By George Brown
On Sunday, Labor Day weekend 1958, warm rays from the sun and a soft breeze drifted through an open bedroom window beckoning my brother, sister, me, and two of our cousins to pull ourselves out of bed. Our cousins would return to their home in Marion the next day and the day after we would all begin a new school year. But, as we wiped the sleep from our eyes on this unofficial last weekend of summer, our only agenda for the day was to get dressed, go downstairs and take turns visiting the outhouse before chowing down on Kellogg’s Cornflakes and a loaf of Wonder bread slathered with peanut butter.
These tasks were quickly completed, leaving 12 hours of daylight still to be filled. Roaming through the woods was not an option because the previous spring we had gone from being country kids to city kids. Without consulting us Mom and our Stepdad had decided to move from the little country house on Brokaw Road near Butler to an old frame house on Howard Street in Mount Vernon, next door to our Grandma’s house and right across the street from the Pennsylvania railroad switchyard.
The Kokosing River passed just beyond the railroad tracks and it quickly became our favorite place to play. We spent the summer finding the best swimming holes and exploring the river’s banks with our cane fishing poles. One hot summer day we road to Bernie’s junkyard at the north end of town with our Stepdad, then , as he clocked in for another day of sorting scrap metal, we put our inner tubes in the river by the Banning Road bridge and spent the day drifting all the way down stream to the South Main Street viaduct, leaving only a short walk home. When we arrived we were shriveled, sunburned, and hungry, but it was a great adventure.
But on this September morning it was too cold to swim and we couldn’t reach a consensus about going fishing. Mom had given us strict orders to never climb under or on the tankers and boxcars in the switchyard, but she had placed no restrictions on walking the tracks, allowing that we had good sense to step aside if we heard a train coming. And she was right, except for the time we were fishing from the railroad bridge and had to run like the dickens to reach the end of the bridge when a train came roaring by.
For no particular reason we decided to head east from where McKenzie Avenue crossed the railroad tracks. I say “crossed” the tracks because the switchyard and tracks have long since been abandoned, replaced by the Comfort Inn that now stands across the street from where we lived. But in 1958 the rails still glistened in the morning sun as we played “see who can walk a rail the longest without falling off”. We hadn’t packed a lunch and had no destination in mind, nor was there a specified time to return home other than “before dark”. I’m not even sure Mom knew we were gone.
As we began our unplanned journey we could never have imagined that within a few short months the great flood of January 1959 would drive the river over its banks, cross the tracks, and dump several feet of muddy water in our house before receding to its banks. My folks managed to stack some of the furniture but we escaped the deluge with just the clothes on our backs. When we returned late the next day to begin cleaning up the mess we found nearly all of our meager possessions had been destroyed. Luckily, plastic curtains and 9’x12’ linoleums were not that expensive at SS Kresge’s, and the nearby Salvation Army, where my Grandma was janitor and steward of donations, would be able to supply us with enough used furniture and clothing to get by.
Oblivious to this future danger, we five musketeers headed down the middle of the tracks and soon reached the scenic rural stretch of the line where Lower Gambier Road lies to the left and the Kokosing River to the right. For a century or more steam engines, and later diesel locomotives, had huffed and puffed along this stretch of the river as they transported passengers and tons of freight toward Pennsylvania and other eastern states. Today the tracks are gone and in their place lies the Kokosing Gap Trail, possibly the most scenic rail to trail path in the Midwest. As we made our way along the tracks, I guess you could say this little band of hikers was charting a path for the thousands of folks who would one day follow in our footsteps on the Kokosing Gap Trail.
The scenery along the seven mile stretch from Mount Vernon to Gambier was every bit as beautiful in 1958 as it is today, if not more so. For a while we occupied ourselves throwing rocks at the green glass insulators on the electric poles that ran parallel to the tracks, and when we tired of this we took periodic side excursions to the river to skip rocks, wade in the shallows and look for crawdads. Although I do not recall, I suspect we satisfied our thirst by drinking from clear pools in the river, having, apparently, built up an immunity to its bacterial germs from drinking from creeks and streams all our lives.
By the time the noonday sun had passed overhead we had walked seven miles and were coming into Gambier. We were tired and hungry, and also penniless, so the idea of even purchasing a candy bar to split five ways was not an option. Despite our hunger we contemplated extending our adventure to include a walk through the cemetery near Kenyon College to search for the gravesites of our Great Grandparents, Timothy and Elizabeth (Simpson) Hunter, but knowing we had a seven mile walk back home caused us to think better, so we quenched our thirst at a public fountain in town, then found our way back to the railroad tracks to head home.
We made much better time on the return trip, pausing only once when one of us spotted an apple orchard filled with trees laden with ripe fruit. We climbed the fence and quickly filled our empty stomachs and pockets, hoping the owner would not notice and ready to skedaddle if he did. I don’t know what kind of apples those were but I can say for a fact the only other time I’ve tasted apples that remotely compared was two decades later when Yvonne and I, while on vacation, stopped at a fruit stand in Yakama Valley, Washington and purchased some fresh Honeycrisps.
With renewed energy, we hurried along and arrived home comfortably before our sundown curfew, and ate heartily of whatever it was Mom fixed for supper that night – probably soup beans and fried potatoes. We had set out for a morning stroll without thought of how far we might go and, can you believe, without a backpack supplied with water and sandwiches. By the time we laid our weary heads down for the night we had hiked more than 14 miles, managing to meet our needs along the way and no worse for the wear.
All in all, I would say it was great preparation for the possibility of one day hiking the Appalachian Trail!
George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township with his wife, Yvonne.