Joe DePollo family

The Reunion

I knew his father before I knew Joe.

Joe DePollo was the son of John DePollo, who owned DePollo’s Store in Thomas, W.Va. The store was started by John’s parents, first-generation Italian immigrants, who eventually built the three-story brick building on Front Street in 1915. They operated a general store that supplied dry goods and fresh food to the families of the town’s coal miners and railroaders.

DePollo's Store, Thomas, W.Va.
The Purple Fiddle now occupies the former DePollo’s Store in Thomas W.Va. John DePollo operated the store up until four months before he died in 1994.

My maternal grandfather, Clayton Watring, was among the latter class of workers. Whenever my parents went back home to Thomas, I tagged along in his 1957 turquoise-and-white Chevy as he fulfilled the grocery list prepared by my grandmother, Violet. DePollo’s was usually one of the stops.

Elderly man in old general store, Thomas, West Virginia
John DePollo in his store, 1993.

Thirty years later, in the summer of 1993, I wandered into DePollo’s store to find its iconic owner and the son of its founders still taking care of business at the age of 88. That day I interviewed and photographed John and Jim Cooper, his haberdashery-owner friend down the street, and later wrote a story and sold it to Goldenseal, the West Virginia Department of Culture and History magazine. It was my second piece for the magazine and set me on a course to write more than 100 stories for the publication, for which I still freelance. It is the most gratifying work I do, and my memories of travels in the state and the acquaintances I’ve made are precious to me.

John DePollo died in June 1994, and in keeping with his wishes, the family sold the building to provide for the care of his widow, Elsie. John Bright eventually purchased the old store and in 2002 established there the Purple Fiddle, another iconic Tucker County business, which I also wrote about for Goldenseal.

Back in 2015, the Purple Fiddle hosted a revival of what had been a longstanding tradition for John DePollo: a concert of polka music performed by his twin sons, Joe and John, on the occasion of his birthday. For those memorable birthday parties, the store closed for business, a sign announcing the party and free beer went in the window, and the twins played The Tucker County Polka and dozens of other zippy tunes to their father’s honor and delight . It’s said that Joe Sr. danced all the polkas, even when he was in his late 80s, and often recruited a a few lady guests to join him on the wooden floor.

Joe told me that his father’s love of this music and the accordion was behind the gifts of two accordions for his sons back in the late 1930s or early 1940s. Joe and John took lessons for a couple of years, but after their teacher was drafted into the army, the boys turned to recorded music and attending dances to complete their education. Thus, they never learned to read music, but they amassed a repertoire of a hundred songs or so, including square dances, which they performed at wedding receptions, parties, family gatherings and Bill Slaughbaugh’s Horse Shoe Run Tavern. Teamed with other Elkins-area musicians, the twins played as the Polka Dots and Godfathers.

John with accordion
John DePollo played lead in the twin brother’s band, Polka Dots, and their reunion performances.

In July 2018 I traveled to the Purple Fiddle for the revival of what had become another tradition involving the DePollo family: An annual reunion that included a concert featuring Joe and John on the Fiddle’s stage. This event got its start in 2015 and roughly coincided with the late John DePollo’s birthday.

I interviewed Joe at his home and attended the concert, filmed it and share the story online. The reunion will be a future Goldenseal Back Roads story, the quarterly column I write for the magazine.

Joe and John did not perform at the Purple Fiddle this year due to a previously booked engagement at the venue. And Joe became ill shortly thereafter and passed away in Virginia September 13. One family member predicted that John would never pick up and play his accordion again because they played as a duo all their lives (Joe, by 15 minutes the older of the two twins, told me his brother always played the lead part).

Losses like this always remind me of the immediacy of the work in which I am engaged. The human landscape is constantly changing, and ever since I wandered into DePollo’s store back in the 1993, I’ve followed this passion of preserving the stories of my home state, West Virginia, to the second and third generations …

Joe DePollo smiling
Joe DePollo had a great smile and personality that helped him succeed as an insurance agent. Playing music was his hobby.

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.

The Field Guide to all things Ashtabula

“Ashtabula County: A field guide to the natural,  historical and curious treasures of Ohio’s largest county” is back in stock. Additionally, Ruth and I will be at Jefferson, Ohio, Recreation Center on East Jefferson Street, Dec. 1, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for their Christmas craft fair. The following Saturday, Dec. 8, we will be at the Lantern in Saybrook Township with our books, as well. That show is 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and benefits the Alzheimer’s Association.

For online shoppers, we are offering the book for just $18, including shipping, through the end of November. The price returns to $21.95 after November 30. For in-person shoppers at the two previously mentioned shows, the price is just $20. Credit cards are accepted on this site and at our events.

We recently posted a video that describes the book and provides a peak inside.

Film transfers

Long before DVDs, VHS and YouTube, there were home movies shot on real film in 8mm, Super 8mm and 16mm.

One of the services provided by  The Feather Cottage is digitization or transfer of these film formats to DVD, Blu-Ray or digital video files for uploading.

Our film transfer promo describes this service in more detail.

View it here:

Ashtabula Harbor

“Ashtabula Habor: A History of the World’s Greatest Iron Ore Receiving Port” makes a great Christmas gift for former residents and history lovers.

We recently completed a video about the book, available on this website.

Hats off to this artist neighbor

For the artist, the road to perfection is littered with tests, failures and near-perfect pieces that admiring eyes never see.

Had you been in the Geneva workshop of woodturning artist Ron Tomasch the evening of February 7, you would have seen in the trash bin one half of a wooden cowboy hat with a broken top. The prior day, after Ron invested six hours of lathe work into the piece, the hat’s top suddenly snapped off as it spun on the lathe, sending the hat flying toward Ron. The artist’s chisel had removed a critical layer of wood around the top, the piece was ruined.

Ron took the “failure” in stride, walked across the workshop, flipped the switch on the band saw and made a longitudinal cut through the hat. The postmortem examination revealed that he still had a ways to go in hollowing out the object, but had misjudged the amount of material remaining at the top.

“Sometimes ‘oops’ things happen,” Ron says. “I’ve had a couple of them where I punched through (the rotating wood with the chisel).”

He doesn’t give up. Within minutes of having his day’s work destroyed, Ron was in his truck headed to the tree trimmer’s lot where he’d found the piece of ambrosia maple that he reduced to shavings and a topless hat. Working in hand-numbing cold, he cut two more chunks from the log of the freshly felled tree and prepared one of them for his lathe. The next morning, he was back in the shop, a wiser, more skilled woodturner determined to make a hat.

Turning heads with his work

Determination and a passion for challenge keep Ron on track as an artist. Although the 69-year-old woodturner has been turning since he was 8 years old, he neither tires of the hobby nor has learned all its tricks and intricacies.

As vice-president of the North Coast Woodturners Association, Ron has the pleasure of booking into the club’s learning events top talent from the profession. Four to five times a year, he gets to meet and learn from professional turners, who sometimes visit his shop or allow him to turn in their shops.

“I’m the one who gets to talk to all these guys,” says Ron, who has lived in Geneva for the past four years.

The Olmsted Falls native came east following a chance meeting with Isabell Quayle, a retired teacher and licensed drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor who lives in Geneva. Ron calls Isabell his “girlfriend.” They met at Geneva-on-the-Lake, a place Ron once frequented as a young man, but had not been back to for many years when he decided to revisit one summer day several years ago. He and Isabell struck up a conversation, exchanged cell phone numbers and parted ways. A short distance west of Geneva, Isabell called Ron and asked if he’d like to meet her mother. He turned around, came back for introductions, and the conversation continues.

“We decided we’d get together, and I knocked down her garage and built this,” Ron says of the 850-square-foot workshop he built behind Isabell’s house on Geneva’s east side. The shop is equipped with a dust collection system and all the comforts of home, right down to a large freezer. But the freezer does not store food; it has been cleverly repurposed as a drying kiln for the lumber Ron turns on the three lathes in his shop.

“A woodworker can never have enough tools,” says Ron, a statement reinforced by the plethora of power tools, many of which run on 220-volt current, and neatly arranged hand tools strategically placed, neatly ordered, throughout the shop. The attention to safety, lighting, convenience and efficiency evident throughout the shop bear witness to Ron’s penchant for perfectionism and professionalism in all he creates here.

Ron with some of his work at the Bridge Street Art Works, Ashtabula Harbor.

Turning since childhood

Ron credits his late father for introducing him to wood turning.

“I grew up with three sisters, so my Dad made a lathe out of wood and I would go the basement and make a few things on it,” he says. “But I wasn’t very good at it.”

Ron devoured mechanical arts classes in junior high school and honed his lathe skills in senior high. Marriage, children and the responsibilities that come with those commitments kept him away from lathes for many years. His journey back began when he was a truck driver; Ron made a delivery to a store that sold lathes, and when he learned that the inventory on the delivery dock was for an upcoming sale, he purchased one of the lathes before it even entered the store.

The tool remained boxed in his basement for three years before he finally had time to delve into it. He joined the North Coast Woodturners group 10 years ago and began accumulating the tools, skills and friendships that would enrich his retirement years. In the process, the basement workshop of his house in Cleveland became very cramped.

Fate seemed to be at work for Ron in meeting Isabell, who just happened to have the old garage that needed to be razed. Isabell introduced him to the community during a Grape Jamboree, where decided to get a booth and attempt to sell some of his creations.

Ron says the most common question he heard was “what do you make?” And after hearing it perhaps one too many times, Isabell just blurted out “He just makes stuff.”

“And I thought, ‘That’s a pretty catchy title,’” Ron says.

I Just Make Stuff—especially hats

And so it is that the license plate on Ron’s pickup is “I J M S” and “I Just Make Stuff” is on his T-shirt and business card.

He makes items that challenge and enlarge his skills as a woodturner, items that beg to be released from a block of potential firewood, and functional items, like pet urns, pepper mills and, yes, wood cowboy hats.

He makes the hats in both miniature and full-size incarnations, like the one Kentucky woodturner made for President George W. Bush, NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and singer Charlie Daniels.

Ron credits JoHannes Michelsen, a Manchester, Vt., wood turning professional, with originating the process of transforming an 80-pound chunk of wood into a hat that weighs less than a pound and is 3/32s of an inch thick in most places. Ron discovered the project about a year ago, purchased an instructional DVD made by Michelsen and got hands-on instruction from Columbus, Ohio, woodturner/firefighter Mike Trucco. Ron says Trucco told him to expect lots of failures if he was serious about learning the techniques and skills demanded by the project.

Ron’s custom-made hat; it brings comments wherever he wears it.

On a scale of 1-10 in difficulty, the cowboy hat rates a 10, says Ron. He has no idea how many woodturners are regularly turning out hats, but this much he knows: Any turner who is successful at the project also has a string of failures behind the finished product.

In the year he’s been turning the projects, Ron has turned 15 successfully. “But 12 of them failed. Most of them kept cracking,” he says.

Conventional, very sharp carving chisels are used to chip away at the wood block from which the hat is released. Ron prefers Thompson tools (http://thompsonlathetools.com/), both for their quality and the fact they are “made by a woodturner for woodturners” in North Olmsted. Ron sharpens the tools numerous times throughout the six to seven hours of turning that are required to reduce the block to a hat.

In the process of turning a hat, several garbage bags full of wood shavings are produced. The shavings pile up to knee-high and coat the hand tools on the walls with aromatic streamers. Because the wood must be carved when wet to take advantage of its pliable nature in that state, water drops fly off the log and Ron wears a face mask to protect his vision. Although it has its hazards, Ron prefers to work with freshly harvested wood, as in within 24 hours of being felled, in order to have the higher moisture content in the wood.

There comes a point when Ron must hollow out the inside of the hat to a depth of 3/32nds of an inch. Many things can go wrong at this point and reduce the unfinished piece to firewood. While he can and does use calipers to gauge his progress, Ron finds that shining a bright light source through the translucent wood provides a good visual guide.

A light outside the hat guides Ron as to the thickness of the wood remaining as he hollows out the hat’s interior.

Once the hat is successfully turned, the round opening must be compressed to an oval and the flat brim pulled upward to create the characteristic form of a cowboy hat. The wet hat is placed into a custom-built jig that allows Ron to slowly add compression to the side and flex the brim using strong rubber bands. The process continues over 24-36 hours, during which time the wood can suddenly crack. Ron’s been known to sleep with the jig next to his bed so he can get up every so often and add more pressure to the piece.

“Once it is dry, completely dry, it will never lose its shape,” Ron says.

Finishing takes days because Ron is as meticulous about the smoothness, uniformity and quality of every piece he produces.

“Most people get to the point where they don’t like to do the sanding. I don’t mind it. I want my finishes to be perfect,” he says.

Time is perfection’s currency. Ron says it will take him 40 to 50 hours of work to produce one hat, which he sells at Bridge Street Art Works for $250.00. The artist doesn’t even want to do the math to figure out his hourly wage.

“I do not make a profit,” he says. “What I make from selling this stuff, I use to buy more stuff to turn things with.”

“This is a hobby for me,” he adds. “It’s not to make a living. It’s a hobby I’ve done my whole life.”

Ron’s work is for sale at Bridge Street Art Works, 1009 Bridge St., Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio.

Reach him by email at ron@ijustmakestuff.com, or 216-438-1003.

Ron turns a bowl in his Geneva workshop.

 

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.