Charlie Mescher finished his day's teaching
at Marion Local High School in Maria Stein, Ohio, and I packed up my own bag of student essays I'd been working on, and we headed out. Charlie had promised me a quick tour of the area, and you know how I am about things local and lovely - I want to soak them up.
The first place we stopped was the museum at the Mother House of the Sisters of the Precious Blood right in Maria Stein itself. This part of the county has a strong and devout German Catholic heritage, and the museum reflects that. First, the museum tells the story of the Sisters of the Precious Blood in this part of Ohio, and the display of the nuns' artifacts creates intriguing little narratives. Second, all those pictures of the nuns! Seen in their various extremely modest habits over the years, the nuns' faces show the only things we can know about them, so one studies the faces: the lips, the eyes, the message. There were several binders of such photographs and I could not pull myself away from them: I was trying to read the course of each nun's narrative in the lines of her face. Oh, my.
Charlie, of course, recognized the names and pictures of several nuns, women who had taught him while he was in school. At one point, a nun came to us from another part of the building to ask if there was anything we had questions about. Turned out that while this good 'ster had not taught Charlie, she had taught his sister, and she said, "I was wondering if you might be a Mescher. You look like your sister."
Also in the museum there was a display on the Erie-Miami Canal, which passes nearby. A map on the wall marks out the route of the canal from Lake Erie south across Ohio to the Miami River, and at the same time shows the elevation of the various locks along the route. I could have stayed much longer in the museum looking at photographs of nuns and imagining their stories, but I wanted to see the canal while we still had some daylight.
The highest point along the Erie-Miami Canal seemed to be the stretch between New Bremen, which is east of Maria Stein and across the line into Auglaize County, and Fort Loramie to the south. The canal runs right through the center of downtown New Bremen; water drops from the lock and roils its cold winter way towards Lake Erie. At the other end of the plateau here, the water runs toward the Miami River.
As I said, the canal runs right through town, straight and true the way train tracks would. Indeed, railroads displaced canals as the prime mover of goods across the landscape, rendering obsolete the channels and locks of the Erie-Miami system. Eventually, of course, truck traffic started making railroads obsolete. So that, now, instead of the canal coming through town, instead of the railroad coming through, what a small rural community needs to survive is a nearby interstate highway. You see that especially clearly out on the plains, in Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and North. The paradigm shifts; the marks on the landscape remain.
There is a high school in New Bremen. There is a high school in Maria Stein, eight miles away. There is a high school Minster, four miles away. Maria Stein and Minster were German Catholic communities. New Bremen was German Protestant; there is a big German Protestant cemetery at the edge of town. Protestant or Catholic, all these communities here hold tight to their schools.
Out in the country, we stopped at "Bloody Bridge" along the canal. From a stone erected by the Auglaize County Historical Society: In 1854 Minnie Warren chose Jack Billings over Bill Jones, and in his anger Bill attacked Jack and Minnie with an axe as they were crossing the bridge one night on their way home from a dance in town. With one blow of the axe, Bill severed Jack's head. Minnie fell into the canal "to her watery grave." Bill disappeared. A skeleton was found in a nearby well some years later. People asked: "Was it suicide or justice?"
If you listen for long, you'll hear me talk about "ghosts on the landscape." None is quite so literal as Minnie's, seen from time to time wandering in the area of the Bloody Bridge.
Then we headed back towards Celina, passing through St. Marys at the east end of Grand Lake St. Marys. Celina is at the west end of the lake. The peculiar name of the lake? Seems the people of Celina always used to call it Grand Lake, and the people of St. Marys always called it St. Marys Lake, and rather than piss off one community or the other, the Ohio DNR, referee in such matters, officially refers to it as Grand Lake St. Marys.
We had time to put our feet up briefly, then it was off to supper in the old hotel dining room in New Bremen with Charlie and his wife Jane, Charlie's sisters, his brother-in-law, his brother-in-law's daughter. You know what? Charlie does bear resemblance to his sisters - the nun was right. Some of us had beer and some of us had wine, and the one of us who was still in high school had a soda. All of us had lovely and tasty meals; I was eating steak. We talked. We laughed. We talked some more and laughed some more. Charlie and Jane get together on a regular basis with these folks; it's a time for everybody to slow down, to time take for family, to enjoy being together. And I was pleased to be invited along. Thanks, guys!
Soon enough it was time to head back to the Mescher's house in Celina, to get a night's sleep. My stay in Ohio was nearly done. In the morning I'd be heading out for my Vagabond visit to Fowler, Indiana.