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June 2006:
and Winesburg, Ohio

    If youíre driving the Ohio Turnpike south of Sandusky, take a look at a map. Just to the south, youíll see another highway running more or less parallel to the Turnpike. Thatís US 20, one of the first coast-to-coast highways in the nation connecting Boston and the west coast.

     The idea of what a highway should be was different when US 20 came into being. Then it was a link among communities, running right through the middle of one town after another. People could sit on a park bench on the town square and see license plates from all over the country as coast-to-coast traffic made its way down Main Street. Today, most of the action is elsewhere with most traffic whizzing by on the interstate. If travelers stop at all, itís for a break right off an interstate exchange. They rarely make it into town.

     US 20 links a series of Ohio towns: Norwalk, Bellevue, Clyde, Fremont. This is the region of small-town America depicted by the author, Sherwood Anderson in his loosely autobiographical collection of stories called Winesburg, Ohio.

     Now, first of all, there really is a Winesburg, Ohio, but not around here. Winesburg is a little town in the east central part of the state. Letís wander off on a tangent for a moment while we tell you about the real Winesburg, Ohio.

     It was founded by four bachelors from Philadelphia who named the town Weinsburg, after a German town known for the heroism of its women. The story goes like this. The town of Weinsburg in Germany was under siege by an enemy. This was a fairly civilized enemy, and they granted the women permission to leave the town unharmed. The women sought one more favor. They asked that each be granted the right to carry out her most precious and expensive possession.

     Well, ok, the marauders said―and the women came out, their safety guaranteed, each carrying her husband. The four founding bachelors from Philadelphia apparently were smitten by this story and named their town in its honor. Originally, the spelling was as in the German: Weinsberg. But in 1833 the U.S. Post Office, an organization not noted for its romantic outlook on life, changed the name to Winesburg.

     But it wasnít this Winesburg Sherwood Anderson was writing about. Rather, it was mostly about Clyde, Ohio. Anderson moved to this village with his family when he was a boy in 1884. His father was a harness maker and then a house painter, known for his fondness for liquor and telling long stories, neither of which generated much income. Anderson attended school until he was 11, then he worked at odd jobs to help support the family.

     When he was a young man, Sherwood Anderson left Clyde to pursue his dreams. He went to Chicago, fought in the Spanish American war, and drifted restlessly around Ohio. Then he married and settled down in the Cleveland area to raise a family and, he hoped, become successful in business. He established a small company in Elyria but increasingly felt at odds with the business world. One day, in the midst of dictating a letter, he simply stopped and wandered off. He drifted through the city for several days before turning up at a drug store, dazed and suffering from exposure. This break-down forced a decision in Sherwood Andersonís life: he left his job, his wife, his children, and his dreams of riches in the business world. He left the middle-class life and moved to Chicago where he began his career as a writer in earnest. His first book was not published until he was 40.

     As we speed down the turnpike, dodging trucks and tankers, we might be drawn to the idea of a small Ohio town: quiet tree-lined streets, a front porch, a comfortable chair, a pitcher of lemonade, and neighbors stopping by to chatĖit sounds pretty nice compared with the rushed existence many of us live today.

     Now certainly, thereís something of that dream thatís real, but it wasnít Sherwood Andersonís point of view. Drawing on his own experience, he depicted his Ohio small town as a stifling place where people lived sad and frustrated lives that sometimes drove them to madness. Winesburg, Ohio, in Andersonís stories, is a place of little human community, hard drinking and violence burning under the surface.

     It doesnít make for a happy portrait of life in small-town Ohio. We talked with Ralph Rodgers of the Clyde Heritage League who told us that the town wasnít pleased with the book when it first came out. In fact, he said, it was banned in the communityóeven the library wouldnít carry it. The reason was that the characters in Sherwood Andersonís novel bore a striking resemblance to people in that community.

     But by now, Mr. Rodgers assured us, Clyde has reconciled with its prodigal son, despite the tales that he told. Signs throughout the community proclaim that this is the site of Sherwood Andersonís Winesburg, Ohio. It is one of the two claims the town makes to fame. The other: that itís the ďwashing machine capital of the world.Ē

     Winesburg, Ohio, the book, concludes with the main character, George Willard, leaving his home community and setting off on his own. Itís an ending that coincided with Sherwood Andersonís life and with countless other young people who grew up in small Ohio towns.

The young manís mind was carried away by his growing passion for dreams. One looking at him would not have thought him particularly sharp. With the recollection of little things occupying his mind, he closed his eyes and leaned back in the car seat. He stayed that way for a long time and when he aroused himself and again looked out of the car window, the town of Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.

     For more about Clyde and its surrounding communities, see the tape or CD for I-80/90 West (Ohio Turnpike): Cleveland to Toledo

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