Our Land, Our Lives

We are connected to the places we live — they affect, in no small way, how our existence unfolds. In Southeast Ohio, the connection between the people and the land is long and colorful. The early inhabitants saw the region as a unique utopia and sought to live in harmony with it. Later residents saw the potential of resources locked beneath the earth and became determined to use them to build a brighter future. New rifts are occurring in local communities, with words like “environment” and “economy” often cropping up in relation to the land. In the end, the distance between us is defined by the different ways in which we view the value of the land we call home.

Valuing the Land

Traditionally rich with buried resources, Southeast Ohio hosts and has hosted a variety of industries focused on unearthing and processing these resources. But a dichotomy exists between those that value what lies beneath the earth and what can be produced in the soil above.

Paradise Found

A Smoky Prosperity
Interactive Transcript

Well Gavin Power Plant was built back in 1972 to 74. The current issue you are talking about 8 to 10 years ago was them purchasing some property in the Cheshire village area to keep the people from taking them to court over the issue of sulfur and NOx problems in the air.

The things that were coming out of the power plant stacks was coming down on people's property right in the village right underneath the power plant. And it was burning peoples skin, mouth sores, we couldn't have gardens, the food was rotten as soon as it was grown, and it even killed a few people that we think, WE THINK, never proved it, that it contributed to their deaths. I've had two parents that died of cancer and it wasn't nothing caused by the power plant, I've had my grandpa lived here all his life and he died in his upper 80s and it wasn't caused by cancer.

I don't think that what they put in the air would be any worse on you than maybe stuff you put in your mouth to eat." I got a small farm here it is about 60 acres. Living across from the power plant it's had its ups and downs.

When they was first building it you had all the noise you had to put up with driving pylons and of course all the clanking of the barges and stuff, but you get use to it about living next to a train track.

The cable tray over in there is all rusted out, it just eats through any type of metal, rubber, it eats through rubber. The biggest problem is the smoke in the spring time come down here. It blows down in here and you can see a blue haze and the smell gets, the sulfur taste gets in the back of your throat and makes you cough

Well I really don't have any problems with the power company, they create a lot of dust and things like that, but that's, you know, part of the environment here. And uh, I've got... Well we've got about 60 acres here on the farm and it is pretty well surrounded by power company property. We've got plenty of land to hunt on and we don't have any problems with anybody bothering us or the power company or anything. And uh, it's just a good place to live.

The plant works with us now, where the plant use to tell the people what to do. We work with the power plant and they help us each year do something for the village and help us grow a little bit So they are more friendly with us now. Where they use to be more like well they called it a 'David and Goliath situation' and they are no longer a Goliath to us.

Boom and Bust

In the past, extractive industries coming to the area created an economic boom. That boom, however, traditionally has been followed by bust, with once lively towns becoming shells of their former selves. The residents left behind in these towns are then forced to find a new way to live.


Matthew Smith from Charleston, WV

Basically it’s the same boom and bust cycle that goes through all of these industries…if they don’t want to regulate then they won’t give us money to do our jobs and so then what?

Matthew Smith

Charleston, West Virginia

Haydenville: The History of Clay

San Toy: The Impact of Coal

U.S. Extractive History:


But Bret Cruthers, a lifelong resident of the town, says Haydenville is just not the same.

“It’s like the difference between night and day,” he says.

After the clay plants which first defined Haydenville’s identity shut down in 1964, local businesses quickly followed suit. The gas station left. The markets closed. Families sold their houses. Those who stayed behind in the once self-sufficient town began relying on nearby cities for a source of income, groceries and other resources.

“If you want a loaf of bread, you gotta go to Nelsonville. But before, all you had to do was walk down to the company store.”

Haydenville’s troubles are familiar to many Southeast Ohio towns that were built up around extractive industries. Towns such as Haydenville and San Toy are left only with memories, some old photographs and a generational gap between those who remember and those with the ability to keep that identity alive.

“Really, it’s kind of sad to see the old town die,” Bret says. “I miss it.”

"The Town That Was"

Wanda Kangas is known as Nanny. She is 97 years old and one of the last living residents of the coal town San Toy, founded in 1902 so miners and their families had a place to live nearby.

Then almost over night, the town disappeared. Right before the Great Depression, the miners went on strike in protest of low workers’ wages. They set fire to the tipples — the structures used for emptying mine carts and sorting coal — of San Toy’s two mines, leaving behind the day’s collection of coal in the carts and the future of the town.

The place once predicted to become the “Little Chicago” of Ohio is now just a few houses, a church and some dilapidated brick ruins in the woods. Nanny lives with her daughter Becky Pettet about five minutes away from San Toy’s original church in Malta, Ohio.

“A company came in and tore down all the buildings. If your house sold out from under you, you had to get out,” Nanny says.

“So they hauled out, most everybody did. There wasn’t too many families left.”

“A company came in and tore down all the buildings. If your house sold out from under you, you had to get out."

Wanda Kangas

Nowadays, it’s different

Standing barefoot on a floor grate that once fed coal-powered heat into the pews of the Haydenville United Methodist Church, Bret explains how the people of his hometown have changed. The church, built in 1893, has had items such as candlesticks and a cross stolen from its sanctuary.

“When I was 20 years old, I could have walked up to the door and walked right into that church,” he says. Now, the lock is on the door as some of the residents of Ohio’s last company-owned town do not live by the principles that were once expected.

The town company had a code that the workers followed to maintain a peaceful way of life in Haydenville.

“If you didn’t want to live by the code, then go down the road and live somewhere else,” Bret says.

Sun trickles into the church through the blues and greens of a stained-glass window, a gift from the company owner’s wife. Yet it is guarded by Plexiglas to avoid vandalism. Younger children in town have not been taught the respect that Bret says he learned from his parents.

“People change,” Bret says. “Kids grew up; people wasn’t as strict on the kids.”

Tile blocks and bricks were used to construct the church, the workers’ houses and stores. The buildings showcased the town’s different clay products, demonstrating ways that Haydenville tile and bricks could be used—like a large-scale advertisement.

A few of Bret’s school-time friends still live in the tiled-housed town. “At one time, I could tell you everybody that was in town, their name, where they lived and how many kids they had,” he says. As time went by, the houses stood still but the people did not. “There’s too many people moving in and out anymore that I don’t even try.”

Bret stayed because of his parents. His mother had Alzheimer’s disease and his father passed away from cancer less than a year ago. Though he has left town four times – once for a 10-year truck-driving gig – he has always returned. Now, 52 years old, he says he is working toward going to school to earn a state-tested nursing assistant degree.

“At one time, this town was really beautiful. They had a big park over there beside the plant, where you could go, sit and eat lunch, whatever. They really kept the town up,” he says. “Nowadays, you pretty much do as you damn well please.”

Shots, stories and sanctuaries

Nanny’s stories of bootlegging, murder and mischief are famous in the community, painting a scene similar to the lawless frontier of the Wild West.

“It wasn’t nothin’ to get up in the mornin’ and hear of someone getting shot or killed,” she says.

Nanny recalls the stories in vivid detail, down to the cold chicken she and her grandmother ate on the day her Uncle Tom pointed his gun at her Uncle Ode, but accidentally shot Ode’s wife instead.

Ode found his way into a number of Nanny’s stories.

“My uncle [Ode] was the deputy that shot the sheriff,” she says, telling how he was forced to defend himself after refusing to take off the drunken sheriff’s shoes.

“He [the sheriff] pulled his gun out and he said ‘You take my shoes off or I’ll blow your head off,’ ” Nanny says. “He says ‘I’m not going take your shoes off, I’m not doin’ nothing like that.’ ”

The San Toy jail, which is now in ruins.

The sheriff pulled out his gun; Ode pulled out his. Ode fired first.

“Needless to say, he went to the penitentiary,” she says.

Nanny also tells stories of when she and her late husband, Charles, fixed up the area’s only church, which had been closed for a number of years. The couple would haul a group of kids up to Portersville for church—more kids than could fit in their car.

“It was an awful mess,” Nanny says. “He went up there and looked at it, and he said—he called me mom—‘Mom, I think me and you could clean that church up.’”

A few townspeople pitched in to help, and the church, once shared by every denomination in town, became a pillar of the community once more.

“So we started having church there,” she says. “I don’t know what year that was. We’ve had church ever since.”

San Toy Holiness Chapel holds on

Josiah Windell stands tall behind the pulpit of San Toy Holiness Chapel every Sunday morning to continue that tradition. Though the 32 year-old pastor has preached in the town for just a year and a half, his close relationship with remaining San Toy residents and families who live nearby grants him an insider’s view into the old town’s dynamic.

But he sees how San Toy’s history is dying along with its identity.

“Think of what this area would be... It was like the metropolis of the area. It had a hospital, the churches, the theaters, the jail. It had everything. Two thousand people. Imagine how many that would have turned into now."

Josiah Windell

“Outside of her [Nanny’s] family and some of the older ones that live around, nobody knows much about it anymore,” Josiah says.

People moved to San Toy because of the coal mining opportunity, he explains, and there isn’t a reason for anybody or any business to return.

“There’s not going to be anything coming out of San Toy,” Josiah says. “It’s over.”

But it’s difficult for him not to consider what San Toy could have become, had the mines not gone up in flames over 80 years ago.

“Think of what this area would be if they hadn’t done that. It was like the metropolis of the area. It had a hospital, the churches, the theaters, the jail. It had everything,” he says. “Two thousand people. Imagine how many that would have turned into now.”

The entire property of San Toy is up for sale, Josiah explains, but the price exceeds a reasonable amount that a person would pay for an area dubbed by local newspapers as “the town that was.” The church is really all San Toy has left.

“As far as how it’ll keep its identity, I think that other than the church,” he says, “it’ll probably be lost.”

It’s up to the kids

As a town, Haydenville will be there for a “long while,” Bret says. But the way he sees it -- as a historical district -- the future of his home is very bleak. He says he feels current residents have no idea about the town’s rich history and that they just don’t care.

Bret’s knowledge about how Haydenville appeared in its hay-day comes from his grandfathers, a boilermaker and a brick mason in the area.

“Most of what I know about this town was passed down from old men’s stories,” Bret says. “And at the time, that’s just what they was—old men’s stories.”

The community’s history will likely fade away, Bret says, unless the town’s kids find an interest. Bret and Nanny have shared their stories. Now, they just need future generations to keep those stories alive.

Seeds of Change

The boom-bust cycle of extractive industry in Southeast Ohio, and the impact it can have on the people who live here, has not gone unnoticed. In response to the issue, multiple approaches and outlooks have developed. From grassroots activists fighting to alter individual paradigms, to successful business owners working to address the same perceived problems institutionally. Though they approach it from different angles, both camps seek to sow seeds of change.

Interactive Transcript

I'm a utopian. I'm an anarchist. I really like permaculture. My name's Badger Johnson, I'm the community gardens and food education coordinator with CFI, Community Food Initiatives. And I thought I might just move out of the country and start farming after college, but when the opportunity to continue to organize and get paid and make more connections and learn more skills came around, then I was just like, "Yes!"

We are trying to come up from the grassroots to help people out. That's why we do it, teaching people to be able to rely on themselves for food. Connecting the dots for people is the work of a community organizer and sort of stitching together the story of a community.

Several fraternities are volunteering with us this spring and Alpha Phi Omega already came out. Some of them are from the inner city and have never seen a place where food grows. And they were like, 'Whoa, is that a chicken?' I'm like yeah. That's where eggs come from. It's just like 'Whoa!'

How do you address poverty in Appalachia? You know, how can we help ourselves really? Cause there's no one coming to save Southeast Ohio. You have a lot of problems, health problems that go along with that like obesity and type 2 diabetes. And many of those can be changed, can be addressed directly, through eating lots of fresh local vegetables.

There's billions of organisms down there in like a tablespoon of healthy soil. And that's what allows organic gardeners to grow vegetables without putting fertilizer down, is this complex web of life that you nurture. I'm trying to get that paradigm instilled as much as I can in all the community gardens around here, because that sort of care for the earth, and how that translates into care of yourself, if you grow the vegetables is really closing the loop.

It's really painful to see the earth treated in such a destructive and derogatory way as it's been treated here since European colonization. It might sound a little new-age, but I think 'Earth as self' is not too much of a stretch.

Sometimes I feel like we're a drop in the bucket and sometimes like, I feel like, at our best, we are helping people wake up.

What I see when people become more aware of their health and their connection with nature is oftentimes there will be some healing to do. There's a lot of healing that needs to happen and it happens spontaneously if people can just sit with it and do some gardening.

Planting the Future

Between sprawling farmland and the cultural hub provided by the City of Athens, Athens County is a unique area in the Southeast Ohio region. With a population enthusiastic about buying and eating locally and a number of farmers eager to provide, the Athens community stands outside the norm for rural Ohio. In a region long defined by industry and poverty, businessmen and food producers like Warren Taylor and Chris Chmiel are working to redefine the legacy of Southeast Ohio.

However, building successful businesses is not necessarily enough. Both men recognize the need for leadership and examples to follow before lasting change can take place. They see the need for a change, and they want to help make it happen.

In the hills of Pomeroy, Ohio, lies a small creamery set on 280 acres of farmland. You might miss it if you did not know what to look for. Two simple barns and the milk plant do not size up to the success of the creamery. According to the owner of the milk processing plant, Warren Taylor, “The goal was to make a milk processing plant that could be as small as it possibly could be and still be economically feasible.”

Photograph by Kyle Hollar

“I see the same problem with fracking, [or with] anything that destroys our water, destroys the value of our land. I can grow my own food, I can drink the water out of every stream and pond of my own property, I think that makes me a free man.”

- Warren Taylor

Snowville Creamery remains a small operation co-owned and ran by Warren Taylor and his wife, Victoria Taylor, along with 30 employees.

Warren used to joke about starting a creamery with his friends Bill Dix and Stacy Hall. The two are caretakers of the land where the plant is located and the 220 cows which produce the milk.

The joke became a reality when Warren realized that no one else was going to make the milk he remembered from childhood. With a father who worked in the industry as a dairy technologist, Warren knew what “good milk” tasted like. “I knew how to judge milk before I knew how to drive a car,” he laughs. He wanted to get away from large corporations and bring local dairy back to the community

Snowville’s milk is bottled from grass-fed cows, pasteurized to the lowest allowed temperature, and is not homogenized, so the cream rises to the top. The milk is delivered from the cow to the grocery store within 48 hours.

Warren, whose fervent beliefs about dairy led him to start a creamery, has a similar outlook on politics. Concerned by the effects he believes big business has on the government, he decided to try and run for Congress in 2012. Warren worries about the state of representation in America, “…we don’t have a representative democracy.” he states.

For Warren, the final straw was fracking in the Athens area. He vividly remembers dead water and bare red clay hills around Meigs County, a result of strip mining in the 1950’s. Warren says that thousands of acres of once fertile cropland have been worthless ever since. The value of the coal extracted from the earth was less than the value of the land would have produced in the past forty years.

“I see the same problem with fracking, [or with] anything that destroys our water, destroys the value of our land.” Warren says, “I can grow my own food, I can drink the water out of every stream and pond of my own property, I think that makes me a free man.”

Warren recently learned that due to registration issues, he would not be able to appear on the ballot. However, this does not change his attitude or resolve. "It's all okay," Warren says, "It isn't about me getting elected, we need to have the people engaged." He believes that change is on the horizon as long a people pay attention and know who is representing them in government.

Athens, in his eyes, is an area that is already a sustainable community; now, Warren wants to help the rest of Ohio along the same path. He hopes to use small business and environmental ideals to improve the health of the region. "If we don't take action now, it will effect our future generations." Warren says.

Warren Taylor is not the only local farmer determined to make a difference on a large scale.

This past March, Chris Chmiel, owner and founder of Integration Acres farm, secured the Democratic nomination for County Commissioner.

“I think I could bring some great ideas to the table and a different mindset to help Athens continue to progress-- make more positive changes,” Chris says. He promotes sustainable development and organic agriculture, using his own experiences as an example.

Chris and his wife built their own home; a passive solar house which has tires as the foundation. “Were working with the nature and we want to show that this actually does work.” he says.

“I think that our local food movement is a great example of how we can create prosperity and we can create wealth, we don’t have to wait for some big companies to come save us.” Chris says.

Photograph by Susannah Kay

Chris Chmiel, owner of Integration Acres farm, founded the annual Pawpaw Festival in Athens County in 1999.

He tries to demonstrate his beliefs with his own farm. Integration Acres is an organic farm in Albany, Ohio. After graduating from Ohio University, Chris Chmiel wanted to find a way to create a livelihood that would make money, but also mesh with his sustainable values.

After moving to Albany, Chris became infatuated with a native Ohio tree – the pawpaw. Pawpaw trees are a pest-resistant species, which produce an edible fruit, often described as a cross between a mango and a banana. Chris began working with the pawpaw trees in 1996 and is now the world’s largest pawpaw processor.

Because animals do not eat the fruit, Chris decided to start working with goats six years ago. Today, Integration Acres is home to a mixed breed of 75 goats.

The goats are pasture-based goats. Chris jokes about never having to the mow the field, he has helpers to do that. The goats are rarely wormed and they get daily exercise to reach their food. The animals are only milked when they are able to eat the pasture.

“The whole idea of coming up with a sustainable agriculture model where we use the animals with the pawpaws is what the heart of Integration Acres is.” Chris says.

He and his wife, along with three part-time employees, care for the 30-acre farm. His wife, Michelle Gorman, makes cheese from the goats’ milk. In their greenhouse, they are currently growing pawpaw sprouts, tomatoes, basil, peppers and cucumbers while in their garden they grow things for their fermented foods. Whatever products and raw material they cannot produce themselves, the couple tries to obtain locally.

Integration Acre’s products are mainly sold in the Athens and Columbus areas, but also online. Chris explains that by selling their food local, it keeps the money local.

“I think Integration Acres has had a positive influence on our community,” he continues, “I think we’ve created economic opportunities for the community and it also deepens people’s awareness of our biological diversity.”

Many people were unfamiliar of the fruit before Chris began selling pawpaws. He began the annual Pawpaw Festival in Athens County in 1999.

Chris is using the success he has found on his farm to launch his political ambitions.

Both Taylor and Chmiel see a need for change in their community and in the country. They both are working to nourish their own success and sow it throughout the region. As Chris says, “I think we’re like stewards; we’re taking care of this place and of the people and of ourselves.”

A Complex Choice

While thoughts of sustainable business models and land-friendly living may be appealing, they are not always feasible. Southeast Ohio is a region wracked with poverty, currently compounded by the national recession. For many, the high material value placed on the land by extractive industries offers life-changing opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable. Hydraulic fracturing, a method of natural gas mining, has been at the forefront of the current debate. Critics label fracking as environmentally devastating and hazardous to people’s health, but proponents laud it as a route toward energy independence and an economic dynamo. The issue creates choices as complex as they are contentious.


Tobi Ruckel from Hamdon

There’s no jobs here, so this is pretty much all we got, the land. I think if fracking will bring jobs to southern Ohio it’s a good thing.

Tobi Ruckel

Hamden, OH

A Modern Day Gold Rush

What Fracking Means for Southeast Ohio

A Crossroads

Southeast Ohio is at a crossroads. It is now in the hands of the community to decide whether heavy industry offers real change for the region or more of the same. Perspective and personal opinion defines everything from how we value the land, down to how we view it. The challenges to those who call Southeast Ohio home are not simple, nor are the stakes low.

Out of the Darkness

Our views of the land may be different, but our impact is undeniable. Throughout Southeast Ohio, evidence of humanity converges with the Appalachian landscape. We may see our uses of the land as pedestrian, but the natural world probably has a different view of the structures we create. If we take the perspective of nature and imagine what our presence must look like, we begin to see how alien we are in this world that we dominate. Out of the darkness, our creations interrupt the organic landscape constructing eerie encounters within these spaces.