One load at a time, one house at a time, this community is being dismantled. Dozens of houses, and a 100-year-old church -- which former occupants have stripped of doors and windows and fixtures -- are empty shells waiting to be toppled and carted away. Demolition began in the heat of summer and will not be completed until the snows of winter.
What had been the village of Cheshire will soon become open space, with only a handful of houses remaining, along with a pizza parlor, a hair salon and gas station.
American Electric Power Co. (AEP), the nation's largest electricity producer, has purchased Cheshire for $20 million after years of acrimony with residents over emissions at the coal-fired Gen. James M. Gavin Power Plant, whose towering smokestacks are just steps away from their homes. Governments have purchased neighborhoods, such as Love Canal, before because of environmental concerns, but this is believed to be the first time a private company has bought an entire town. All but a dozen or so of the village's residents took the deal and left.
Those who decided to stay are adjusting to a new life.
This community, 85 miles southeast of Columbus on the Ohio River, was never a big place. From the main stoplight, you can see just about all there is to see: Town Hall, the Methodist church, the Baptist church, a handful of businesses, the post office, houses and, of course, the smokestacks. But still there is sadness when residents realize that the village of their birth, started on this spot in 1863, will never be the same.
Talk everywhere centers on the demolition. "They need their [butts] whipped for selling out," said Marri Durst, who lives just outside the town. "I live in a falling-down shack and I would have given anything to have one of them houses. They tore down every house I ever liked."
Helen Preston, who at 89 is Cheshire's eldest resident, remembers that during the Halloweens of her youth, she and friends would rummage fields to get corn to throw at people's windows. This Halloween, with all the families gone, members of Cheshire Baptist Church and residents from neighboring communities lined up their cars and more than three dozen children participated in the "trunk or treat."
Lately, Preston had ridden her motorized scooter through town every afternoon at 5 p.m. But the departure of her family and friends means there is no one to visit and has ended her daily ritual.
"It's depressing to see all the families leaving," said Preston, who has lived here all her life. "I miss my friends. I never anticipated this."
Neither did AEP officials, who say that such a move is unprecedented in the company's history. The reasons, however, surprised no one. In January, AEP agreed to pay the state $40,000 in fines for allowing burned coal waste, or fly ash, to escape from the plant. It was the same month that the Environmental Protection Agency found the company had violated the Clean Air Act by allowing high levels of soot to escape -- a charge the company disputes. That did not surprise Cheshire residents.
For years, residents of the village had complained that soot emissions were making them sick and eating away the paint on their cars. Two summers ago, blue clouds of sulfuric acid descended on Cheshire, causing sore throats and burning eyes, lips and tongues.
"At that point, our neighbors had had enough and lawyers for the vast majority of residents asked if we would be interested in buying the property," said Pat Hemlepp, the company's director of media relations. "Every step we took to clean up the plant had an impact on the people living next door. [The buyout] is a solution that made sense for both sides."
Most people agreed to leave in exchange for about 31/2 times what their property was worth and an agreement not to sue AEP. Some used the money to buy new homes, most within a 50-mile radius. Residents over 70, such as Preston, sold their homes but got permission to stay in them for as long as they live.
Jim Rife decided to stay. A retired operating engineer who was born and raised here, he and his wife moved back from Alexandria, Va., a year ago to settle in their mobile home on the Ohio River. He is mad at the former town leaders who came up with the plan to sell, and he has little use for AEP or any of its leaders. Greed, he contends, doomed the town.
"AEP told people if they didn't sell, their property wasn't going to be worth anything anyway," said Rife, 62, the newly installed mayor of a town that now has only a dozen or so residents. "If the people had stuck together and said, 'No, we're not selling,' then the deal would not have gone through. I fought against it but there was nothing I could do."
What he was able to do, however, is defeat a proposal before all the residents began leaving that would have dissolved the village as a legal entity. Now Rife is on a mission to rebuild Cheshire. He is trying to annex a contiguous area to the north of the town that would give it about as many residents as it had before. While that would not re-create the town as it existed, at least it would still exist. One of the main selling points for potential newcomers is that they would receive the protection of Cheshire's one police officer. Because it is still an incorporated village, the town continues to receive $66,000 a year in state revenue sharing money.
But Rife also realizes that the town needs more people for its survival. The current council members were appointed one at a time as the elected representatives left. Whatever happens with the town, however, Rife is intent on staying in the shadows of the plant, which burns 25,000 tons of coal a day. Riverfront property, he said, is not cheap.
"Where else can I go and be as happy as I am here?" he asked. "This would make a perfect retirement community."