At about the time Amish families first began settling in Ashland and Richland Counties, and nearly a decade before construction of the iconic covered bridge that now spans the Clear Fork River, my brothers, sister, and I roamed the well-worn trail that leads to Big and Little Lyons Falls in Mohican State Park.
This opportunity came about when my folks moved to a little house on Brokaw Road about three miles from the park, as the crow flies. It was early 1955 and we would live there until we moved to town in the spring of 1958. Those three years were the single exception to the annual, and sometimes semiannual, moves that occurred throughout my childhood.
We were accustomed to not having indoor plumbing, but the absence of running water at our home on Brokaw Road was a hardship we had endured only once before; that being during the summer of 1951 when we lived in a one room shack along the levy in Newark. While there our water source was a nearby neighbor’s garden hose, where my older brothers filled buckets each day.
But meeting our water needs on Brokaw Road was not so easy. Luckily, a neighbor a quarter mile down the road allowed us to draw water from his spring. Each day we kids carried two empty buckets to the spring, filled them with water, and then formed a bucket brigade to carry the heavy buckets home. These daily trips – for three long years – supplied all the water we needed for cooking and drinking. Despite the burden of this chore, I fondly remember the dipper that hung from the side of one of the buckets to be used by all members of the family.
Obtaining water for other purposes, notably for our weekly baths and Mom’s ringer washing machine, was a greater challenge. But my Stepdad quickly devised a plan. He kept six 10 gallon milk cans in the back of his Chevy pickup truck, and once or twice each week he would make a trip to fill them at the public water trough on Route 97, a short distance from the entrance to Mohican State Park.
Riding in the back of the pickup truck for water runs was a special treat, especially during summer months when these trips often served the dual purpose of family campouts at the park. Our favorite spot was a gravel sandbar on the upriver side of the old single lane bridge that was replaced by the covered bridge in the mid-1960s.
We would usually arrive before noon to secure our spot. The first priority was setting fishing lines in the water, then came setting up camp. This included erecting a lean- to large enough for the whole family to sleep under – no sleeping bags, but a lot of blankets to cushion and cover ourselves.
While my folks fished for our supper, my brothers, sister, and I would roam in whatever direction struck our fancy. Sometimes this included hiking to the fire tower where we would climb its 104 steps to survey the countryside, but our favorite trail was the one to Big Lyons Falls. From there it continued to Little Lyons Falls and then on to Pleasant Hill Dam. Rather than double back the way we came, we would follow the less worn trail on the opposite side of the river back to our campsite by the bridge. Big and Little Lyons Falls were named to honor John Lyons, a recluse who lived in a primitive cabin near the falls and who, upon his death, was buried nearby. It is said that Johnny Appleseed also visited Big Lyons Falls in the early 1800s, and carved his name on its sandstone wall, although any evidence of this was long ago removed by wind and rain.
Of all the times we hiked the Lyons Falls loop one particular hike stands out in my mind. After completing the loop we decided to continue on with no particular destination in mind. From our gypsy campsite we crossed the road and followed the trail past the official park campground where “rich people” set up real tents and parked travel trailers, then continued until we reached the old swinging footbridge that spanned the river at that time. After crossing the river, instead of staying on the trail one of my brothers came up with the not so bright idea of scaling the steep hill that stretches from the river’s edge to the picnic shelter at the Clear Fork gorge overlook. I don’t know what the degree of incline is at that point, but to say it is “straight up” would only be a slight exaggeration, and in distance I suspect it was a good quarter of a mile to the top.
The Clear Fork gorge was created by an ice age glacier. Over the centuries a few hearty trees and shrubs had taken root, but just inches below the shallow layer of leaves and topsoil, the slope was covered with a deep layer of loose stone and gravel. Scaling the slope required every ounce of energy we had and, as was always the case, I brought up the rear. I could see my brothers and sister grasping and grabbing hold of small tree trucks and shrubs and I did the same, but the ascent was one foot backward for every two feet upward, and by the time we reached the top the actual distance climbed was more like a half mile clawing crawl than a quarter mile hike.
When we were a hundred feet or so from the top a crowd began to gather and we heard someone exclaim, “Good Lord, look at those children down there. Can you believe they’re climbing up that hill? I wonder where their parents are.”
Exhausted, almost to the point of collapse, we finally scaled the rock wall at the gorge overlook and placed our feet firmly on solid ground. The crowd of picnickers that had gathered stared at us in disbelief, and I believe some of the children did so with amazed admiration.
We must have been quite a sight as we stood there in our dirty, ragged t-shirts and blue jeans, and with grimy sweat running down our faces and necks. The crowd, having had a good look, began to disperse and we headed for the drinking fountain to douse our faces and throats.
As anyone familiar with Mohican State Park knows, we were still a long way from our campsite back at the bridge. But we trudged on, thankful that the rest of the journey was downhill. We followed the road until we came to the place where it is said the Wells Fargo stagecoach once descended the hill to cross the river at a shallow ford. Enjoyably, we took this route the rest of the way.
Arriving back at the gravel sandbar, we found our folks leisurely resting in the shade watching their motionless fishing poles. They listened intently as we described our adventure, and did so with no apparent concern for our safety. After a cool dip in the river we napped and woke in time for a fried fish supper.
At the time it was just another day of hiking, but now, nearly 60 years later, that afternoon remains a cherished memory of a hike along the Clear Fork River.
George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township with his wife Yvonne.