Main Street Blues

Davies, Richard O. Main Street Blues: The Decline of Small-Town America. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1998.

There are many histories of small towns written. I will bet that there is at least one for every small town in America. Give or take a thousand. As small towns go, Camden, Ohio gets top treatment in Main Street Blues. Davies, a history professor with numerous publications to his name, looks at his childhood home with a goal of documenting the “typical” history of a midwestern small town.

Early in this history Davies keeps trying to bring parallels with Sauk Centre, Minnesota (Sinclair Lewis), Red Cloud, Nebraska (Willa Cather), and Clyde, Ohio (Sherwood Anderson), immortalized as fictional towns. This makes sense as a narrative as modern writer Sherwood Anderson was born in Camden (though he moved away very, very young) and made numerous references to Camden throughout his writing career. The literary bent story of the first hundred years of American small towns works as these were the glory days of the village, the epitomy of what it was to be American. But the good times ended, as noted in the darker, negative portrayals of all of these writers.

What I like about Main Street Blues is the academic focus on Camden, Ohio as a place. Buildings are painstakenly described, including a timeline of each business that occupied them and a history of major employers. The struggles to push through a bond to build a water system is detailed.

I found the imminent colapse of Camden following WWII somewhat surprising. Within five years after the war, the pattern was already setting for a future of suburbs, highways, and national media. Camden had the misfortune of being located 35 miles from Dayton and over 50 miles from Cincinatti with no Interstate. Oddly, there are more people living in Camden today than its glory years of the 1920s, yet there is nowhere to shop.

As a companion read for those who want to see the world outside of Ohio, Home on the Range: A Century on the High Plains by James Dickenson is a rewarding study of McDonald, Kansas. Dickenson’s work is more in depth than Main Street Blues in that he covers his family’s history. Though not their sole attempt, both titles do an admirable job covering the last 50 years, when people such as the authors had long since moved on from the small town.

Cleveland Heights and Rail Depots of Northwest Ohio

Morton, Marian J. Cleveland Heights: The Making of an Urban Suburb. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2002.

Camp, Mark J. Railroad Depots of Northeast Ohio. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2007.

You have seen them at your library or bookstore when looking for books about local history. Inevitably, you will come across a professionally put together title of old black-and-white pictures and postcards. The photo on the cover is in a sepia tone. Not much text, but a lot of captions. The series is called Images of America and they are put out by Arcadia Publishing.

Even though there are 247 titles about Ohio, I do not plan on reviewing many Arcadia titles. Don’t get me wrong, from what I have seen, a lot of work has gone into putting together each title. My issue is that they are too local to the extent that they are unreadable to an outsider. I would love to have an Image of America about my neighborhood, but I wouldn’t touch one from two towns over.

That said, there are two Arcadia titles I have come across recently about Northeast Ohio that I found had a more wide spread appeal. (Or at least I found them interesting). First, Cleveland Heights: The Making of an Urban Suburb (from The Making of America Series) is a pretty standard town history narrative about an affluent East side garden suburb of Cleveland. Much more text than the Images of America Series. Notably, author Marian Morton takes a longer look at the development of the Severance Center shopping development during the 1960, which is now, among other things, a Wal-Mart. This event comes across as symbolic of Cleveland Heights changing from a turn of the century haven for the wealthy to a suburb’s suburb that we all know.

The second title is Rail Depots of Northwest Ohio (from the Images of Rail Series). What I like about Rail Depots is how the book is divided into rail lines and the depot stations are listed in a geographically relevant progression. Though many of the depots are long gone, it works as almost a field guide. The text is brief, but this is a great introduction into putting a company name on the different tracks we cross everyday. The Images of Rail Series covers Ohio pretty well, with 11 titles about corners of the state or cities.

Let me know if there are other Arcadia titles for which I am misinformed.

Baseball through small-town eyes

Taylor, Dale. Baseball through small-town eyes. Shawnee State University: Portsmouth, Ohio, 1996.

While I would not say this work is a literary masterpiece, it does accomplish what it sets out to do in chronicling a century of baseball in Portsmouth and southern Ohio. After reading the collection of articles, it becomes evident that the eyes shined brightest on Portsmouth in the first half of the 20th Century. Famed executive Branch Rickey, who signed Jackie Robinson in 1946 after decades of running one of the most successful franchises in St. Louis, called Scioto County home. Portsmouth had many incarnations of minor league baseball teams throughout this time period up until 1951. Professional baseball was a way of life in southern Ohio at the turn of the century. The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball lists minor league teams in Cambridge, Chillicothe, Gallipolis, Ironton, Lancaster, Marietta, Pomeroy, and Zanesville along with Portsmouth between the 1880s through the 1950s.

Several changes occurred in minor league baseball that mirrored American life. Mainly, there was not as much interest in a minor league teams or industrial towns. With radio and television markets expanding, why not follow the major league team. Portsmouth was no longer a viable baseball market.

The Taylor’s stories covering the last 50 years show Portsmouth getting smaller in stature. No longer is Branch Rickey’s coming up from Portsmouth, but the stories center on former players visiting Portsmouth for funerals, baseball card shows and stories related to little league and high school state champions. This is all fine, but you get the feeling that Portsmouth is no longer the center of anything.

What was bad for Portsmouth is actually good for Baseball through small-town eyes. Where the older stories have a starchy newspaper article feel, the more recent articles bring the author’s experience. Taylor is a lifelong resident of the area and obviously enjoys researching this topic. Some of the highlights include ‘A Trio Plus One,’ where Taylor re-discovers an almost famous local pitcher from the late 1960’s, and ‘Why They Call Him Rocky,’ where Taylor perpetuates a false nickname story for the sake of local lore told in bars.

This is only briefly documented in Baseball through small-town eyes, but there was a resurgence of minor league baseball in southeast Ohio in the mid-1990s. This came in the form of the independent Frontier League with five clubs residing in the area between 1993 and 2008. As a cruel twist to these small towns, all of these clubs have since relocated to mainly suburban areas of larger metropolitan areas. The small town will always have the past.