- 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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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 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.