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Disappearing act: 2020 marks the end for three Somerton landmarks

Bruce Yarnall
former Enterprise general manager

SOMERTON -- A former National Trust for Historic Preservation co-worker here in Washington, DC, Dwight Young penned a book review a few years ago for The Place You Love is Gone – Progress Hits Home by Melissa Holbrook Pierson. I immediately purchased a copy and quickly consumed the volume that chronicled the decline of three communities important to the author’s life.

I was dumbstruck by the following. “We live with the knowledge that every feature of the physical world we knew in our youth – from individual houses and schools to entire neighborhoods and landscapes – will probably disappear, or at least be altered out of recognition, by the time we reach old age.”

Wow! Indeed. The Somerton community of my youth has steadily disappeared over the last half century. Today, only 54 percent of the buildings in place in 1960 are still standing, a loss of almost half. Of seven major brick buildings, only one remains. Three of four partial log residences are also gone.

During this strange year we call 2020, it is the end of the road for three more Somerton buildings. The large, frame former schoolhouse, a residence once used as a tollhouse and soon a pre-Civil War brick opposite the Methodist Church will be no more. A brief history of each follows.

This image of Somerton students gathered in front of the building was taken shortly after the school opened in 1890. The bell that summoned pupils for 62-years is now located in the town’s cemetery.

Somerton School – The town’s fourth school building was erected in 1890, a large two-room affair with belltower. A year after opening, high school classes were added. Somerton was a third-class high school until 1911 when it became a full four-year program.

In 1905, three more rooms were added. The school served all 12 grades until the new high school on Johnson Ridge opened in the fall of 1940. Elementary students continued to attend classes here until 1952 after the high school was shuttered by the state. During its entire 62-year run as a school, there was no indoor plumbing. Two frame outhouses stood in rear opposite corners of the school lot long after the school closed.

The school board auctioned the building to Nick Marshall of Wheeling who told the press he intended to raze the building. Instead, he sold it to Norman and Orma Gaines who converted the structure in a livestock feed mill. The mill was later run by Wilford and Helen Mann and Bob Shriver. Its final use was as a warehouse for Clark Construction. It was purchased by the Somerton Fire Department earlier this year.

Mead’s Atlas of 1888 reveals the location of Barnesville and Someton Pike Company tollhouse. The location of the town’s school is also evident.

Barnesville and Somerton Pike tollhouse – Erected in 1866 when the Pike was established, the main room of this residence stood in the street right-of-way downgrade and across from the school. A long wooden pole across the street stopping all traffic. Once the toll was paid, the toll master would raze the pole allowing passage. When the turnpike company ceased operations in 1912, the building was moved back onto the adjoining lot. It was an early home for the Somerton Telephone Company before it was converted into a residence. In middle of the last century it was the home of World War I vet Walter Anderson and his wife Martha.

Nettie Crane Hodgin, wife of retired banker Irving Hodgin, was photographed with the Ely-Detling brick in the far-left background shortly before her death in 1946. Also visible is the Lou Keene barber shop, center, and the Crane home.

Ely/Detling residence – One of five historic brick residences in town, this Pre-Civil War structure on lot 9 initially stood across the street from the town’s one-room school and later the Methodist Church. It was the boyhood home of Dr. James Sykes Ely, whose parents migrated to Somerton in 1832. It is likely his father built the original four-room brick. Dr. Ely graduated from the Ohio Medical College in Cincinnati in 1863. He was immediately commissioned as assistant surgeon for the 125th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. When he returned home following the war, he set up practice in Barnesville where he lived until his death in 1914. His son, Ernest, was co-owner/operator of the Ely and Wilson Drug Store located on the corner of Main and Arch streets. The younger Ely erected the stately Colonial Revival brick at 520 N. Chestnut, the longtime home of the late John and Madge Bradfield.

For the past century, the Somerton structure served as home to five generations of the Detling family including Ernest and Olive Smith Detling and more recently Larry and Carol Britton Detling. Unfortunately, not one but two errant drivers veered off Route 800 this year hitting the old brick residence damaging it beyond repair. A family member confirms it is slated to be torn down.