Under a haloed moon and a sky washing from dusky to midnight blue, the young'uns of Rix Mills in southeastern Ohio make merry in Winter Party by Paul Patton (1921-1999). "We rode a wide variety of sleds," Mr. Patton wrote, including a piece of corrugated iron roofing that went lickety-split. "Kenny and Myron Elliott had Flexible Flyers — long, sleek sleds which swooped down the hill and turned easily. Bill McCormac skied on barrel staves, or tried to." Mr. Patton, an elementary school principal in the Cleveland area, grew up in hilly Rix Mills and returned for a visit in 1985 to find its fields, farms, and forests largely destroyed by strip mining. "I bought paint and brushes and began to paint the memories of my rural Ohio boyhood." He was sometimes called Grandpa Moses, a nod to folk artist Grandma Moses. Winter Party is owned by the Zanesville Museum of Art, about 20 miles west of Mr. Patton's childhood home.
Courtesy of the Zanesville Museum of Art Enlarge
RIX MILLS, Ohio -- Contemporaries of painter Paul Patton felt that his work may have exaggerated the idyllic setting of his hometown a bit, but there's no doubt that Rix Mills is a shadow of its former self.
Rix Mills, Ohio, a tiny community in Muskingum County, has undergone drastic change because of strip mining. Gone are the general store/gas station, schoolhouse, blacksmith’s shop, many houses, and even some of the tree-lined roads found there in the first half of the 20th century.
Time has moved on and, in the case of some of this tiny Appalachian community, has run off with pieces of it.
Long gone are the general store/gas station, schoolhouse, blacksmith's shop, many houses, and even some of the tree-lined roads that dotted Rix Mills in Mr. Patton's memories of the first half of the 20th century that he re-created on canvas decades later. Some fell to decay as the size of the Muskingum County community near Zanesville dwindled and businesses closed.
Other buildings were sold and razed when much of the Rich Hill Township surroundings were strip-mined.
"There were houses that my mom has tried to describe to me that I just don't understand because there aren't roads," said Joy Watson Johnson, whose late grandmother, Margaret Tom West, used to own that long-ago store with her husband. She was immortalized by Mr. Patton in one of his paintings and played the organ at his funeral in 1999.
A framed picture of her can be found on top of the organ she played at the quaint white Rix Mills Presbyterian Church. The church walls are adorned with Patton paintings that attempted to recapture the Rix Mills of his memories.
"Where my mom went to school, the road is completely gone," Mrs. Johnson said. "You can't even picture where it would be to get there. The strip mining just changed the landscaping of it altogether. That's why there are just 13 houses and the church."
Mrs. Johnson lives with her husband, Nick, and daughter Felicity in a Rix Mills house that dates to the late 19thcentury, next door to her mother. She takes pride in the town and its resiliency but wishes she could have seen the Rix Mills familiar to her grandmother, Mr. Patton, and even her mother.
"When my grandmother was a little girl, Rix Mills was a hub of activity … " she said. "They only went to Zanesville one time a year and that was to go to the county fair … Rix Mills was where they lived, so everything was here. If they needed anything, it was here."
Many buildings in Rix Mills, Ohio, either fell victim to decay or were sold and razed when much of the surroundings in Rich Hill Township were strip-mined.
Today, the church steeple that was the center of the town, as well as the center of several of Mr. Patton's paintings, still stands, and the church has about 75 parishioners. The only businesses to speak of along that stretch of Rix Mills Road are the far more modern McDaniel's Greenhouse, which draws traffic in the spring and summer, and the nearby Terra Cotta Vineyards.
The hill in the forefront of Mr. Patton's Hallmarklike acrylic snowscape, the 1988 Winter Party, over which children skied and sledded has been overtaken by woods, blocking the view of Rix Mills that he once enjoyed. Mrs. Johnson said her mother maintains that the size of the hill in that painting was one of Mr. Patton's embellishments.
Mr. Patton's boyhood home is still there. Its owner was the only person along Shepherd Road who refused to sell out to the strip mine operation. Most of the surrounding vacant property filled with scrubby underbrush is owned by American Electric Power.
Although she said she doesn't blame those who sold their homes to the strip-mining operation, Mrs. Johnson said she fears that history could repeat itself as a new era of "fracking" dawns in Ohio. The hydraulic fracturing practice uses fluids and chemicals at high pressure to fracture shale to release the natural gas or oil trapped within.
Gov. John Kasich is counting on building a new industry and creating jobs around such operations, and the primary target is the southeast corner of the state. He's insisted that the industry will be properly regulated.
"They've already approached my aunt," Mrs. Johnson said. "She lives out Green Valley Road, and they have approached the people on Green Valley Road. I'm worried that they're going to ruin our water, and we'll all have to move.
"I understand that there are people who are desperately in need of people to come in and lift us all up," she said. "I get that, and I would love that if that were true. But we have wells. We don't have city water out here. If they ruin our wells, we're sunk."
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.