By Patricia Beech –
In 1805, just two years after Ohio became the 17th state, an adventurous frontiersman named Curtis Cannon built a tavern and a tannery in a secluded valley alongside Zane’s Trace – a narrow, nearly impassable frontier road built by Colonel Ebenezer Zane in 1797.
For the most part, it was an unsettled wilderness where the population of bears, wolves, and cougars outnumbered the people who arrived there to stake a claim and build a new life.
Twenty-five years later, his son, Urban W. Cannon built a hotel and planted a grove of locust trees on the west side of the roadway. The younger Cannon ran a flourishing trade along the old stage coach line that ran from Maysville, Ky. to Chillicothe. Ten years later he laid out a town around the site of his hotel and called it Locust Grove.
A post office was established, then a church, then a school, and as the years passed, more and more families, mostly of Scotch-Irish descent, settled in the village, building their homes on either side of the dirt road that would one day become Ohio Highway 41.
Names like Eylar, Wickerham, Mason, Swayne, Smith, Douglas, Fulton, McFarland, McDermott, Frankie, Arnold, Thomas, Reed, McCoy, and Wallace were painted on metal mailboxes that lined the road leading in and out of town.
The village thrived, but never grew beyond the hills that rose above its northern and southern borders. Only the dead would leave the village to be buried atop the towering hill of Locust Grove Cemetery a mile south of town.
“Not many people move in and not many people move out, unless they pass on,” says Tom Reed, the owner of the town’s only gas station where he began working at age 13 in 1963.
Excluding the advent of early 20th century technologies – electricity, automobiles, and running water – the town remained largely unchanged until 1968 when the village school was consolidated with nearby Peebles High School.
“Losing Franklin High School ended the community,” says Reed. “We used to have two grocery stores, now we have none; we had three gas stations, now there’s only one; we had a thriving restaurant – it closed; the businesses slowly moved out because there wasn’t enough population left to support them.”
Today, most of the people have moved on, but they recall their village with an affection that is most often reserved for childhood memories.
“Growing up in Locust Grove in the 1980’s was a special time – pre-internet with only three television channels, a decent collection of vinyl 45 records and a boom box – some of my fondest childhood memories are from the summers I spent with my brothers, cousins, and childhood friends from the neighborhood,” says Carisa Kremin. “It was a town where it was safe to leave your doors unlocked and let your kids play outside after dark.”
Retired teacher and life-long Locust Grove resident, Linda McFarland, says the town was like an extended family when she was growing up.
“You knew everybody, and everybody watched out for everyone’s kids,” she says. “I’ve been in every house in Locust Grove. When I was a kid, I’d go from house to house to see what our neighbors were having for dinner, and I’d eat wherever they were having what I liked. My Mom always worried about me because I never ate supper at home. She thought I wasn’t eating.”
Mary Helen Reed, at 93-years-old, is the town’s oldest resident. She and her late husband Harry both attended Franklin High School. While Harry was serving in the military during World War II, Mary moved to Cincinnati where she worked in an office across from the girl’s boarding house where she lived.
“I said I’d never live in Locust Grove or the country, but I didn’t like the city, so I came back,” she says. “When Harry came home he bought the service station and we moved here, raised our kids, and we’ve been here ever since. This is just a quiet little old town, with good people.”
Living in quiet rural town in the 1950’s required that kids learn how to use their imaginations to entertain themselves.
“As kids, we would put on plays in the basement under the Helen and Vane McCoy’s restaurant,” says McFarland. “The big boys built bleachers out of blocks and timbers, the girls made a stage curtain out of a sheet, we wrote a play, sold lemonade, and charged a penny to get in – that’s what we did for entertainment.”
Thirty years later, Locust Grove kids were still entertaining themselves.
“Our days were spent uncovering crawdads in the creek, dangling our feet from the bridge, playing hours of wiffle ball and football with my Dad and all the neighborhood kids in my backyard, catching lightning bugs and playing basketball at Larry and Linda McFarland’s until dark when we would inevitably hear our parents calling for us to come home,” says Kremin. “The days seemed longer back then and they were full of a strong cast of community characters. A typical day included chatting with Perk Swayne as he passed by with his pet raccoon perched on his shoulder, sitting on the porch talking to neighbors like Burk and Maxine Kratzer, grabbing a soda at Tom Reed’s station, or an ice cream cone at Yvonne Bailey’s dairy bar, a popcorn ball from Pearl Herdman, or attending piano lessons with Mary Helen Reed.”
Those who grew up in Locust Grove say it made for an idyllic childhood.
“After ballgames when the bus came back to town they’d pull up in front of McCoy’s Restaurant and let all us kids off” says McFarland. “Helen would have the grill covered with hamburgers and the boys would go in the back to play pool, while the girls played the juke box and danced or played the pinball machine. Our parents, and grandparents, and the whole town would be there after the games having hamburgers and pop – we were like one big family.”
Kremin says she believes the character of the community had a transformative impact on the kids that grew up there.
“Locust Grove was a tight-knit community where people looked out for one another and opened their homes to their neighbors. Growing up in such a safe environment we were free to be adventurous kids,” says Kremin. “We camped out in the yard, we hiked back a couple hills to our secret hangout, we pushed each other down the hill in an old wooden wheelchair, and we would hang out at the little general store buying penny candy and chatting with folks from around town.”
While not many of the original Locust Grove families remain, those who have stayed are loyal to their village.
“Look at this view,” says Kathy Butler who lives on the southern hillside overlooking the town. ” This is where I find peace, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else but here.”