One of the easiest ways to spot when a historian does not know something is to look for the language they use to try to hide that fact. For example, the sentence “Undoubtedly, George Washington was angry when he got the letter” actually means “I have no idea whatsoever how Washington felt, but I’m going with ‘mad.’” Undoubtedly is one of the most common ways historian admit ignorance, but they have many similar stock phrases, all of which basically boil down to “this is my guess.” The fact is, though, that it is hard to know stuff. Any historian worth his or her salt will be painfully aware of all the little (or not so little) gaps of knowledge in anything they write. Sometimes the line beyond the gaps goes pretty straight, so it is not too hard to leap the gap and still be on the right path. But sometimes you just fall into the gap.
[Remember that you can click on each image below to see a larger, better image. Also, the EXIF data for each image contains GPS coordinates that you can use to locate the exact place where the photograph was taken.]
In a way, I encountered that recently, when trying to look into an obscure bit of Ohioana. In late 2013, I stumbled upon a large, abandoned greenhouse near the shores of Lake Erie, just east of Huron, Ohio. Unfortunately, thanks largely to my novice photography skills, many of the photographs I took of that fascinating location did not turn out as I had intended. So I knew I wanted to try again. In September 2014, I had an opportunity to return to the greenhouse, accompanied by my friend, Tsuki. I took a number of photographs, some of which appear below.
Naturally, however, I wanted to find out why the greenhouse was no longer a greenhouse; what caused its demise. This proved far more difficult than I thought. Despite a great deal of searching in newspapers, public records, and various on-line sources, I could find no clear indication. One source on-line claimed, without attribution, that in essence a sort of large-scale plumbing problem had doomed the greenhouse. However, I could not find a shred of confirmation of this. The other explanation offered on-line by someone was even less creditable: a right-wing conspiracy-laden screed blaming the greenhouse’s demise on NAFTA, higher education, and government regulation. Needless to say, there was little to support this notion, either. From what little I did find, I have the most vaguest of guesses, but the reality is that the answer may not be known. That’s the truth of what most of history is like, no matter how much we try to understand it.
Our trip involved a sort of erratic drive northwestwards, then turning east at Bowling Green to go find the greenhouse on the Lake Erie shore. We then headed southwards, ending up in Mansfield at sunset, following which we stopped taking pictures and simply headed home. I took the above photograph early on the outbound trip, probably west of Delaware, though I had forgotten to turn my GPS on at that point. I liked the sign, “Kalmbach Feeds sold here,” which somehow makes the building seem old (though Kalmbach Feeds itself only dates back to the 1960s).
This interesting old residence, which I like for the ornate work around the roof, is in Nevada, Ohio (population 760, salute!), a hamlet about halfway between Upper Sandusky and Bucyrus (and I realize you have probably never heard of those places before, either).
Here is Nevada, in all its glory. A sleepy-looking little place, though to be fair, this was early in the morning. Notice the false fronts on most of the buildings to the left.
Out in the countryside, we came across this rather see-through barn. I like it.
Continuing our journey north, we briefly passed through Tiffin, Ohio (population 17,963), an attractive northern Ohio town that, however, has been experiencing slow but steady population loss, down from a high of over 21,500 in 1970. The little town has oddly produced a number of NFL players and coaches. Here we see the Ritz Theater, which began in 1928 as a huge movie theater (seating nearly 1,500 people). The Ritz is indeed ritzy, with an elaborate Italian Renaissance interior design more impressive than its exterior. It was completely renovated in 1998. It no longer shows movies, except for the occasional “Golden Age of Hollywood” classic, but primarily is used for music events and local theater. It is actually quite commendable for Tiffin to have kept this beautiful building alive and functioning—Ohio has lost most of these (though not all, as the Ohio Theater in Columbus also demonstrates).
Most of the day, low-hanging clouds accompanied us. Here, the clouds and a soybean field sandwich a poor lonely tree.
This takes us to the greenhouse, a tiny slice of which is shown above. I can’t even determine exactly when it was abandoned, but it seems to have been some time in the 1990s (there seems to have been a pollution test as late as 1999, so it may have lasted out the decade). If so, it had a decent run, as it began operations in the late 1930s or early 1940s. The greenhouse belonged to Jacob Otto, who came over from Germany in the mid-1800s, settled in Erie County, and took up farming right on the shores of Lake Erie, producing peaches, grapes and other fruits. One of his children, Jacob H. Otto, followed in his footsteps, taking over the property until his own death in 1941. The greenhouse may have been built in his final years, as it was later incorporated as Jacob H. Otto & Sons Greenhouse. The sons were Charles J. Otto and Edward F. Otto. Charles Otto and his own son, Gerald, took over this greenhouse, while Edward Otto and his own sons, Ray and Ned, took over a nearby greenhouse, about which more later.
Here is a Google satellite view of the Charles and Gerald Otto greenhouse, at the intersection of U.S. 6 and SR 61. As you can see, it is not really “a greenhouse,” but rather a huge greenhouse complex, with four large greenhouses of four rows each. It truly is massive. The greenhouse was primarily a tomato greenhouse, growing tomatoes year round. By the 1960s, it and the other greenhouse complex were producing about 800,000 pounds of tomato in a season. In 1974, Charles and Gerald incorporated as Otto Greenhouses, Inc., along with a third person (it is also known as “Charles J. Otto Greenhouse” in some government documents). In 1976, brother Edward Otto incorporated Jacob H. Otto & Sons, Inc. (known as “Jacob H. Otto Greenhouse” in some government documents).
In the years since the demise of the greenhouse, nature has had its revenge, taking over almost the entire complex. Forget tomato plants, there are trees and shrubs and vines of many different varieties living in the greenhouses now, along with birds and squirrels and countless other small critters.
The greenhouse complex is very close to Lake Erie. Across U.S. 6 is a field and basically just north of that is the lake itself. One of the stories, unverified, as to the demise of the greenhouse involves an alleged abortive attempt to pump lake water to use for the greenhouse, an attempt that backfired and damaged property in the area. No source or details were given, and I have not been able to find any confirmation of this notion.
This would be a good setting for some sort of post-apocalyptic movie, don’t you think? Throw in mutants or Mad Max or zombies. No need for CGI.
You’ll notice the greenhouse complex has this very large brick smokestack (a “coal boiler”). You can’t quite see it, but it has the word “Otto’s” on the side. I had not previously seen any greenhouse with a smokestack like this, but I have seen a couple since then. The purpose is primarily to burn all the excess vegetable matter that such a huge greenhouse would regularly generate (you can sell the tomatoes, but not the vines). The smokestack may well have played a role in the demise of the greenhouse, as it is an old-style coal-burning boiler that generated a lot of pollution, especially sulphur dioxide, which is a serious pollutant dangerous to humans, animals and plants (and can produce acid rain). In the 1970s, it was one of the pollutants of greatest concern in the U.S. (a combination of better technology and better regulations have decreased the amount produced by the U.S. by about half since then).
Consequently, by the late 1970s, both the EPA and the Ohio EPA had to regulate the emissions, specifying how much sulphur dioxide they were allowed to emit. Given the age of the smokestack, this may have limited their use of the boiler (and a second, oil-fueled boiler), unless they were willing to pay to upgrade it.
As startling as the front of the greenhouse complex looks, during the summer, the rear of the complex is even more amazing, as it is entirely overgrown. Only the smokestack stretches out from this canopy of green.
Here’s a vertical shot of the same sight. It’s like finding a lost Mayan city in the jungle.
Tsuki and I spent a fair amount of time photographing the place, though we did not go inside, not having permission of property owners. After a while, we decided to continue on our journey and we began to head south—but did not get far.
Almost around the corner from the greenhouse and its smokestack was another large smokestack of what looked like the exact same variety. However, this wasn’t really attached to anything. It was just a “free range” smokestack. What I did not realize, of course, was that this was the former site of the other Otto greenhouse, the one run by Edward Otto and his sons. On this property, unlike the other, they actually tore down the greenhouse—but left the smokestack.
This has apparently left some people unhappy. One irritated local resident complained in 2014 that the area “glitter[s] like there are a million diamonds shining at you,” but that this is actually “an environmental ground contamination nightmare.” According to the resident, the soil on the property was not cleaned up after the greenhouse was destroyed. The resident, claiming to have spoken “with several government agencies,” alleged that the owners of the land (presumably the Otto family) are “apparently hiding behind the fact that the land is zoned agricultural.”
In any case, it is an odd relic of what was once apparently another substantial greenhouse complex.
So why did the greenhouses fail? The right-wing conspirator blames Mexican competition, predatory government regulations, and an educational system more interested in peddling left-wing ideas to Ohio’s youth than to find a solution to the greenhouse white fly, which can damage greenhouse tomatoes. I am sure today he would find a way to throw an Obama reference in there as well. But greenhouse tomatoes are naturally more expensive than non-greenhouse tomatoes grown in more conductive areas such as California or Mexico, so the operating costs must have been higher and profit margins lower. Sulphur dioxide regulations are certainly needed, so one cannot “blame” the federal or state EPAs if their regulations did actually add to the operating costs. But it is also important to realize that during this era, the 1980s and 1990s, the Ottos who had built the business were all elderly and, in fact, dying off. The next generation, finding the greenhouses no longer profitable, may not have wanted to continue. The reality, though, is that the answer does not seem to be known at this point.
A little ways down the road, south of Berlin Heights, I came across this nifty antique automobile. What I found interesting was not simply the great condition the car was in, but just how much effort its owner had spent to make it shiny. Those are not streaks on the car—that is the reflection of the sky, the clouds, the trees and houses on the other side of the street. I’d probably be there, if it weren’t for that bush. Nice job.
I found this wonderful old corner building in Greenwich, Ohio (population 1,476, salute!). From the very first time I ever saw one, I have been in love with wedge-shaped buildings of this era. This example, though small, is very well kept up, and a great home for a flower shop.
The sun dipped lower and lower as we headed south across some of the best farmlands in Ohio.
It was twilight by the time we reached Mansfield, Ohio, where Tsuki once lived. Luckily, she did not live here, as this is the Mansfield Correctional Institution.
Mansfield is a small city in north central Ohio with a population of 47,821 (salute). It is one of Ohio’s rust belt cities and has not fared as well in the past 40 years as it did earlier in the 1900s, when it was a source of much manufacturing. Not coincidentally, it reached its population peak in 1970 (at 55,047) and has been declining since, though not nearly so much as some other rust belt cities in Ohio. In 2010, during the Great Recession, Mansfield had to declare a fiscal emergency.
Above is a shot from Mansfield’s manufacturing district and you can see from this photo alone that much of this district belongs to a bygone era.
One last shot of Mansfield, as the sun goes down, a fitting way to end this blog entry. I have seen few beautiful sunsets in Ohio, compared to where I grew up, in El Paso, Texas (though I acknowledge that much of the beauty in those sunsets is actually just a side effect of serious pollution), but this one was pretty nice. Good job, Mansfield.