(with apologies to Tom Waits)
Abandoned houses seem to the the theme of this set of photographs and accompanying rambling commentary. The block on which I grew up in El Paso did not have any abandoned houses; indeed, I’m hard-pressed to think of any in my childhood neighborhood. Of course, El Paso was a rapidly growing city and our house was located in the direction of greatest growth. It wasn’t until I moved to Columbus, Ohio, that old abandoned residences first made an impression on me—not that Columbus had any great number of them, but any older center city residential area will have at least some.
In more recent years, thanks to the great recession, abandoned homes have become such a big thing that squatting in them has also become a big thing, including by some of the extremists I study professionally in my “day” job. But the old homes pictured here are not recently abandoned, at least in the majority of cases. They are older homes and many were clearly abandoned decades ago. Why? In some cases, the buildings became decrepit and new houses were built on the same property. In some other cases, new owners may have bought the land—for farming or grazing—but did not need the house on the land. In some cases, houses fell into decay during the owners’ lives and became more or less unsellable in that state, especially in small towns that might have suffered significant population loss. There are a lot of ways homes can become derelict and I may have seen all of them.
[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.]
The photographs here were taken on April 3, 2015, as the second half of a trip I made through southern Ohio, traveling in a deep semicircular smile south of Chillicothe, starting off in the southwestern Ohio farmlands and ending up in Ohio Appalachia to the east of the city.
I took this photograph looking up at an abandoned rural house about 6-7 miles southeast of Hillsboro in southwestern Ohio; this photo more or less marked the start of my turn to the east. Travelling east from here I would begin to see less farmland, more woods, and more poverty. By the end of the journey, when I decided to turn back towards Columbus, I would be reasonably well into southern Ohio Appalachia.
Rural America is home not only to many abandoned houses, but it is also a mass graveyard for old cars. In cities, old cars are typically eventually junked, through one means or another, but out in the countryside, many people just park their old cars outside a house or in a field somewhere, leaving them to slowly decay and rust over decades. In some cases, I am confident that optimism must have initially reined, with an owner thinking to themselves that they would someday get the car fixed up, to drive or sell, though that day would never come. In other cases, it seems to be lack of energy more than anything else, even though they might be able to get a few hundred bucks by junking the cars for parts. Here we see a trio of old cars different eras, including an old 1980s Chevette, which was the first car I ever owned—essentially an American Yugo.
I took this photograph of a horse getting its nom nom nom on at a farm more or less a straight shot south of Hillsboro, the town that is the regional hub. The black and white brings out the horse’s diminishing winter coat. As you get away from the farm-friendliest areas of Ohio, the raising of horses and other grazing livestock becomes more common, though you can find equines across the entire state. Ohio has one of the highest horse populations in the country (last time I checked, Ohio was ranked 6th, which is pretty impressive considering the small size of the state).
Not too far away I found these goats similarly getting a good graze in. I don’t think I had seen a feeder quite like this one before, designed to hold a single large cylindrical bale of hay. Much more common is a ground-level circular frame feeder.
This little fellow on the right was particularly aggressive in getting at the hay.
I thought this shot of an old abandoned home was nice not only for the house but because it gives a notion of the rolling Ohio countryside in this region of Ohio.
Here is another shot of the same place, from another angle and in black and white. This tighter shot focuses on the house itself and I liked the head-on composition. I was able to play with the color tones a bit to get what I think are some good contrasts and textures. I would love to have a fixed-up version of this house as a country retreat that I could go to on weekends to think and write. I should note, as I frequently do, that though this home is abandoned, the owner of the property nevertheless feels compelled to keep the yard rather immaculately mowed. Ohioans are obsessed with mowing; I am pretty sure I could start a successful cult centered on this activity.
SR 73 runs southeast from Hillsboro and it was while crossing this road (on the left, in the photograph), that I saw this sign. I actually stopped in this vicinity to take a photograph of the barn in the background (a photo not posted here), but gradually it was the sign itself that grew on me. It turns out that “Woodland Lake Leisure Resort” is an RV park. Here’s a self-description: “Woodland Lake is located in the beautiful rolling hills of southern Ohio amidst an abundance of hardwood trees, pines, dogwoods and redbuds. The mood is set for your relaxation and enjoyment. Take advantage of the many trails in these lovely surroundings for hiking, biking, jogging and walking or visit one of five nearby state parks. Whatever choice you make, you are sure to have a memorable holiday.” I did not see the RV park itself, so I cannot comment on its quality, but I can attest that the countryside is certainly beautiful.
Maybe two miles east of the RV park sign, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, I came across this stately but abandoned old farmhouse and it immediately captivated me. I liked it so much that I took quite a few photographs of it, from different angles and compositions, and I actually share five of them here, in different styles, because I liked the house so much. This shot here is basically an establishing shot, showing the environs of the farmhouse. These shots are shots I could only have taken in the winter or spring, because in the summer or fall, the foliage of the trees would have obscured from view virtually the entire house.
Here is a tighter shot of the house itself, still obscured by the trees. I rather suspect the house and the trees are the same age. The trees themselves are great yard trees and would help keep the house cool in the summer. This looks like it would have been a great place to raise a family.
I drove up into the driveway to take a few shots of the house not totally obscured by trees; this shot, with a bit of bleach-bypass post-processing, shows the house from the side, where you can see what I presume was the kitchen area of the house.
The house itself has an impressive two-story front porch, one I absolutely fell in love with—so I inched my car forward to be able to take a shot that highlighted the porch and how it looks down upon the countryside. I thought this would make a nice black and white photo, with all of the branches providing a spiderwebby background to the shot.
One final parting shot of the house, looking back on it. It is too bad this house was not kept up, as it is so nice, but maybe someday someone will restore it. Note that, though no one lives here, the lawn is well-mowed. Oh, Ohio!
To the east, in Brushcreek Township in Highland County, I came across this derelict hillside home, long abandoned. I approached this house from the road that you may get a hint of running behind this house, so drove past it, turned around, and took this shot looking back up at the hill from a little ways down the slope. Two words: lawn mowed.
I then drove back up to the road I was initially on, and took this shot from the other side of the house, looking down on the countryside and the place on the road from where I took my first photograph. We can see the hilly nature of the countryside as we move into Appalachia.
This photo shows something I see only rarely in Ohio: corn stooks. These are corn stacks made of sheaves of corn. In Europe, these are used for making thatched roofs. Because this requires nonmechanized labor, one rarely sees these in the U.S. When I have seen corn stooks before, it was in Amish areas of Ohio, not surprisingly. I cannot remember seeing any Amish homes or farms on this trip, but this must have been Amish-related, because I don’t see why anybody else would use these today.
Here we see the schoolhouse of Sinking Spring, Ohio (population 133, salute!). Old one-room schoolhouses dot the landscape of rural Ohio, but this octagonal one-room schoolhouse in far southern Ohio is certainly unusual. It was allegedly built in 1831 and stopped being used as a school around 1845; after which, it was used as a community center. A coincidence that I cannot even fathom is that there is a Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania, that somehow also has an octagonal schoolhouse. Kudos to the builders of both for thinking outside the box and adding a little variety to those old brick schoolhouses.
East of Sinking Spring I took this photograph of a wooded hillside. It almost looks like late fall, because of the color of what foliage remains, even though I took this in April. The lack of typical woody foliage allows us to see the logging tracks on the hill, which logcutters use to make their way up and down the hill as they harvest lumber from it. The youngish trees all seem to be the same age, which makes me think that this hill was clearcut. Someone could do a good impressionist painting of this subject.
I took this photograph of this home along SR32, which is also known as the “Appalachian Highway,” and the makeshift construction of this house certainly stands in for many other jerry-rigged residences that can be seen across the wooded hills and valleys of Appalachia. This home is in Pike County, a sparsely populated county (a bit over 28,000, which is quite low for Ohio) that is also very poor (with the 4th lowest per capita income of Ohio’s 88 counties). Most of Ohio’s poorest counties are in its Appalachian region.
If I traveled directly south of Columbus, Ohio, I would eventually run into the village of Piketon, Ohio (population 2,181, salute!), along the Scioto River about 30 or so miles before it joins the Ohio River. Piketon is fairly tiny, but it gets in the news from time to time because there is a uranium enrichment plant near Piketon. A recent expansion may bring more jobs to the region, which it could sorely use, because more than 30% of Piketon lies below the poverty line. Here is one derelict business in Piketon, which looks as if it came from the first generation of dedicated self-service gas stations.
In Piketon, I took this photograph of an abandoned grade school, the Piketon Grade School, which must have been quite impressive when it was built in 1925. To take this shot—not a very good one, I admit—I had to stop in the middle of an intersection, which was only possible because Piketon was not exhibiting very much activity on the day I drove through it.
Compared to the hamlet of Beaver, Ohio, where I took this photograph, Piketon is practically a metropolis. Tiny Beaver has a population of only 449 (salute!). Despite its near-nonexistence, for over 30 years, Beaver has held an annual Oktoberfest celebration, complete with a n antique tractor show, a baby contest, a pie and cake contest, craft shows, plus rides and live music—as well as “a large parade on the final day.” I assume “large” is relative. In this photo we see an abandoned little store, Adams’ Supermarket & Dry Goods.
One website claimed that “in 1883, there were five stores [in Beaver]. Today only three of those remain.” Those three included Adams, so this store may have still been in business relatively recently, though it certainly seems like a relic of a bygone era. Perhaps the website simply meant that the building still remains. Adams’ store began in 1880, more than 130 years ago, as one of those tiny neighborhood stores that also served as the house for the owner (my grandmother ran such a store in northeastern Pennsylvania for many decades).
It was getting somewhat late in the day, so I began to head northeast to take a few more photos, figuring I would eventually turn northwest and go back to Columbus. I took this photograph of a very derelict Dari Freeze in the small town of Wellston, Ohio (population 5,663, salute!), which is at the heart of what I tend to think of as Ohio’s ghost coal country, as the coal boom in the region of the late 1800s and early 1900s has long since gone away. To give an illustration of this boom, let me note that Wellston’s 1880 population was only 952. By 1890, only 10 years later, it was 4,379, more than quadrupling in size. By 1900, it reached its peak population of 8,045, doubling again. However, by 1910, the population had dropped to 6,875 and it has remained within a thousand or so of that population for the past century.
I didn’t save the most intriguing for last, but that’s how it worked out. A mile or two northeast of Wellston, while driving along SR160, my jaw dropped as I came across two large brick smokestacks poking up over the side of the road (the ground slopped deeply down from the road) in an otherwise wooded area.
Naturally, I was immediately intrigued, thinking that perhaps some 19th century brickworks or foundry had been here. I wanted to get closer, but soon found that this was very difficult to do. There was a road leading down into the area, but it was marked as private property and I did not want to trespass. However, traffic on SR160 was fairly brisk, which greatly interfered with my ability to take photographs from the road as well. So the photographs that I have here represent the results of several “passes” at the subject, from different angles.
I eventually was able to see that the stacks were connected to the ruins of buildings. At this point I really wished I had a drone that I could send over there to get a better view of the area, though while examining my photographs later I realized that it might have been difficult to navigate a drone around and among so many trees.
I took this image to better feature the larger smokestack, the square one, and decided to post-process it with a bit of cross-processing. I liked the results.
This photograph—a clumsy photograph shot through the right side of the front windshield of my SUV—was the one angle I could get that showed the stacks with the ruins around them.
When I got back home, I used Google Earth to view the area from satellite. What I discovered was that, aside from these two stacks and accompanying buildings, and a third stack further away that I never noticed, the area is pretty much covered with light, relatively young woods. When I began to research this site, I soon realized that not that long ago, this place looked very different.
What I discovered was that this was the former site of a brick plant belonging to the Puritan Brick Company. Built in 1909, it was the largest such plant in the whole region, based on 980 acres of land. The site included rails leading up to it and two nearby coal mines opened for the sole purpose of providing fuel for the plant to operate. In operation, the brickworks could make up to 100,000 bricks a day.
I found the above photo of the Puritan brick plant in operation in an old book published in 1916, so this was taken only a few years after the plant first opened. Note how many buildings there were at one point that have all completely vanished by a century later. A different local history claimed that the Puritan Brick Company “was a casualty of World War I,” though this is not explained. The plant was subsequently leased or sold to the McArthur Brick Company, which itself went under in the early 1960s. Thus it seems that nature has had at least half a century to reclaim this site—and has been doing a pretty decent job of it. One source seems to suggest that the plant may have stopped operation earlier, with the McArthur Brick Company relocating much of its equipment to its other sites near the town of McArthur. If this is the case, then the area was abandoned perhaps far earlier than the early 1960s.
Because no one is making any effort to preserve these remains, this bit of Ohio history will eventually be totally lost, except in photographs like these.