By Patricia Beech –
“When I graduated from high school I said that I was going to leave this town and never come back. My aspiration was to go to the big city and make a million,” Diane Lewis smiles as she recalls the ambitions of her youth. “It didn’t take me long to realize that this is home and this is where I needed to be.”
“I left because, like a lot of other people from Adams County, I wanted to get away from the stigma of my Appalachian roots,” says Joyce Porter, a nurse at the nearby Adams County Regional Medical Center. “I went to college at Ohio State, and got my degree in nursing at UC. I lived in Columbus for a while and in Gainesville, Georgia, then I made a choice to come back to Winchester. Part of the reason was family, and part was community.”
Coming home – it’s a common theme among many of the people who in their youth hitched their dreams to a star outside the corporation limits of Winchester – they left, but something always drew them back.
“I think it’s because we’ve always had a close community here,” says Porter. “One of my fondest memories growing up was sitting on the front porch or under the big maple tree after church on Sunday. Everybody would stop by, and there was always food, and friendship, and a strong sense of community.”
“It’s a pleasant, homey community,” says Carma Tincher. “We have our issues of course, but what town doesn’t.”
Like many of the village’s residents, work motivated Tincher and her husband to move to Cincinnati after they married. “I was glad to move back,” she says. “I didn’t like the city, life is better here.”
Winchester is a sleepy little village resting in northwestern Adams County where the towering peaks and ridge lines of southern Ohio give way to gently rolling hills and farm lands rich in limestone.
Standing at the crossroads of Ohio 32 and 136, it is a village steeped in history and founded on rural values, and like many small towns, it has a warm and welcoming personality.
Its tree-lined streets branching off the wide thoroughfare of Main Street are trimmed with manicured lawns surrounding well-tended clapboard cottages – evidence of the pride the residents take in their village.
Founded by Joseph Darlinton in 1815, and incorporated in 1864, the nearly three-square-mile village is home to more than 1,000 inhabitants. Its earliest settlers traveled overland from Manchester where they disembarked after navigating the winding, and often treacherous waters of the Ohio River. The village grew up around a mill built by Richard Cross, who also constructed the town’s first home where the First State Bank now stands. Cross was the village’s first school teacher, and later as county surveyor, he laid out the town’s streets as they are known today. Several of the village’s first buildings remain standing including the redbrick Methodist Church, and the home of the town’s first physician, Dr. A.C. Lewis, an abolitionist whose residence served as a station for the Underground Railroad.
In the 200 years since it was founded the town has experienced both prosperity and economic stagnation. At the beginning of the 20th century it had a population of 800 and was home to a bentwood works factory, a canning factory, a shoe factory, two hotels, three dry goods stores, three drug stores, two family groceries, one sawmill, four churches, and a public school.
The story of Winchester is the story of many small towns across America.
Like many rural towns in Ohio, it lost its school and many of its once-thriving businesses have closed leaving abandoned buildings in their wake.
“At one time this was a thriving community,” says Dan Naylor. “There was a drug store, a hardware store, and five grocery stores right here in town – now, there’s not any.”
Tom Cross, Director of Adams County’s Travel and Visitors Bureau and a descendant of Richard Cross, says Winchester has become a bedroom community of Cincinnati.
“At one time it was a thriving town with numerous shops,” he says. “The interstate highway has drained all these small towns, instead of going to the hardware store in town, or the restaurants and department stores in town, people want to get out of town to shop or for entertainment, now they can just drive down the highway – the money didn’t come into Winchester from the Appalachian Highway, it left Winchester and went to Eastgate..
America’s constantly shifting job market has also impacted small towns like Winchester that were once reliant on large factories for jobs.
“People here used to work in nearby factories, but those industries have dried up,” says Cross. “There’s just no industry close by anymore, and that’s contributing to the disappearance of small towns like Winchester.”
While politicians focus on failing industries, things look very different from the local perspective where rural communities seem to be going out of business in slow motion.
Many Winchester residents believe the closing of the local school, appropriately monikered the Winchester Rifles, also contributed to the village’s decline.
Traditionally, schools have been a primary source of entertainment and pride for rural communities, and when they close it often decimates the towns that supported them.
“Our village school was a very important part of the community,” says Lewis. “The community revolved around school activities, and of course, now our schools are more or less in the country, and that changed the sense of community from what we used to have.”
Despite the loss of their businesses and their school, the people of Winchester continue to share a strong community spirit and are proud representatives of those who first came to the area and broke ground to make the town what it is – a haven for raising families where neighbors are neighbors, generation after generation.
“I was born here, and I’ve lived here my whole life,” says Winchester Mayor Bill Foster. “This town was like Mayberry when I was growing up. It’s always been a special place – it’s always been home.”
Ray DeVore, a lifelong resident of Winchester who served as Grand Marshal for the village’s 2017 Homecoming Festival, says he never wanted to live anywhere but Winchester. At the age of seven his family, using a horse and wagon, moved into the home where he still lives today.
“I’ve never been married,” says the 81-year-old bachelor. “But I have a lot of friends here, this is a good town, a good place to live.”
Rebecca Chandler, a young mother of two who is active in the community, says she would never think of moving any other place.
“I’ve lived here my whole life and when I walk down the street I know everybody I see, and they’re all friendly,” she says. “I’m raising my own children here, and in our subdivision out on the edge of town, everybody looks out for everybody.”
“When there’s a tragedy or need, the people of Winchester all come together,” says Sherry Young, “That’s why I’ve always lived here, and why I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, this is home.”
Small towns across the country have struggled in recent decades as more people choose to move to larger urban areas. Today more than eight in 10 Americans live in urban areas, and 65 percent live in cities with populations over a half-million. But, surprisingly between 2015 and 2016 many states experienced an upsurge in their small-town growth according to a study done by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Perhaps because there is a value in small towns that can’t be found elsewhere.
Newcomers to the village of Winchester say when you get to know the people, you begin to see why they choose to live here.
“People here are so welcoming,” says Christi Ward, a Special Education Intervention teacher at North Adams High School who moved to the area from Fayetteville. “It’s small and local, everybody knows everybody, and there is a strong community spirit among the people who live here.”
Emily Bunn, who came to Winchester from the east coast where her husband Walter worked as a Sociology professor, says she has no regrets about their decision to move to the rural town 45 years ago.
“My husband wanted to be a farmer all his life so we came down here to start a vineyard,” she said. “We learned about farming while driving a tractor with one hand and holding a how-to book with the other.”
After losing their vineyard to a -35 degree freeze, the Bunns decided to switch to raising hogs because their children were active in 4-H. “It wasn’t easy, but after a couple years, we were selling 2,000 hogs a year,” says Bunn. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else – ever. My kids are here, and my sister recently moved here because this is the best place in the world to be.”
Like the Bunns, Brenda and Jim “Buster” Daulton moved to Winchester from Mississippi in the early 1970’s. “I’ve lived here most of my life, I raised by son here, this is where my roots are now, and I would never think of leaving,” said Brenda, who recently underwent hip replacement surgery which restricted her ability to walk. “I wanted to come to the town festival, so the firemen came with a cart and put me on it and brought me downtown. I don’t think you see that kind of thing in most towns.”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a tight-knit community,” says the village’s Police Chief, David Benjamin. “They really jump in to help each other out and that’s very important to all of us. We try to do the same thing through our police department and our village offices – we try to extend a helping hand whenever we can – that’s one of the great things about living here in our community.”