Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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Finding the forgotten: Duo searching for Ohio's ghost towns

Last of a 3-part series

SUNBURY, Ohio - For 27 years, Dick Helwig has been driving around Ohio looking for towns. He's happiest when he doesn't find them.

Mr. Helwig and his son Rick are ghost-town researchers.

From a converted church in this small town east of Columbus, they study places that were once thriving centers in Ohio, thanks largely to the railroad or the once booming oil business. Most of the places fell apart when the industries failed.

These forgotten towns first haunted Dick Helwig when he taught at Northwest State Community College in Archbold. A student had trouble finding his ancestors' home because the stories of the town disappeared with the community itself.

Dick Helwig set up a Ghost Town Research course in 1975 and set a dozen students to work. That turned into Ghost Town Research II, III, and IV, as students continued to find towns of the past.

"I thought we'd find somewhere around 1,500. Now we're already up to 8,000," he said.

The Helwigs moved to Sunbury for family reasons, but they did not give up their search. Papers spilling out of the boxes stacked six high in the church prove that.

Tracking down ghost towns is a full-time job for this father and son. Because there are no state or national organizations that keep records of ghost towns, the Helwigs have had to start from scratch.

They do not just look for towns that disappeared. The duo tracks places that are very old, and ones that are shadows of their former selves. These are the classifications:

  • Ghost towns: Towns that don't exist anymore.

  • Semi-ghost town: Towns that have less than 10 percent of the business and/or population they once had.

  • Paper towns: Towns that were planned out and platted but never got off the ground.

  • Old towns: Small towns that are more than 100 years old and are a shadow of what they once were.

    People still live in the old towns and semi-ghost towns described in the Helwigs' books, and they're not always too happy to be included, Richard Helwig said. But Florida, Ohio, councilwoman Beverly Gerken laughed when she heard her village was listed as a semi-ghost town.

    "I don't think it means anything," she said. " Because it just seems like it goes on and on, despite the population dropping. It just seems like the little town keeps going."

    Towns grew for various causes, but most disappeared for a single reason.

    "Usually the reason the towns were there stopped existing. Then the towns fell apart," says the younger Helwig.

    Ohio's oil boom in the early 1900s prompted towns to build stores, homes, and hotels to support the workers. People lived in places where the railroads stopped, or in canal towns where supply barges passed. In some cases, caravans on their way through the state had to stop because of the hard winters, and towns sprang up where the people stayed.

    Most of the towns had two things in common: a general store and a bar that doubled as a church. At the Old Tavern in Dogtown, a sheet covered the altar six days a week while patrons drank at the bar, the elder Helwig said.

    These towns were bustling and important.

    Providence in Lucas County is a perfect example. Founded in 1835 by Peter Manor, the town was a center for canal traffic from the Maumee River. It also housed settlers on their way to a better life out west. Stores, hotels, and warehouses sprang up overnight; by 1840 Providence had five hotels. People from Michigan saw the town as a resort.

    But eventually, the railroads didn't stop anymore. The oil was used up. And a well developed road system made it possible for caravans to pass through without stopping.

    There was no need for many of the towns anymore. Stores closed and people moved to cities, which gobbled up some of the nearest towns. Nearly 135 ghost towns were found in the Columbus area; there were 15 or 20 where Toledo now stands.

    Disease wiped out entire communities. The Helwigs point to Providence as an example of a town that succumbed to cholera. It was the end of a town that had already been devastated by a fire that destroyed many businesses.

    "Epidemics spread like wildfire," the elder Helwig said. "Really the only way to deal with the disease was to burn the town."

    The Center for Ghost Town Research found ghost towns all over northwest Ohio. Lucas County, for example, is full of them. Mitchaw disappeared with the railroad; its final church was destroyed by a tornado. Marengo was wiped out by debt. Port Lawrence was a town in what is now downtown Toledo.

    The Helwigs' original goal was to document ghost towns in northwest Ohio. Publicity changed that.

    "Suddenly we were inundated with requests from all over Ohio," Dick Helwig said.

    The pair has 14 counties done and another 15 counties nearly complete. They hope to document ghost towns in all 88 counties. They've found that there are more ghost towns near metro areas, because they were gobbled up by the cities. More than 130 of them were documented near Columbus.

    The Ohio Historical Society has the collection in its archives, which they use when they get calls from researchers, most of whom are tracing their roots.

    The books are a favorite of genealogy buffs, according to the historical society. The Helwigs also hear from postmark collectors, metal detector buffs, and libraries.

    The Wood County Historical Center gives out a list of Wood County ghost towns for free.

    "We're in the business of encouraging people to record history and help us out," said Stacey Hann-Ruff, the center's director.

    The Helwigs visit the site of every ghost town before they log it in a book. But chasing ghost towns is not easy.

    "Out west they have lots of ghost towns, but nobody has classified them," the elder Helwig said. "Those towns are still standing. That's the problem here. They're not here anymore."

    On each visit, they look for buildings that were once general stores or post offices. Sometimes people live in them now, or farmers use the buildings as storage sheds. Other times all they can find are foundations.

    "Cemeteries are good clues. Sometimes all that is there is a slab of concrete," the elder Helwig said.

    The Helwigs have found 13 Berlins and one Erlin, which changed its name so it was not associated with Germany during World War I. Most towns were named after their founders; Smith's Siding in Lucas County was named after Michael Smith who staked out the town in the 1830s. But often towns were given Native American names - the ghost town of Awpatowajowin is an Indian word meaning "halfway," or they were named after natural resources that were plentiful in the area, such as the former town of Woodville in Henry County.

    A good number of the towns changed names several times, making it all the harder to research them.

    Still, the researchers are determined to find every ghost town in Ohio. Sometimes they cannot locate them. Other times, they research a ghost town, but on a visit they discover the town has rebounded into a bustling village again.

    "Those are the ones we have to take off the list. It does happen," Rick Helwig said.

    The Helwigs say they feel strongly about documenting these ghost towns.

    "There is definitely a need for this type of information. People are always looking for it, and it's still exciting," Dick Helwig said. "And everybody likes a good mystery. We're like Sherlock Holmes."

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