Well over a century before Dr. Sam Sheppard—and “The Fugitive” TV series his case inspired—there was a man in Northfield, Ohio, who spent much of his adult life combing the corners of the young republic in a long, desperate attempt to clear his name of a murder charge. But Dorsey Viers was looking, not for a murderer, but a “murderee”—the man everyone in Northfield was circumstantially certain he had killed. After wandering through towns, trains, and taverns, calling aloud to bemused groups of people, he finally his “victim”, alive and well in a Detroit bar.
The story is just one of dozens of intriguing facets of author Jeff Knowles’s childhood home land in the Cuyahoga River valley—and larger Western Reserve—that he either did not know or blithely ignored well into his adult life. Cuyahoga’s Child: Growing Up in the Valley of the Crooked River, his 3-decade-labored memoir/history, is the author’s mid-and later-life vow to correct this personal insult to the magnificent historical and cultural gold mine that was the ground he so obliviously walked as a boy.
Cuyahoga’s Child is the reflections, memories and historical gratitude of an older man who needed half a century to fully appreciate the Cuyahoga River valley of his youth. Even undergraduate and graduate degrees in history failed to arouse his suspicion that the land he so obliviously roamed as a boy might have been a cultural and historical gold mine. Midlife and the aging process proved a better teacher.
This book is history broadly defined in that it attempts to connect a personal history, measured in years and from an individual perspective, with a place history, measured in centuries and reflecting the full northeastern Ohio cultural context. The method for doing so rides on the elements common to both, such as the land, the canal, the buildings, among others, and provides a single stage for these widely diverse characters. Two stories, two voices, one home.
Knowles and his fellow Baby-boomers of the ’50s and ’60s simply assumed that this chunk of American real estate was just an unremarkable backdrop to an ordinary existence. Instead, says Knowles, “observers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson saw the outline of its destiny immediately” for the very ground where “the boy” grew up.
The boy lived on a plot of ground that had been trampled by some of the greatest military figures in the history of the continent: Iroquois and Ottawas and a wandering Shawnee chief, Indians who held the land for what is still more than half of the white man’s time in the “new world.” The boy’s home overlooked the magnificent river valley (were the thick trees to have permitted such a look), and at the base of the valley wall, the foot of his hill, stood the overgrown ruins of a lock on the Ohio-Erie Canal. A few feet west of Old Red Lock flowed the waters that once marked the western boundary of the United States.
That canal lock and its flow of slack water was the internal lynch pin that united the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, and made the young Unites States an economic whole. And all of it had happened right under the boy’s feet.
The chapters of Cuyahoga’s Child are essentially nouns, probing the fascinating history and development of the area. But the larger, yet more subtle theme, is the ancient business of a man recognizing his roots, of better understanding who he is by reflecting on the “where” question among the five essential “W” identifiers in life. So, Cuyahoga’s Child emerges as a dance, of sorts, choreographed for two unlikely partners: one a sleep-walking youth, the other a vast and rich cultural legacy that was leaving the trails he would mindlessly walk, and sharpen the rocks that would edge—and sometimes direct–his life course.
Jeff Knowles is inviting us to the same dance.
Cuyahoga’s Child, 340 pages with full color maps and photos, was published for the author by Orange Frazer Press in Wilmington, Ohio (November, 2015). The Foreword was written by KSU Professor Emeritus, Stephen Paschen, and several of the photos were provided by renowned Ohio nature and landscape photographer, Ian Adams. The book is available at the Learned Owl Book Shop in Hudson, as well as in Loganberry’s in Shaker Heights, Mac’s Backs Books in Cleveland Heights, and the Cuyahoga Valley National Book Store in Boston. And on Amazon.
Former Pulitzer Prize nominee, the late William D. Ellis, whose office was in Bay Village, was source of personal help and inspiration in the research for this book.