- Historic Sites
Presidents In The Woods
AN OHIO UNDERTAKER’S LIFELONG obsession has left a mysterious outdoor gallery of American folk art
April 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 2
Randall’s departure may signal a drastic change in the park’s fortunes. It has been purchased along with thousands of acres in the valley below by a local entrepreneur who is radically transforming this rural landscape. Already, Dave Longaberger employs more than five thousand people in a factory in the valley that earns $400 million a year making handmade baskets and pottery. Longaberger’s nearby hometown of Dresden, a once-dying farm town of fifteen hundred people, has been restored to a vision of turn-of-the-century prosperity that attracts four hundred thousand tourists a year. At the base of the hill below Baughman Park, where Routes 16 and 586 intersect, is the future site of Longaberger Village, a theme park scheduled to open in the year 2000. Longaberger says he bought Baughman Park “because it’s a unique and charming piece of local history” but hasn’t yet decided what to do with it.
“There’s a wonderful side to it, just encountering these objects as they are,” said Griffith. “The fallendown houses, the wildness, add a layer of mystery. It would be great to see these things catalogued and preserved, but what happens to this kind of folksy, personal monument, when it is trotted out for the world to see? If it gets ‘commodified’ in a theme park, does that serve our understanding of the fellow who made this work?”
But assuming the property and the stoneworks are treated with respect, it is possible that Brice Baughman, a man who opened his private land to the public, would be delighted to have his park made more accessible. “Ever since I could remember, the public was coming in,” said Brice’s son, Lester, a retired undertaker in the nearby village of Frazeysburg. “Lots of people. He loved people.” Lester admitted that the rest of the family wasn’t as enthusiastic, including his mother, Bessie. “But she went along with it. We all did. We realized that he had accomplished something unusual. And we did meet a lot of nice people.”
Leland Beers, a retired garage owner and Dresden’s unofficial village historian, said that Noah Baughman barely tolerated his son’s hobby and was not about to send him away for art lessons. Beers, who collects artifacts made by Native Americans whose culture once thrived along the Muskingum River, compared Baughman to those folk artists, “who didn’t need an education.”
Lester Baughman has no recollection of his father’s expressing regret that he couldn’t be a full-time artist. On the contrary, Beers and others who remember Brice Baughman say that he was motivated by more than an urge to create art: he loved being around people. Lester believes his father chose his ideal occupation when he decided in 1902 to add a mortuary to the farm’s business operations. As a funeral director, Brice was guaranteed frequent company, and because there was no danger of being overwhelmed with business in that sparsely populated area, he had time to carve.
“Brice loved to talk,” said Herman Baker, a retired funeral director in Zanesville, fifteen miles south of the park. “He was famous as a tobacco chewer and a great raconteur.” Baker recalls once attending a funeral where most of the mourners were outside listening to the undertaker tell stories between spits of tobacco.
Baughman completed his first freestanding statue in 1898, of William McKinley. Like most of his subsequent statues, it was dedicated to a local fraternal organization, this one to the Zanesville Grand Army of the Republic, whose members were invited to a ceremonial unveiling. As each new statue was dedicated, the crowds grew larger, and Lester says the farm just seemed to evolve into a park. Word spread, and people starting coming to see the statues on Sunday drives from nearby towns.