When my father Howell Wood was born in 1903 on the family farm near Mercerville, rural life in Gallia County was strenuous but enjoyable. Food was mostly home grown, friends and family were nearby and Gallipolis and villages nearby were growing along with the commerce on the Ohio River. The country was at peace, Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House and the wounds of the Civil War had healed.
The head of the household, Isaac Wood, grew tobacco, corn and vegetables as well as apples and other fruit from the orchard behind their two-story log house. Ike’s wife Laura (Howell) tended two other children. Roma was 16 and Robert 7 when Howell was born.
Ike got most of his income from the blacksmith shop attached to his barn that fronted on Hannan Trace, that a century earlier was a main road connecting the Ohio River with Chillicothe. There was steady demand for wagon wheels, horseshoes and farm tools. The business survived until the early 1920s when the new-fangled invention from Detroit, the Model T, put many blacksmiths out of business.
Howell at age nine remembered two things from the fateful year 1912; the Titanic went down in the North Atlantic; and Teddy Roosevelt ran for president as a third party candidate, splitting the beloved Republican party led by Ohioan incumbent William Howard Taft.
Getting an education wasn’t easy in rural Gallia County. The roads were unpaved and without automobiles it was difficult to get to Gallipolis ten miles to the northeast. There were neither telephones nor electricity. Farm families coped as best they could with one-room country schools that served children of all ages, mostly from first to eighth grades.
In 1918 when Howell was 15 his parents devised a plan for him to continue his studies beyond the eighth grade education he had received at the one-room school in Mercerville, only one mile from the farm. Brother Robert had already left home and joined the navy.
Ike and Laura selected what was called a third-class-high school that was opening in the Harrison Township hall six miles away. For two years Howell traveled on horseback to Hilton High School on Little Bullskin Road. He rode on Hannan Trace past Dickey Church, then northeast to the Harrison Township hall.
On April 29, 1921 a ceremony took place at Macedonia Church in Harrison Township for the four students graduating from Hilton High School.
During the next few months Howell enrolled for short-term study Rio Grande College, about 15 miles northeast from the farm, and obtained a cadet teaching certificate that permitted him to teach in Gallia County.
In 1923 at the age of 20 Howell took over the one-room Gregory School in Guyan Township at the southern most part of Gallia County between Crown City on the Ohio River and the Lawrence County line. The district was and still is hilly, remote and poor.
Howell very much enjoyed living and teaching in the self-reliant district at the far end of Williams Creek Road four miles over the steep hill behind Crown City. In a 1985 letter Howell Wood wrote about the experience:
“Gregory School was a one-room rural school that sat on a knoll above Montgomery Road. There was a wood or coal stove in the center. Part of my job was to walk the 1½-miles from where I was boarding and get there early enough to have the fire going before the kids arrived. There was a large blackboard in front and my desk was in the right-hand corner. There was a girls’ toilet outside with two seats and a Sears Roebuck catalogue. There was nothing for the boys.”
“I enjoyed working there and stayed on the job for three years. My salary started at $100 per month. During the third year voters turned down a millage increase and I was paid $150, which was all the township board had. When school was out they gave me a certificate of indebtedness for the balance with 3% interest.”
By the early 20’s Ike’s blacksmith business had pretty much died. In 1923 Isaac and Laura gave up the farm and moved to Gallipolis and resided on Lower Garfield Road on the Ohio River and not far from daughter Roma and son-in-law Claude Stewart’s growing family.
During his three years of teaching, Howell on most weekends made the long journey to Gallipolis to visit family and friends. In a 1989 letter he described the routine:
“I would leave the Garlands’ house (where I boarded) on Williams Creek and walk the three plus miles to Crown City. I would pick up the mail and then walk to the river’s edge where a friend ran a ferry (small boat with motor) and would take me across to the West Virginia side for 25 cents. I would then walk the short distance to the small wooden shed or depot where we would hang out the red flag signaling the B & O train from Huntington to Pittsburgh to stop. Once aboard, at about 9:30 in the morning, I paid the small fare to the conductor and sat in the soft seat for the trip to Gallipolis Ferry.” The letter continues:
“On arriving there I would walk from the depot to the ferry to Gallipolis. Once in Gallipolis I would walk to the park and Second Avenue to do shopping– at Harry Frank’s clothing store, then Oscar’s poolroom, the First National Bank and then on to Garfield Avenue. Then on Sunday I would make the return trip. It was always a pleasure to go home, the folks were wonderful, telling me what had happened since my last trip home.”
Crown City, the once substantial village where riverboats called on their journeys between New Orleans and Pittsburgh, is a mere shadow of what it was. The boat landing where the makeshift ferry to West Virginia operated is gone. What remains is a scenic view of the river and of the towboats that go by.
Being compensated with less cash than promised and with a promissory note of dubious value brought Howell Wood’s teaching career to a close. Like his brother, he departed the southern Ohio hills for better opportunities elsewhere. Dad came to Michigan as part of an AT&T crew putting in telephone lines. South of Grand Rapids he met my mother, then a telephone operator, and the rest is history.
But in the old barn on the home place near Mercerville, Howell Nelson Wood left tangible evidence of his presence. In August 1916 he painted his name on a hand-hewn rafter of the barn built by his father. In 2019 it is still there.#