From the Delaware Gazette, September 18, 2003


September 18, 2003
By Michael L. Moore

You won't find tumbleweeds blowing through the streets or run-down saloons sinking into the dust in Delaware County.

But you can find plenty of evidence that there are more than 100 ghost towns that have faded into the landscape like so many spirits in the wind.

We know this because the Center for Ghost Town Research in Ohio is in an old church a block away from the town square in Sunbury. In the basement of that building Richard Helwig and his son, Richard, have spent the last 16 years researching and documenting such forgotten county places as Tanktown, Constantia and Centerville.

"When people think of ghost towns they think of tumbleweeds rolling down the middle of the street and saloon doors hanging on one hinge," said the elder Helwig.

"But in this climate, we know a saloon wouldn't last that long and we don't have any tumbleweeds. But we do have ghost towns."

That's because ghost towns don't really have anything to do with the stereotype often portrayed in old western movies. At least not in Ohio, which has between 8,000 and 9,000 forgotten towns and villages, according to the Helwigs' research. And they donıt have anything to do with ghosts either.

"We've been invited to talk on several TV shows but we never have because they change their minds when they find out we're looking for ghost towns, not ghosts in towns," said Helwig, the son. "They thought they had a couple of real life Ghostbusters on their hands."

There are many different classifications of ghost towns but there is one common element: They are places that lost their identity because of a lack continual human habitation, according to the Helwigs' definition.

Larry Durica, a Columbus television reporter by day, can relate to the misconception that befalls the Helwigs. He became interested in ghost towns when he moved to Delaware from Lorain a few years ago and is currently doing his own research.

"When I tell people I'm doing this they think it's all about hauntings and things like that," Durica said. "Folklore is interesting and everything, but that wasn't the appeal of it for me."

The appeal, Durica and the Helwigs say, is to preserve a part of history. "Since (Delaware County) is growing so fast, any remnants of ghost towns are disappearing fast," said Durica, who lives across Leonardsburg Road from Marlborough Cemetery and Marlboro Primitive Baptist Church, which were once a part of a town known as Coles Mills. "I've always had a love of history and (living here) just worked out great for me. I've got like a museum across the road from my house."

Durica's research told him that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers salvaged the original church and 600 graves from Coles Mills and moved them to their present location at the corner of Horseshoe and Leonardsburg roads. The original town of Coles Mills is a few miles down the road under what is now Delaware Lake.

"They say that when the water is down you can see the top of the mill out in the lake," Durica said.

The Helwigs got into the ghost town research business in 1975 when they lived in Defiance County in northwest Ohio. At the time, the elder Helwig was teaching a course on the subject at the former Northwest Technical College. An enterprising reporter from The (Toledo) Blade got hold of the course's syllabus and wrote a story about what seemed like an odd offering at a technical school.

When the story broke, "we were inundated with calls from people offering information or wanting to help out," with research, the elder Helwig said. The research blossomed from there and followed the Helwigs when they moved to Sunbury in 1987. Many people, like Durica, have provided them with information that has gone into the 13 books theyıve published about 13 counties in Ohio. Four more counties are in the works.

Armed with a set of maps from 1854 to the present, the Helwigs' work has taken them to each of the 6,000 vanished villages that are described in their books. It has also landed them on the front page of The Wall Street Journal and countless other newspapers across the country.

The research, they say, is a long and arduous process. The Helwigs donıt think they'll go beyond Ohio.

"At the rate we're going now, (Richard the elder) is going to be long gone and I'm going to be grayer than what I am now by the time we're done," the younger Helwig said.

The researchers say that economics play a large part when towns lose their identities.

"Progess is always one of the things that take out towns," the elder Helwig said. "Progess and changes in transportation like when (passenger) railroads shut down. In a lot of places, when passenger service stopped the towns stopped.

"Now, itıs no big deal to drive 10 or 20 miles to get what you want, so all of the little cross towns in between died out," he said.

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