House for sale in Geneva, Ohio, is made of stone.

A stone farmhouse in Ohio’s Wine Country

Do you love wine?

Lake Erie?

History? A house with a story?

Privacy, room for a garden, shady yards and wildlife?

The Helwig stone house could be yours.

Clarence Helwig built this farmhouse 1950-1966 using rocks and boulders he collected from farmers and clearing the land around the house for an orchard.
Sandstone, boulders, rocks and bricks were used to build this amazing house, its garages and walls.
The lot is nearly two acres and includes both shady and sunny areas, perfect for an organic garden and apple orchard. Dog not included!
The house and garage are surrounded by mature red oak, maple and magnolia trees.
The front yard is lined with mature rhododendrons and mountain laurel; the yard slopes gently to the next neighbor’s yard, with a buffer of trees between them. The side yard is well distanced from neighbors.

This unusual stone house in the heart of Ohio’s wine country is just four miles south of Lake Erie and Geneva State Park and Marina. The resort town of Geneva-on-the-Lake is four miles to the north, as well.

Geneva: Gateway to Ohio’s Wine Country

The house is just two miles from the Route 534/Interstate 90 interchange. Shopping, banking, the library, groceries and restaurants are within walking distance. More than 20 wineries are within a 20-minute drive of the home. You’ll never get bored with the options or variety of tastes! And you’ll have enough land and space to grow your own grapes and make your wine at home!

City services include paid police and fire. Geneva Middle School is less than a mile from the house, as is the Geneva branch of Ashtabula County District Library. Geneva High School is about two miles away on Route 84.

The utilities are underground. Municipal water and sewer serve the property. The house has natural gas and cable connections.

The neighborhood is all residential, very quiet and very walkable. Most houses are in the $200K to $300K range and were built in the past 40 years. A new housing allotment, Behringer Court, is to the south of the neighborhood.

Dogs and their owners have plenty of side streets to explore. There are sidewalks all the way to downtown, a little over a mile away. A dog park is about one mile from the home. SPIRE sports and educational complex is 1.5 miles from the house. The Ashtabula County Harpersfield Covered Bridge/Grand River, is just three miles from the home and features many water-related/hiking activities.

Harpersfield Covered Bridge Metropark, 3 miles from the house.

The story of the rock house

The house is sited in a former farming area. It was built using boulders dug up during farming operations in this area and throughout Ashtabula County. Clarence Helwig, the builder, uncovered the rocks while converting the former fields and forest to an apple orchard; fruit growing has always been an important part of the Geneva/Harpersfield economy due to the area’s proximity to Lake Erie and high elevation. That industry has shifted to grape growing and wine production. The last of the old apple trees from the Helwig orchard was cut down in the spring of 2020. Wood from that tree will transfer with the house.

A small apple orchard has been planted and the trees began to bear in 2020. The varieties include Cortland, Tolman Sweet, Golden Delicious and many others.

In addition to the boulders and rocks, the house has bricks and sandstone blocks salvaged from building demolitions in its walls. These walls are more than a foot thick on the first level and even thicker in the basement/foundation. The rock and robust construction surround the home’s occupants with a sense of security, peace, healing and safety.

The house was nearly lost to neglect. It was abandoned by the prior owners and vacant for more than four years. During that time, a large hole in the roof was left unaddressed and water infiltrated the house, resulting in black mold throughout much of the property. All affected drywall and wood was removed before renovation began in the spring of 2015. The house received new drywall in most rooms, the knotty pine paneling was refinished with furniture-grade polyurethane, the hardwood floors were sanded and repaired, and new laminate flooring was laid in the basement, office and throughout the second floor. That floor was added in 1980 by a prior owner.

Mature red oak trees grow on the property, which is nearly 2 acres, very unusual for a city lot. In restoring the house, the decision was made to purchase native red oak boards for the trim in the kitchen, living room, laundry room, both baths and the master bedroom. The trim ranges in width from 3 inches to 5 1/2 inches.

The front entryway provides a quiet location for reading and features two large metal-framed metal windows salvaged from an industrial demolition decades ago. A mix of double-hung wood/metal storm and Anderson double-pane windows is on the first floor; the second floor has all new, tilt-in double-pane windows.

Living room.

The living room with its new brown-enamel woodstove perched on a pad made from slate salvaged from a Meadville, Pa., mansion, is the heart of this home. There are many stories in this room. The beams that support the barn door are from the original home construction; the ceiling was raised a foot during renovation and the beams salvaged. They were cut from trees on the property and have been used throughout the house as practical accents. The barn door is from a former dairy farm in Rock Creek. The unusual shelf brackets came from a store building constructed in 1850 in Cherry Valley Township. The light fixture with its Edison bulbs is a former livestock yoke from a farm in the area.

Living room from the front door entrance.

The living room is accessed from the kitchen and front door, with a small entry area to the front yard. The tile is from the Meadville, Pa., mansion.

Entry area. Coat rack, made from the door of a silo, does not transfer.

The wood stove is new in the fall of 2020. It is a Jotul stove, made in Maine, and with a brown enamel finish. The stove ties into a stainless steel liner.

New Jotul stove.

The brick backwall was added in 2015 during the renovation. In speaking with the builder’s daughter, I learned that a woodstove was previously in the living room. She said her late father loved to sit by the fire at night in his rocking chair and read the encyclopedia. His wife had a piano in the room. While we’ve not added a piano, the stove was a must in keeping to the spirit of this home.

The office off the living room is conveniently located and could be used as a second bedroom. It has knotty pine paneling and pine trim.

The office is off the living room and can be closed off with the barn door. The ceilings in this room and the adjacent laundry room were raised one foot during renovation. This exposed part of the chimney, which was left intact to add to the rustic feel of the room. Bold, highly grained boards were hand picked for the trim around the two windows. Shelves were built on two of the walls around the top of the area where the original knotty pine paneling ended. Because the rock walls create irregular widths, it was necessary to enclose one section of the wall and thus create a deep storage space.

Office off living room.

If you work from home, as I do, this office is a quiet, soothing space that is close to the kitchen; laundry is right around the corner.

Laundry area
The laundry room provides plenty of room for clothes storage and pantry needs.
The laundry room doubles as a pantry and closet with black-pipe fixtures and hooks all around the room for clothes. Barn siding is under the windows; the flooring is original hardwood. The room could be used as a bedroom and the laundry area moved to the basement, where there is a water hookup for a washer. Appliances transfer with house.

The downstairs bath was added in 2015. It is a full bath with an old barn door.

Downstairs bath with barndoor. The photo on the wall is of the outbuilding from which the door was taken.
Downstairs bath.

The kitchen was remodeled in 2020. It features sold red oak countertops custom built in Middlefield, Ohio, by Amish craftsmen. The porcelain sink is new, as is the fixture. All cabinets were painted. The walls were textured and painted to give the look of a farmhouse kitchen. The range has electric hookup and transfers, along with the refrigerator. Both were purchased 2015.

Kitchen, red oak countertops.
Countertops.
One of the joys of living in this house is eating while watching the wildlife visit the concrete ledge at the double windows. I spread bird seed on the ledge and song birds, woodpeckers and squirrels come within inches of you as both you and the wildlife enjoy breakfast or dinner. We’ve also had entire families of wild turkeys and deer visit this area, which descends to Cowles Creek.
Backyard–clothesline included!

The basement is in three sections. The first is a utility/storage area that runs the length of the house. The gas, forced-air furnace is located in this area. All ducts were cleaned following the renovation. The furnace ducts are for the first floor only; due to the stone construction, there was no wall space in which to run ductwork.

The water heater is gas and new in 2015. There is a laundry area with a utility tub and lots of room for storage.

Laundry/utility area, basement.

The house was originally heated with a stone fireplace in the basement. This fireplace has a gas insert that heats all of the basement. The bookcases and mantle were built from lumber salvaged from the house and a barn.

A pull-down screen converts this family room with laminate flooring into a home theater. The screen, 90 inches wide, stays with the house.

A small workshop area is to the rear of this room. Additionally, there is a room with a dirt floor and no windows off the main basement area. This room would be idea for a wine cellar; it is unheated. Of the family room is a room approximately four by four feet, very useful for storage. It is heated and has a floor drain.

Bedrooms are on the second floor. The main bedroom is 30 feet by 18 feet and has laminate flooring. Originally restored to accommodate an entire family visiting from out of town, it is presently being used for storage. It has two closets, one 6-feet long, the other approx. 3-by-3 feet.

The guest or master bedroom, as you prefer, has an adjoining full bath with a jet-tub and tiled shower. The flooring is tile.

The bedroom is L shaped. A wall of wood frames the headboard of a queen bed. Flooring is laminate.

Guest/master bedroom has wood partial wood-plank walls, solid oak barn doors and drywall. Laminate flooring was new in 2015. All bedrooms have ceiling fans.
Second floor bath, off master bedroom.
Second floor bath
Second floor guest room/master bedroom as you wish.
Second floor guest room or master bedroom, as you desire.
Second floor room with closets. Would be perfect for an Airbnb property that could accommodate an entire family or all the kids in this room, with the couple’s bedroom just off this one and a shared bath.
A second closet area and access to the main bedroom are off the master/guest room.

The house is accessed from Sherman Street down a 400-foot-long driveway lined with hemlock and pine trees.

The garage is built of stone and has metal roofs, new in 2015. There are two large bays with room for a small workshop area at the front. Steps lead up to the garage attic, with much storage space and the possibility of finishing into a studio. Automatic garage door openers are on the two new (2017) doors.

The garages are conveniently placed near the side entrance (to kitchen area) of the house.
The third bay (far right, door open) of the garage is used for wood storage. A former cold storage room is at the rear of this building and could be a workshop, wine cellar or storage room. It is heated with wood.
Woodshed. Firewood in the shed is included. Enough for your first winter in the snug cottage.
The former cold storage room has insulation 12 inches thick over block walls. It has a new metal room and a concrete floor. A wood stove provides heat. The room 16-by-20-feet, would make a great workshop. It is currently used for an eBay business and film transfer business, and storage.
Wood planks from the roof of the former cold storage room was saved and incorporated into the wall of the new workshop.

Total living space is approximately 1950 square feet, not including basement storage spaces. Further information about this property can be found on the Ashtabula County Auditor’s website.

https://auditor.ashtabulacounty.us/PT/Datalets/Datalet.aspx?sIndex=1&idx=1

Please note that the auditor’s value does not include many of the recent updates. We have priced the home according to recent sales in the neighborhood, plus premiums for the larger, secluded lot, which is four to six times the size of the typical lot in this neighborhood; historical significance; unusual construction/materials; and aesthetics of the property and residence.

Please feel free to send an email for more information or to view the home in person. Or call Carl’s cell at 440-415-3596.

The property is offered at $289,000; offers considered, however, we cannot accept contingency offers. Customary seller closing costs will be paid by the seller. Only qualified buyers. Please respect our privacy.

Room dimensions

Basement:         

  • Storage & utility area, 10×32 feet, concrete floor.
  • Family room/home theater, 21×15 feet, laminate floor over concrete
  • Storage room off family room, 6×8 feet
  • “Dark Room” (no windows, block walls, unheated), 9×12 feet

First Floor:

  •                                 Side door porch, 3.5×10 feet, concrete
  •                                 Kitchen entry: 6.5x 4.5 feet, vinyl flooring
  •                                 Kitchen: 11×21 feet, vinyl flooring
  •                                 Living Room: 14.5 x 22 feet, hardwood (red oak)
  •                                 Alcove/reading nook: 6 x 8 feet, tile
  •                                 Office: 15 x 8.5 feet, laminate over hardwood
  •                                 Laundry/pantry: 15 x 8 feet, hardwood
  •                                 Full bath (shower, no tub): 8 x 12 feet, stone

Second Floor:

  •                                 Bath (full, jet tub): 6 x 9.5 feet, ceramic tile
  •                                 Bedroom: 15 x 13 feet, laminate
  •                                 Bedroom: 17 x 24 feet, laminate (includes 2 closets)

Garage:

  •                                 Garage area, two cars, 24 feet deep, 19.5 feet wide
  •                                 Attic area above garage has same dimension.
  •                                 Wood shed: 12 x 24 feet
  •                                 Storage/workshop room at rear of woodshed
                                   12 x 20 feet, open ceiling 9 feet.

Side Porch:         Entry to house, 3.5 x 10 feet

All inquiries, please call 440-415-3596 or send email to carl@thefeathercottage.com

apple blossom on cut section of apple tree log

Mourning a tree in blossom

Its five main limbs resembled the biceps of a circus weightlifter. They emerged from the low-set trunk just a few inches above the former orchard’s soil; twenty-inches in diameter at their widest, the limbs rose like a worshiper’s arms and terminated with scores of vertical, whip-like fingers on which grew the fruit. Pocked by the work of woodpeckers and bearing the scars of previous encounters with disease, chain saws, nails and dry rot, the limbs’ tight, gray bark encased golden sapwood that surrounded a dense core of decades-old, rust-hued heartwood.

It stood in my neighbor’s yard, but its branches overhung mine, as well. Every August, it dropped hundreds of small, orange and red orbs onto both yards to the delight of ants, bees, deer and this neighbor.

I am a lover of the Malus tree and its fruit; at a prior residence, in another phase of life, I aspired to be a backyard orchardist and had some 15 varieties growing, but rarely producing. There were no apple trees at the next house, but my relocation to Sherman Street Extension in 2015 brought me full circle to cultivating Malus domestica.

Man sitting in paneled room.
The late Clarence Helwig built The Feather Cottage from rocks he collected from the fields that became an apple orchard. He is sitting the knotty-pine paneled room that is now Carl’s office. Photo courtesy of his daughter, Rogene Helwig Lockwood.

Although once an apple orchard, the two acres on which The Feather Cottage stands were given over to red oak and brush when I arrived. The apple trees, I understand, grew on the acreage to the south of the farm. This entire area was once a huge apple-producing region, and at one time there was talk of designating the main road through this area as “The Apple Highway.”

The old orchard on Sherman Street Extension eventually gave way to subdivision and the ranch and bi-level homes of the 1960s and ‘70s.  Among the few artifacts of the old orchard is the cold storage room that Clarence Helwig built to the rear of our home’s stone garage. The six-inch-thick door with “COLD STORAGE” stenciled on the garage-facing side was a portal to the harvested bounty. Former residents tell me that Clarence ran a self-service apple sales operation in the room; customers left a dollar for each bag of apples they withdrew from the shelves.

Some of those apples came from the artifact in my neighbor’s yard, the magnificent Malus with 20-inch biceps. It was the last surviving apple tree in my neighborhood, and although decades old, it still bore a heavy crop without fail.

Its yellow-and-red fruit, although blemished with scabs, worms and rot, delivered more flavor to the bite than an entire bin of perfect Northwest Red Delicious shipped 2,000 miles to the supermarket. I looked forward to early August, when the heritage tree released its fruit and I could once again nibble on childhood’s apples while going about my yardwork. Bites were strategically selected to avoid the scabs, bruises and wormholes; the resulting wound inspected before the bite was swallowed. The sight of severed worm dangling from a brown burrow in the white skin necessitated expectoration and moving on to a less-infected specimen–all part of the adventure of traveling yesterday’s gastronomical highway.

The tree was an old variety. I am guessing Gravenstein, popular in cold-temperate regions such as ours. Producing tangy, sweet, flavorful fruit, the heirloom’s North American heritage has been traced to the West Coast, where it was a favorite with commercial growers in the Sonora Region of Calafornia. Wine grapes eventually replaced Malus there, much as grapes, and houses, have replaced apples in this region.

But my neighbor’s tree was the rare survivor. Either through fate or indifference, the tree remained, continued to grow and dutifully produced and dropped its crops as offering for years after its peers were dragged off to make way for Little Boxes of all different colors.

Desiring to pay homage to my property’s heritage, the first fall I lived here I planted 10 apple trees on a sunny, low section. One does not know land until a year of rain, snow and sun have had their way with it, and in the spring, the parcel’s former life as a pond revealed itself following the cloudburst. Apples, as a rule, do not like wet feet, and in time that disdain turned to death. Many of the trees had to be replanted, on higher ground. Last summer, we enjoyed our first four apples from the orchard of mostly disease-resistant varieties.

On several occasions, I thought of taking a few scions from the heritage tree and attempt a graft onto the semi-dwarf rootstock. I even inquired of a couple local orchardists about having them attempt it, but I learned that commercial operations rely upon the nurseries to prepare grafted stock. With all the drama, work and vicissitudes of those years, the project remained a thought, nothing more.

A week ago, I heard my neighbor’s chainsaw growling in his backyard; time had run out for my grafting plans and the tree alike. The stout limbs fell that morning and throughout the afternoon as he labored against their heritage and girth. He eventually became frustrated with the struggle, knocked on our door and asked if I was interested in completing the job for the firewood.

It could not save the tree, but I could determine the wood’s fate. For the next two days, between installing a new kitchen sink and all the joys of plumbing that go with that, I worked on what amounted to “butchering” the artifact. The work was heavy, in both the physical and emotional senses, and overall bittersweet. The aromatic sap, bleeding from scores of fresh wounds, tinged the early-May air as I went about my work. Infant red blossoms, still tightly wrapped, spilled from the shaking, crashing branches. Another week or so, and the tree would have been a bouquet of hope and harbinger of harvest, but the harvest this year would be of Mallus wood, not fruit.

Wanting to preserve the straight sections of the large limbs, I chose not to reduce them to standard fireplace lengths, rather retain them as logs in the event a sawyer could make planks for some rustic project. Other pieces were cut with an eye to making doorstops or other useful items that will remain with the cottage as mementoes of this heritage. I stacked them on pallets on which to dry, next to the smaller sections of branches awaiting the splitter and, ultimately, cremation in the hearth. The wood is dense, patterned and colorful. I study it with an eye to more practical and long-lasting applications: décor, furniture or treenware. A woodturner has already accepted my offer to take some of the wood for bowls, one of which will stay with The Feather Cottage.

stack of apple firewood
Applewood is highly desired as a firewood because of its sweet aroma and excellent heat output. But this wood is too special to burn; it must live on in lumber, bowls and other items that will recall the heritage of this place.

My heart is not into burning the old tree, no matter how sweet its smoke on a December night or reliable a comfort its coals as slumber approaches. I am not one to burn history; I have spent much of my life attempting to record and preserve it, and a tree so magnificent, its branches so bowed with stories, ought not be reduced to common fireplace ashes and carbon emissions. I detest the endowed task of deciding when natural objects must give way to human fancies; I would rather God make such decisions. But my free will extends to planting, and I wait for the mail truck to deliver young Gravenstein, Cortland, Williams Pride and winesap trees. I will plant them on the high ground near the stump where withered apple blossoms mingle with spring violets and apple sawdust.

I will not live to see any of these youthful trees to mature to the fallen tree’s proportions or distinction. God be willing and merciful, I will live long enough to see their youthful branches become bouquets in the spring and flex with fruit in September. Should my years be cut short like the old tree, I pray that the next person who holds title to this land has the pleasure of eating their fruit, of watching branches become limbs, and explaining to the curious why the previous owner choose to plant Mallus rather than a swimming pool.

frugality, using a pencil to its very end

The lost skill of frugality

Frugality. There’s a word you rarely hear on YouTube or see on electronic screens these days.

With the alleged booming economy, I suppose most Americans don’t have much need for frugality in 2020. But it hasn’t been that many years ago when being frugal was a way of life, and I’m not talking about The Great Depression.

Back in the 1980s, when unemployment in my home county was around 20 percent and we depended on my wife’s $2-an-hour job to purchase the groceries for our family of three, frugality was a way of life. There was a year or so when I was counted among the 20 percent, and we had to figure out how to live on less than $200 a week. When the unemployment benefits ran out, we had to scrape by on even less. Getting a job that paid $6.50 an hour and required use of my personal vehicle, compensated at a rate of 9 or 10 cents a mile, didn’t do much to relieve our dependence on frugality. But at least food stamps were not putting the meals on our table.

We became so adept at frugal living I wrote a newspaper column as “Frugal Feather.” One strategy of frugality was to use manufacturer’s coupons inserted in the Sunday paper. I kept my eyes out for those inserts that made their way into the newsroom trash and thought I’d hit the mother lode of savings when I found a stack of them discarded. I recall one time getting something like 10 bags of noodles free using the BOGO coupons. But that was back before Aldi, which is where the frugal shop. Even with coupons, national brands cost more, and these days the frugal use of manufacturer’s coupons is for lighting the wood stove.

Back in the days of frugal living, we recycled most everything, and by recycling, I mean we used it more than once. Aluminum foil used to cover a dish in the oven got reused for wrapping up leftovers and storing in the fridge. Plastic food storage bags were rinsed and reused. We had more empty butter and sour cream bowls than we could ever possibly use for leftovers, but they found secondary purposes as dog water bowls, seedling pots, sandbox toys, parts containers and paint-brush holders.

We purchased only used vehicles and, to minimize fuel usage and wear and tear on the cars, we carefully planned trips and combined errands into one journey. We saved our money rather than make car payments and went into debt for a vehicle only when necessary and interest rates were low. Double, triple payments were made to eliminate debt and reduce interest expense. My father took care of all repairs.

Our old dog went to the vet only when she was ill and got her vaccinations from a dog breeder friend. I went years without going to a doctor because of high insurance deductibles. Fortunately, I didn’t have any chronic issues that required prescriptions. A medical emergency stressed the budget for months because our health “insurance” had high deductibles, but we always paid our debts.

My wife made her own clothes and kept mine in good condition. My clothes, for the most part, came from the “men’s shop” at Goodwill and the Salvation Army. My wife cut my hair, baked most of the bread we ate and canned hundreds of jars of tomatoes and sauces. “Going out to eat” involved buying a cheap pizza and taking it to a lakefront park. We called these mini-vacations “pizza picnics” and set a place at the table for Clifford, our golden mix, who enjoyed the outings as much as we did.

Our annual vacation in September or October was always a working one for me, built around a list of four to six stories that I would do for Goldenseal Magazine while staying in West Virginia for six days. The money from the stories paid for the travel. I lived for those simple but fulfilling journeys.

Frugality gave us some latitude with our passions–cameras, slide film and multi-image gear for me, sewing machines for her. The equipment was almost always used and rarely of “professional” caliber. Our pastimes had to pay for themselves, and by the time we had made enough to buy what we needed, we were too tired to enjoy it for ourselves.

We saved our all our paper bags from the grocery store. The small bags could be re-used for packing lunches and the large ones were terrific for holding the folded bags and lining the kitchen trash can, unless coffee grounds were tossed in with the “dry” waste. I miss getting groceries and other purchases in those bags.

My frugality stopped short of recycling the envelopes in which junk mail arrived, although I’ve received more than one letter in one of these repurposed envelopes with the credit card company’s return address scratched out and a piece of paper taped over the cellophane window. And I learned that frugality is no excuse for being “penny wise and pound foolish,” as with buying bargain house paint that required three coats versus a quality product that covered with one coat.

Being “retired,” I find myself once again migrating to a life of frugality. Being thrust into early retirement was one factor; I am discovering why older folks always complain about being on a “fixed income.” It is especially difficult when you spend your life planning for things being a certain way and then a box full of monkey wrenches is tossed into those plans just a few years shy of reaching the goal. Accordingly, I’m grateful I mastered money-management tools like saving, frugality and contentment way back when. I’ve learned to appreciate the capabilities of existing technology possessions rather than focus on the latest offerings and, since I rarely leave the house, familiar clothes do just fine and the old car with 100,000 miles on it still gets me where I need to go, which is not very far. There’s a garden in the side yard and we heat with wood, supplemented with space heaters buring natural gas, the bill for which I just received and gave me sticker shock. Time to get out the sweaters.

But the real budget killers are taxes: federal, state, city and school income taxes; real estate property taxes; sales taxes. It is impossible to be frugal with these items. You owe them and they take precedence over all other expenses. It is no exaggeration when I say that we are facing a 12-percent increase in taxes this year thanks to a new school district income tax and the generous voters in our county approving a bevy of property taxes for services and amenities we don’t use.

It takes a lot of frugality to make up for those increases, but since government and schools have not mastered the skill of frugality, it is up to the taxpayers to implement the frugal lifestyle. After doing all the taxes, my wife and I concluded that we can’t afford either The Feather Cottage or living in northeast Ohio much longer, but neither of us has an idea where we want to go. Ohio has some of the highest property taxes in the nation and is not particularly friendly to retirees. And the nation’s $20 trillion debt suggests to me that this un-frugal federal government is not going to be very tax friendly, regardless of your residence. I don’t see a single presidential candidate talking about reducing taxes for regular folks, and the Democratic Candy Men and Women are promising gifts that are sure to increase the tax bill until the republic collapses under the burden.

I predict, regardless of who is in the White House, that frugality will return out of necessity, although to the detriment of the Dow and amazon.com. Consumers may eventually be forced to “Eat it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” as “Silent Cal” Calvin Coolidge suggested when things got tight (wouldn’t it be great if we once again had a president who could earn the “silent” nickname and suggest frugality?). It would be a tough order for consumers today, for our economy is fueled by excess, wastefulness and indebtedness for things we really don’t need. We are still driving automobiles to the poor farm, and many of those “in poverty” carry their iPhone 11s in designer bags and wear team-logo jackets while waiting in line at the Social Security office (yes, I’ve been there and seen it).

A return to frugality would be good for the soul, planet and our bank accounts (do people still have savings accounts, or just lines of credit and credit cards?). And it need not mean that we reduce our standard of living, which has become woefully interconnected with excess. Both the stock market and our lives would benefit from a good purging. However, just like the task of cleaning out the garage, no one knows where to start and it is easier to close the garage door and go shopping.

Looking back on those days of 1980s frugality, I realize that we both survived and lived well. We had no shortage of problems, but also no shortage of laughter. Much of the distress we felt was driven not by our actual circumstances, but by the advertising that suggested we were unhappy because we lacked something. There was, in fact, much to keep us occupied and happy, had we only taken the time to avail ourselves of it. But we often were too busy getting the next thing that was sure to make us happy, really happy.

And that brings us today. Are we happy yet?

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not,” suggested Marcus Aurelius. “Remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

‘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.”

 

Spiritual lessons from a prodigal dog

My  mother passed away Monday evening (January 29, 2018).

I had visited with her earlier in the day, and I knew her time with us was very short. She had run the race, the finish line was near. 85 years. She was tired. She was ready to go home.

The next two days were a swirl of details as we prepared for a private family viewing and service on Thursday. My mother wanted it that way. She always said calling hours have turned into parties these days. And she didn’t want a bunch of people staring down at her as she lay sleeping. I can’t argue with those things. And we honored her wishes.

I was comforted by the knowledge that my mother trusted in Christ for the forgiveness of sins and had walked with him throughout her life. She would be with mother and father, both of who passed away far too early in life. It had been 50 years since Mom’s father died. Still, the weight of grief pulled upon my shoulders and heart.

On Wednesday morning I went about the usual morning ritual of feeding the two dogs and three cats, putting the two dogs out for their morning business and getting this body ready for public display. We live on two acres with a woods and creek on the back side of our lot and no neighbors for several hundred yards. I usually just let the dogs out to roam the yard. It was cold and snowy Wednesday morning, and they aren’t that fond of either one, so I knew they would be barking to come back inside within a few minutes.

Brody was first to bark. He’s the old black Lab and he loves his creature comforts. I brought him in and called for Polly, but she didn’t come running around the corner of the house and bounding up the steps like she usually does. I didn’t think much of it. She enjoys a good roll in fresh snow.

Five minutes passed and I went back to the door to get Polly. I called for her and stepped outside to see if she’d gone into the front yard, but there was no response.

I made the coffee and went back to the door. Again, no Polly. I began to worry. It was 5:30 a.m. and nothing was stirring out there. What could have happened to her?

I donned boots and coat and went searching the yard for her. Nothing. No response to my calls. Next came the high-beam LED lantern, and a more thorough search of the yard and neighbor’s yards. Not a sign of her.

Afraid that she’d crossed the road and went into the neighborhood where we walk her, I got in the car and started driving the area.

Not a sign of her.

This continued until it was time to leave for work. With a heavy heart made even heavier by the anxiety of having my beautiful, black, flat-coated retriever missing, I went to work. On the way into the courthouse, I saw the dog warden and told her about the missing Polly. She put a lost-dog notice on her Facebook page and made a list of suggestions for finding her. I called the city police and alerted them to look for her, went to the Animal Protective League shelter to see if she’d been brought in and put a notice on the radio station.

I printed posters and distributed them to neighbors, searched the ravine behind our house in case she’d fallen into it and gotten trapped under brush. After work, Ruth and I went to numerous neighbors’  houses and talked to them in case they’d seen Polly. She had disappeared without a trace.

It made no sense. Polly is a one-family dog. She has anxiety issues and is very afraid of noises, strangers and being alone. She’s my shadow around the house. If a stranger knocks on the door, she goes around and around in circles and barks. She loves being indoors. It just didn’t make sense that she’d run away, especially on a cold morning, or would have gotten into a stranger’s car. But where was she?

I took Thursday off for Mom’s funeral. The grief was crushing for both Ruth and I. The pain of loss was doubled by the anxiety of losing a very sweet canine member of our family.

Someone posted on the dog warden’s Facebook page that a black dog had been seen entering a cemetery drive about a half-mile from our house, on the other side the ravine, the morning she disappeared. I immediately jumped on the lead and drove around Pleasantview Cemetery before going to the funeral services. I spent an hour up there calling her name and walking the deep ravine that surrounds the place. I saw footprints of a dog, but no Polly.

After the services and dinner, I returned to the cemetery. A cold wind was blowing from the northwest and the temperature falling rapidly. The forecast was for a single-digit night. But no Polly.

I slept fitfully thinking about her. Many scenarios tortured my mind, none of them pleasant. My comfort was that perhaps someone had found her and given her a warm home for the night. I thought I heard dog barking throughout the night, and got up to check the side door to see if she was out there, going around in circles and barking to come in. But it was only a neighbor’s dog, or my imagination.

Friday was a combination of taking care of some work appointments and searching for Polly. Feeling that my father might appreciate the opportunity to take his mind off the grief, I enlisted him to assist. He drove the neighborhood for three hours. But no Polly.

Friday evening, as darkness enveloped the cottage, the heaviness of heartbreak and loss settled upon us like the falling temperatures. Ruth and I sat in front of the wood stove and played a game of Scrabble, but my mind was on Polly.

About 7 p.m., my cell phone rang. It was the police dispatcher. “Are you still missing a black dog?” My heart raced. I feared the next words would be “We found one dead alongside the road.”

That’s the INFJ, always thinking the worst.

But the news was hopeful. An officer, patrolling the cemetery after dark,  had seen a black dog running lose in it, but the dog would not come to him. The dog ran into the woods and disappeared. She suggested we check it out.

Ruth and I were on our way within a minute. She grabbed some dog bones, and I the lantern.

We drove around the large area with windows rolled down and calling Polly’s name. I drove toward the back, where I’d seen paw prints in the snow two days earlier. Nothing.

I stopped the car and we got out. Shining the lamp toward the center of the cemetery, Ruth caught a glimpse of movement. It was Polly, and she was running full speed away from us.

I made a beeline to intersect her while Ruth jumped in the car and headed toward the front of the cemetery. As I closed in her toward the edge of the ravine, she disappeared into the murky forest. I walked the ravine begging her to come back. Suddenly she reappeared about 50 feet from me. I froze, got down on my knees and allowed her to slowly approach the light. By then, Ruth had arrived with the car and treats. It was a joyful reunion.

Polly was cold, exhausted and starved, but showed no sign of injury. Back home, she gulped down water and food, then settled into a long nap by the fire.

Ruth and I thanked God that our prayers had been answered and we’d just witnessed a miracle. As we lay in bed that night, reflecting and talking, I sought a deeper meaning in all that had occurred.

Metaphor number one was that I found comfort in the picture God had just painted so vividly using my love for Polly as an example. My mother was safe, at home and with her family who’d gone on before her. For several days she had wondered in that middle ground between life and death. The light came into the darkness, and at first it scared her, just as the headlights of our car and the beam of the lantern had spooked Polly. Torn between life and death, my mother struggled toward the light.

A tender, caring voice was calling her. The voice of one who wanted to take her to a place of rest. And she followed.

I thought of Polly resting comfortably and without care in front of the fire, and I saw a comforting picture of my mother, at rest, loved, forever secure. She will never have to wander the cemetery of this life again.

I also saw a metaphor for God’s love for me. For many years, I saw God as an angry deity always ready to punish us when we went astray. “Bad things happen when we disobey God.” That was the message drummed into my head for years by preachers who knew much of God’s anger and righteousness but little of his grace and mercy.

In the image of my relentless search for Polly, I saw an example of unconditional love seeking those who belong to him but have gone astray. I was putting all my time and resources on the line to find her, to rescue her from certain death. Yes, she had disobeyed and ran off to pursue her own interests. At first, the adventure must have been grand, but then it turned to loneliness and confusion, and ended in a place of death, separation from her family and their love.

She felt alone, no doubt, but I was looking for her, and I would not give up I kept returning to that place of death into which she had wandered, hoping that she would hear my voice and return.

And so it is with God. He keeps coming back to find us when we go astray. He knows that we are lonely, cold, scared and full of anxiety, despite how much “fun” we are having on our excursion into the world, away from the safety of home. He seeks us, he calls for us, he shines his light toward us. Yet we turn and run away, out of fear that he wants to punish us with those arms, rather than welcome us home as the prodigal son.

Eventually we can run no more. We are famished from trying to subsist on the empty calories of this world. And we bow down, expecting a whip across our back. Rather, we feel a hand of love, the hand of a father. We expect punishment, we receive grace. We expect expulsion, we receive a ride home. We expect a night in the dungeon, we’re given an honored spot on the carpet in front of the fire, covered with blanket, pampered with a pillow.

Love never fails. It seeks the lost and forgives; it seeks the best for us, even in the midst of pain and loss. His love never fails. But I would not begin to understand the depth of that love if I first had not felt the pain of loss and loneliness of losing a loved one, a family member. God longs for us to come home to him and prepares a place for us. If I can love a dog this much, how much more does God love my mother, love me? I can only begin to fathom it with the shallowness of a human heart.

I wonder why I had to suffer three days of separation from Polly, why the anxiety and agony of worry had to be added to the grief of losing a parent? And then it occurred to me how long God has to wait for us to turn around and come back to him. A week? A year? A decade? God is patient for us to get our priorities right and does not give up on us while we go astray. Yet when he does not answer our prayers pronto, in our time frame, we lose patience with him.

There is much to be learned of God in grief and loss. And in coming home.

Polly enjoys the comforts of home after three days and two nights on the run.

 

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.