HARRISON TOWNSHIP -- Naming a place seems like a way to claim it for all time. But it isn't always so.
While we're most familiar with the concept of a ghost town as it is known out west – empty, abandoned, and preserved by the arid weather – Ohio has plenty of ghost towns. Many of them have just turned completely transparent.
If you head west from the vicinity of Gambier on Ohio 229, and turn right down Grove Church Road, you'll eventually come to the location of the church itself, across from a dirt road named Lee Wolfe Road and just north of Hopewell Road.
You wouldn't think that this misaligned intersection of three roads once had a name, but it did. Welcome to downtown Wolfe -- or just plain Wolf, without an 'e', which was how the U.S. Post Office recorded the name of the place when it became official, in 1844.
George Wolfe was one of several members of the Wolfe family who lived in the vicinity (including Lee), and since George agreed to serve as postmaster, the “town” was given his name.
Even in the mid-1800s, Wolf was never more than a handful of houses, but that was enough at the time to justify setting up a postal delivery point, just as one was later set up at Pipesville, a short distance east on what is now Ohio 229.
Neither settlement boasted more than a couple dozen people, but they both served as mail distribution points for surrounding farms.
The church – originally a Disciples Church – was built out of logs next to the cemetery that was established around 1821, on property donated by the Ross family. When a church is built before or simultaneously with a burial ground, the burial ground is known as a graveyard. In this case, though, the burial place is properly known as a cemetery, for it predated the church by over a decade.
The log church was built in 1832. The cemetery had already been named Union Grove Cemetery, so the church was dubbed Grove Church.
The first major event in the life of early settlers was the Burlington Storm of 1825, a tornado which originated in Delaware County, lifted up, then touched back down in Burlington Township of Licking County, then hopped again into Knox County. Wherever the storm landed, the destruction was horrendous, and the Ross farm suffered major damage, though the church survived.
Testimony to the strength of the storm came from a Colonel Wright of Licking County, who had a coat with his name sewn into it returned to him by a farmer who found it in Coshocton County, where the tornado had dropped it.
In 1841, the log church was torn down and replaced with a wood-frame structure, which was replaced by a stone building in 1951, the current structure. A one-room school was built east of the intersection with Hopewell Road, on the south side of the road, today a field.
September 2, 1845, saw another ferocious tornado hit Wolf. Rachel Ann Ross, age 23, was killed by a falling tree as the storm tore apart woods, fields, and buildings. The farmers rebuilt and buried their dead, continuing on the life of Wolf, for a while, at least.
George Wolfe retired as postmaster in the late 1850s, at which time Simon Bonnet was appointed as the second postmaster. He was also to be the last.
The office was closed in 1863, at the peak of the Civil War, bringing to an end Wolf's short history as a place. Today, there are few traces that it was ever known as a village. Some of the farms date back to the mid-1800s, and the cemetery has some weathered stones going all the way back to the 1820s.
Standing there on a breezy day, the wind softly moaning through the telephone wires, you can get a chill on the back of your neck realizing that continuous use for two centuries has given the Union Grove Cemetery a much larger population than Wolf ever had.
A further irony stands out.
Back when I worked for the Mount Vernon News and lived in Gambier, I spent an evening once visiting a pair of friends of mine, Bill Tiffany and Sarah Pillow, who at the time (2008) lived further south on Grove Church Road. I stayed late one summer evening, chatting well into the night with the two fellow writers.
By the time I headed home, up Grove Church Road and onto Ohio 229, thick fragments of fog had begun to spring up, wreaking havoc on my vision and hiding darting deer and bats that I glimpsed slipping in and out of my headlights.
The warmth of time spent with friends, the cooling air of late summer, and the spookiness of the fog set my imagination alight with both images and a sense of the deep history of this area. When I got home, I wrote down the lines which had begun coming to me as I drove, and created the poem “Driving Home from Bill and Sarah's.”
Driving Home from Bill and Sarah’s
I drove through ghosts on Grove Church Road
in the lee of the lands where hope is planted and grown.
Fog-men gird the bottomlands, where Owl Creek drains
thousands of years away, but for a residue you can taste
on nights like this.
The wagon turns north in the cool
after the storm. Autumn rises, a wraith of yesterday,
muttering and gesturing in the dim midnight.
Dark hints roam the forest by the side of the road,
ready to leap out in front of travelers. Bats dip down
into the headlights and flee.
I turn onto the state route and cut through armies of mist,
figments of time and persons past, sweetly aware of the
quiet weight of ages that lingers on in rural valleys, but
unable to keep it from slipping through my fingers
to disperse into the starry spine of night.
I believe, O, I
believe that we plant ourselves in churchyard gardens in
hope of eternal sunrise. But let us not forget the haven of
blankets of darkness graced by the fumy liquors of night.
I later presented the poem at a reading I did during the Sun and Moon Poetry Festival at Perkins Observatory in Delaware. When the organizers of that festival asked me to contribute a piece that I had read for an anthology of past presenters, I chose “Driving Home from Bill and Sarah's,” and thus it was published for the first time just last year (Eclipsing the Dark, Ohio Poetry Association Press, 2020).
Little did I realize that while I had pictured driving through figurative and metaphorical ghosts in the poem, I had actually been driving that night through an actual ghost town, and it triggered a haunting by the distant past that has been trailing me ever since.