August 2005

Dillant Hopkins Airport, Swanzey, NH

I’ve been back home since last Thursday night, during which time I’ve taken very few photos. I’m finding it takes me a while to re-enter my usual world after being away for even a few days. It’s as if the miracle of modern travel–a.m. in Ohio, p.m. in New Hampshire–is something I still haven’t adapted to. After spending a week in Findlay then driving a day to return home to Keene, everything here still seems a bit blurry. Perhaps you could call it car-lag, the disorientation of returning to a known landscape after having immersed oneself in a different one.

Last night after having already walked the dog in the morning, we took a second stroll at the municipal airport in nearby Swanzey. The sun was starting to set, so the light was slanted…and a low mottled ceiling of clouds threatened heavy weather. Instead of a thunderstorm, though, all we got was a wondrous show of cloud and pewter light: that gray, metallic sheen that transforms the landscape into a museum diorama, layer upon layer of seemingly illusory depth. I’ve blogged this odd sort of late afternoon light before, but it’s something I still haven’t adequately captured: the odd gray glint that transforms the landscape when the setting sun gleams through the underside of a thick bank of clouds, making the ground lighter than the sky.

I’ve learned to drop whatever I’m doing and go walking whenever I see a hint of pewter light shining from the western horizon, for clouds move quickly and the sun sets suddenly. If you’re in the middle of a flat landscape–like, say, at the municipal airport–when the setting sun is doing magic tricks under the edge of cloud-capped skies, you’ll witness the most miraculous of phenomena: the earth itself aglow, like God’s in the thing. It’s a brief flash in the proverbial pan, that instant when the clouded sky is dark and the earth itself–you yourself–seem luminous, glinting gray beams that are best viewed askance, like ghosts. In an instant, the illusion is there, then gone, tree leaves no longer tricked in silver, the sky merely overcast, gloomy. But the ringing in your soul remains after that wondrous moment, the blood pumping in your walking legs as your heart remembers what it meant to be alive at the middle of the gleaming gray earth, aglow.

Dillant Hopkins Airport, Swanzey, NH

These days, in addition to admiring the impressive architecture of the Hancock County Courthouse, visitors to downtown Findlay, Ohio are guaranteed to see stars.

Yes, it’s true. While curiously colored moose are roaming the streets of Bennington, VT, the sidewalks of downtown Findlay, OH have been invaded by a wild, wandering herd of…stars. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, a roaming pack of untamed stars has descended upon this quiet corner of northwest Ohio.

Why stars, you might ask? Well, I wondered the same thing. It’s not like Ohio is remotely near the Lone Star State (although so many reminders of his Texas home might make Gary feel right at home in Findlay). Most of the examples of so-called curb art I’ve previously heard of have been animals, like the painted pigs that inspired those Bennington moose or the art cows that roamed the streets of both Chicago and Houston.

In Ohio, at least, folks have gotten creative (or desperate) in their search for new approaches to the increasingly trendy idea of seeking corporate sponsorship for colorful fiberglass statues riffing on a given theme. Several years ago, for instance, Toledo weathered an invasion of six-foot-tall painted frogs. Not to be left out, my own hometown of Columbus apparently featured curb corn, as if its reputation as a Midwestern backwater weren’t established strongly enough.

Given Findlay’s status as Flag City, USA, I guess art stars make as much sense as anything, given that statues of stars and stripes might have been a bit difficult to pull off. And although a lot of the stars in Findlay these days are painted in patriotic colors, there’s enough variety in color and design to make looking for stars an interesting afternoon pastime. Walking Findlay streets these days, you’ll see patriotic stars in red, white, and blue celebrating Main Street, USA…

Lady Liberty…

and the all-American pastime of sittin’ a spell on a downtown bench.

Some of the stars are remarkable because of their backdrops. When is the last time, for example, you’ve seen much less been in that staple of old-time, small-town America, a Ben Franklin five-and-dime?

Or what screams “Americana” more loudly than an art star dedicated to the automobile, stationed across a wide Main Street from two parked cars?

Although I initially was a bit skeptical about Findlay’s Star Gazing project, I eventually did get swept up in the spirit of star-spotting. True, painted stars lack the quaint charm of lifesize painted moose…but if fiberglass statues can encourage folks to stroll downtown streets and look around a bit, that has to be a good thing. Who knows what new things you’ll discover if you simply start looking.

It wasn’t until I started collecting these pictures of the art stars of Findlay, for instance, that I realized how seldom I look at a city from a knee-high perspective. Yes, life-size painted moose are cool…if you’re a grown-up looking the creatures straight in the eye. But a young’un walking the streets of Bennington, VT is going to see a lot of painted hooves and kneecaps…unless, of course, a strong-shouldered parent gives them a lift.

At least the art stars of Findlay have this much going for them: they exist at a child’s eye level, easily viewed (and touched) by toddlers and kids in strollers. Come to think of it, the thought of decorating a street with art at kids’-eye level is a novel idea since most museums hang paintings to be viewed by grown-ups, and statues are almost always life-size, at least.

Star-gazing on the streets of Findlay is a child-like activity, as is walking any Main Street with a camera. Suddenly you’re stopping and investigating instead of focusing continually on your oh-so-important destination. Suddenly you’re stopping and crouching, or even crawling, trying to find just the right angle or perspective on something that other “more mature” folks are rushing by, oblivious. We grown-ups occasionally talk about a home’s “curb appeal”–the way it looks when viewed from the street–but when’s the last time you checked out your hometown’s literal curb appeal: the way Main Street looks if you’re sitting or crouching on the curb?

At the end of a street-strolling day, though, my favorite star is the one fancifully dedicated to my now-favorite mythical creature, the Staardvark.

Johnny Tobak's Nite Club

In the past, I’ve blogged pictures of the two Coke murals here in Keene, as well as a picture of the Parrish Shoes mural left over from filming of the movie Jumanji. Of the various sights I notice and collect, old advertising murals are among my favorites, so I was amused last week to see more than a few faded glories in both Findlay and Toledo.

When I posted that first picture of one of Keene’s two Coke murals, I mentioned that such painted signs remind of the old Mail Pouch tobacco murals you used to see on the sides of rural barns. So I had to laugh when one of the first things I saw in downtown Findlay, OH was a brick wall sporting ads for both products: tobacco and soda.

Mail Pouch tobacco

Judging from the abundance of old soda murals, Ohio must be a particularly thirsty state…either that, or Midwestern folks are so hard-working, they need lots of reminders to stop and pour a pop. (And yes, Ohio is the heart of pop country, “soda” being a word I taught myself to use only after moving to New England.)

It seems that in the olden days, if you were thirsty in northwest Ohio, you had a wide choice of soft drink options. You could have enjoyed a Pepsi at Johnny Tobak’s Nite Club…

5 cents Enjoy

smiled with a Coke by the pawn shop…

Coca Cola

or sipped a 7-Up at the Paradise Grill & Bar.

Paradise Grill & Bar

After you were sufficiently hydrated and ready to get back to work, you could take a cue from this faded sign by going shopping for “Everything for the home, farm, garage, or factory.”


Some old murals are so faded, they are no longer legible. This wall used to advertise something, but now it’s difficult to determine what.

Faded mural

Whatever products they sold, faded brick murals continue to fascinate me, standing as they do like isolated islands from a nearly forgotten past.


Among the flowers that I commonly saw during my youth in Ohio but seldom if ever see now that I live in New Hampshire are Wild Potato Vine (above) and Field Bindweed (below). Both plants are in the Morning Glory family, with Wild Potato Vine being a native species and Field Bindweed a European invasive.

While Googling to find more information about Wild Potato Vine, I chuckled to discover the second listing pointed to an entry my blog-bud Rurality had posted earlier this month. I guess WPV is becoming something of a celebrity in my little corner of the blogosphere.

Field Bindweed, on the other hand, is something of a botanic bad boy. Although I knew Field Bindweed, lovely as it looks, is a great pest to farmers, tending as it does to twine around and bind the stems of other species, I didn’t know it is considered the “the worst weed in California and many of the western states.” Despite its innocuous and quite lovely appearance, Field Bindweed sounds like a real headache if you’re a farmer, for it has deep roots and rhizomes that make it all but impossible to eradicate, seeds that can survive dormant in farm fields for 60 years, and a tendency to be both drought- and herbicide-tolerant. Apparently Field Bindweed is particularly damaging to onions, melons, and tomatoes, making it nearly impossible to grow those crops in a field where Bindweed has taken a foothold.

So there you have it: Good Crop and Bad Crop. While Wild Potato Vine is sitting quietly and posing for blog photographs, Field Bindweed is doing its invasive darnedest to foil farmers from coast to coast. I guess you could call Field Bindweed a bad seed.

When Gary first mentioned that downtown Findlay, OH reminded him of downtown Keene, NH, I thought he’d surely lost his mind. What? How could a Midwestern town in the confessed Middle of Nowhere compare with the quaint charm of my beloved New England town? It wasn’t until I saw the painted ladies of Sandusky Street that I began to think that Findlay and Keene might secretly be sister cities.

Last summer, I blogged about an architectural heritage tour I’d gone on here in Keene, and I illustrated a subsequent entry with pictures of several of the restored Queen Anne houses on Court Street: Keene’s painted ladies. On that tour, I learned that Keene’s industrial heyday after the Civil War–a time when the railroad ran through town and carted off goods manufactured at local textile mills, furniture factories, and brickyards–is embodied in the architecture of Keene’s older buildings, which themselves reflect a late 19th century penchant for Italianate, Victorian, and Second Empire houses. Although factory workers lived in humble brick or wooden homes, their bosses–and the factory owners–built elaborate houses showing off the latest architectural styles. If factory work was a grind for common laborers, industrial bossmen and venture capitalists alike wanted to perpetuate the belief that a rich man’s home was his castle.

Although I knew this much about the architectural heritage of Keene, NH, I never stopped to consider that Findlay, OH might have had an industrial heyday of its own during the years after the Civil War. In my mind, Ohio has always been at least a couple generations behind whatever is happening on either coast; in my mind, the quintessential Midwestern architectural style is either the ubiquitous ranch or the inexpensive bungalow. So imagine my surprise when I took a drive around Findlay’s downtown and discovered that this Ohio town surrounded by corn and soybean fields has more than a few beautifully restored 19th century houses: the painted ladies of Sandusky Street.

As it turns out (all my deprecatory attitudes about my home state notwithstanding), Findlay wasn’t always a Midwestern backwater. Back in the late 1800s, when the entire nation was experiencing a commercial flurry that Mark Twain dubbed the Gilded Age, Findlay, OH wasn’t the Middle of Nowhere: Findlay, OH was the Middle East of the Midwest.

In Findlay, they call it the Gas Boom. Although the phrase “Gas Boom” brings to mind the unfortunate image of a match strike gone wrong, it turns out that Findlay’s petroleum reign did start with a surprise explosion. Back in 1836 when a farmer named Richard Wade tried to dig a well on his land in Ohio’s Hancock County, he was disappointed to find the well stank. Lighting a torch to investigate, Wade experienced the first oops! of northwest Ohio’s Gas Boom: an explosive upwelling of natural gas that made him look for water elsewhere.

It wasn’t until after the Civil War that industrialists discovered that oil and natural gas–the stinky stuff that polluted northwest Ohio wells–could be put to commercial use. Starting in 1884, natural gas was pumped from Ohio’s petroleum fields to neighboring towns where it fueled genteel lamps and stoves. In 1886, the massive Karg Well was tapped on the rural outskirts of Findlay. Producing some 12,000,000 cubic feet of natural gas per day at a nearly uncontrollable pressure, the prolific Karg Well led folks to believe that natural gas was an undepletable resource that would renew itself as quickly as it was spent. With a nonchalance that screams “Gilded Age,” locals left their gas stoves and lamps burning 24 hours a day, opening windows when their lavishly furnished homes overheated.

Commercially, Hancock County petroleum wells provided fuel for local glassworks: if it weren’t for Findlay, Toledo would never have become the self-proclaimed Glass Capital of the world. (During one of my walks last week, I happened upon a historical marker that proclaimed Findlay to be the world’s Glass Capital…but having lived in Toledo for some five years, I know that honor goes to Findlay’s northern neighbor.) An abundant supply of natural gas and oil from the Trenton Field between Lima and Findlay helped assure Ohio’s brief status as America’s top petroleum producer. In 1896, there were 6,456 oil wells in Ohio, leading a venture capitalist by the name of John D. Rockefeller to make his first investment in American petroleum…the industry that would ultimately make his fortune.

In a 1889 book titled Findlay Illustrated, publisher H.R. Page gushed about the splendor resulting from Findlay’s Gas Boom, pointing to the town’s lavishly stylish architecture as a sign of its opulence and sophistication:

“THE CITY HAS BECOME in a measure a kind of Mecca and men journey from long distances to view its wonders, even as the Queen of Sheba visited Jerusalem to behold the wonders of the temple and hearken to the wisdom of Solomon. But few people who come from afar to visit the city, unless they have become acquainted with its history, would imagine that it had a history dating back about a century. Everything looks as new and is so expensive, the evidence of thrift is so apparent on every hand, that the stranger imagines it to be a city of yesterday, with a growth so rapid and a development as sudden as the magical cities of the far west.

“The city has one of the widest and prettiest Main streets to be seen in northwestern Ohio and it has recently been connected with the north side by a handsome iron bridge 100-feet wide. It is divided into right and left compartments, while through the center, passes the track of the Main Street car line which extends from Chamberlain’s Hill on the south, where a number of beautiful and costly residences have been erected, notable those of Ex-Senator David Joy and R.E. Peabody to the Bigelow Hill, west of the Wetherald Wire Nail Works, a distance of about four miles.

“This elegant thoroughfare, especially south of Lima Street, abounds in fine residences on either side. They are elegant homes, surrounded by pretty grounds which in a few years will transform into bowers of beauty.”

Like most of the booms of the Gilded Age, Ohio’s Gas Boom eventually went bust. Those petroleum fields weren’t inexhaustible, and Ohio gas is tainted with a nauseating sulphur stink. (Even when I attended college in Toledo in the late 1980s, the well water pumped for campus lawn sprinklers reeked of sulphur, forcing University tour guides like me to explain why our grassy green campus smelled like rotten eggs.) Even a century after Ohio’s gas-fueled Gilded Age dimmed, however, her painted ladies live on, pristinely restored as a witness to Findlay’s faded grandeur.

Keene and Findlay just might be sister cities after all, each of them coming of age during an era of industrial wealth and architectural splendor that is gone but not entirely forgotten.

Today’s Photo Friday theme is One, so here’s an image of one car parked against a striking painted backdrop. (Click the picture for an enlarged version.) Although this picture is from Findlay, Ohio, I myself am back in New Hampshire after driving all day yesterday. After a week of being one half of two, now I’m back to being just one.

To make a prairie, Emily Dickinson said, it takes a clover and a bee…or a teasel and a butterfly, I say. One teasel, and a butterfly, and revery. And revery alone will do if butterflies are few. (Click on the image above for a larger version.)

Dickinson, of course, never saw a Midwestern prairie, but she understood the basic concept. Prairies are all about flowers, bugs, and revery, the sun turning any day into a lazy day. Although teasels, unlike clovers, aren’t native to American prairies, they (just like white folks) have made themselves at home here since the 18th century. Teasels came to America with white folks, in fact, since their bristly, cone-like flower heads were used in the textile trade to raise or “tease” the nap of woven cloth. So even though teasel doesn’t technically belong on an American prairie, I for one don’t mind their presence since any friend of a butterfly is a friend of mine.

Coming to Ohio in August is a bit like dying and going to heaven if you’re botanically minded. Sure, most folks call field flowers weeds since they aren’t welcome in either yard or farm fields…but to my eye, there isn’t anything prettier than a grassy, butterfly-festooned field strewn with dots of yellow, purple, and white.

And you can believe my little ol’ Midwestern heart thrills to the sight of a field of tall-waving grass…especially if the tallest of that grass happens to be big bluestem, the king of the prairie. To my mind, there’s something magical and (yes) revery-inspiring about a non-woody plant that grows taller than a grown man…or taller even, in some cases, than a grown man on horseback.

When European settlers came to Ohio in the 1800s, most of the state was forested. But the harsher parts–places that flooded in the spring and baked to earth-cracking dryness in the summer–harbored waving seas of big bluestem grass dotted with yellow and purple coneflowers. The first Europeans to encounter endless seas of grass with nary a tree in sight didn’t know what to make of such a landscape. They called it “prairie” after the French word for “meadow”…but these weren’t the pastoral meadows of the Old World. Instead, American prairies were brutally cold in winter and blistering hot in the summer. Fires kept trees at bay and recycled each year’s crop of dead grass, returning nutrients to the rich soil. The first Ohio settlers didn’t know how rich that soil was, assuming that land without trees was barren. But when John Deere invented the steel plow, Midwestern farmers discovered they’d been sitting on dirty gold: soil that would grow corn and wheat as readily as it had grown grass.

Standing amongst even a tiny plot of prairie plants, I can imagine what it must have been like to be a 19th century pioneer trying to make a home on a sea of green. Flat land makes for wide skies, and wide skies make for expansively open hearts. Contemplating a teasel and a butterfly on a sunny day, it’s easy to fall into revery, one’s spirits buoyed on a billow of grass.

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