Ashtabula stockholders invested in Normania

The shipping season of 1909 delivered nothing but progress to Ashtabula Harbor.

The first four of eight Hulett electric unloaders went online that summer at the Lake Shore’s (New York Central) Superior extension docks on the river’s east side. As the operators became comfortable with the behemoths’ controls, ore unloading records began to fall. Meanwhile, nearly 250 men worked on the Lake Shore’s docks that would accommodate the ore shipments for Jones & Laughlin mills.

In their haste to unload and drive the hundreds of piles required to create the slip, Frank Ferguson, a foreman, was nearly killed in October. A piling, thrown out of a rail car, struck Ferguson on the side of his head, knocked out a few teeth and dislocated his jawbone. The timber hit O. Else, a worker, in the chest and knocked him 10 feet. A couple of days later, Antonio Pondico, 45, was crushed between a rail car and clam bucket filled with coal and being swung into the hold of a vessel. He died on the way to the hospital and left behind a wife and seven children, still in Italy. He was saving his money to bring them to the United States, where a daughter and son already lived.

Such was the nature of work and life in The World’s Greatest Iron Ore Receiving Port.

Also in 1909, the Pennsylvania Railroad, which operated on the west side, announced an investment of $100,000 in its Ashtabula docks at Ashtabula; the work would be done during the winter of 1909-1910. That August, a steam shovel devoured slices of Point Park, “what was once the pride of the north end,” as the prime real estate was removed to make way for the Pennsylvania Railroad’s tracks to the lakefront. The dirt thus removed was used to fill low spots where the coal and ore cars would terminate their journey to the docks.

Mean, the pay cars of both The Lake Shore and Pennsylvania railroads delivered glad tidings to workers; in August, 1909, the biggest pay day in two years put extra dollars into the railroaders’ pockets and Ashtabula economy.

A deal between the city and Great Lakes Engineering was signed that summer, as well. Although the shipyard failed to bring the touted economic boom to the city, it built Liberty Ships during World War I and provided drydock facilities for smaller lake vessels for several decades.

Port lists attest to the volume of bulk carrier business handled at The Harbor. On a typical day, a dozen ore boats arrived at The Harbor and as many cleared the port.

The steamer Normania was among those received in August. Its arrival was received with much fanfare, for the Normania had a strong hometown connection: Many of its shareholders were Ashtabula investors, who came to The Harbor the afternoon of August 15 to see what their $300,000 had purchased.

Normania was built the prior year at the St. Clair, Michigan, works of Great Lakes Engineering. She was 420 feet long, 52 feet wide and drew 24 feet. Gross tonnage was 4,871; net, 4705. The steel hull was number 39 for the shipbuilder.

There is no explanation for its name, but the owners were incorporated as the Ashtabula Steamship Company. The Normania appears to have been the firm’s only project. Pickens-Mather & Co. managed the vessel, which  was skippered by Captain Oscar Olesen of Ashtabula.

He welcomed 15 of the shareholders onto the vessel that evening as its cargo of iron ore was unloaded. The tables were set with “a lunch that would have done credit to the swell hotels of New York city.” The owners then toured the vessel, which, according to the Ashtabula Beacon-Record, was “a model of utility, convenience and comfort. … The cabins are neat and commodious, affording ample accommodations for the crew and officers. Each department is provided with private bath rooms and each gang-way has a separate shower bat equipment. The passenger rooms are elegantly appointed, with their tall, brass bedsteads, chiffoniers, private lavatories, electric lights and fans.” The rooms compared favorably to those in “leading hotels.”

After eight years of ownership, the Ashtabula Steamship Company sold the vessel to the Ottawa Transit Co. of Mentor (Lake County). An act of the 64th Congress, June 22, 1916, approved changing the vessel’s name to William F. Stifel. It retained that name when it was sold to Columbia Steamship Co. in 1921 and to Oglebay Norton Co. in 1958.

By then, the 420-foot-long vessel was too aged and inefficient for the lake trade, and she was sold through Marine Salvage, Ltd., of Port Colborne, Ontario, to Italian shipbreakers. The Normania, which had proudly sailed into Ashtabula Harbor, her colors floating in a stiff breeze, to meet her owners some 51 years prior, arrived in tow at Savona, Italy, Dec. 27, 1960, for scrapping.

Such was the way of life and work at The World’s Greatest Iron Ore Receiving Port.

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.

 

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.