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Relive the Good Old Days Along Ohio Canal

May 08, 1988|AL CLINE | Cline is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

COSHOCTON, Ohio — A village suspended in time stands here as the restored memory of a 19th-Century dream that in less than 20 years transformed forever the face of America's frontier Midwest.

Coshocton's Roscoe Village is often compared with Colonial Williamsburg, although it is a far more modest renewal, centered around a street of architecturally fascinating Georgian revival buildings.

It is a monument to the man-made waterway that in the 1830s sliced from Lake Erie to the Ohio River, opening this rich agricultural breadbasket to the populous centers of the East.

Unlike historical revivals elsewhere, Roscoe Village is a personal creation, originally the inspired project of a retired Coshocton industrialist and philanthropist, Edward Montgomery, and his wife, Frances.

In 1968 the Montgomerys established a nonprofit foundation and over a few years restored the neglected village as a monument to life on the Ohio-Erie Canal.

They were aided by one fact: This relatively out of the way section of east-central Ohio is out of the path of progress.

With little development pressure, Roscoe Village had slumbered almost undisturbed for the century and a half since the heyday of the canal, and its handsome rose brick and clapboard buildings, while rundown, were remarkably sound.

Attracted Interest

With little promotion, Roscoe Village has attracted increasing interest and draws upward of 200,000 visitors annually in a relatively short season that begins with Dulcimer Days, a music festival in May.

It ends in October with Apple Butter Stirrin' Time, a nostalgic mix of cornhusking contests, spelling bees, period music and the aroma of hot apple butter simmering over open wood fires.

During and between the American Festival (July), Canal Festival (August) and Gay '90s Days (September), horse-drawn carriages transport visitors along a route that includes a beautifully renewed old toll house. On display are canal-era artifacts, models of a lock and grist mill, a smithy, craft houses, the old township house and the residence/office of a canal-era physician.

An original canal warehouse has been restored as a popular restaurant. Early in 1985 the new $3-million Roscoe Village Inn, indistinguishable in style from its neighboring historic structures, opened with two restaurants and badly needed hotel accommodations.

A 78-foot, 25-ton replica of an 1830s packet, drawn by a team of stolid draft horses, carries passengers daily along a restored tree-shaded section of the canal.

It is a ride almost dreamlike in its smoothness. The horses plod along the towpath that parallels the canal. "This was a very efficient way to move freight," said the driver. "Two horses could pull 25 or 30 tons all day long."

Efficient but slow. Speed, which Aldous Huxley called the only true convenience of the advancing century, was to be the canal's undoing.

Farmers, Immigrants

The Ohio-Erie is only a footnote in history but its effect on the American Midwest was enormous. From 1825 to 1834 an army of farmers and immigrants, mainly Irish, swung picks and shovels to dig the 308-mile ditch, 40 feet wide, linking Cleveland on Lake Erie with Portsmouth on the Ohio River.

"The poor Irishman," wrote poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. "The wheelbarrow is his country."

It was all muscle, with no power equipment. Pay was 30 cents a day, plus five jiggers of whiskey to stave off malaria--"canal fever."

The cost in dollars was about $7.9 million. In spite of the whiskey, canal fever took its toll, by one estimate, one life for every 300 yards of waterway. River Cemetery at Brecksville holds the bodies of more than 100 canal workers.

But the coming of cheap inland transportation on the canal changed Ohio almost overnight.

It took land-locked crops to market and ended a brutal economic depression. Cargo was waiting at every canal port when the first boats arrived. Wheat, which had sold for 25 cents a bushel, brought $1 at the canal ports.

Beginnings of Industry

Mills powered by the canals needed barrels and so cooperages sprang up. Brickyards opened for building materials. Foundries worked steel.

In the first 15 years of the canal Ohio's population rocketed from fewer than 600,000 to more than 2 million and the poverty-stricken state rose from 13th to third in population.

But speed was limited to 4 m.p.h., the best pace of the draft horses along the towpaths. In barely 20 years a turning point came as the system lost to the steam-powered speeds of the railroads.

Coshocton is a city of small industry now in the rich agricultural valley formed by the junction of three rivers with resounding names drawn from the Delaware Indian tongue--Tuscarawas, Walhonding and Muskingum.

The county courthouse stands foursquare in a tree-shaded downtown block. Until recent times the square's west side was a continuous hitching rail for the convenience of visiting farmers, some from the nearby Amish country. In summer the city band plays weekly in a venerable gazebo.

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