About Me

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Rock Springs Park: My Field of Dreams (Part I)

It’s usually about this time every year that I take out my copy of the 1989 baseball movie “Field of Dreams,” starring Kevin Costner, and pop it into the DVD player, in hopes that this “guy-cry film” will help me think spring and the start of baseball season. In it, Ray Kinsella (Costner), on a father quest which begins and ends in his own backyard in Iowa, or more precisely the farm in his front yard, plows under a couple of acres of his cash crop to build a baseball field after hearing a voice whisper “if you build it, he will come.” Later, James Earl Jones, as writer Terence Mann, explains in a prophetic monologue how Ray’s lost corn crop and looming bankruptcy are meaningless in the big scheme of things because “People will come.”

As it turns out, Ray’s “illogical” baseball field brings back his father’s long dead baseball heroes, but also draws thousands of tourists longing for their collective past, “an America that was once good, and could be again.” Terrance Mann concludes, “Of course, we won't mind if you look around. It's only $20 per person. They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. It'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces.”

Last night I left school and traveled to Wellsville, Ohio, a small town just 2 miles southwest of East Liverpool. In hopes of sharing a heavy dose of thick memories and “magic waters” of Rock Springs Park to the Women’s Arts Club in the social hall of the First Christian Church on Main Street, Wellsville, Ohio.

On the way through Chester, West Virginia, I planned on stopping to give a signed copy of my book to Sayre W. Graham, Sr., a retired general contractor, who allowed me to visit his home on Georgia Avenue last year and record his memories of living next to the park and working for the Findley Brothers Construction Company, contractors who built and maintained the octagonal carousel pavilion. Unfortunately, most of the stories Mr. Graham told me I could not use in the book, not because they weren’t good, but because I wasn’t sure if the statute of limitations had run out yet. Like the time he kidnapped a spare carousel horse from a storage shed behind the first drop of the Cyclone in 1974, only reluctantly returning it when questioned about its whereabouts by park owner Virginia Hand. Graham, like a lot of folks in town, didn’t want to see the antique horses sold off to a museum. Unlike most; he decided to do something about it. (Was he exaggerating, or was I in the presence of a real-life carousel horse thief?)

In the book (page 23), I noted that then-mayor Roy C. Cashdollar and Graham were instrumental in saving the World’s Largest Teapot in town, the Chester icon and roadside giant that now sits on former park property and greets people traveling through the northern panhandle of West Virginia from Pennsylvania and Ohio via Route 30 and the Jennings Randolph Bridge.

“I told ‘em,” Graham laughed. “That they should drag that sorry thing up to the top of the bridge and dump it in the river!”

It wasn’t the first time I had heard someone say that. Roy Cashdollar was heard to say the same thing at the time, according to one source. Although surprising, it’s no wonder the men who are credited with saving the teapot were discouraged at first by the prospect of doing so, especially when one studies the photographs of the dying giant prior to restoration (photos now on display in the Memory Lane showcase at the Chester Municipal Building). In them, the teapot is barely recognizable, dark brown and crumbling in an abandoned lot in the upper end of Chester. It seems to have returned to a shell of the huge wooden barrel it was originally, and looks nothing like the giant piece of pottery it was transformed into by William "Babe" Devon in 1938. But even if their initial response was negative, these two men, along with Councilman Frank DeCapio, offered to take responsibility for its rehabilitation.

I asked Mr. Graham if it was true that the lid ball atop of the teapot was really made of glass, something I read while researching local history. Graham smiled slyly and said, “Go over to Liverpool and take a close look at that those glass-domed lampposts they got over there - same size.” It was not an outright confession, but, well, you get the idea.

When I arrived early in Chester yesterday evening, I grabbed a book and a pen from the car and rang Mr. Graham’s doorbell, waiting for him call out to me from his back room, as he had done over a year ago. I tried a couple more times, listening closely at the door, but realized that I probably should have called first. As I turned to go I was reminded of Kevin Costner’s visit to Doc “Moonlight” Graham in “Field of Dreams;” a small town doctor Ray visits by travelling back in time to 1972. Doc Graham, played by Burt Lancaster, shares his story of getting into professional baseball and “coming this close” to his dream of getting a big league hit, before he was called back down to the minors. Did my visit with Sayre Graham last year really happen or was I time traveling? A silly thought: I had the notes to prove it and saw the restored park bench in his living room. Was he okay? I wondered next, startled into a slightly tilted reality. I left disappointed and worried.

On the way to his home, only moments earlier, I was excited about my surprise visit, and visualized showing Mr. Graham his name in the book and the credit to his efforts in restoring the teapot. I pictured him smiling with wet eyes as he turned the pages. Instead I left feeling alone and dejected. I even took note of the turkey buzzards circling over the neighborhood.

It occurred to me as I drove out of town how cold and lonely the whole trip felt. I crossed the newly painted battleship-gray Jennings Randolph Bridge, the same bridge which signaled the beginning of the end of Rock Springs Park, and meandered through the one-way streets of East Liverpool trying to remember how to get to Route 7 from downtown. Something I once could do blind-folded, but now struggled with, perhaps because the cobwebs of memories were building up in front of my own face. What’s gotten into you? I thought. This how you used to think when you visited the area, but not now.

Back home in Pennsylvania, I am surrounded by constant noise and activity in my daily life as an elementary school teacher and most especially while driving around with my two preschool age children in the backseat; but the silence in the car last night actually added to my confusion. At least Kevin Costner had James Earl Jones for his road trip down memory lane. Where was my wing man? I switched on talk radio.

I began to notice how old and run down things looked: C.A. Smith’s pottery was now a brown field, half razed and rusting; a sad fat Christmas tree with drooping red ribbons leaned awkwardly in the Diamond of downtown East Liverpool, and the buildings along the once brick and busy Webber Way looked tired with peeling facades revealing crumbling brickwork and rotting timbers beneath.

Did anybody in the area really care about an amusement park that had been gone for nearly 40 years, and more specifically a black and white paperback book about its history?

It was my hope a small group gathered in the First Christian Church on Main Street in Wellsville did.

The World’s Largest Teapot in Chester, WV. In the background is the main truss of the Jennings Randolph Bridge (left) and a rusting tower of TS&T Pottery (right).

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