With the closing of its school scheduled in January, the little town of Ai in Fulton County faces an uncertain future.
Allan Detrich / Toledo Blade Enlarge
AI, Ohio - When George Shaver was a schoolboy, he couldn't burp without someone knowing about it.
"My folks taught here. It wasn't fun," recalled Mr. Shaver as he glanced at the crumbling school building behind him. "With Mom and Dad here all the time, it kind of curtailed me." Born and raised near this unincorporated community in eastern Fulton County, Mr. Shaver has witnessed the curtailment of other activities in and around Ai.
"Had 14 seniors in our graduating class," he said. "Wish I could get that many people here on a Sunday."
He is pastor of the Ai Union Church, where 10, maybe 12, people gather for services on the Sabbath. The church is down the road and around the corner from the old school where teachers have been working to get classrooms ready for the return of students.
Opening day today flips the first page of the final chapter for the school, which has an enrollment of about 280 students. In January, the heart of Ai - pronounced exactly as it is spelled- will stop beating.
That's when students in the preschool-fifth grade building will move into the Evergreen Local School District's new elementary school now under construction. The old school could be sold or demolished.
Some predict that it might be impossible to keep the community spirit alive once the school bell rings for the last time, but a few residents hold hope that Ai can overcome the setback.
"We love it out here. We have wonderful neighbors. It's nice and quiet," said Meliessa King as her 4-year-old son, Kaden, vigorously cleaned windows in the family's vehicle in the driveway at their home. The Kings moved to Ai two months ago from Swanton, which is about four miles southeast of here. "I don't know if the school closing will mean the end of Ai," Mrs. King said. "Maybe. Families with kids might not want to move here."
There are not many families here now. Mrs. King lives next to Ai Lane. A quick count shows a grand total of three houses down the lane, the only street in the community other than Fulton Township Road 4 that serves as the main street and Fulton County Road L that is the cross street.
Most of the families in this crossroad community live in the 134-lot Swanton Meadows Mobile Home Park, just across from the school. Mike Turner, a Swanton Meadows resident for five years, said he hadn't heard about the closing of the school. Other than the mobile home park, the community has about 30 residences. "Don't know who will want to move out here. I wouldn't want to move here if there's no school," he said.
Chris Chandler, 13, who went to grade school here, says it will be a sad day in Ai when the school closes. "It's a nice school. It's too bad. People volunteer there and work there. They won't be doing that anymore."
But Arlene Stoup, who has lived in Ai "forever," says residents are "pretty well-established," and people won't leave town just because the students leave town to go to school. "I'm not going to move my home."
Her family's been here awhile. A distant relative was the first pharmacist in Fulton County in 1884, said Mrs. Stoup, who worked 31 years at the Fulton school building. Her relative ran the drugstore in town.
At one time, Ai was a bustling center of commerce with a cider mill, post office, general store, grist mill, two blacksmith shops, wagon factories, millinery shop, cheese factory, and cobbler's shop. According to local lore, nearly a dozen saloons flourished in the town at one time. Some say that settlers adopted the name Ai from the "most wicked city" mentioned in the Bible. Others contend that the two-vowel town was the result of things getting botched up when an early settler, Ami Richards, tried to name the town after himself.
Today, Ai is home to a few homes. And the school, the mobile home park, the township hall, and the church. Residents can't name any businesses still operating. Folks vote at the township hall; there are 1,009 registered voters in the entire township. There are no census figures for Ai; no post office.
"Used to have an antique store. It closed a few years ago," said Mr. Shaver, a 1958 graduate of Fulton High School, now known as the Fulton Elementary School. He and other former students would love to see someone buy the old building and find a new use for it, perhaps as a community center, but so far no one has come forward.
"It is not looking good. I have heard of no interest," said Norman Bratton, Fulton High School Class of 1945. He would hate to see it demolished, but he doesn't want to see it left to rot. "I don't know what will happen to it. I would like someone to take it."
Finding a new tenant will be tough, said Steve Brown, Fulton County regional planning director. "There is not a good water supply out there. That's the big problem facing the school," he said. There are no public water or sewer lines in Ai.
"They've tried for years to get water out here. The amount of water from the wells runs low when they do the dishes. We use bottled water," custodian Terry Woodbury said.
"It's been a good building, but it's showing its age. It's getting pretty dilapidated. It creaks and moans. There's bigger and bigger cracks in the walls."
Because of the age and condition of the building, it would be costly for someone to upgrade it and maintain it, Mr. Brown said.
Ai likely would take a hard hit if the school is razed, he said. "I think there will be a change. The school is the focal point in Fulton Township," he said.
"As a community loses certain types of businesses, a part of the community vanishes. I think if Ai loses its school, it will be a major loss to the community there."
Contact Janet Romaker at email@example.com or 419-724-6006.