Day: April 13, 2016
Built in 1840 in Adams County for the purpose of counterfeiting 50 cent pieces and $500 bills, the Counterfeit House has stood for nearly 17 decades as a museum, tourist destination and now haunted, crumbling structure.
In the rolling hills and holler of Adams County, a dilapidated white house sits on a ridge above the Ohio River. The structure looks pretty ordinary for a crumbling building, but as any good criminal knows, looks can be deceiving—for this is a tale of counterfeit money, trap doors, hidden rooms and secret drops in the dead of night.
The first half of the 19th century was a golden age for American counterfeiters. There was no national currency, no greenback—just an unregulated patchwork of more than 1,600 private banks and 7,000 different bank notes. It was during this age of economic confusion, or so the story goes, that a counterfeiter named Oliver Tompkins arrived in Adams County to build his dream house.
It was in the spring of 1840 that Tompkins acquired about 150 acres on Gift Ridge (today Gift Ridge Road) for the construction of his home. An engraver by training, Tompkins is said to have taken up counterfeiting in Cincinnati, 70 miles down the river. However, some say he came from New York City and was already on the run from the law when he arrived in Ohio.
Tompkins’ accomplice was Ann Lovejoy, who may have been his sister, or possibly, his mistress. A good way from the bustle of the city, Adams County seemed the perfect place for the two to set up shop. Steamboats carried them a steady stream of customers who are said to have come from Pittsburgh, Portsmouth and Cincinnati all to acquire the product Tompkins and Lovejoy were selling—top quality counterfeit. For just ten dollars, you could get a flawless 500 dollar bill. But first, you had to know the rules.
Open for Business
The deals went down like this: on the nights the house was open for business, Tompkins would place a lantern in the attic window, a signal that was visible from the river. The customer would dock at a gull called Tompkins Landing and then make the mile trek up to the house.
From there, the customer needed to open the house’s locked door, done by jerking the doorknob straight upwards and then turning it. Once inside, they walked down the wide hallway that led to a back doorway. Above that doorway was a windowless room where Tompkins performed his craft, silently watching over the transactions. But customers did not know that they were being observed, all they knew was that inside the door to the right existed a slot and in that slot existed a notch. Inside that notch would be counterfeit money to buy with real money. The customer would would make the exchange without ever seeing anyone.
One Fateful Purchase
Tompkins and Lovejoy ran their operation seamlessly for at least a year until one fateful purchase brought the law on their trail. One afternoon, the story goes, Lovejoy boarded a riverboat bound for Cincinnati and booked a hotel to stay the night. While there she went into a local general store and bought a black shawl, paying with a counterfeit bill and getting genuine currency in return—but the bill she tried to pass was quickly identified as a fake. When she realized government agents were trailing her, Lovejoy quickly returned to her hotel to burn the shawl and gather her things. Authorities soon discovered the partially burned garment, and Lovejoy was identified. But the agents were too late to catch her—by this time Lovejoy had escaped on the last boat to Adams County. Once home, she rushed the mile and a half up to the house to tell Tompkins of her narrow escape. They knew the law would soon be closing in. Apparently, government agents had recently been snooping around, and Tompkins had even shot one. Their only choice now was to flee.
The End of an Era
The very next day, the authorities arrived at Tompkins Landing. Like many before them, they walked the mile up to the house only to find it abandoned, without any trace of counterfeiting. Legend has it that Tompkins and Lovejoy had ridden off to Concord, Kentucky, six miles to the east, after stashing the evidence in a secret tunnel that ran to the river and dynamiting the entrance shut. But the tale of the Counterfeit House was far from ending, and the biggest rouse of all was only beginning.
Lore, and a Curious Structure
For decades, local lore cited the spirits of those who died in the Counterfeit House and still inhabited the building. However, neither spirits nor mortal could have withstood the storm that blew through Adams County in 2008. The structure’s roofing was ripped open, and one of the relic’s seven chimneys blew apart and crumbled to the ground with the blast. The damage turned into despair and now, in its current state, dilapidation. In the front of the house, a small gable window used for a signal light now appears dusty and cracked. The special hidden slot built behind an interior door, believed to be the place where the counterfeit money was exchanged for the purchase price, is full of cobwebs.
Pieces of roofing that covered three bedrooms on the east side of the house are now pulled up, exposing insulation, ceilings and antique furnishings to Ohio’s natural annual elements. Nearly a dozen trees cover up the facade and chimney. A single bat has settled in the center of the hallway on a rusted chandelier; his droppings cover old newspapers scattered on the ripped up floorboards.
The now broken-down structure on Gift Ridge that was once a hub of illegal business has stood for nearly 17 decades. “Most of the story of the Counterfeit House is legend, but supported by fact,” Stephen Kelley, historian and columnist, writes in the People’s Defender, the weekly newspaper of Adams County. For instance, to this day, there is a trick lock on the front door that would seem to be locked to the average observer, yet when the knob is lifted in a certain way, it will open.
Other curious architectural elements include the house’s seven chimneys, as only two are functional. Ductwork in the house would send smoke from the two real chimneys to all the other stacks, making them appear to be real. Today, secret compartments in the fallen chimneys are visible from inside the house. A visitor might also observe the ornate carpet where Tomkins used to watch over his transactions, which now hangs from the ceiling.
The Legend Today
According to Kelley and Carla Lynn Spires, the house’s current owner who still lives on the property, the legend indeed includes bloodshed. They agree with the account that Lovejoy was in Cincinnati using some of the counterfeit money and was noticed by authorities. She was then followed back to the Counterfeit House by a Pinkerton agent, who managed to operate the trick lock and gain entrance to the house through the front door. And they both note it was in the 10-foot by 45-foot hallway where Tompkins allegedly murdered the agent. The floor and a wall are reportedly still stained with blood. “I saw the blood stain with my own eyes when I visited the house,” Kelley writes. “That would have been in 1973.”
However, for Spires, the house’s legacy is more complex. Despite the fear in her eyes when she refused to enter the kitchen, saying it would give her “weird dreams for weeks,” and the faint memories she has of hearing the house’s broken organ playing in the dead of night, she still isn’t completely sold on the ghastly presence of Tompkins and his companions.
“Now, I don’t know about the legend, but I do know that certain ghosts were not ghosts,” she says laughing to herself. “There was a bloody handprint on the wall, and it did come back every time we painted, but not before the last coat.”
Spires humor about the house is especially poignant, given her family’s roots with the property. A portion of the farm was purchased by a great-great uncle of Jo Lynn Spires, Carla Lynn’sdeceased mother, in 1896. Her grandparents, John and Elizabeth Johnson, purchased the house in the 1930s. Jo Lynn—an only child—grew up in the house with her parents, John and Alberta Johnson, and her grandfather. Carla Lynn similarly spent each weekend of her childhood at the notorious home with her mother and sister.
A Labor of Love
“I enjoyed growing up there,” Spires says. “I knew every Saturday, in warm weather, that we had to get up and really clean, because someone would always come to see the house. But I loved it.”
Since 1986, a Spires woman has lived in a trailer behind the house, and for much of the time it was open as a museum each summer. Carla Lynn describes her mother’s determination to keep the museum open even during her battle with cancer as none other than a “labor of love.”
“Over 1,000 people have come to see in one year,” Spires says. “We’ve had 400 students come. We dressed up in period clothes and did a reenactment of the murder. They loved it.”
In the End
It wasn’t until November of 1851 when Lovejoy finally returned to the area—this time, with a coffin. She said Tomkins had recently died, and she wanted to bury him in Adams County. The funeral was held in the parlor of the Counterfeit House. The body of 33-year-old Tompkins had finally been put to rest—or so it was said. To this day, many are convinced the coffin actually held a wax dummy and that Tompkins had watched the whole thing from one of the secret chimney compartments. In the end, Oliver Tompkins’ most convincing counterfeit may well have been his very own death—or even further, his ability to live on in the legend that is the Counterfeit House.
Take a look into what makes Brushcreek Motorsports Complex a special community in the summer.
To find a rural racecar track at night, you can either look for the glow of industrial floodlights or listen for the low decibel rumble of high performance engines. But in this case, the small—but loyal—community that gathers just south of highway 32 near Peebles every Friday and Saturday night, during the summer and early fall, need no directions.
This is a dirt track race, and much like a NASCAR race, fans have their favorite drivers, whom they support by waving signs and wearing t-shirts bearing the driver’s number. The men and women yell in excitement and curse with frustration as the cars speed on late into the night until the final race is over. This is Brushcreek Motorsports Complex and it’s driven by tradition, passion and sheer energy.
Going into its 15th year, Brushcreek is a well-oiled machine, much like the cars that race on its 3/10 of a mile track. And similar to how a racecar’s parts must seamlessly work together to ensue optimal performance, Brushcreek demands a careful coordination between its employees and participants. On race nights, concession stand workers hand out tacos-in-a-bag (their bestselling item) and ice-cold Pepsi (their official sponsor).
Tom Partin, who started the complex 15 years ago, takes care of the business financials and waters the track before racetime. His wife, Melissa, handles the tickets, guides the drivers and cars into the pit and ushers the audience into the track’s wooden bleachers that look like they’re straight out of a high school football stadium.
But perhaps the most insightful route to this rural racetrack experience is through the key individuals of Brushcreek; in this case, promotor, Steven Partin, driver and army veteran, Glenn East, and 11-year-old driver, Harrison Hall.
Stephen: The Engine that Keeps Brushcreek running
Prior to start time, every night at 6:30, all drivers must gather for a meeting about the night’s rules and regulations. This is when everyone’s gaze focuses on Tom and Melissa’s son, Steven, who has been the sight’s promotor since he was 14.
Standing high on a rock that sits in front of one of the concession stands, the 18-year-old gives the orders for the rest of the evening. Drivers listen intently to be sure they correctly hear the times of their events. The night’s races follow a schedule, so the spectators know when to expect the different classes of cars. At Brushcreek, there are five different classes of cars typically raced: modified, sport modified, sprint, mini-sprint and legend. Modified cars are the largest, engine-wise; sport modifieds are the next step below; sprint cars are the fastest and most recognizable by their wing-like side features; and legend cars are built to resemble automobiles from the 1930s.
After the meeting is adjourned, drivers hurry back to their cars while Partin bolts up into a wooden box at the top of one of the sets of bleachers. He readies for his second role as the race announcer, a position he’s unwillingly worked toward since he was a child. “Every night I would sit on the ground and play with the cars. I would have a race set up, and I would just play for hours and practice announcing,” Partin says. “I would copy what they said on the videos of some of the races that my parents would buy.”
These days, anywhere between 200 and 300 people might hear Partin’s race night commentary, and he doesn’t disappoint. As the cars come around the turns, Partin yells with enthusiasm-soaked metaphors that bring the crowd to its feet. And when Partin is firing on all cylinders, that is when Brushcreek is at its best.
Partin is just 18 years old, yet he is schooled in race promoting and marketing which means it’s only going to keep getting better. He often works with other local racetrack promoters to create events that could bring in spectators for everyone. Although Brushcreek is much smaller in size and attendance than the other tracks, Partin sees it as something that makes Brushcreek distinct.
“Everybody knows each other, whether they race in the same class or not. You see the other drivers around town,” Partin says. “They race with each other; they go to work with each other. These teams and drivers save up their money all week and all month long sometimes to bring the whole family out to race. It’s a home away from home for some of these guys.”
Glenn: A Race for Remembering
Under the brim of a worn, red hat that features a bald eagle holding an American flag in its talons, is a pair of eyes that have seen life’s losses. These eyes, the ones that witnessed the first hours of the 9/11 attacks at Ground Zero and months later saw best friends die in Afghanistan, belong to Glenn East. For nearly half of his life—1987-2011—East was enlisted in the military.
If asked, he’ll proudly recite the exact time that he served his country; 23 years, 8 months and 22 days. At the time of his retirement, East was listed as Sgt. First Class. Now, four years into his civilian life, East finds serenity in dirt track racing at Brushcreek.
“For me, it’s a stress reliever. I really love it and look forward to it every weekend,” East says, as he checks his car’s valves before a race.
In a field of vehicles that offers an array of colors and designs, East’s car stands out among the pack. The yellow coat of paint covering the majority of it show’s support for the military troops that fight for freedom, he explains. But as he begins describing the meaning of the red bars that hold the car together, he pauses and looks away. The surrounding activities buzz while East collects his thoughts as he fights back emotions evoked from his combat memories. “I get messed up when I think about it,” he says. “It’s for the blood that we shed. I lost some good friends over there.”
Each of the decals covering East’s modified car tell stories about his life. There’s the sticker that shows the silhouette of a man with the words “Free Fallin’” under him, symbolizing the 850 foot fall that East encountered after his primary and backup parachutes didn’t deploy during a jump. There’s a decal on the car’s back that lists all 15 members of his family and extended family who have served in the military. Beneath the names is a decal showing a group of soldiers hoisting an American flag against the backdrop of a sunrise over the ocean’s horizon. The number 87 decals on both sides of his car represent the year that he—at 18 years old—joined the military.
With his head back in tonight’s race, East sips a Mountain Dew under the stadium lights that shine bright off his POW patch on the left shoulder of his race suit. He watches as his car gets fine-tuned for the feature race later in the night. For East, Brushcreek’s weekly races are a family affair, much akin to military service. His daughter, Acacia and his son, Thomas are there every week to help with the car, along with his cousin Ray—who had the car waiting for him when he retired in 2011. His wife of 25 years, Velora East, sits on a hill that overlooks the track to watch him compete.
This summer, with the help of his family, East took control of the lead at Brushcreek in his respective class, only to finish second because of a crash in the final race. Winning isn’t everything to him, however, it’s about fun.
“We’re just a low budget team running against the big boys,” East explains, with a grin on his face. “We have a blast. My daughter always tells me before I go out to have fun.”
The big boys that he refers to are the racers that bring in trailers that have as much money put into them as East does into his car. They often have two levels that can transport two cars at once; a stark contrast to the small, raggedy trailer that East hauls around.
Although he turns 50 years old in a few years, he says he has much more drive left in him before he retires. In fact, East says he’s in it for the long haul.
“When I die, I’ll be watching from heaven.”
Harrison: Big Hearts in Small Places
About 100 feet away from where East and his family have parked their cars, a brown-haired boy wanders around, at the moment more intrigued by his Green Apple flavored Blowpop than racing. The lollipop-toting 11-year-old is Harrison Hall, a fifth grader from Circleville, who has over 7,000 likes on a Facebook page dedicated to his racing. Hall is hardly a novelty act; in fact, he’s a mini-celebrity.
He has been a boy amongst men since he was eight years old, when he started racing go-karts and won nine out of the 12 races he entered. He has since moved to the “sport modified” and “modified” classes, increasingly showing his prowess on the dirt tracks. And when it’s race time, Hall switches off the childlike attitude and focuses on one thing: speed. “I love going fast. It’s like sliding on ice, I love it,” Hall says with a smile.
What makes Hall so special is not the mere fact that he is racing—and winning—at such a young age, it’s what he does with his winnings. Every dollar Hall earns here is donated toward the Children’s Dream Racer foundation, which provides small NASCAR simulators for children going through cancer and dialysis treatment.
The machines Hall funds are Dream Racers, equipped with an IV pole and a flat screen TV so the kids can play games and pretend to be a driver during the medical procedure. The simulators cost approximately $9,500, and the ones from Hall are painted orange with the number 99 on both sides, resembling the car that Hall drives at Brushcreek.
Hall sounds like a seasoned professional when he describes his contributions. “They deserve to have fun at the hospital while they’re getting treatment so they can keep their mind off of it,” Hall says. “I think I would probably want to make a hospital for sick kids when I get older.”
Between races, Hall plays with his younger brother, Jackson and eats candy with a zeal that belies his age. As the night progresses on, his attention shifts toward winning the last race of the evening, the feature race. As he climbs into his car, he concentrates on his end game. “What I really think about is how it is in the hospital, and I just wonder how they’re [kids] doing,” Hall says. “Sometimes, I really wonder if they are in the Dream Racer.”
Brushcreek in the Future
If one pokes around Brushcreek’s website, they’ll see an advertisement that lists the complex for sale, with an asking price of nearly a half a million dollars. However, it doesn’t mean that the track is going under or is facing any money woes; rather, the family likes to keep options open. The Partins have plenty of financial stability through their six other family businesses, so the listing for Brushcreek is merely an indicator of their passion for the complex’s possibility.
“The track has been for sale for 15 years,” Partin says. “If somebody else could come along and has bigger and better ideas, we are not aside from letting them take over. I still will be in racing for the rest of my life, no matter if we sell the race track or not.”
Partin announces the last race of the night, then fits himself into his small, red and white legend car with the number 10 on each side. A few minutes later, he’s through the finish and exhausted, but nothing less than satisfied. “I just enjoy good racing and seeing fans have a good time,” Partin says.
As 1 a.m. approaches, Partin is the last inside the stadium. As he turns out the lights, his mind shifts to the upcoming week, when he will repeat his Brushcreek work schedule; the same routine that his father started 15 years ago, and the one Steven Partin now loves himself.
Businesses surrounding Buckeye Lake suffering because of state sanctioned low water levels. Chris Alexander has spent his entire 60 years living and working on Buckeye Lake, which straddles the Licking, Fairfield and Perry County borders. Alexander—owner of the marina Alexander’s Landing—says the restaurants, bars and marinas […]
Blennerassett Mansion and parts of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Refuge reside on the Ohio River islands near Belpre and Marietta.
To a visitor driving on State Route 7 along the Ohio River, the five tree-covered islands separating the Parkersburg and Marietta areas might inspire a moment of curiosity, and maybe even a quick Google search.
Even local residents might have trouble explaining what Buckley, Neal, Muskingum, Blennerhassett and Vienna Islands offer.
“They don’t even know they are there, let alone how they would get there,” Dr. Ray Swick, historian at Blennerhassett Museum, says with a laugh.
Islands of Refuge
Buckley, Neal and Muskingum are just three of 22 islands that are a part of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The refuge system’s mission is to protect wildlife habitats and preserve natural resources for future generations. It also serves as natural habitats for all kinds of wildlife.
Matthew Magruder, the visitor services manager at the Fish & Wildlife Service center in Williamstown, West Virginia, says migratory birds and freshwater mussels both rely on the refuge’s physical offerings.
The islands function as nature’s version of a rest stop for the birds as they travel thousands of miles across the United States every year. “If we don’t have as many [islands] as we do then those gaps get longer and longer and it makes it more difficult to make that trip,” Magruder says.
But mussels are the islands’ year-round residents, and living in the river along the islands are over 40 different species of freshwater mussels, six of which are endangered. The mussels are essential to the river’s ecosystem, as they help clean it. The tiny mollusks reduce sediment, silt and pollutant buildup by filtering water and digesting plankton—thus maintaining proper levels of the organism.
The islands are also a habitat for another animal—humans. They are a site for the outdoorsmen and women to enjoy. Every day, between an hour before the sunrise and an hour after it sets, the islands, which are only accessible by boat, are open to visitors. During these daylight hours, visitors can hike, swim, fish and hunt with proper permits, take photos and generally explore, so long as it is not destructive.
The Blennerhassett Sanctuary
The history of these islands is as rich as its soil, and for the 200 years prior to the islands joining the refuge system in the 1990s, their list of owners and uses regularly changed. However, the 381-acre Blennerhassett is certainly the most storied.
The island features Blennerhassett Mansion, a reconstruction of the former home of Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett. It is known for its extravagance and accompanying scandal.
The story goes that in 1796, the Blennerhassetts arrived in Pittsburgh from Ireland to start a new life in America. With plenty of money in their pockets, they had their eyes set on settling in Tennessee, the Union’s newest state.
Before long, the two became aware of the brutal reality that was the American West, contrary to what they had been told was full of “Gardens of Eden.” Rather than settling in Tennessee, the family decided to plant their roots in the upper Ohio River Valley.
In 1797, they arrived in Marietta to live along the Ohio River. “It one was one of the great rivers in the world,” Swick says. “[Thomas] Jefferson said it was one of the most beautiful rivers in the universe. The land was extremely fertile and the most fertile lands were on the [river] islands.”
In 1798, the Blennerhassetts purchased 169 acres of Belpre Island, and by September of 1800, their mansion was completed.
Standing behind meticulously manicured lawns and gardens was a 12-room, white mansion that contained about 7,000 square-feet of living space. Trees were cleared in the front lawn of the home so passersby on the river could see the impressive Palladian-style home well from afar. The Blennerhassetts wanted to make an impression.
But the family’s stay in their home was short-lived, after they were accused of supporting former vice president Aaron Burr’s conspiracy to form an army in the west, a treason against his own nation.
Blennerhassett offered Burr financial support and his own home as a base of operations, and with militia coming to the island, the family deserted their homestead in 1807.
In March 1811, the island was under the ownership of Thomas Neale, who farmed hemp on the land and used the mansion to store around 20 tons of his crop.
It is said that his slaves started a fire for warmth in his cellar, and the fire spread to the hemp and, eventually, it burned down the house. Historians like Swick note the event as curious, given the slaves had means to start fires for warmth in their quarters.
The single-family ownership of the island lasted just more than a decade. After the house’s destruction, the island was divided into five farms and rented out for the next century. DuPont purchased the island in 1966, for water and aquifer purposes in its plastic manufacturing.
To this day, the whole island is still owned by DuPont, and the mansion site is leased to the state of West Virginia.
Swick credits American bicentennial fever that was sweeping the nation in the 1970s for the idea of reconstructing the mansion and making a state park out of the island. “The federal government was just
shoving money at localities,” he says.
And Blennerhassett was considered one of the most significant cites in the region’s history. Between 1973 and 1974, state archaeologists dug up the mansion’s ruins and uncovered its foundation stones.
In 1980, the island opened up as a state park, similar to today’s refuge islands. Besides natural sites, the visitors could see the foundation stones. In 1984, reconstruction of the mansion began, and on July 4, 1991, the rebuilt Blennerhassett mansion was opened to the public.
With the foundation stones uncovered, architects knew the dimensions of the house’s ground floor. A journal from a visitor tipped them off that the room layout on the second floor mirrored the ground floor. Those clues provided a solid start for a rebuild, but it was travelers’ accounts, court records and the Blennerhassetts’ own writings that filled in most of the remaining holes.
For example, architects knew how many windows were in the house and their sizes because they have records from when Harman was purchasing windows for the house. “Blennerhassett has the best recorded history of any island in the river,” Swick says. Anyone associated with it always recorded plenty of information.
For Swick and the rest of the staff that were involved in the rebuild, those records were like a mosaic. Eventually, they got enough information for a whole picture.
The front three rooms of the main part of the house are the most accurately reconstructed rooms. To the right of the main entry room is the lower drawing room, with polished black walnut panels from floor to ceiling. But while there is still a lot known about the rooms, there are still unknowns.
Upon entering the house, the wide, spacious and curved staircase to the second floor grab attention on the right side of the room. Swick says that the museum staff still is not sure exactly where the original stairs were. “There are still mysteries that this house has not given up,” he says.
The house is not all brand new. Along with the original foundation stones, the house holds 15 original artifacts. Three alabaster pieces that were found in Akron, Ohio, and a piano that was found in Gallipolis are also a part of the museum. When the Blennerhassetts deserted the mansion, they could take few possessions with them. Months after their departure, their belongings were auctioned off and scattered hundreds of miles.
All said and done, the mansion reconstruction cost almost $1 million.
Like the refuge islands, Blennerhassett is accessed only by boat. The difference is that visitors must purchase a ferry ride on a sternwheeler to reach the island. On the island, guests can tour the house, rent bicycles, take a horse-drawn carriage ride around the island, visit the gift shop and have a picnic under shelters.
Today, the island draws over 50,000 visitors annually. Swick believes the island continues to draw in visitors because of its unique story, which he calls a microcosm of American history. Though it is most known for the period that the Blennerhassetts inhabited the island, much more has happened on the little strip of land. Native Americans inhabited the island up to 13,000 years ago. Civil War incidents occurred on the island, as did bootlegging wars. “There was excitement at all times,” Swick says. “Whatever was going on in the rest of the nation, you will find examples [on Blennerhassett].”
“You drive past them, you see them, but you don’t really think about what is possible to do out there,” Swick says.
While our country’s history constantly shifts, the islands continue residing in the Ohio River, unmoving and constant. Sometimes those traits escape our notice.
In this case, you just have to look.