EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece was previously published at Richland Source in 2013.
BELLVILLE -- The summer of 1913 was hot. Comparing the daily highs and lows between then and now suggests that the Richland County of that summer showed no fewer particular tendencies toward global warming than it does today.
A hundred years ago women of the Sunshine Club dealt with the muggy weather by pinning on a summer hat, and talking their husbands and boyfriends into taking them on an excursion to Gatton Rocks.
From the B&O station in Mansfield, it was just a little over an hour by train to the whistle stop at Gatton Rocks, about halfway between Bellville and Butler.
Part II: Gatton Rocks
The train doesn’t go there anymore, but that certainly does not keep people from getting there today to cool off on the hottest days of summer. Just like in times past, you'll find folks escaping summer heat in the Clear Fork River as it passes underneath the shady hemlocks growing from the cliffs known forever as Gatton Rocks.
The cliffs came courtesy of the last glaciers through the area, whose titanic ice wars washed out 185 feet of till between the hilltops on either side of the valley, and left behind a river bed scraped clear down to the bedrock. The glaciers also left behind a small quantity of gold buried in the hillsides that sparked a bit of a gold rush in the 1800s.
In pre-historic times the Clear Fork Valley near the cliffs was the site of a big dusty clearing where bison stopped to wallow around, during their yearly migrations. So even before the Gattons arrived, that stretch of the Clear Fork was already quite an attraction.
Indian arrowheads and spear points, that are turned up by farmers plowing the valley, indicate that many generations of hunters knew this place as soon as the glacial remnants had drained out of this area. American Indians were hunting bison here as far back as 10,000 years ago.
When the Gatton brothers came here in 1817, they were hardly the first to admire the cliffs. The tract of land that they settled on included not only the famous sandstone bluffs, but also fertile bottom land along the river, the gold-panning riverbanks, and high hilltops above the frost line that were ideal for fruit orchards.
By the year that Cy Gatton was born, in 1865, the orchards were flourishing, and during his lifetime on the farm he watched the business rise to one of the finest fruit farms in Ohio. The railroad branched off a special siding at Gatton Rocks so that freight cars could be loaded with produce to sell in the cities.
It was a popular place for day-outings from the very start, and the Gatton family encouraged it in the 1880s and 90s by providing camping grounds, fishing ponds, and rustic meals with campfires and entertainment.
By the time the Sunshine Club visited in 1913, the place had a small settlement of summer cottages where families vacationed, overlooking the valley from above the cliffs.
In the summer of 1913, Cy Gatton was 48 years old and he already had a reputation far outside the Clear Fork Valley that was larger than life. Having grown up at the Gatton Fruit Farm with the legacy of buffalo hunts, gold rushes and Johnny Appleseed, he knew early on that if he was to make a mark in that epic place, he had his work cut out for him.
He rose to the occasion by establishing himself as one of America’s preeminent storytellers, prevaricators, and raconteurs of tall tales.
The tourists, who came to enjoy boating, fishing, and all the outdoor activities at Gatton Rocks, were drawn there just as much hoping to hear campfire tales from the resident genius of tall tales.
One can revisit some of Cy Gatton’s tales as told by Rick Sowash, reading from his book Ripsnorting Whoppers.
Wade & Gatton
The story goes that one summer in the 1940s, a flock of birds cleaned out the cherry crop and Mr. Gatton was so angry about it that he had the trees cut down. However much truth there is to that tale, the simple reality was that in the 1940s most of the able-bodied fruit-picking men were off in the war at the same time fruit prices bottomed out.
By mid-century the fruit farm had waned and the nursery business was on the rise.
Today, the farm is just as legendary as ever, with its nursery gardens growing the largest Hosta collection in the world. Wade & Gatton Nurseries has 2,000 different varieties of Daylilies, and their summer bloom is an amazing sight that the Sunshine Club should have stuck around to admire.
Never been to Gatton Rocks?
Take a minute or two to wade into the waters of the Clear Fork and experience a summer morning under the cliffs.