Pleasure Grounds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you on The Strip!

Pleasure grounds book cover.

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

Keys

Shady Beach keys webMy friend of many years, Betty Layport Feher, recently dug out some memorabilia from Shady Beach Hotel, one of the many relatively elegant hotels that once operated at Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio’s oldest summer resort.

Shady web 1Shady Beach dates back to 1897 and stood where the village’s recreation park is today. It operated until the early 1970s, when the village purchased the property with the idea of transforming the hotel into a recreation center. Someone forgot that it gets cold at GOTL in the winter and that water pipes burst when they freeze. And so they did, and the old resort was ruined by that act of negligence. Only photos remain, and a few skeleton keys.

Betty allowed me to borrow  the guest-room keys, still attached to their Shady Beach leather fobs (just try to lose one of these things, or carry them about in your pocket or swimming trunks all day), so I could make some photographs for the Summer Fun Heritage Trail website and interpretive signs.

There is something solemn, almost spiritual about a key. The act of being entrusted with a key can be a pure business transaction, as when we buy a new car or house, or as intimate as being handed the key to a honeymoon suite by a grinning desk clerk.

I suspect the keys I held in my hands and studied through my lens could tell many stories of happy vacations spent on the lakeshore; of comings and goings; of expectations and disappointments; of partings for a season, partings for eternity.

Shayd web 2Here is the key to the room that Mrs. Bowers prepared especially for the newlyweds. The nervous groom drops it several times on the way to the room, rattles it in the lock; the wood door swings into the dark chamber; he will recall on his death bed the slightly musty scent of that room, mingled with her virgin sweat, that moment they became one flesh even as Mr. and Mrs. Bowers dozed on the front porch of Shady Beach Hotel.

Here is the key that the child insisted Daddy let him try in the door. It is their first family vacation; the blue-eyed boy has not seen the lake before. “Can we see it Daddy, can we, can we before we have dinner?” The  father slips the key in his pocket, they walk across the street, to the annex, descend to the beach, between the two poplars, watch the mystery of water arriving and departing for no apparent reason, toss some rocks. The Shady Beach dinner bell rings; it is Sunday, and Mrs. Bowers has prepared chicken. Fried chicken, all up and down the road, from the milk-fed chicken of Mrs. Swan at the New Inn to the no-good roosters that the Leidheisers culled from their flock, it is chicken every Sunday at the resort. Shady web 3

Here is the key with chicken gravy stains on the fob, or is it tobacco juice from the men sitting about the spittoon while the women folks walk to the bingo parlor. Comfortable men, men of influence in their Pittsburgh, Youngstown and New Castle. Middle-aged, their children married, their business cards bearing “vice president” and “director,” gathered about the newspapers and cigar smoke and bourbon, waiting for the women to return, waiting for the dinner bell, waiting.

Shady web 4

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

Here is the key to the anniversary suite. Fifty years have passed; arthritis impairs his hands as much as nervousness did on that night in 1915. They almost didn’t come back to Shady Beach, the riots, the gangs, the week before, sent a chill up his spine. Mrs. Bowers said it would be fine, that the trouble was at the other end of The Strip. Just a bunch of college kids who’d had too much to drink down at that rowdy bar.

“Yes, please come; we’re holding your room for you. We’d love to see you again. Yes, dinner will be at 2. No, we’ve not raised rates this year. The weather has been hot, but there’s a nice breeze.”

It was their last visit.

shady beach key webDoes a key stop being a key when its lock is gone? Or is it just a story without a piece of paper? If they have no value, why do we continue to hang onto them in junk drawers, cigar boxes and museums? Do we hope the lock will one day miraculously reappear, restoring value to the key and justifying our hoarding? Or do we hold on to them because they are keys to our imagination, unlocking stories that are just as likely to be false as true?

The tumblers in my mind rattled like the keys on the fobs. For a moment, those keys unlocked something wondrous: the past.

I love old keys.