There's More Than Meets the Eye on
Stories from the Road:
If you drive I-71 between Columbus and Cleveland, you’ll pass the exit for Sunbury. Sunbury is home to the Sunbury Erratic. What is the Sunbury Erratic? It sounds like an eccentric old guy who sits on a park bench and spouts his opinions. Or maybe it would be the name of the local newspaper. But, no, the Sunbury Erratic is neither man nor newspaper, it’s a rock. A big rock. A big granite boulder: 22 feet long, 18 feet wide, and 8 feet high with a circumference of 72 feet. The part of the boulder that we can see is estimated to weigh about 200 tons. But there’s a lot below ground that we can’t see. Nobody’s sure how big the thing really is.
The Sunbury Erratic is not native to Sunbury or to Ohio, for that matter, or even to the USA. It’s an immigrant boulder, pushed down from Canada by a glacier. That’s what an erratic is: a stone moved by the glaciers to a location which is not its natural habitat. In the early days of motoring, this big boulder was something of a tourist attraction—people drove their Model-T’s to take a look at it. Today, it exists in relative obscurity but still serves as a reminder of the power of those glaciers that once scraped across the face of Ohio.
Sunbury not only hosts an erratic, it’s also headquarters for the Center of Ghost Town Research in Ohio. They do exactly what the title says: research Ghost Towns in Ohio.
So right now, you’re probably thinking: Ghosts? They find ghosts in towns in Ohio?
No, not exactly. A ghost town is a community that once was and now isn’t. It was a recognizable entity—had a name, at least a scattering of buildings, perhaps a post office address. But today, the identity of that specific community is gone or the people are gone or both—or it has so dramatically shrunk that it’s a shadow of its former existence.
We talked with Richard Helwig of the Center of Ghost Town Research in Ohio, and he defined four types of ghost towns. A “true” ghost town is a community where there’s almost nothing left of it, maybe some building foundations remain but nothing else. An “old town” is one that has changed its name or drastically changed its character. Then there is a “semi-ghost town,” that is, a town that has been reduced to 10% or less of its original population. And there are “paper” ghost towns. These are towns that were platted and recorded, but nobody actually lived there.
Based on these definitions, there are between 8,000 and 9,000 ghost towns in Ohio.
History, it is said, is written by the winners. Ghost towns are losers: they lost out in the competition. Is there anything we can learn from their failures? What distinguishes surviving communities from ghost towns?
According to Mr. Helwig, a lot of what makes a town survive is just “dumb luck” If the canal or railroad located nearby, the town boomed. If not, the town shriveled and died. Same goes for today and the placement of highways. Those towns lucky enough to be near an interstate do well; those bypassed by major highways find it much harder to survive. So it’s not that the people of surviving towns are any smarter or possess outstanding moral qualities: they’re just lucky. The breaks fell their way.
Are ghost towns a thing of the past. Can we depend that the communities of today will still be here in 50 years, 100 years? Not necessarily. As our transportation facilities get better, there are fewer reasons for small towns to exist. Once you needed a community close by to get basic supplies and services, but you don’t anymore. Instead of going to the local business, you get in the car or the truck and drive to a shopping center where the selection is better and the prices lower.
So the local grocery store closes, and the feed store, and the hardware store. And then there aren’t enough residents to support its own school—the district is consolidated into a larger unit. Little churches are harder to keep around too; maybe a few struggling ones decide to join forces. As people leave, it becomes harder for those remaining to make a living in this community. In a generation or two, this once thriving town might be a ghost.
For more about Sunbury and its surrounding communities, see the CD for I-71 North, Columbus to Cleveland.
Museum of the Open Road, Inc
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