It was a time when everybody in the neighborhood trusted everybody else. I mean that my parents and Dave’s parents trusted each other with their kids; even though our parents rarely spoke to each other. I think that Covington in 1955 was maybe 3000 or 4000 souls, and that everybody in town knew exactly whose kid I was on sight — and I believe it was the same with all the other kids. It was a town on the plain beside a river, the streets were lined and shaded by elm and maple trees, and a double track railroad main line ran through it and crossed the Stillwater River on a double arch bridge built by Italian stone masons from limestone quarried along the river. Dave, my best friend, and I were both outcasts as far as the town and the school establishment were concerned. I was an outcast because I and my family were newcomers, Dave was an outcast because he was “behind” in school. We took to each other like fish to water. The elms are gone from Covington now, caught by something called the “Dutch Elm Disease,” the railroad is gone, and a lot more is gone too. There still are maple trees shading the streets, and the 7 or 9 or whatever churches are still there; but the men’s shop is gone. The drug store where we had phosphates after church is gone, and the hardware store. The five and dime is gone, as well as the heating/cooling store. The railroad bridge is there but there are no tracks and no trains and no long whistles in the night that we heard in my room and Dave’s. The Ford dealership closed a long time ago and so did the farm implement store across the street from my house where we stole packs of cigarettes and where I got sent with a one gallon can and a quarter to buy gas for the lawn mower. Covington has changed a lot but in some ways, I suppose, it is still the same. Although my Dad had paid little attention to me, he did have the foresight to think of where he wanted me to grow up. He and my Mom bought an old stone quarry, and it was just across the street from where Dave’s family lived, and it bordered on the Stillwater River.
My parents moved to Covington in 1955, when I was in the last half of the sixth grade. They bought the local newspaper, “The Stillwater Valley News,” and they had a dream that they would be able to make a living running a real newspaper. That didn’t turn out, not the way my Dad wanted it to. The “News” became the “The Stillwater Advertiser,” and I don’t know if it continues today or not, but I suspect that it does. If so, it is not a newspaper, it is a “shopper,” and that is the direction that my Dad felt he had to turn it. My family moved there, and I was a kid, last half of 6th grade, from cosmopolitan Washington, DC., to rural Ohio.
Covington was not a welcoming place. On my first day at school I was set upon and roughed up on the playground by 6 local boys. Dave, who lived across the street diagonally, soon came forward and offered to be my friend; at a time when I had no friends. We became almost inseparable, spending nights at each other’s homes and each calling the other’s mother “Mom.” We helped each other through that hard time from grade 7 through 9. A short story by Steven King, “Stand By Me” comes to mind when I think of the way we were. We even performed a little ritual in which we became ”blood brothers.”
“Blood brothers” is this deal where you each cut the inside pad of your thumb open with a very sharp knife until blood flows quite freely. Then you put your thumbs together and bind them in place until each of your blood flows into the other person’s body. What this means is that you are united, that you are brothers in blood, and that you will each always forever after be there for each other. You will be there to talk with your brother, or you will be there to fight to the death defending each other. No Matter What — you are bound.. You will mentor his kid, and he will mentor yours. Dave and I drifted apart, and we didn’t do all of this as well as we might have, but this is what it meant to us at the time, and we did start it off the way I have described.
Dave was smart as a whip, strong like an oak and could bend like a willow. He had not managed to make the people in charge of the school happy, so he was “behind” in school, although ahead in smarts. I think that the deal was that they held him back in first grade for another year, (how can anybody flunk first grade?,) and then he lost another year because of a broken leg. As a result Dave was the oldest and biggest kid in his class. He dropped out after the ninth grade, and joined the army. His dad had worked for the railroad and when he got out, just as Vietnam was heating up, Dave became a train engineer and that was his lifetime work until later when he needed to stay near home to take care of his wife.
Along the way there, for a while and even into today, we became friends and more than that. We rode our bikes everywhere, seven miles over popping hot tar bubbles to Piqua to swim, out to Greenville Falls to fish and swim, and all over Covington. Fifty some years later there are signs at the falls, “No Swimming!!” For crying out loud, there are pools in Greenville Falls where the swirling water has cut holes in the limestone, and water pours heavily into them, and we just got naked and let ourselves be washed through this. Today there is some great interpretive stuff, and some local history, posted at Greenville Falls. A little of what I remember is still there, but the place is sterile today with fences and “danger” signs everywhere. ”No Swimming?” — Give Me A Break, swimming is what Greenville Falls is about.
My family thought that we owned an Island in the Stillwater, but I am not really so sure, although there is where I went to spread some of my Mom’s ashes in the water. I think that the State of Ohio owns to the high water mark, and I have seen that island very nearly under water. My family did own the abandoned stone quarry along the river. A limestone quarry. There was a creek, Rocky Branch, which flowed out of the fields nearby and fell over two limestone ledges into a pool just beside our house. In the winter and the spring it roared and stormed through our dreams in the night, and in the summer if fell gently into the pool at the foot of the falls, dripping musically. In the winter it was sometimes frozen and in the springtime we would pick violets for our Moms along the path.
The very best thing was getting the canoe. Somehow Dave, or his Dad, came up with what I think was an Old Town canoe. The canvas was shot and there were multiple broken and cracked ribs. My folks had bought me a really nice boat. It appeared on a trailer one day after quite a bit of talk about a pony for our five acres. This wonderful boat, on a trailer in front of my house, and it was mine if I would only give up my idea of the pony! (Just pause for a moment here and see if you can see my Dad’s hand in this.) I chose the boat, and it got a number of it’s beautiful bent ribs stove in by the ice because we didn’t pull it out of the river in the fall.
Dave and I agreed that we would trade the boat for the canoe and working on that canoe was my first experience with bending wood. I got some white oak, and used my Mom’s kitchen stove to heat up a long pan that I got somewhere, and steamed the wood over it before I ran out to bend it into a rib. I had torn off the rotten canvas, cut out some rotten boards, and I was able to fit the new ribs into the thing. I replaced the sections of the boards, put new canvas on the canoe and painted it dark green.
The directions I had called for setting the keel back into a bed of “white lead.” I bought a can of “white lead” at the local hardware store and laid the keel in it, painted my Thunderbird logo on bow and stern, and we were ready to go. Meanwhile Dave’s Dad was working on the boat, which he fixed quite nicely.
We paddled that canoe over 40 miles down the river, going way South of Dayton, several times. We would be gone for a week, camping on the banks and cooking over a driftwood fire. I am sure that sleeping bags had been invented by then, but we didn’t have any — our bedrolls were made from army blankets that our Dads had brought home from WWII, and our cook kit was army surplus too. We had two things called “shelter halves” that could be snapped together to make a simple tent, or worn individually like a poncho if it was raining. We kept the cooking stuff and the food in a couple of boxes that I made and painted green with the thunderbird on them. The blanket rolls and a change of clothes were in a couple of olive drab duffle bags. I turned the remains of all that stuff over to my own kids in 2018.
It was an amazing time and a wonderful place to grow up. I don’t suppose that you could do what we did along the Stillwater today, and I don’t suppose that kids will ever again be as free as we were. It is a different river, and the place is different, and it is a very different time today. We did a lot of fishing, in the daytime and the night as well. We mostly caught bluegills, sunfish, suckers and carp along with an occasional bass. I caught a turtle once. I will never forget the smell of the river and the mud in the summertime. We didn’t eat the fish that we caught, but we did “fall” in the river or a nearby creek and swim a whole lot. We were not supposed to do this because every little town dumped untreated or partially treated sewage into whatever stream was handy. Dave and I roamed up and down that river in every season; we went in boats, in the canoe, on rafts that we made with inner tubes or logs, and on the ice in the winter. The river was our life, and our hope. The river encompassed our dreams for our lives, the river connected us to America’s past and in some way to America’s future. We learned how to “run” a river, and that stood us in good stead as we each faced having a family of our own or finding our way through the rapids of the economy and through the wars our Nation chose to fight. We learned how to steady the boat in the water. We learned when to pull hard, and on what side. There are the upstream “v’s” and the downstream ones, there are the rocks too — and the logs — and then there are always some surprises along the way.
There were two dams on the Stillwater right near Covington. Deeter’s dam just a little over a mile below my family’s place, and another dam a mile or more further downstream at a place called Sugar Grove. They were both shallow, poured concrete dams across a wide place in a slowly meandering river. Each of these dams fed a mill race, which turned a turbine, and then the water flowed back into the river. By my time the river had found a way around Deeter’s dam, and the mill below had fallen into the mill race. We called the breach in the bank ”the place where the water runs out of the river,” It was across the river and just a little above a place where there was a cave on the left bank. This wasn’t much of a cave, mind you, nothing like what you might have read about, but we had to dock the boat above and sneak down along the river bank, hoping the folks who lived there would not see us. Once in the cave we felt safe from their eyes. One time we took the canoe down the way of the water running out of the river and we saw some ducks that belonged to the people who owned the place with the little cave. We had our bows and arrows and I took aim at one and was astonished to hit it. We totally panicked, tied a stone to it with a shoelace, and sank it to the bottom.
Now, I said that both dams had a turbine, and that is not quite true. The mill at Deeter’s dam had collapsed into the river and I don’t know for sure if the turban is still there. I think that it had powered turning stones for grinding grain. On the other hand, the turbine at Sugar Grove Mill worked! At the upper end of the Sugar Grove mill race there were the remains of a “weir,” or a thing that caught sticks and logs and held them out of the mill race. We had to carry the canoe around that and put it back into the mill race, or else carry it over the dam and wade it downriver until the water going through the mill race came back into the river. Everything at the head of the mill race was made out of huge blocks of limestone, and we usually elected that route. We floated down the mill race; it was cool and shady and slow, lined with rows of old sycamores and elms and maples. At the end we came to the mill. The river fell maybe 15 feet through another weir into a huge wooden box. The turbine was in the bottom of the box and the river had to run through it in order to escape and continue its journey to the Mississippi. While the water was running out of there it turned a wheel. A shaft came up out of the box and the water, turning, and gears under the building turned the power to this machine above and to that one. The mill stones above creaked and groaned, and the whole building shook. Two boys crouched underneath all this and then broke and ran for the canoe, carried it around the mill, and put it into the race below. We soon rejoined the Stillwater and headed on down. Sometime much later that mill burned down. The Sugar Grove Mill.
I think that Dave and I tried the Boy Scouts, and that both of us felt that they were way too organized for us, and too tame as well. We wanted to emulate the mountain men of the old West, or the Indians, and we tried quite hard. We would go down into the quarry in winter, with snow on the ground and ice on the river, and we would build a fire and cook a meal. I don’t know that we ever slept out there in the winter, we might have tried it, but we did have a lot of fires of dead sycamore branches built up against the stone walls which reflected the heat into our lean-to. We ardently wished that we had lived 100 years before our time...We took our bows and arrows along, and later our bb guns, and later 22’s, and I think there was a shotgun at some point.
One time in the winter we went skating on the river between the old quarry and the island. We had brought a little can with a screw top that had some gasoline in it that we used to start the fire. When the fire got going good I had this great idea to toss the can on and see what would happen. The top was screwed on, but soon a flame began to shoot straight out of it. I went around to that side the better to see this and that is when the can exploded showering me with flaming gasoline. My coat that winter was a long red parka that had a hood which laced tightly around my face. Dave threw me down in the snow and got the fire out but all the hair that was outside the parka got burned and the coat itself was a little the worse for wear. I don’t remember what I told my Mom when I got home…
Another time went down to Deeter’s dam on the ice and built a fire there on the dam inside of a large old truck tire that we found on the bank. We changed into our skates, put our boots on the tire so they would be nice and warm when we came back and set off on a skating expedition. We noticed that there was a lot of black smoke, and when we got back the tire and both pairs of boots were blazing merrily.
Let me know if you can buy a can of “white lead,” today, and while you are thinking of “white lead” do remember that I come from a time when the science teacher at my high school gave us a little vial of Mercury to play with, or “study”. Mercury was really neat — it was this very heavy silver colored liquid metal that broke up into tiny specks when one of us, or more, dropped it on the floor, We crawled around on the polished floor trying to corral it and found that we could not do that. There were a lot of tiny little balls of it. The science teacher laughed at our efforts. We probably had it all over us, probably in our hair, but to my knowledge nobody ever had any bad effects, and nobody ever filed a suit. What I want to say here is that we survived this and a lot more too. It wasn’t perhaps the best of times, which is probably unattainable, but I think that it was one of the best.
Somehow, toward the end of 9th grade , we kind of slid apart. For me the social scene became more important than the river, and I suppose that for Dave the thought of the Army and getting away from Covington began to pull at him, and he went that way. After all, we were getting older, there were girls out there. Dave did join the Army, and served well and proudly. When he came home he seemed strangely different — today I realize that is because he had grown up — and I was still a kid doing high school kid stuff with everybody else. My best friend, my pal, was somehow out of touch, and it took me a long time to figure out why. I went on to college, and then to California.
One time in the 1980’s I came back to visit my Mom, who was by herself at this time because my Dad had left her and moved to Seattle to live with and later marry a Covington girl who had graduated high school a year or two before I did — but that is another story. I brought my son Cameron with me and I called Dave. He was working but he said to come down to Dayton, he told me exactly where, and that we could meet up with him at his work. We did, and there was Dave, running a switch engine pushing some cars around. He had us climb up into the cab and we rode around with him for a while and visited. Cam was probably 6 or 7 years old, and this really made his day — mine too.
A long time passed, over 40 years broken only by that one visit, and then one day the phone rang in my shop and it was Dave on the line. We talked for a while about all that we had done back then, and about what we had been doing since, just some catching up. Dave said that his wife was ill and that he was taking care of her and that when she no longer needed him he planned to ride his Harley out to California to visit me. I told him that I was planning to come to my 50 year Class Reunion in 2010 and we agreed we would hook up and try to get a canoe onto the Stillwater.
We did that. A friend of Dave’s had a canoe and agreed to help us put it in under the Bridge Street bridge in Covington. My wife Kathleen was with me, and she met us downriver at the old steel bridge that went over to Lovers Lane, by the mill race. The river was muddy and a little high, so we just paddled on along over all the shallow places. Deeter’s dam is mostly gone, washed away over the years, and we ran straight through a hole in it. Kathleen took some pictures as we passed under the rusty bridge and pulled up to shore. That day was the best part of the trip back there. I wanted Dave to come to the reunion, after all he knew everybody and he was the same age as the rest of us. There was a bit of a problem because he had not actually graduated with us in 1960, but I pushed pretty hard and he did get to come.
We talked on the phone from time to time, and he still said he was going to ride out for a visit. In 2014 he did it — at the end of the trip he called me from the Boonville foot of 253 and said I should come and get him, that he was real tired. His chest hurt because the bike had fallen over on him in some small town along Highway 20 on his way down the western slope of the Sierra. He was here for about a week and we had a really good visit — Kathleen and I took him on a day trip for a picnic in the redwoods a ways north on Highway 101. He had the local Harley Dealer ship the bike back to Dayton and he booked a flight. He died about a year later, nothing related to the fall of the bike. My best friend ever, my blood brother.
Chuck Wilcher Comments:
McFadden writes: “It was an amazing time and a wonderful place to grow up. I don’t suppose that you could do what we did along the Stillwater today,”
I grew up between the dams built on the Miami and Stillwater rivers. The great Dayton flood of 1913 made these dams and 3 others important component in preventing a repeat of that disaster. We fished and swam in both rivers mainly around the Taylorsville and Englewood dams. Life was good having the freedom to ride our bikes to those spots and parents who wanted us out of the house.
I spent a lot of my early driving years roaming the rural parts of Montgomery, Miami, Darke, and all other counties north to Indian Lake.
Attending my dad’s funeral in 2018 I took a long drive revisiting some of those areas. Ambling up US 48 starting around Ludlow Falls through Covington out of nostalgia. The rivers haven’t changed much from what I remember, but a lot of those rural areas have succumbed to the mega warehouses of Amazon and Walmart mainly within the sphere of the Dayton airport.
RE: When I Grew Up In Ohio by Tom McFadden
What a sweet, touching story. I loved the role the river played in his life and in his main friendship. And the gas can story was a good one–“let’s see what will happen…” It all reminded me of the several years I spent as a young boy in Chapman, Kansas in the early 50’s. It was a small town of perhaps 1,000 folks, also near a river, and with a train track and Hwy 40 running through it. Chapman was an idyllic place for a young boy with a bike, and I still remember it as one of the most important homes of my childhood (my dad was in the army so we moved every 3 years or so, in this country and also abroad). I wish in some ways I could have stayed there for all my childhood.
Thank you, Tom McFadden for this beautiful remembrance. And thank you also, Chuck Wilcher, for your associated comments.