from the first aerial photography attempt for the film had to be set aside because the fields were soggy and crops struggling in July. A second attempt in early October was much more satisfying, with the sunrise over Pymatuning Reservoir and patchy fog providing a delightful greeting as we circled the Housel barn on Simons South Road.
The film received its premiere at The Lodge and Conference Center at Geneva on the Lake, Nov. 20, 2017. I offer it for sale on DVD at this website as a fundraiser for the Barn Quilt Trail.
Samples of The Story Quilter’s Threads can be found at The Feather Cottage You Tube Channel, along with the time lapse from the Toukonen barn.
What I didn’t plan on as I was setting up for the shot was the number of barn cats that would wander in and out of the scene over the course of filming it. They confirm the suspicion that much life occurs outside of our awareness because we simply don’t take the time to observe it. Our movement about the sun creates the arc, but we are so accustomed to taking still photographs using a 1/250th second slice of sunlight that we think of it as a static phenomenon.
The moving image, on the other hand, falsely reveals an organic being, the sun, arcing across our sky, when it is actually our spaceship that is making the elliptical journey. Both the arc and the compression of time are thus illustrations of something larger, the spinning of dusty arcs into days and threads into stories, The Story Quilter’s Threads.

A side note on Williamsfield Township. This area was hit by a tornado in November 2017 and three years earlier took a hit worldwide when it was declared “the most stressful neighborhood in America.” My experience here was completely opposite. It is a peaceful, lovely corner of Ashtabula County where Amish and Yankee farmers work side-by-side, barns are preserved and the farming heritage treasured. I hope the video captures a piece of that.

Keys

Shady Beach keys webMy 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 web 1Shady 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.

Shayd web 2Here 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. Shady web 3

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.

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The Shady Beach staff and owner, Durwood Bowers, in the foreground, pipe in his mouth. Betty Layport remembers Durwood for his “damn pet raccoon,” of which she was very afraid.

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.

shady beach key webDoes 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.