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The Story Begins...

Reliving a town’s death
By Mark Muro, Globe Staff
The Boston Globe, June 22, 1986


WILMINGTON, Ohio—In 1973. John Baskin and an old man named Mitchner attempted to outlast New Burlington, Ohio, a condemned farm town exceptional only in the virtue of its green surroundings. Baskin held on the longer, likely because, as he later wrote, he “was dispassionate about it.” As for Mr. Mitchner, they took him out feet first, just as he vowed they would.


After that, Baskin stayed on alone: eight months in a village gone except for the old cobbler’s shop. The Quaker church, two houses. But as the town went ineluctably to dogs and chicken wire, the young farmer’s-son-turned-writer listened to its stories, got it down. That he did, of course, became about the only reason at all anyone still cares about the unclear tragedy of New Burlington. While the book he published ten years ago, New Burlington: The Life and Death of an American Village, arrived as a masterpiece quickly certified “Extraordinary” by Robert Coles in The New Yorker, New Burlington—the place—slid swiftly into oblivion.

By 1978, a US Army Corps of Engineers dam on the town’s pretty little creek had become, in Corps parlance, “operational.” Shortly thereafter, the rough buildings, cornfields, the memories of a seemingly unimportant community receded, one by one, street by street, under a silent plate of water. This was the end of New Burlington, a sacrifice to flood control and irrigation, and it seemed absolute. At one end, the new lake flooded the cellar of Frank Lundy’s farmhouse. At the other, it submerged Bill Conklin’s fence posts. When it peaked, Phil Hartman even drove his motorboat across the bottomlands towing his young son on water skis. Soon came a Visitor Center.

All that was left for Baskin was the satisfaction of having wrested from progress a lovely album of flinty prose, graceful oral histories, jokes and photographs: bits of string and shiny metal a magpie brings back to its nest. Now, a decade after New Burlington, the almost willfully obscure author of a neglected American classic lives about 11 miles from where he did when he attended Lawrence Mitchner’s funeral. As he does, he knows twice as well now what he suspected then, for he sees clearly the governing principle of the world. “All history, granted a wide enough perspective, is merely irony,” he has written, and so it appears in literature as in life.

“I never considered once there was an audience out there to hang upon my every utterance,” he will say over lunch in this hard-scrabble town he calls home, and then he continues. “My book is just a town archive. I only did the work.” Which is true, in a way. New Burlington, no clear disaster, lives now as no clear example, a simple forget-me-not to a place where, according to a local lady, “History is a drunk in the snow with his feet sticking out.”

Begin with the book itself. No mere vilification of engineers, but a paean born of ardent notebooks and endless conversations, Baskin’s wrenching memorial did not cry for so much as elevate into dignity a community of lives passing and gone. Here, in voices both pithy and pleading, blacksmiths spoke and undertakers, farmers and schoolteachers, too, explained a world they alone could remember. Here was a farmer who wrote in his diary: August 13. 1915–86 degrees. This is the season of screech owls, smelly cornfields, noisy cicadas and hot restless nights; here a man arrested for driving at only six miles an hour. And here, too, framed against decline, came not only the seasons of planting and haying and hoping, but the ever-fading twang of small-town story telling: I was 20 when I got married. Maybe she put one over on me … Elmer Lemar is so tight he wouldn’t pay five cents to see Jesus Christ ride a bicycle.

As for Sarah Haydock Shidaker, 82, she spoke truly, too: Well, times were hard and worry upon worry, she said. And so, even more than the wink and brag of country humor, something else emerged from Baskin’s book: the mysteriousness of being alive, the ambiguity of a world both alive and dying. I am the last leaf on the tree and I believe I am outliving everyone else, opined Shidaker.

Like Baskin himself, she did outlive everyone else. To speak, next, of what exactly they did outlive is again to speak of ambiguity, of predestination and haphazardness at once. Sited thirty miles northeast of Cincinnati between two forks of a stream once grand with hardwoods, New Burlington began with the 18th century when a surveyor named Anderson ignored oak and maple to imagine flat cornfields. After that, it just proceeded. Settlers wagoned in; trees crashed down. Then fat squares of corn and soybeans surged like wealth from the black earth and overspilled every horizon—relentless lush-green crops that sometimes must have seemed the agriculture of another planet.

Growth ensued. A grist mill was built. In 1876, as per the flinty enumeration in Baskin’s book, New Burlington is: “one sawmill, two churches, one school, one hotel, three groceries, one wagon shop, two dry goods stores, two doctors, one carpenter, one cobbler, one undertaker, three blacksmiths and one chicken thief. Population: 275. Real estate: $16,281.” Never would more than four hundred residents call New Burlington home, but then, at the end of the last century, it was holding.


By the middle 20th century, however, New Burlington had already stretched itself into old age, even then nothing more than a literal bend in the road. Main Street, just a place cars slowed down on Route 380, ran right down the middle, while on either side a miscellaneous scattering—hardware store, post office, church, dry goods store—defined an entity approaching death. Above arced huge maples; in the stiff old houses where children were growing up to leave, “it was just a tiny country town filled with widows,” observes J.E. Carnahan, a 91-year-old farmer known as “The Father of Caesar’s Lake” for his ardent support of a dam.

“If I’d just driven there, I’d never have stopped,” reports Baskin. And so the point remains beyond contest. In the years after 1965, only one new home was built: a brick ranch house beside the old Methodist church. As for the earth, it was abiding. All around, in a way that has not changed, the fields ran on and on. Then came Baskin. Born on a dairy farm near Greenville, S.C., he may himself have been predestined, but, whatever, an indeterminate life indeed had prepared him nicely for the strange project he discovered at New Burlington.

No matter that he’d felt constantly “at odds” with his country upbringing, or that as much as anything he remembers “meaninglessness, tension, intentness.” All this was preparation, including ejection from the staunch Baptist preserve of tiny Mars Hill College in the North Carolina mountains. As Baskin remembers, “It was perfect. I was kicked out of there: ‘Because of your apparent conflict with the ideals of Mars Hill College.’ Quote, unquote. I always liked that. My education was in tension.”


He wound up, he adds, “a naive country boy reading Bertrand Russell.” Finally, after a stint as a small-town reporter, he graduated, went to the writing program at the University of North Carolina, worked at other papers. By 1972, he’d arrived in New Burlington, as he puts it, “by the accidents of my life.” That meant, basically, that he couldn’t keep a job at the time, having been fired from a series of southern newspapering jobs, “usually,” as he admits, “for insubordination.”

Whatever, he’d tired of dogging around and, ready for change, responded to a job offer in nearby Dayton. There, employed as a special assignment reporter at the Dayton Daily News, he once again lost a job, took another running a weekly news sheet, then found that closing around him. But fortuitously, he’d heard a story concerning a village, a dam, an end of something. He went to look around. What he heard haunted him. The Corps of Engineers was building a reservoir over a village. Before long, cabin cruisers would trawl in 175-year-old fields. Soon the villagers would be gone. Baskin knew he would not leave.

Soon, armed with notebooks and assiduousness, he began interviewing. “I just made lists and started knocking on doors,” he remembers. “The town was so small I could talk to about everyone.” Quickly, however, he found his own motives mixed. On the one hand, “Full of complaint,” as he would write, he bridled, came to decision. “I thought I would become a carpenter; I would restore New Burlington,” he proclaimed, and so, as others had in other places, he set out, indignant. Then he perceived the town as a “gift.” A writer come to a story, he would preserve what was passing. He would document the “specific death of all the abstract deaths mourned by the sociologists in their bleak treatises upon the last rites of god and family, social custom, rural life, small-town morality, and the ordered universe.” He would write the Great American obituary.

Still later, he found himself a poet admiring an event of weird shapeliness. As he explains now, “To the writer in me, it intrigued me that a whole town could be inundated—it seemed like such a whole, odd, strange fate. Here a whole village, an entire set of lives, was being removed. I could get to the bottom of it.”

Of course, by this time, urgency was intruding. Already the Corps of Engineers had bought all of New Burlington, and so, at least to Baskin and a passel of old widows, the moment felt overwhelming. Not many citizens were left, and each of the ladies, as Baskin would write later, “seemed to know instinctively this was final uprooting.” Some of them bore this out by dying right off. Mrs. McIntire left a note that she was going to the graveyard. She started out, then lay down in the snow. Mrs. McClure died, too. She lived with her plants in the lower part of the village, just above where the streams met. “Do you think the Resurrection Lily will live transplanted?” she had asked Baskin one afternoon.

Soon, inglorious decline proceeded. The local papers, unused to opinionating, said virtually nothing. The Dayton papers liked the notion of having a playground in their backyard and wrote happy Sunday features about the disappearance of New Burlington. “A footnote to progress,” one of them editorialized. One reporter even told Baskin that the editor in charge of regional news was looking forward to completion of the new lake because he was a hunter, tired of driving two hours north to find ducks. New Burlington, meanwhile, declined piece by piece. The fire department bought a house for a dollar, then burned it for the practice. Others were marked by the Corps for “disposal.” A few were moved up the road and put in a field on small treeless lots where the old frame houses must have looked like gravestones. The name of the road the houses were moved to was Cemetery Road.

In time, scavengers took fence posts, cannibalized lumber, stole the doorknobs off houses, ripped the ivy off Louie Will’s chimney. Once, when there were half a dozen families still living in the village, a man looked up from Sunday dinner to see several fellows carrying off his fuel oil tank. A woman who lived nearby ran over a piece of tin in the road. In time this ugly death found the last houses abandoned in empty bulldozed lots filled with weeds. “The life of the place reduced itself to a series of poor vignettes,” murmurs Baskin.

As for his own residence, there was virtually no one left when Baskin moved into George Lovett’s farmhouse in 1973 as caretaker. There, he lived on in the town through its last fall and into the winter. He cut wood from the old orchards and built a floor-to-ceiling bookcase of 8 x 8 barn beams, as though he were going to stay. The only company was sheep and horses. There was no television, no telephone, no news. Baskin studied the looks of things. “I wanted to see everything,” he remembers, “the shifts of seasons, the subtle changes and transitions, the look of flatness.” Meanwhile, he went to funerals of old farmers he’d talked to through dying-down autumn afternoons. His book was published. By the time the Caesar’s Creek dam finally backed water into the cross streets, the village had been gone years.

These days, at the age of 45, Baskin lives quietly over the bookseller in this not-quite-revived town of creaky storefronts, new houses under trees, and farm equipment outlets. Tall, a touch melancholic, he looks like an aging centerfielder as he shows a visitor around, and his book sales remain limited, like his reputation, to a generation of Harvard students who read New Burlington in Professor Coles’ perennial course Gen. Ed 105, and he nevertheless presses on, editing Ohio magazine from his ramshackle office across from the theater, writing about the citizens of his adopted small town.

If for a century people came here when, for whatever reason, New Burlington became untenable, so it is now, with him. Though once the reviews—in Newsweek, in The New York Times—were grand, now he moves with sobriety, as he always did. “I’m not an artist,” he says. “I’m a craftsman.” The lake itself, 2,800 acres, was dedicated in 1981. The governor came, also a senator and a former governor. There was a lot of talk of “service,” plus headlines: “EAST FORK STATE PARK LOOKS ATTRACTIVE IN FALL COLORS.” Soon they got the Visitor Center open down by the dam. A big building nestled in trees and rectitude, the place serves the entire Midwest as only one of three Class A Corps of Engineers visitor centers in the country, and, there, Caesar Creek Lake makes perfect sense.

“JUNIOR RANGERS PLEASE REGISTER AT FRONT DESK” reads a sign, and, inside, lyrical photomurals, gleaming displays emblazoned “RECREATION” and “FLOOD CONTROL,” happy voices on prerecorded tapes sing the salient attributes of a project well-executed. Outside, too, the pretty lake, first mandated by the Flood Control Act of 1938, appears more than accepted. Out along Route 380, signs advertise “LIVE BAIT 1/2 Mi. and “Red’s Bait Shop Picnic Supplies,” not to mention “Caesar Creek Village/LOTS AVAILABLE.”

At the main beach area along Route 73, a recent hot afternoon finds a boat ramp, a covered picnic area, an arcing strip of newly-deployed sand there to serve a hundred or so of the million beneficiaries a year the installation attracts. Most of the mostly young sun-worshipers here have forgotten about New Burlington and are mildly surprised if reminded they are waterskiing over a town. “You guys got a four-way lug wrench?” asks one beachgoer in the parking lot; “You’re kidding, there was a town here?” exclaims another. Nearby, others tune up a Ski-Doo, slumber on hot blankets.

As far as Baskin knows, not one of the residents he memorialized remains alive. For his own part, he drives the old roads, talks to old friends, but almost never haunts the place that was New Burlington. When, on a recent afternoon, he did, it was as a visitor to strangeness. The site looked oddly beautiful: a jungle of trees and weeds growing up through the cracking pavement of the old state road.

Baskin couldn’t think of much to say except the obvious. “As you can see, it was a pretty unexceptional place,” he kept saying. Later, though, he reflected. “New Burlington was a place I could work,” was what he said. “It was not remarkable. It was no grand loss. It was really only a sentimental attachment. I’m a collector: as a child I collected bird nests, rocks, and stamps. New Burlington was just a thing I could get to the bottom of. It was a collection of people and buildings and ideas of life and history. I liked the old people. Liked the quality of the voices.”

Then he said something else: “Towns are mortal, books are mortal, and us even more.”

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