JIM'S ROOTS (THE RICHCREEKS): Indiana and Ohio
In choosing genealogy as one of the focal points of my trip, I had complementary goals: to use the trip to serve genealogy and to use genealogy to serve the trip. One purpose of the trip was to visit the places I knew only as names on my family records, to get some sense of where my ancestors came from. But I also knew that in a general way I wanted to see more of America than the obvious places, or those that happened to be off the major routes. Genealogy gave me a reason not only to visit out of the way places, but to visit them with some sense of connection, rather than just wandering aimlessly (as I was to do a little towards the end.)
The Richcreeks - my maternal grandfather's people - were ideal in this regard. Because towns don't get much more out of the way than some of the places they came from.
There's a particular drama, too, regarding this line. Because my mother's parents divorced when she was three, and my grandmother, embittered, made sure my grandfather never saw my mother again, travelling for a long time through Chicago and Florida to be sure he couldn't find them. With time, my mother adopted this separation as well, taking her stepfather's name and, to the end of her life, blaming my grandfather for not finding them.
How I reconnected with the family is a whole other story, but one incidental reward for that effort was a complete genealogy which my grandfather (who'd died when I was five) had left for his second daughter. And so, unknowingly, to his grandson. That genealogy focussed on the family's history first in Coshocton, Ohio and later in the areas around Remington and Windfall, in Indiana.
I drove through Remington as I left the thruway, but went first to Fowler, where my grandfather was born.
It wasn't until I got there that I realized my great-grandfather had never lived in Fowler. It's the Benton County seat and so, living in nearby Remington, my grandfather's parents probably went there as to the 'big city' for the birth of their child.
Fowler at first looked singularly unprepossessing. On one short strip, I saw a restaurant, a supermarket, the Fowler State Bank, a food stand and - oh great glimpse of modernity - a Radio Shack. Plus a few other businesses, and, I was to discover later, the County Seat, a rather handsome building that suggested the town's importance in former times. Then, by accident, I came upon a much older, denser block, lined with brick buildings, most turn of the century or older. A few businesses still operated. Others, not all that old, were clearly closed.
The most aesthetic structure on this small block was an old movie theater. Since there was no sign outside, and the prices seemed archaic ($5.00!), I assumed it was closed. But, trying one of the doors, I opened it - and found a husband and wife staring at me. They were setting up for that night's show.
I later learned that he heads a welding unit and she's head nurse at the local hospital. They keep the theater going because, he said, "There's not much to do in a small town." At his wife's suggestion, he took me up to the projection booth and showed me how he splices three twenty-minute reels together on a large aluminum disk, about five feet across, then threads the film through the decades old projector (whose base dates back to the Thirties), then back to another disk which serves as a take-up reel. When he showed me how sound is played by the strip on the side of the film, I assumed he was unfamiliar with digital sound, but he proceeded to tell me they'd actually put in a more modern system, then taken it out. "Too loud," he said. "Most of our audiences are older people and young kids. They didn't like it." So they went back to the sound strip.
The theater had had an ornate plaster ceiling. But when it began to crumble, they couldn't afford to restore it. So they took the whole thing down. A sad scenario which I'm sure has been repeated all across the country.
This encounter had little to do with the Richcreeks, but was very much the kind of thing I'd hoped to find 'off the beaten path'.
I'd been tempted by the restaurant at the start of the first strip I saw, but it didn't open until 7. So I drove back to Remington (which has no hotel, though there's a trucker's place off the thruway) and got a camping spot, set up my tent, then drove back to Fowler at 8:30 - by which time the restaurant was already closed.
That's how it is in a farming community.
I ended up having dinner in the 24-hour truckers' restaurant, where the Mexican-American waitress wore a neat uniform, repeatedly called me 'sir', - and had a tongue ring. Turned out - to my astonishment - she was from Southern California, and attending the tiny college up the road at Rensselaer. Which she said had one of the leading experts in criminal justice, her major.You just never know.
The campground I stayed at was centered around a tiny 'lake', and I woke to mists on the water and the soft calls of birds. And a few trucks rumbling by.
I went right to the Remington Cemetary, just before town, and spent an hour looking for Richcreek graves. No luck, though the cemetary was lovely in the golden morning mist and more than one story was told by the graves - notably that of a young athlete who'd died ten years ago, and whose grave was freshly decorated with various wooden football images, stuck in the ground around his stone.
I had breakfast in the Rem Cafe (which, like most of the 'cafes' I was to find in that part of the country, was basically a diner, serving burgers and breakfast specials and nary a latte.) The table nearest mine was taken up by several older couples, discussing farm implements and catalogues. Closer to the counter was a group of grey-haired ladies, all well-coiffed, presumably widows and never-marrieds, who obviously met every day. I considered asking if they'd known my great-grandfather, then realized they were the age of his grand-daughter (my mother) if not younger. Later, a Maude-like lady, quite handsome with imperious carriage, joined them and took what was surely her accustomed place at the head of their table.
Walking around the town, I spotted an unusual construction: a water tower built on a column of red brick. What looked like (and turned out to have once been) a firehouse at its base was now the town hall. I went in and was told that the water tower had been built by a company that specialized in windmills, hence its unusual design, and was in fact a state landmark. The otherwise helpful ladies could not give me any information on my family, but suggested I stop in at the local funeral home, which keeps a map of the cemetary.
While waiting for the home to open, I stopped in at the library, which had Internet access (though I swear it was a 14000 bps dial-up line) as well as several documents on local history, including a delightful, not quite professional book on the town which was written about ten years after my great-grandfather had moved there. Unfortunately, he didn't seem to have made his mark, at least not by then.
At the funeral home, the father and former owner brought out a large volume in which we found the location of a Richcreek grave, which he then showed me on a map. Meanwhile, the current owner, his son, came out from the viewing room, where he'd been arranging chairs. Over his shoulder I spotted another beautifully coiffed lady, much like those I'd seen at breakfast, but prone.
He mentioned that 'we buried some Richcreeks over in Kentland, a nearby town where, it turned out, his wife ran the home. He offered to call her for me, and gave me directions.
First, I went back to the cemetary where, having at last oriented myself properly, I found what turned out to be several graves. The first I'd ever seen from my grandfather's family. I wasn't sure who these were relative to our line (though we're all pretty closely related.) But the name alone was like a magnet, gripping me with its unaccustomed familiarity.
Though I'd planned to go to Windfall, I now headed to Kentland. Where, it turns out, I should have started.
I stopped at one of the local places for a late lunch and, knowing there were recent Richcreeks here, asked the waittress if she knew any. "Well, I went to high school with Kenny, who was with the state troopers." Ken Richcreek, whom I'd actually contacted on-line, lived elsewhere last I knew, but it turns out his (as yet unused) headstone is already in the local graveyard. His father (or grandfather?), who was my grandfather's brother, is there as well. I was getting closer... Shortly after, a retired farmer came up to me and said he'd gone to high school in the Thirties with yet another Richcreek. He suggested I stop at the Newton County Historical Society, right across from the courthouse.
That area turned out to be quite handsome, a kind of covered promenade filled with shops facing the lean red-brown courthouse. When I walked into the Society's storefront, I explained to the young woman who greeted me that I was interested in the Richcreeks. Turning to a group of older people behind her, she said "Another one!"
Talk about frustrating. Someone related to the family by marriage had JUST been in. And the woman I was talking to had some relation to us as well. She immediately sat down at their computer and got me the names of the Richcreeks buried in the local cemetary, meanwhile letting me photocopy some very useful pages of local volumes, including one that detailled where the local Richcreeks had gone - including those who'd moved to my family's area of Poughkeepsie.
Paydirt. I wished I'd begun with all this, instead of finding it just before moving on.
At the local funeral home, I got a very clear map of the local cemetary, and shortly after was photographing more Richcreek graves.
Quite exhilirating. But now I had to get to Windfall.
My great-grandfather had moved from Remington to Windfall, which became something of a center for the family. One of the items on my Richreek Web page is a photograph of a reunion that took place there before I was born. So I'd assumed it was reasonably large.
The roads of rural Indiana are mostly narrow, single lane affairs, carving out neat squares of land with their crossroads. So I wasn't expecting much when I drove off the main road towards Windfall. But I found even less: rough, numbered rural routes, often covered with a sharp white gravel which was covered with (and covered my car with) white dust. Finally, arriving on at least a paved road, I found Windfall: a tiny junction formed by the main road and several lesser roads that angled into it. A pizza parlor, an insurance agent, a gift shop, the Buckhorn restaurant/lounge and... an artist's loft, in an old industrial space, with his metal sculptures strewn about outside. The last was so unexpected that I spent some time videoing and photographing it, and left the artist my card.
Driving through, I'd noticed a 'Cemetary Road'. It was already dusk, but I drove in, walked around, racing the fading light. Then, at last, there in the near-darkness, I found it: my great-grandfather's grave, together with those of his wife and another couple. And immediately learned something of interest. Each of the men's names had a Masonic symbol next to it, and each of the women the corresponding star.
I took some pictures, took out a lamp and shot some videos, and then just stood there a moment, looking at my great-grandfather's grave in the last light of dusk.
I had a drink at the Buckhorn and the bartender, looking at my old photograph, said he thought the building in it was the old school, which had been torn down a few years back.
And that was about it. I'd thought to stay the night, but there was really nothing more to see. Not to mention no place to stay.
I stopped briefly at Tipton, the nearby county seat, and went to Indianapolis, which I found strangely sterile. Passed through quickly, and stopped at a motel just outside. The next day I headed to Ohio.
After all the flat, uniform squares of Indiana (echoing those of Nebraska), it was a joy to find the rolling green countryside of Ohio. Everything was busier, more varied, singing with color. Also, older, it seemed and more substantial.
Coshocton itself proved to be a handsome town, and hardly out of the way. It gets regular visits from tour groups, come to see Roscoe Village, the restored old Erie Canal town right next to it. Coshocton center is large enough, with a mix of old and reasonably recent buildings, and enough streets to get lost in.
My great-grandfather had been born here, emigrating West to follow the railroad. So any Richcreeks I found here would be distant cousins at best.
As it happened, I found one right away. Driving past the main square, I looked up to see "Richcreek Hardware - Guns and Ammo" on a sign. Stepping in, I introduced myself to Spence Richcreek, the taciturn silver-haired owner. He responded laconically to my explanation of my visit, but as I picked up two of his cards before leaving, he turned, took down a hat from a nail and handed it to me. Across the white nylon, in black letters: "Richcreek Guns and Ammo."
Not a bit of family resemblance, I'm afraid. Not one. But still - the first time I'd seen the name on a business.
With the help of the reference librarian up the block, I found a lovely bed and breakfast near Roscoe Village. Truly picture perfect. And, as it turned out, a Richcreek (there were only about ten left in town) lived right next door. Only one problem: he's an undercover cop and VERY cautious. It didn't seem advisable to just drop by.
The next day I went to the local graveyard, which turned out to have all the names on a computer. Photographed a bunch of headstones. But in fact, Roscoe Village was so lovely that I spent most of my time there. The first evening, I joined the townspeople in the shady lanes around the old canal, walking across old trellises and past the storm-damaged locks. The next morning, I peeked in at the living history shops and the visitor's center, and visited the wonderful local museum, endowed by two brothers with local artifacts, American Indian objects and a wonderful Oriental collection.
Really a lovely town, no matter why you're there.
My last Richcreek stop was to visit a cousin and fellow genealogist in Ashtabula. Steven Richcreek is a fairly close relation - my grandfather was his great-grandfather's brother. We'd corresponded but never met. We had a lot to talk about, though he was visibly tired. He'd just come back from diving among old wrecks in waters to the north. Again, no family resemblance. But a lot in common, just the same.
The next day I drove all the way across Pennsylvania, arriving in the evening at my sister's, in the Mid-Hudson Valley.
Go to Richcreek family page
LAST UPDATED: March 2003