Layers Of Time

If you’re lucky, once in a while you will be going about your business when something truly special steps into your path and begs for attention.

That happened to me this weekend while visiting cemeteries with my parents in Morgan County, Ohio. My uncle is buried in a cemetery that sits just below a little white church on a hill. It has been abandoned for as long as anyone can remember. From the cemetery you can just catch a glimpse of the top of the church through overgrown brush and trees.

This place has long captivated my imagination. It was a mystery waiting to be solved. Sadly, it was long unattainable because I wasn’t crazy enough to brave the snakes and poison ivy just to climb the hill for a look.

This time was a completely different experience because someone had cut back the brush on the bank, creating a rough trail all the way to the front door. It was like they knew I was coming.

You can bet I abandoned my parents at the cemetery and scurried right up to the top for a look. The clearing was small, the stone porch steps have shifted but the inside was eerily intact. It looks like the congregation of Pleasant Hill Methodist Church just closed the door and walked away.

Everything is covered in a thick layer of dust and the piano is in rough shape. The floor seems sturdy and most of the glass windows are intact. The light in there was breathtaking that afternoon. I was in awe of how the light played on those dusty old wood pews.

Describing the physical experience of seeing the old pews in the light of a late May Sunday is the easy part of this story. What’s a little harder to describe is the most important part of the experience.

Most history buffs will understand when I say that some places feel special. They feel like important things have gone on inside. They feel like there’s a layer of time as thick as the dust on those pews that can only be felt rather than seen. They feel alive.

I had the strangest sensation that I was not alone in that 1889 era church. It was as though there was some unseen event taking place just beyond my line of sight. I could feel the energy of a congregation. That piano sat silent for me but still seemed full of energy.

In another time, someone pounded those keys to the tune of an old hymn like “Mansion Over The Hilltop” while an elderly preacher gripped his Bible and studied the faces of his congregation as they sang along.

I felt like an intruder and yet, didn’t feel unwelcome. I simply didn’t belong. It was an odd sensation. Unsettling but special. If I could just turn my head fast enough, I was convinced there was a church full of people just behind me.

This is why I adventure, friends. This sort of thing happens so rarely but the promise of the opportunity to experience a place so unusual is one of the things that keeps me looking.

Country Mouse

I am a country mouse. I grew up in a rural area where there are no museums and cultural events are a rarity. Our county courthouse is two stories and there are just a handful of buildings that require an elevator. Our idea of diversity here mainly involves Catholics and Amish. Most people look alike and have identical shared values.

It is exciting to visit a place that is tall and populated with people who look and sound different than what I know.

I never fail to look up when surrounded by tall buildings.

People watching on busy streets is a hobby.

I look up, down and all around to see and absorb as much as possible.

Artifacts of famous people like Abe Lincoln’s top hat are treasures to be admired and examined.

Places like Washington D.C. are a dream come true because the streets are lined with famous landmarks and museums filled with treasures.

Fancy art installations stop me dead in my tracks.

Even a subway station is potential subject matter for a photo.

Visiting the final resting place of our first President is moving and a moment of reverence.

Things that are different, things that are historic or noteworthy, things that others pass by without a glance are special to me. I feel sorry for anyone who can walk by a piece of history or a beautiful work of art and not see its value.

I’m a country mouse and I’m not shamed. In fact, I’m glad for that.

First Presbyterian Church of Ironton

One of the truly magnificent things about wandering this earth the way I do is that I often meet people by chance and see unexpected wonders.

Saturday morning found me meandering down Rt. 93 into Lawrence County where I soaked in the autumn weather, occasionally doubling back to grab a picture here and there. When I finally reached downtown Ironton, I parked near the county courthouse and set about enjoying the architecture.

One of the best qualities of an old river town is the variety of architectural styles and Ironton is quite nice in this regard.

From the corner of Fifth and Center streets, you can see several historic churches. It is a beautiful vantage point. The most notable and fascinating of these is a block down and looks like something from nineteenth century England.

It is a substantial, magnificent building with a tower that soars high above the street. I walked down Fifth Street for a closer look and to learn that it is the First Presbyterian Church.

I snapped a few photos, admiring the clock tower and imagining what the stained glass windows must look like from inside on a sunny day. A church history flier indicates that the architecture of this building is so unusual that the only other church like it in America is in Bedford, Massachusetts.

As I turned to walk away, I encountered a man on the sidewalk. We smiled at each other and I mentioned how beautiful the church is. He smiled even bigger and asked if I would like to see inside.

When I responded that I would love to if he had the time, he said that he would make the time. My new friend was Pastor Carson Hunt. He seemed like a genuinely nice man who is quick to invite strangers to become visitors and visitors to become members. He seemed happy to tell me about the history, pleased to point out special details and glad to share about some recent improvement projects.

Please understand that my adventure days are nearly always Saturdays and finding a church unlocked on a Saturday is rare. That means I seldom get to see inside. The simple offer to go in was a real treat but Pastor Carson didn’t just let me come inside. He turned on the lights and played some music so I could appreciate the acoustics. I wandered around at my leisure as he shared some of the history.

It was one of those rare experiences that made my day truly special.

The congregation dates back to the founding of Ironton in the middle of the nineteenth century. When the city was laid out, the proprietors of Iron and Coal Company gave one lot to every church organized in the city limits. This explains why there are so many historic churches in close proximity.

Hiram Campbell was a local businessman and played an important role in the history of the First Presbyterian Church. Pastor Carson explained that Mr Campbell donated the church’s principal stained glass window in memory of his brother John, the city’s founder. Located in the south gable, it features four distinct scenes that tell the story of John Campbell who died while a missionary in Africa. One panel depicts his missionary work while another panel shows a ship on the high seas. A third shows an open Bible and the final panel shows a cross and crown.

It’s stunning.

This is one of those churches that feels ornate but simple, fancy but comfortable, reverent but welcoming. There’s something really special about this place and I was incredibly grateful for the peak inside.

Like most congregations across the country, they are struggling to grow despite outreach attempts. But he said they are still holding their own and he is grateful for each and every one of their members.

He and some other gentlemen were working Saturday. He mentioned fresh paint on the doors and a new hot water heater as well as a number of ongoing projects that made me think this magnificent old church is fortunate to have some attentive caretakers.

This made me happy.

Pastor Carson invited me to visit anytime and I am certain he would want me to invite all of you as well. If you’re looking for a new church home or simply somewhere to visit, you will be welcomed with open arms. Be sure to stay for donuts and fellowship after Sunday service.

They take part in a historic church tour organized by the historical society every December. This would provide you with opportunity to see inside several of these historic churches.

Want more information? You can find them on Facebook.

Chillicothe Ghost Walk: Majestic Theater

The best stop on the Chillicothe Ghost Walk is always the Majestic Theater, a nineteenth century Masonic opera house in the historic downtown.

Practically speaking, these folks are the best in town at storytelling. They are entertainers who don costumes to tell scripted stories about what is likely the most documented haunted building around.

There are tons of stories including an encounter with a mid century theater usher who silently helped a woman to her seat in the early nineties. He wore an ornate uniform, complete with a fez hat and seemed surprised the theater goer could see him when she requested help to her seat. He disappeared and no one else saw him before he vanished. There’s a janitor who still cleans the floors and a diva who still occupies a dressing room beneath the stage.

A gentleman in a top hat was a curiosity for many years. He walks the middle aisle but appears to float as he approaches the stage. His feet are still moving like he’s walking but he hovers above the floor. They learned during a twentieth century renovation that the sloped floor wasn’t always sloped. It was originally flat. Mr Top Hat is walking on the original flat theater floor, the one he likely knew in life.

The most compelling stories come from World War I when the Spanish Influenza came to town. Camp Sherman, a local military training camp, was struck particularity hard. Thousands of cases left about 1,200 dead at Camp Sherman alone.

The city was quarantined and their beloved theater was transformed into a makeshift morgue. Bodies were stacked like lumber in the basement while the stage was used for embalming. Blood and other bodily fluids were drained into an alley just off the stage door, causing the alley to be named “Blood Alley.”

People still use that term today.

Meanwhile, someone would occasionally find that one of those bodies stacked to the ceiling in the downstairs dressing rooms was indeed alive. The spirit of one such individual is said to haunt a specific space in the basement. His spirit is so angry that this area is actually kept locked to prevent lookie loos from stumbling into trouble.

Here’s the door and the bricks of blood alley.

I will be completely honest with you. There is a place in that basement that I find too disturbing for words. But the best of this tour isn’t the ghost stories. It’s the access to the upstairs! You see, there’s a third floor ballroom with old signs, a few artifacts and some magnificent murals.

Hello. My name is Brandi and I am a nerd. Who cares about ghost stories when you have patina and light to admire?

This is one of my favorite images. Tbey have two of these old signs upstairs.

Never let anyone tell you Ohio wasn’t a bad place for people of color. These benches were used as seats during segregation.

Here are two of those murals. They were covered up for many years and forgotten by time until someone pulled back the paper to discover a beautiful face staring back at them.

The Majestic Theater is now operated by a nonprofit organization that has been hard at work making much needed updates. They still host events including concerts and classic movies. Just prior to the pandemic, I saw Pretty Woman and Snow White on the big screen. That was great fun. Find more info here.

Go see a show sometime and look for the man with the top hat or maybe the janitor mopping the restroom floors. By the way, they’ve identified that gentleman as someone who was a caretaker for the theater many years ago. A fellow who saw his spirit found him in an old picture at the theater.

Oh, and make sure your phone is fully charged. Something in that building sucked my battery down from 89 percent to nineteen in under 45 minutes. I was taking some photos but the phone was on airplane mode to preserve the battery life and I couldn’t justify the loss.

Whether or not you go for a show, take a stroll through their downtown which is currently experiencing an impressive rebirth and look for the theater. Read about my other ghost tour experiences at the old jail and at the Masonic Lodge. I’ll tell you about my experience at the fourth and final ghost tour location very soon.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon

The love of my country will be the ruling influence of my conduct… George Washington

I got to touch George Washington’s handrail while climbing the stairs at his Virginia home Mount Vernon. George Washington walked these stairs and maybe touched this handrail himself.

To be fair, everyone on the tour did the same and you could too. In fact, people have probably been touching Washington’s handrail since the house became a tourist destination over 150 years ago.

Even knowing that it’s an option available to the masses, it still felt like a special experience. After all, when you go on historic home tours you are typically asked to refrain from touching or photographing anything. In fact, they would likely prefer you didn’t breathe in some of those houses if that were a reasonable request.

Yet Mount Vernon is incredibly accessible. Tours are small and non-flash photography is encouraged. They invite guests to sit a spell on the back porch – listen to how Appalachian I am! They call it a piazza.

While Washington is the quintessential founding father of our nation, it is women who have protected and preserved his home for the public to enjoy all these years after his death.

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association acquired the home in 1858. They bought it from Washington’s great-grand nephew and have since set the gold star for preservation, restoration and public accessibility for important historic homes.

A century later, those ladies caught wind that an oil tank farm was rumored for the banks of the Potomac River. This development would destroy the incredible view from the mansion’s piazza. Mrs. Frances Payne Bolton, Vice Regent for Ohio of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, purchased nearly 500 acres of that land which led her to organize one of the nation’s earliest land trusts.

President Kennedy would later sign into law the creation of the Piscataway National Park thus preserving this spectacular shoreline.

Restoration work is still constant and there is a great sense of care about the work being done here.

All walks of life tour this site every year. You hear lots of accents and other languages here. When my friend and I emerged from the path that leads from the visitor center to the home we were staring at the view made so famous by postcards, movies, textbooks and even commemorative plates.

We stood there absorbing the moment, each of us likely revisiting memories of what the house means to us. I was grateful to still have this place with its stately design and driveway lined with enormous old trees. It feels historic and it feels important.

This home, the estate and the man mean different things to different people. Washington is immortalized in a familiar portrait on our money and in a host of other ways. He was a smart man, always thinking and evolving, and not afraid to change his mind when new information became available.

There are many stories I could tell you from my visit here and some that I may circle back to another day. However, one thing that stands out in my memories is standing inside a building used for slave quarters. I believe it held bunk beds for ten. The space was sparse and depressing, fitting for a place that once held humans in bondage.

I cannot fathom what it was like to live here. I cannot imagine what it was like to be a wealthy white person whose livelihood and success, whose everyday life depended on the institution of slavery.

Everything they had, everything they hoped to be was possible because of the hundreds of enslaved souls who worked here throughout Washington’s life.

I read that Washington accepted slavery when he was a young man but began to question it after the Revolutionary War. He chose to keep his thoughts to himself for fear of dividing our young country. In his will, Washington ordered that his slaves be freed following his wife Martha’s death. I can’t help but wonder how things might be different had he expressed his views during his lifetime.

The tour here is exceptional. I appreciate that they tackle some tough issues factually and without apology while defining Washington’s place in our history.

If you go, there’s a great museum that I’ll tell you about another day. You can visit the final resting place of the President and First Lady while touring the grounds. There’s a cafe and a food truck and a fantastic gift shop with an amazing book section.

You could literally spend an entire day here if you wish and I wouldn’t blame you because it’s so well done.

Ghost Walk Tour: Masonic Lodge

The Chillicothe Halloween Festival hosts a Ghost Walk in late September every year. It’s a fundraiser for the festival and draws into the city’s historic downtown a crowd of people who may not normally spend a lot of time walking around this area of the city.

This year it coincided with a bike race and Chili Fest right outside the Majestic Theater which was one of the four stops.

It was Covid cancelled last year so I was happy to pay my ten bucks and set out at my own pace to visit the old county jail, the historic Majestic, an antique store and the Masonic Lodge which hasn’t been a stop on the ghost walk in fifteen years.

Tour guides at each site share stories about ghostly events that are said to have happened on site and reports from paranormal investigations that take place prior to the public event. They also give visitors a significant chunk of history about the town, the building and the people connected to the buildings.

I had a fantastic time. One stop was the Scioto Masonic Lodge #6 where we saw inside ceremonial and lounge spaces, the formal banquet room and kitchen and lots of other spaces in between.

It’s a great old building and there are a number of supernatural stories here but none of the occurrences sound malevolent. There are lots of reports of hearing clinking glass and murmurs of conversation in the empty dining room. There are stories of the crack of balls on a billiards table and a gentleman who reads a newspaper in the lobby before disappearing as he walks up the stairs.

More than anything, this tour provided a glimpse into a building that the public usually cannot access.

Here are some more pictures.

I’ll show you the other stops soon!