On U.S. Route 52, going east from Cincinnati, you pass the dun-colored horse stables at Belterra Park (the former River Downs), looking like tracks of rabbit warrens, thick with mud. A dead, discarded Christmas tree has been abandoned in a field off the highway, along with tattered cardboard signs saying “Donald Trump for President,” abandoned like the “Sparkle Maid For Hire” sign. We are entering conservative country.
“It’s hard not to take it personally,” my friend Nicky says, laughing at the ugly stretch of rusted-out scenery. But we are taking a drive today, east to Georgetown, Ohio, and we are determined to be in a light-hearted mood.
For one thing, we are riding in style in Nicky’s dark plum Cadillac, the one he bought when he was in Hollywood working in big-time show business. Since he moved back to Ohio a couple of years ago, the car seems a little frivolous, but it is sooo comfortable. We could ride forever like a male/female version of Thelma and Louise. I turn the car stereo up, Ella Fitzgerald singing George Gershwin, and we drive on past the dreariness, past the stacks at Moscow churning out clouds of white smoke, and a tattered Confederate flag nailed to the corner of a billboard.
When the Ohio River comes into view, it is shining, metallic, its currents marking the surface of the water like the ruffles on an evening gown. Two boys stand on the bank skipping stones across the water, their small faces and hands red and chapped from the biting wind. The sun hits the water just right to make it sparkle and dance on this winter’s day. Tree trunks lean slightly towards the current. A long, slow barge comes into view, floating majestically. Nicky laughs and says that barges offend him. He has lived in California for so long he is put off by anything slow and deliberate. “Get out of my way,” Nicky says, flinging his head back just like Franklin D. Roosevelt as we pass a Mail Pouch Tobacco barn.
Like Nicky, I have lived close to the Ohio River for most of my life. I could see it from the window of the first apartment I lived in when I came to Cincinnati in 1966, and I suspect the river itself has become part of my DNA. So many things I’ve done have been directly related to it. In fact, it is hard to imagine anything important happening in Cincinnati without the Ohio River as a backdrop.
Back in the days when settlers drifted down the Erie Canal from New England farms with their lives loaded onto wagons, the Ohio River was their goal. The first Europeans to see the river were French explorers in birchbark canoes who
called it “la belle rivere” (beautiful river) as they paddled past the rich countryside, loaded with game. Much later, the settlers came.
Around Pittsburgh, they strapped everything they owned, including the parlor piano, on flatboats and let the river carry them into Ohio. It was a little like taking a drop on a roller coaster, braving the currents and rapids. The ones who survived it got oxen to pull the flatboats on dry land, or else simply bought teams of horses and covered wagons to get to Cincinnati. Those who could afford it bought passage on the gaily painted steamboats sailing up and down the river. Some were headed for St. Louis, some for California; all were prospecting for gold in some sense.
Nicky and I were still listening to the radio in the Cadillac and prowling down the backroads of little towns like Ripley and Higginsport. All of these villages are about the same size: population less than 3,000, stone houses lining the streets, large maple trees, the branches bare and colorless now. In the late winter, the trees are tapped for maple syrup. The syrup harvesters have to wait for the sap to drip into buckets at a maddeningly slow pace. The river is more than an address; it is a way of life.
Years ago, I was engaged to marry a young man from Higginsport. His father had pitched on the town softball team, and Tom and his family had lived over the post office. Tom loved the river and learned to swim holding on to the tail of his collie dog, Rex. As a grown man, Tom still had a great stroke. He kept his glasses on while paddling, his arms and legs stoutly beneath the surface.
For a few charmed years, Tom and I hiked the Nature Center in Hillsboro in the day with our dog, Hoosier. Nights, we played with an old-time jazz band on the patio at Arnold’s with the stars overhead. On a hot summer day in 1989, Tom was killed instantly by a bolt of lightning at King’s Island after a gig. He was buried in his family’s plot in the cemetery in Georgetown. The funeral was crowded, and as such things can sometimes be, almost festive. Most of the river-town people were there, the women dressed in wide-brimmed straw hats and flowered silk dresses. Musicians and friends from Cincinnati came as well, dressed a little more casually.
After that, on Sundays I would drive to Georgetown, just a little ways short of Ripley, to sit with Tom’s widowed father, Perry Cahall. I’d watch a baseball game with him, talk to him about music (he had been a tuba player). One Sunday, right where I turned off of 52 to go to Georgetown, my previously non-functioning car radio suddenly came on and Hazel Dickens was singing “Hills of Home,” as country as only Hazel could sing it. Quick tears came to my eyes, and after my visit to Tom’s father I went home and found my old records and played them.
A week later, Sheila Rue, who was the general manager of public radio’s WNKU, approached me at Arnold’s about doing a radio show on Sundays. Did I have any ideas? Luckily, I did. “How about a bluegrass show called Music from the Hills of Home?” I said, and they liked it and hired me with a minimum of fuss. With Tom gone, I needed the gig. I held onto it for 27 years.
Brown County is full of Cahalls and Tarbells, and Jim Tarbell tells a story I may have told before. (At our age, Jim and I are apt to repeat stories, though we enjoy them just as much the second time around.) In one branch of the family, several men with the name of “Perry” were so easily confused that they had to be given nicknames. “Hog” Perry raised pigs, “Sheriff” Perry tended to the law, and that left “Jerry” Perry, about whom I know nothing at all. Sheriff Perry was Jim Tarbell’s great grandfather, and it may have been that Hog Perry was Jim’s cousin Tom’s great grandfather. In any case, one day “Hog” Perry drove his pigs down to the river around Georgetown and started walking home with a fat purse full of silver when he was set upon by robbers and killed. Needless to say, they stole his money.
According to Jim, Val Lewis in Georgetown insists “Sheriff” Perry’s ghost is still on the third floor of the courthouse and haunts the inhabitants to this day. Jim even has a romantic riverboat pilot ancestor named William Tarbell, who came here by way of the West Indies, then on up through New Orleans to the Ohio River Valley. He became a riverboat captain, got a job on a steamboat, stopped one day to save a young woman from a flood, and married her.
Eventually, someone started noticing the Ohio for the cultural asset it was, and beginning in 1988 Cincinnati produced an event dedicated to the river and the steamboats. It was called Tall Stacks, and Rick Griewe recruited me to work on the entertainment committee. I found a magician in Atlanta who did an old-fashioned act: he sawed his wife in half by gaslight. I found actors to play Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and string bands to play “The Bonnie Blue Flag” and “Lorena.” It became a popular celebration, and I watched steamboats of all sizes float into the harbor from home ports as far away as California. After that, every three or four years in October, the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky riverbanks were transformed into another century, another time. Women dressed in antebellum gowns and strolled from boat to boat while banjos and fiddles played Stephen Foster songs. All of it filled the air like a dream, and for those four days Cincinnatians worshipped the river, took countless prize-winning pictures of it, and memorized statistics about the old days of steamboat races and colorful captains. Men in khaki pants and walking shoes with binoculars around their necks hiked for blocks just to see the sun rise on the river while the shantyboats and yachts that had floated into town for the event slipped out of their watery parking places to get an early, unobstructed view of the bend in the Ohio. I think there were nine or 10 steamboats that first year, from as far away as Minneapolis and St. Louis, and of course the Belle of Louisville, archrival of Cincinnati’s Delta Queen.
My bluegrass band ended up playing in the rain under a yellow tent with 10 other musicians who were getting in out of the rain as well. We took seats in the tent and began to play old fiddle tunes and equally old bluegrass songs, mostly led by John Hartford, who became the unequivocal King of Tall Stacks that first year. In his Victorian shirt and vest, his string tie and his bowler hat, he tap-danced through the audience’s heart. He had written dozens of river songs, played the fiddle and the banjo, and could call out the names of the steamboats with his back turned to them, just by listening to their whistles.
The festival went on until 2006. By then the steamboats had mostly become gambling boats and getting them to steam all the way to Cincinnati and forego all that income became out of the question. All that was left of the event was cheap souvenirs and the ghostly sound of a calliope playing “Cruisin’ Down the River” when you passed a certain point on the Serpentine Wall.
Nicky and I stopped at the Front St. Café in New Richmond and had a cup of coffee. It was pleasant to sit in the small café and watch the Ohio out of the large window. Despite the cold, some brave souls wearing heavy coats sat outside on benches built for just such viewing. Despite Nicky’s caustic comments, it was a wonderful day. There was a light lift of steam where the warmer water met the cold air.
In the deep purple Cadillac again, we headed for Point Pleasant, and were rewarded with a historical marker that said, “U.S. Grant Birthplace.” Smelling adventure, we turned in there hoping to see historic rooms, museums full of historic things from Grant’s boyhood. Naturally it was closed. “Open from 1 until 4 p.m.,” the signs said. It was only 2, but we were out of luck. We drove around the circle in the small town to Grant’s schoolhouse. That, too, was closed.
“On to Ripley,” we shouted, fists to the sky; Ripley, the tobacco capital of Ohio, home of the Ohio Tobacco Festival. On a warm afternoon when people still smoked cigarettes, Tom and I had seen booths and stands offering tobacco candy and other goodies with pamphlets on the history of Brown County spread out on the top shelf of a display case. But there was no such luck this day, either in Ripley or at the Brown County Fairgrounds, which were padlocked shut. I had played at the first Brown County Bluegrass Festival many years before and was awed with the demonstrations of farm machinery, both contemporary and antique. I saw a gas-operated threshing machine, an old-time tractor pull, all the behemoths looking like they had just rolled out of a Thomas Hardy novel with a heroine like Tess Durbeyfield peeking out from behind the fairground bleachers.
Nicky and I crossed the Ohio River and came home on Kentucky Route 8. “Where were you when they had the first Riverfest?” I asked, but Nicky didn’t really remember.
I was surprised, because Riverfest, sponsored by WEBN, was one of the biggest events to happen on the riverfront. In fact, nobody was prepared for how big it would turn out to be. On August
30, 1977, the Serpentine Wall was full of people. Families in shorts and sneakers and alligator T-shirts were strolling toward the river with picnic baskets and blankets. Bands were lazily erecting sound systems on stages in the area, musicians tossing microphone cords at each other in the heat, then setting up mic stands and amplifiers. The speakers blared ’70s rock and roll with the kind of volume that made your heart beat fast and hard, and in the background you could hear the incessant “ribbit…ribbit” sound of the WEBN frog.
But that was then and this is now. “Born to be wi-i-ld, born to be wi-i-ld,” Nicky sang along with the car radio. Suddenly it was dusk. Purple shadows were falling on the river, just like that first year of the WEBN Riverfest when an ear-splitting crack had rent the air accompanied by a rocket that had lit up the sky. I wondered how many celebrations had been held on this ancient ground over the past years. I felt certain there had been many extravaganzas, many feasts and festivals even before the Europeans arrived.
For a minute I was gratifyingly young. As old as I sometimes feel, the river is profoundly older. Of course, the big city is magic and color and full of the noise of life, but the little towns Nicky and I had visited embodied the quiet collapsing of time, the glue for our stability. Nicky gunned the engine of the Cadillac, and we headed west, back home, while streaks of moonlight began to float from the sky.