Since Facebook has told the world today’s my birthday – my Social Security and Medicare (Republicans willing) birthday – I wanted to honor the day by adding my hometown to my profile.
I enter ‘St. Clairsville, Ohio’, hit enter, and PRESTO! NOCHANGEO! A blank bar greets me.
Now it’s not that St. Clairsville is like, say, East Turfbuilder, Arizona, a new irrigated paradise of boom housing. It was a town before Ohio was a state, a county seat for over 200 years. In the 1950s, it had just under 3000 residents.
In my mind, ‘St. C.’, as kids called it, it a monument to how the country developed, a living example of the public works projects now thought unaffordable.
The nation’s first great public works project ended in front of what’s now the Belmont County Courthouse.
Someone more cynical than I might say that halting the National Road in the 1820s ten miles west of the Ohio River probably inspired a reluctant Congress to complete the Road to St. Louis. It was a free road which replaced the private toll roads that had stifled commerce. As we privatize, we go back to the future….
Within 40 years, by the Civil War, three passenger train lines served the town. All were gone by the end of World War II, leaving only the Nickle Plate coal line whose steam engines pulled gondolas through town 10 or 12 times a day.
In the mid-1950s, St. C. was one of the first towns ‘bypassed’ by an interstate, I-70. Loggers call the same effect ‘girdling’. No worries about finding parking uptown. But two miles east, off I-70’s Mall Road exit, you might have to walk 50 yards from your car to one of the destination malls now covering the farms where I learnt to hunt.
But the development cycle stops for no man. According to the sole review on GoogleMaps of the 40-year-old Ohio Valley Mall, ‘Its [sic] sad that all the local stores are leaving and moving to the highlands.’ New sprawl covers the land opened up by I-70 and has expanded to the National Road it parallels.
I knew about the National Road stopping at the courthouse because I walked past the stone marking the spot twice every school day from Kindergarden through Grade 8.
St. Clairsville was that type of town; kids walked to school unsheparded. But definitely not unwatched, as I learnt in Grade 6 when I played hooky until nabbed about 10 a.m. I never tried that again.
In St. Clairsville, there was no anonymity. For better or worse, everyone knew you or someone in your family. In the first decade and a half of the atomic age and the Cold War, it was as safe a place to grow up as any. Though, you could not ever escape the anxiety. Radio made certain of that.
St. C. was a very good place to grow up, to be educated in every sense of that word.
Hardly a day has gone by when I’ve not thought of Elizabeth Craft – never spoken of in my hearing as anything other than ‘Miss Craft’. She was the kind of public school music teacher and choral director who left no child untouched. She was also an excellent organist and choir director at the First Presbyterian Church.
I will never forget a raggedy print of a documentary on Marian Anderson Miss Craft showed all her music classes one year. Its scratchy sound track still put across the glory of Anderson’s voice and the much-abused film captured her nobility when banned in 1940 because of her race from performing in a Washington hall and her triumph at the Lincoln Memorial.
The only things I recall Miss Craft saying about the Anderson documentary related to the music. It was no accident that apart from sports teams, black students only had prominence in music and left town on scholarships to Cincinnati and Ohio State with good programs that welcomed blacks.
Similarly, Tom McCourt, Belmont County auditor for more than a generation. A red-haired Irishman with a soft, warm voice, he was the third generation of his family to hold public office.
The photos in his office weren’t of him shaking hands with the great but of the WWII servicemen to whom he wrote during the war. Deeply devout, he read the Church fathers on his second job as a night watchman, a job he needed to support his ten children. Being allowed to hang around his office and work county fairs with him was a lifetime’s education in politics’ realities and about what public service could mean to the people served.
There’s so much more I could write. Fortunately for readers, I’m going to lunch and celebrate my birthday.
But, Facebook, give me back my hometown!!!