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Shawnee, Ohio: Not just a ghost town

With its protruding balconies, wooden storefronts and blockish brick architecture, Main Street in Shawnee, Ohio, about an hour and a half drive south of Kenyon, looks like it came straight from the 19th century. For long stretches of time, the street is eerily empty. About half of the buildings are boarded up, and in others the windows reveal scenes of disuse: piles of antiques, dusty signs left on the floor. A dilapidated statue of the Virgin Mary stares blankly out from a cracked window.

   The website Forgotten Ohio (forgottenoh.com), which profiles abandoned or rumoredly haunted structures throughout the state, says that “Shawnee seems like a ghost town in many ways.” While the words “ghost town” evoke tumbleweeds blowing across a barren street, Shawnee still has life. The town has 665 residents, according to the 2010 census — down from its estimated peak of nearly 4,000 in the late 19th century. A few cars are parked along the side of Main Street, where a furniture store, a bar and an antique shop still operate. At night, the streetlights cast their faint glow on the old buildings.

          Most Shawnee residents drive out of town for work in either Logan, Ohio (about a 25-minute drive from the town) or somewhere in Columbus (more than an hour away), according to long-time Shawnee local Pat Wohrle — one of the few Shawnee residents who still works in town. Wohrle converted an abandoned ice factory into a shop that sells almost everything, from pizza to movies to toilets, to residents who would otherwise have to drive to Columbus to buy many of their necessities.

At its height, the town was a booming center for Perry County’s coal country, with several mines sheltered in its hills. It was also home to a brick factory and then a fiberglass factory. All have since closed down.

The many buildings along Main Street make it clear that Shawnee was once a bustling place. A tall, brick building, the Tecumseh Theater, once housed a cinema on its bottom floor and a theater on the second. Its ground floor is now the Tecumseh Commons, a visitor center and open space for events.

Recalling the town before its decline in the mid-20th century, Wohrle said, “When I was a boy, there used to be people walking up and down both sides of the [main] street.” Wohrle claimed that his mother told him of a president that once visited the town before he was born, but he could not recall the president’s name.

Main Street lies at the base of some hills, and the houses of the town’s residents lay among them. Many of the buildings have been torn down, including an old schoolhouse and entire neighborhoods — like the town’s “Welsh Hill,” which once housed the town’s Welsh miner population. Abandoned and boarded-up houses are still dispersed amongst those with cars parked in their driveways.

Besides the declining population, Shawnee has also experienced a wave of crime. The town and the surrounding area have had problems with “dope,” according to Wohrle, part of an ongoing trend of opiate use in Ohio, as detailed by the Columbus Dispatch. Judging from Wohrle’s cheery smile and friendly attitude, one would not suspect that Wohrle has been robbed more than 40 times during his tenure as the shop’s owner. Recalling one of the incidents, he described being stabbed in the back by a knife-wielding teenager whom he had watched grow up.

Wohrle remains optimistic about Shawnee. There are signs of community in the town: A mural painted by a group of elementary schoolers plasters Shawnee’s closed-down restaurant, and residents frequent a Facebook page for the town to share memories and little bits of history with each other.

Shawnee may not be the industrial hub that it once was, nor is it the ghost town that local rumor makes it out to be. But it is still the home of a hopeful Pat Wohrle.

He told this Collegian reporter: “They say the good ol’ days are ahead of you and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”