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.”

AS A FUNERAL DIRECTOR, the garrulous Baughman had frequent company and time left over to carve.
 

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.”

BRICE BAUGHMAN, BORN IN 1874, WAS A TEENAGER when he began chipping doodles into outcroppings on Bald Hill Farm, the sixty-five-acre family farm purchased by his father, Noah, in 1879. There was no shortage of sketchpads for his work, because much of the soil was just a shallow covering over a massive sandstone formation. Making the best of the situation, Noah Baughman turned part of the farm into a stone quarry in 1898. Brice learned to cut huge blocks of rock that were shipped from the quarry to build bridge piers and abutments—the same kind of blocks that would form the pedestals of his statues. Forging all his own tools, Brice also learned how to work with rock on more delicate terms.

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.

ON JUNE 12, 1927, the day the last statue was dedicated, more than three thousand cars passed through the park—as always, free of charge.
 

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.

The sculptor and his sons cleared the grounds around the statues and built picnic tables, dug horseshoe pits, and put a ball field in the ridge-top clearing. They even built a speaker’s platform and bleachers in the natural hillside amphitheater. On the day the last statue was dedicated—of Warren G. Harding, on June 12, 1927—newspapers reported that 3,640 cars passed through the park—as always, free of charge.

IN 1931 THE PARK WAS FORMALLY dedicated by Ohio’s governor, Vic Donahey. “He has enlarged the tradition of our country,” Donahey wrote of Baughman in the memorial booklet published for the occasion. Congressman C. Ellis Moore wrote, “Most of us would have passed by these stones, but Brice Baughman saw in them the opportunity to make some of our great men and soldiers live in the minds and hearts of our people.”

In the late 1940s the sculptor’s wife finally persuaded him to move off the hill and into Dresden. The park then fell into disrepair, a process that accelerated after Baughman died in 1954.

The sons eventually sold the land to a family that reopened the park as a campground in 1969. A decade later it was sold to Crossroads Ministry, a program for delinquent boys. The ministry built a lodge, restored some of the buildings, and cleaned the grounds, but they also destroyed a bas-relief torso of a bare-breasted Indian woman. In 1992 the two ministers who ran the program had a falling out and sold the park to Randall.

Randall hoped to reopen Baughman Park as a campground, but health problems led him to sell the land, reluctantly, to Dave Longaberger. The statues of Presidents and generals, the carvings of birds and animals, all looking south toward the valley, their view now obscured by the trees that have grown since Brice Baughman died, wait to see what comes next.