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Published: Saturday, 5/25/2002

Residents work to preserve memories of their towns

BY KELLY LECKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

GYPSUM, Ohio - The old grocery store in the middle of the town holds the residents' most precious goods.

It has been out of business for years, no longer stocking the food that kept people coming back. Now, it houses Gypsum's history - books and artifacts that tells the story of an old company town that lost its identity when it lost most of its homes.

A bunch of old townsfolk bought this store. Most of them had fathers who worked at one of the two factories in town. They played by the railroad tracks and wandered the streets. Now, they sit in the store and share tales of the past.

Like people in other villages all over Ohio, these residents are collecting pieces of the past to preserve the town's history. They see the abandoned stores and homes, and knowing things will keep on changing they look for a way to preserve the town's heyday.

Most are finding the best way to do that is through pictures and stories.

For Gypsum, that means creating the Gypsum Knights, which organizes a yearly festival called Gypsum Days. Nearly 800 who grew up in town showed up at the first party; now attendance is just a couple hundred.

Most of the old residents grew up in company homes, owned by U.S. Gypsum Company or Celotex, the local factories. They shopped at the general store, where Virginia Russell's father would let customers run up tabs when they couldn't afford to pay.

"None of us had anything. We were all equal," said Robert Szilagyi, whose father worked at Celotex. "We didn't realize we were poor until we had to go to school in Port Clinton."

They were all one family, and they were happy. But in the 1960s, the company homes were demolished. Many families moved to nearby Port Clinton. The town, which never incorporated, withered away. Today there are just a few homes.

But residents never forgot. They bought the grocery store, fixed it up, and turned it into a minimuseum. Now, the group collects photos and postcards and artifacts that will help tell future generations about the old Gypsum. It's a story they tell over and over.

"We tell our kids all these stories all the time. We tell them we were just like family. It didn't matter who you were or what color you were," said Ada Greenlee, a lifelong resident. "We need for them to know that."

Gypsum, just east of Port Clinton, isn't the only place where people are working to hold onto their past.

Howard Baumbarger was born and raised in Haskins, a small town in Wood County just down the road and across the Maumee River from Waterville. He says he's one of the few lifelong residents left there. Today, the town's population is larger than ever, but many are commuters who came from Toledo and live in new subdivisions on the edge of the village.

Mr. Baumbarger has collected photos spanning 83 years. The photos tell stories of a town booming from Wood County's oil business. The picture of the old water pump in the middle of downtown prompts a story about an infamous murder; a gas station brings up memories of all its past owners.

"This town isn't like it used to be. I see names in the paper of people who live here, but I don't recognize them," Mr. Baumbarger says. "I hope someone will be able to use these photos, to remember Haskins."

For now, he's scanned the photos he collected from other residents into his computer. He enlarges some to pick out historic signs and removes scratches and tears from others.

Stacy Hann-Ruff, director of the Wood County Historical Center, says she hopes these people will share their research.

"We need people like this to collect stories and history," she says. "They need to make arrangements to share that with us, so we have a way to pass it on."

Shirley Wyse, who has lived in Pettisville in Fulton County all her life in the house her father built, has scrapbooks from 1930 to 2000 recording the town's history. Charlotte Shaw wrote a book detailing the history of Scotch Ridge in Wood County.

Charles Keller wants everyone to see what he has collected.

He has a Web site that highlights the history of Lyons, where he graduated from high school. Mr. Keller lived a few miles from the Fulton County town when he was growing up.

Now, from the Swan Pointe Care Center in Maumee, he uses the Web site to catalog information about Lyons that his friends give him. He also has other projects that highlight Fulton County families and history. Recently, he logged Fulton County births from 1867 to 1884 to make genealogy research easier for residents searching for their roots.

"One of the most important things is that history be accessible to everybody," Mr. Keller said.



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