Think about it. You're driving down Morse Road one day and accidentally make a wrong turn, onto a dirt road you've never noticed, before coming upon a vista of rotting clapboard houses, general stores, saloons and watering troughs. Never happened to you? With thousands of abandoned burgs littering our landscape, you'd think ghost towns would be as common a sight in our countryside as gas stations.
Our local guru of ghost towns lives in Sunbury. Even with its spate of trendy antique shops and sprawling subdivisions, Sunbury tenaciously holds onto its soybean subculture, with a fleet of forlorn pickup trucks circling the charming town square, like herds of lowing cattle from the nearby farmlands. In the basement of a former church, in a crowded office piled high with clutter, Richard Helwig runs the Center for Ghost Town Research which, since 1974, has been documenting county by county the lost cities of Ohio.
Helwig and his son, Richard, (not Junior, he is quick to point out), pore through old maps, brittle, aging books, and dusty documents looking for references to towns that are no more. They keep extensive computer records, and when they've completed their research for one county, they publish a volume of their findings, used and valued by local historians and genealogists.
In the spooky time of year before Halloween, the Helwigs are accustomed to the media beating a path to their door, hoping to uncover more about the ghosts in ghost towns. Last year a local newspaper story was picked up by the wires and went nationwide, and even the stately Wall Street Journal has featured the Helwigs in a front-page story, describing Helwig the Elder as "a disheveled Captain Kangaroo."
But what might sound like a dry, academic study, the Helwigs describe as fascinating detective work. Seated together, they're like two roly-poly gnomes mirthfully relating what fun they have documenting towns that bit the dust. What they most enjoy are the field trips. To pinpoint the exact locations of where good towns have gone when they die, the Helwigs leap in their car, combing through cornfields and meadows like they're searching for Babylon itself.
What do they find? In most cases, virtually nothing--a few foundations, a grown-over cemetery, and little else. If so many towns have gone belly up, why don't the Helwigs find more? In a word, it's our climate, Helwig says. Our wacky weather batters untended buildings until they rot like overripe fruit. That's one reason you don't find Western-style ghost towns in Ohio.
Another reason, truth be told, is that the Helwigs' system may strike some as a wee bit of cheating. In addition to counting true vanished towns, they count towns that were laid out on paper but never developed, towns that still exist but have shrunk to a fragment of their former size, and towns that have been swallowed up by larger communities--like the communities of Franklinton, Linworth and Clintonville that have been engulfed by Columbus, like an amoeba ingesting its prey. As a result, many of the Helwigs' "ghost towns" are actually teeming with people. One member of the Clintonville Area Commission huffily pointed out to the Wall Street Journal that Clintonville isn't dead at all and that it's a very nice neighborhood indeed with a McDonald's and a Wendy's and lovely lampposts.
Besides unearthing historical tidbits, the Helwigs revel in uncovering bits of folklore and local legends. That's what's helped them find out that Dull, Ohio, was exactly like it sounds, that Bogus was real, that Climax was anti-climactic. They delight in the whimsy of place names, like Knockemstiff, so-named because a preacher supposedly told a woman the only way to get her husband out of a town was to--well, you catch the drift.
The Helwigs' book on Franklin County, available at many of the Columbus Metropolitan Library's branches, describes the births, lives and deaths of such disappeared communities as Almathea, named after Jupiter's goat; an American Indian village known as Billy Wyandot's Camp that lasted well into the 1800s; and Oregon, which had roadsigns spelled in the direction the town lay from the sign--thus "Nogero" as you're leaving town. There was a Smiley's Corners, a Hibernia, a town actually called Lane Avenue. Charming legends are recounted, such as the origin of a town named "Mudsock"--a farmer got mired in a muddy morass and, struggling to free himself, slipped out of his boots and walked away in his muddy socks.
The stories are charming, but I personally was dismayed there's so little to see of the actual ghost towns. So I pricked up my ears when the Helwigs described a town in Delaware County called Olive Green, still populated, but which had a back alley of abandoned buildings resembling a stereotypical ghost town. To my disappointment, though, the back alley was just a stretch of dilapidated outbuildings that I nevertheless dutifully recorded on film as residents stepped outside scowling. My friends kept the get-away car warmed up.
So I guess I'll have to go out West to see a true ghost town. It just doesn't seem the same walking down a sidewalk in Clintonville trying to picture how desolate and barren it might appear if it weren't for those lovely lampposts.
But with the Helwigs there is hope. They have not even come close to documenting all of Ohio's vanished villages. One day in their explorations they might find some semblance of a human settlement, dilapidated and decaying, like Obetz, but long deserted by its local yokels. And when they do, all I ask is that they call me. Who needs adventure travel when there's the potential excitement of exploring what's left of downtown Dull?