Weekend Wanderlust: Ohio's Small Town Museum rivals all other small town museums

A monthly guide to day trips around Ohio and beyond

Kevin J. Elliott
Ohio's Small Town Museum in Ashville, Ohio

Full disclosure: As a high school English teacher by day, the advent of summer allows for an inordinate amount of time to follow my insatiable wanderlust. In my first week of vacation, I’ve already logged nearly 1,000 miles exploring Ohio’s small town museums and historical landmarks, not to mention my goal of visiting all 88 county courthouses

With travel nonexistent, the summer of 2020 was devastating for these tiny institutions, which usually operate on an ever-shrinking budget, rely on donations or grants to stay afloat, and run with a skeleton crew of volunteers. Some literally have trouble leaving the lights on. When I happened upon the Greene County History Museum, I had to ask the docent to flip the switch over a dusty set of artifacts from the Xenia tornado of 1974. But each of these museums, no matter how spartan, tells the story of that particular community. They're vital to the survival of specific histories. They represent a sense of place. 

These sites also serve as important reminders of our ugly past, and in their survival it’s important for current and future curators to rethink what they are tasked to preserve and display. At the Wood County Historical Society, for instance, what was once an exhibit holding the remnants of the 1881 murder of Mary Bach by her husband, Carl — including the weapon, the severed fingers of Mary, Carl’s bible and the noose from which he hung — is now presented in a new light, with an informational timeline and a teachable narrative.

Ohio’s Small Town Museum in Ashville has just about everything one could want from these museums under one roof. There is culture, innovation, controversy, myth and oddities of the onetime boomtown turned forgotten outpost in Pickaway County’s rural expanse. I’ve seen lots of these types of museums all over the country, but nothing is quite like this collection in Ashville. By 1975 the railroad depot had closed, there was no newspaper, no industry, and a University of Cincinnati study showed that Ashville had one of the lowest community identity scores in Ohio. At that point, a dedicated group of locals vowed to dig deep into all that remained to preserve the social history of bygone times. 

John Swingle, a retired Ashville postman, spends his free time manning the door of Ohio's Small Town Museum. Most days you’ll need to pound on the door a bit to get his attention. Eventually he let me in and asked that I immediately sign the guestbook (a good rule of thumb, along with dropping a few dollars in the donation box). 

“I always keep the door locked when I’m here by myself,” said Swingle, though during my time in Ashville I didn’t encounter another soul in the streets save for two barefoot kids running a lemonade stand. 

Most museum volunteers are a wealth of knowledge, and Swingle was no exception. He was eager to introduce me to the treasures that were tacked to the walls, hung from the ceiling, under glass, reproduced or taxidermized. 

Teddy Boor's famous traffic light, which brought tourists to Ashville for decades.

We spent a good 30 minutes discussing the museum's main attraction, Teddy Boor’s patented motorized traffic light. Though Boor is not the inventor of the traffic light, the massive, science-fiction-worthy orb holds the Guinness record for the longest traffic light in operation. From 1932 to 1982, the light brought tourists to the intersection of Long and Main streets. Eventually it was removed due to state regulations, and now it’s the crown jewel of the museum. 

Swingle then handed me the recently published Amazing Ashville by local historian Bob Hines. Many of the exhibits correspond directly with pages from Hines’ book, and their placards urge you to discover those stories. No matter how mundane or seemingly insignificant the tales, they create a spectacular panoply of collective history. Together the museum is a timeline of these fascinating lives virtually unknown outside of the county’s borders. 

Fittingly, the four quaint rooms of the museum reside in what was once the Dreamland Theater, a silent movie house that eventually closed because the owner couldn’t afford a system to accommodate talkies. Now it’s filled with ephemera that detail every aspect of life in Ashville since its founding to the present day. There is a nook dedicated to Vivian Michael, who was responsible for the area being the center of the puppetry world in the ‘50s and ‘60s; a New York Times best-selling cookbook written by Florence Brobeck, who had a celebrated recipe for turtle soup; records on the wall by singer Corinne Welsh, who topped the charts in the early 1900’s; and Jack Fox, the “Bourbon Cowboy,” who had minor success in the ‘80s. There’s even a nod to porn legend John Holmes, who was born in nearby Millersport. If there’s even the slightest connection to the community, it has a place here. 

Inside Ohio's Small Town Museum

The real charm of Ohio's Small Town Museum, though, is the abundance of Ripley’s-esque lore and hokum that gives Ashville its local color. Sprinkled throughout the history lessons and remembrances are testimonials about seeing the infamous headless ghost at the train tracks, theories about Viking inhabitants near the Snake Den Mound, UFO sightings and a stuffed rooster who would carry a dime to the town diner to pay for its feed.

Of course, the museum is not without controversy. Ashville reckons with its darkest chapter as a former “sundown town” by displaying a Ku Klux Klan robe, but it contextualizes the jarring image by acknowledging the fact that by 1935 those bylaws were lifted and the town had elected Harry Margulis, a Jewish lawyer from Columbus, as mayor. It’s refreshing to see a museum of this size address the warts in its history rather than paint Ashville as an idyllic society devoid of hate and intolerance. 

In that way, Ohio's Small Town Museum is a testament to what can be accomplished when a town seeks to preserve what may be forgotten in time. It’s a place in which all voices are heard and remembered, where even the tiniest triumphs are celebrated, and where one can learn from the mistakes of the past. This mix of the real and unreal is what gives Ashville life, even when there’s not much of it  to be found in the streets today.

Ohio's Small Town Museum is located at 32 Long St. in “downtown” Ashville. Regular hours are Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., but private tours are also available. As always, call before you go.