Haunting Miamitown

Haunting Miamitown

Illustration by Ryan Snook

It’s 11:30 on a muggy, buggy summer night, and I’m standing in an old cemetery, the final stop on the Miamitown Ghost Tour. Jeff Morris,the guide for our brave little band, tells us that the cemetery is haunted,which is not tough to believe given the look of it. Cragged, ancient headstones lean at weird angles, which appear even weirder in the shadows cast by moonlight slithering through the pines that enclose the property on two sides.  

The headstones look strange, but what’s even stranger is that there aren’t a lot of them. The area is mostly covered with grass. Jeff tells us that the cemetery is full, but many of the graves are unmarked because the occupants of two other cemeteries in town were moved here many years ago to accommodate new construction. When the Miamitown Elementary School was built across the street from where we’re standing, the work crews found many unmarked graves and had no way of identifying the “piles of bodies.” And so they simply moved and re-buried the anonymously departed. Perhaps, Jeff adds, that’s why the spirits are restless. 

“When people visit this cemetery at night, they sometimes feel like they’re being watched,” Jeff says. He’s a tall, lean guy in his early30s with sharp features and a shaved head. He’s been giving the tours since2006 and does approximately 200 per year, mostly on weekends, though leading up to Halloween, he does at least one tour every night and sometimes as many as three. He’s certainly got his spiel down pat, creating an eerie mood augmented by touches of humor.

“People sometimes feel chills running up their spines,” he tells us. Given the stifling heat, I find myself wishing for a chilly spine.Then he says that people have seen ghostly figures wandering here. The one most often seen is a little girl in a white dress who vanishes when she is approached. Perhaps, he suggests, she is the ghost of a little girl who died in a fire in 1939 at the old Methodist Church, which was located next to the cemetery.

Perhaps, but then she’s not hurting for spectral company.For the past hour we have walked the streets of the little town, located next to the Great Miami River in what could be called the far west side. Jeff has told us about, among others, a ghost cat, a ghost truck that fell into the river when the bridge collapsed in 1989, a ghost hitchhiker sometimes seen on Harrison Avenue’s “Dead Man’s Curve,” and the ghost of an old woman in a rocking chair who customers at Village Pump Antiques used to encounter as they browsed. When a psychic visited the shop, he said the ghost told him that she was lonely, and so the shop’s owner made a habit of saying hello to her and encouraged customers to do the same.

I’m not sure how much I believe, but Jeff weaves in plenty of documented history, which casts a patina of truth—or at least possibility—onthe tales of Miamitown’s ghosts. And according to Jeff and his brother, Mike,the plethora of ghosts could be good for the local economy. That’s their goal,anyway. The Morris brothers have partnered with the local historical society in hopes of protecting Miamitown’s future by marketing the notion that its past is still very much in its present. In other words, Miamitown’s ghosts could keep it from becoming a ghost town. 

 

East-siders likely will need a spin through MapQuest to find Miamitown. West-siders, however, know it well, if only because they pass through it on their way to someplace else. The most popular someplace else is Miami Whitewater Forest. The park and the beautiful golf course next to it attract thousands of visitors every year, most of whom cut through Miamitown on State Route 128 (called “Main Street” within the unincorporated village) or on Harrison Avenue, which crosses the Great Miami River.

You also might come through the town to watch your kids play sports. On either side of Harrison Avenue, just east of the river, you’ll find the “futbol” fields operated by the Tri-State Futbol Alliance, a rather continental-sounding bunch, especially given the nature of the vicinity, which is better known for pickup trucks parked in gravel lots in front of bars with names like The Best Damn Bar in Town. Just north of town, kids play “soccer” at the enormous Miami Whitewater Forest Soccer Complex, where you can watch games on 16 fields or, if you prefer, easily land a 747. A little farther up 128you’ll find Rumpke Ballpark, where Little Leaguers and softballers rule the summer nights. In short, people find reasons to go through Miamitown. They just don’t seem to be stopping in it anymore.

Like many a small Midwestern burg, Miamitown is struggling to survive. Its main drag drags at a snail’s pace these days. But for a longtime it featured a number of antique and collectibles shops that on weekends drew visitors. Even in its heyday, which lasted from the 1970s through the’90s, it lacked the quaintness of a Lebanon or Old Milford, but it possessed an earthy charm and authenticity that had its own appeal. Many of the shops occupied 19th century homes and stores—quirky, oddly designed buildings that stand jowl to jowl. If Hansel and Gretel had a pair of two-fisted American doppelgangers who built the Main Street of a small Midwestern river town, this would be it.

For the past decade, the shops have been closing. Today there are only a couple left that keep regular hours. The town’s most popular draw, its Christmas Walk, run by the Miamitown Business Association, has ceased to exist, as has the association. Though a few restaurants remain open, most prominently Kreimer’s Bier Haus West, located right off I-74 at the southern end of town, many of the historic buildings now sit empty. Something needs to be done, and the Morris brothers feel they can do it. 

I met with the Morrises on a sweltering summer evening at Miamitown’s historic town hall, built in 1880. It has served a number of functions through the years and now is primarily home to the Miami HistoricalSociety. Like his brother, Mike Morris is tall, well over six feet, and lean,though he has a thick head of dark hair. At 29, he’s three years younger, and far less talkative, than Jeff. Both are somewhat shy and soft-spoken but they possess a quiet confidence, the kind it takes to build a business selling a product that is, for the most part, unseen. Their business includes the Miamitown Ghost Tours and a weekly Internet radio show called Miamitown Ghost Talk Radio, which airs on Tuesdays nights at 10 on the All Souls Paranormal Radio Network. (Podcasts are available online.) They discuss general paranormal subjects and often interview national experts in the field, but they felt that “Miamitown” had become part of their brand so they kept it in the show’s title.

They’ve also recently published two books: Haunted Cincinnati and Southwest Ohio (Arcadia) came out early last year, and Cincinnati Haunted Handbook (Clerisy Press) debuts this month. They speak at ghost-hunting conventions and last year launched the Miamitown Paranormal Conference, which was held in October in the building where we’re sitting. The conference drew more than 300 people as well as camera crews from local TV stations, along with more than two dozen vendors.

“Strange brew” doesn’t begin to describe the event; Stephen King meets Norman Rockwell is more like it. Craft vendors set up in front of the town hall, while the paranormal peddlers occupied the big room inside. The speakers gave talks in the basement of the firehouse next door. You could learn about Bigfoot sightings, buy a hand-woven basket, see kids getting their faces painted, and hear tales of ghostly horror all in the same place.

I assumed that the Morris brothers were long-time residents of Miamitown but in fact, they grew up very near Western Bowl in Western Hills.Mike is an Elder grad and a graphic designer; Jeff attended St. Xavier and Miami University. By day, Jeff works in the pharmaceutical industry. After living for a while in New Jersey, Mike and his family moved five years ago to Miamitown.Jeff and his family now live in Covedale. Another surprise: neither nurtures along-time interest in the paranormal.

“Until Jeff brought it up, I never even thought about it,”  Mike says with a chuckle.Jeff brought it up back in 2005, after his interest was sparked by tales of ghostly doings on Buffalo Ridge Road, where for decades west side teens have sleuthed for spooks. Jeff lived nearby at the time and found himself driving slowly up and down the road’s hills and winding curves in hopes of seeing,well, he wasn’t sure what he might see. But he definitely wanted to see it.

To feed his curiosity, he investigated the history of the road. Its haunted reputation rests mainly upon the remains of a planetarium.Early in the 20th century, the city of Cincinnati planned to build a planetarium there but got no further than laying out the foundation before funding fell through. The white stone foundation still exists, casting an eerie glow on moonlit nights. As years passed, a story developed that the foundation was the remains of a crematorium that burned to the ground, unleashing the spirits of those who had been baked to ash. Though Jeff may have been disappointed to learn the truth, his interest only grew stronger—both in local history and in the paranormal. And Miamitown seemed to be chock full of both.

“When I moved here and he started to come over, he saw what a perfect town this was, very historic, and that’s how he got the idea for the tour,” Mike explains. When they started the tours, they saw it as a fun little sideline rather than as means to bring business and people to the town.“Miamitown just happened to be a perfect place for a ghost tour,” Jeff says.“There aren’t many towns in the area that have so many 19th century structures all in a row.”

Then they met Diane Bachman, president of the Miami Historical Society. Bachman who has joined us in the town hall, was born and raised and has lived most of her life in Miamitown. She has seen good times and bad, and the failure of a number of ideas for bringing interest to the town.“When you told me about the ghost tours, I gave you two years—max—probably less than that,” she tells Mike. “Then he comes in one day and says, ‘We just published a book.’ And I said, ‘Excuse me?’ And now he says they’re publishing another book. The tours are great because it’s something interesting that will bring people in.” Pointing a thumb in Mike’s direction, she adds, “He’s been one of the positive changes here.”

Bachman, who is in her fifties, has short reddish hair, a matter-of-fact demeanor, and a wry wit. She waves away the prestige of her title as president of the historical society, saying, “No one else wants to do it.” By day she works downtown for Pieczonka Unlimited, a trophy and engraving store, but she found time to work closely with the brothers to put on last year’s conference and they’re working hard to make this year’s event—which will be held on October 2—even bigger.

Bachman is urging local businesses to get involved—the restaurants serving a seasonal special or two, the beauty
salon painting faces and fingernails in Halloween themes. “We’re hoping the businesses will sort of do what they do,” she says. “We want the restaurants do fun things that day.”

Jeff says that residents were a bit skeptical about theghost tours at first but have come to accept—and even appreciate—having such a unique undertaking in their largely forgotten village. “The people seem to be100 percent behind the idea,” he says. “There are a handful of the older people who think the idea is kind of silly, but after last year’s conference, when somany people came, and the historical society made some money, they saw how many people are interested.”

Admission to the conference is free. The historical society serves food and keeps the profit, along with the proceeds from a raffle. The brothers keep the profits from the vendor fees. “We’re going to try to extend it down the street,” Bachman says. “How much of the town it will take up I have no idea. We’re going with the flow.”

Flow has always been a major obstacle in the growth of Miamitown, which, until recently, lacked a unified sewage system. Folks here mostly have relied on septic tanks. Whitewater Township (population 5,000) is now putting in the pipes, which will make it easier to attract businesses and housing development, says Bachman. The far western townships are Hamilton County’s last undeveloped area. With the west side continuing to move west and Harrison expanding east, residential growth is not an unlikely possibility now that the township has created a sewer district.

The notion of large-scale development, however, doesn’t appeal to Bachman or the Morris brothers. They would like to see growth but also to maintain the historic nature of the town. “We want to be a vital business area, to bring that back,” Bachman says. “A place where people could go shopping and eat and do a little bit of everything. It was always a pretty good mecca for business until the antique dealers left.” 

“We just don’t want all the buildings gone,” says Mike.

“That would be completely tragic,” Jeff agrees. “Those buildings have been there for over a hundred years. You tear them down and put up a warehouse and pretty soon Miamitown has nothing that defines it. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

During the tour I took, the brothers noticed that a sign had been removed on one of the buildings, which in the mid-1800s housed a general store called Werts & Bledsoe. Though many tenants have moved in and out of the building through the years, the sign remained in place—until suddenly it was gone.

“That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m afraid to see,” Jeff says. “This ghost tour maybe can help preserve the physical history of the town, and it makes me feel good that that’s a possibility.”

It seems that the restless spirits in Miamitown are very much present and accounted for—and with the Morris brothers’ effort and creativity, it’s possible they won’t be forgotten after all. Strange as it may sound, they could play a role in securing Miamitown’s future.

Originally published in the September 2010 issue. 

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