Presidents In The Woods

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HIGH ON A RIDGE IN A REMOTE, HEAVILY WOODED AREA OF SOUTHEASTERN Ohio, a towering stone figure of Warren G. Harding guards a rarely traveled gravel road. Barely visible through the undergrowth a hundred feet farther down the road are strange figures carved into sandstone outcroppings: an eagle in flight, an elephant’s head, Abraham Lincoln, an Indian chief. A crouching lion and a wildcat cast wary eyes at passersby.

 

HIGH ON A RIDGE IN A REMOTE, HEAVILY WOODED AREA OF SOUTHEASTERN Ohio, a towering stone figure of Warren G. Harding guards a rarely traveled gravel road. Barely visible through the undergrowth a hundred feet farther down the road are strange figures carved into sandstone outcroppings: an eagle in flight, an elephant’s head, Abraham Lincoln, an Indian chief. A crouching lion and a wildcat cast wary eyes at passersby. William McKinley stands presidentially on a pedestal in the front yard of an abandoned house from which some of the siding has fallen, revealing the original log cabin underneath. The road continues past statues of James McPherson and James A. Garfield and climbs thirty feet to the top of the ridge, where solitary figures are dotted around a two-acre clearing: George Washington, a doughboy, a headless William Tecumseh Sherman, Theodore Roosevelt. Deep in the brush in a natural amphitheater on the hillside below the clearing, a stone shelf bears a carved dedication: “Baughman Memorial Park. Named by Chas. Long. …” The rest of the inscription is obscured by moss and dirt.

 

The statues and carvings would seem remarkable in any setting. Here, appearing unexpectedly deep in the woods of Appalachian Ohio, there is a mystery to them, a sense of timelessness—even though the last one was completed barely seventy years ago, and the park was a popular spot until the early 1940s. A few people in neighboring towns still remember visiting Baughman Park and being greeted by the sculptor himself, Daniel Brice Baughman. But a more common reaction to questions about the place is a faint recollection of having once been told about a strange group of stone carvings somewhere in Muskingum County. Baughman Park is an almost legendary spot on the Ohio landscape, heard of by many, seen by few. George Randall, who owned the park until recently and still lives there, keeps a guest book. There are gaps of days and even weeks between signings.

 
BAUGHMAN PARK IS an almost legendary spot on the Ohio landscape, heard of by many, seen by very few.
 
 
 
 

In 1979 a regional representative of the Ohio Historical Society won recognition of Baughman Park in the National Register of Historic Places, but no one at the historical society has more than vague knowledge or the site. Not long ago I called Beth Fisher at the Ohio Arts Council and asked her about the artistic merits of Baughman’s works. She gave the standard reply: “I’ve been hearing about that place for years, but never knew exactly where it was, or what was there.”

FISHER, INTRIGUED, ORGANIZED AN EXPEDITION to the park that included Nancy Recchie, the central-Ohio coordinator for the national Save Outdoor Sculpture! survey, and Denny Griffith, deputy director of the Columbus Museum of Art. They drove fifty miles east from Columbus, through Newark and into the hills of eastern Ohio. They followed State Route 16 along a broad valley, turned left onto State Route 586 at a handful of farmhouses known as Black Run, and climbed a steep hill. At the top a small sign on the right marked the park’s entrance.

Their reactions were typical of people who first stumble onto Baughman Park. “It’s extraordinary that I had never heard of this place,” said Griffith. Recchie couldn’t believe that it had been omitted from her survey of outdoor sculpture, which cites hundreds of pieces on courthouse squares and in town parks. All three members of the expedition declared the park a significant find, sounding very much like excited archeologists. The bas-reliefs carved into the outcroppings most caught Griffith’s fancy: “Either the chance of the way the rocks were formed or the way that Baughman, in a very Michelangeloesque kind of way, discovered the forms within them—those are pretty amazing pieces.”

George Randall, a retired heavy-equipment operator and long-time resident of the area, said he had fallen in love with the park years ago and long dreamed of owning it. “All that work, carved by a man who never had a lesson, who never got a penny for his work. To find so much history in one place, in the boondocks—you can’t imagine how I feel about that park, and how I’ll hate to leave it.”