Cover Story: The Battle of Chilo

Government rules trounce village spirit in Clermont County

Jon Hughes/

Welcome to Chilo.

Drive east along U.S. 52 as it winds along the Ohio River and stretches past farmland and rolled bales of hay, past a couple of power plants — Zimmer in the village of Moscow sends white clouds skyward — past campgrounds and homes that sit at river's edge, through the villages of New Richmond, Moscow and Neville, as the population begins to thin, before the road skirts the tiny village of Chilo, about 40 miles east of Cincinnati.

Turn right on Market Street at the edge of town and follow it to the home of Shirley Keller, who is 66 and has lived here all her life. Keller sits on her porch — a porch her parents and her grandparents before her used on those hot summer days that brought a lilt to leaves and flowers — and looks out over an empty field that spreads for a few village blocks before ending at U.S. 52.

"It's changed a lot,'' Keller says of Chilo. "Used to have restaurants and stores. Two or three stores, four restaurants I know of. Now we have nothing but the Dairy Bar.''

The village has no traffic lights, no industry, no commerce save the Chilo Dairy Bar. Traffic is so scant that Terrie Elkins doesn't worry when her son B.J., 12, takes to the few streets in town on his bicycle.

"You don't worry about traffic, don't worry about your kids getting kidnapped, no drug dealers,'' Elkins says. "You don't worry about anything here.

Just the river.''

The Ohio River has been both attraction and scourge. Five years ago the river rose and reclaimed what belongs to the river, its flood plain. In March 1997, it swelled and poured water and mud into homes along a 25-mile stretch in Clermont County, from New Palestine to Utopia. Four villages and five townships were affected along this scenic stretch of the Ohio. More than 260 homes were flooded, from mobile homes to houses valued at $100,000.

Here in Chilo, the river barged into Ada McElfresh's home on Washington Street and sent her to live with her son for the next four months. It turned Ed Dean's basement at his home on County Park Road into a swimming pool. Across the street from McElfresh, the river swept into two homes owned by Constance Reiber, one of them at 402 Washington St., a modest home with a side porch, unoccupied, covered with siding and shaded by stately oak trees.

Those who have lived long in this river town knew the siding on this house covered one of Chilo's earliest homes and its post office — a log house of enormous timber dating back to the early to mid-1800s that had, over the course of close to 200 years, endured and withstood some 23 Ohio River floods.

Until just last week, the log house had stood at the center of a dispute pitting the village — the tail, say some, that definitely does not wag the dog of the county — against the federal, state and Clermont County governments.

It's a dispute that had gone to the heart of such issues as setting precedents, preserving history and at what cost, the clout of small town America, the indifference of big government and the inflexibility of bureaucracies.

In some ways, the fate of this log house was as uncertain, as unclear, as the future of this village itself. But when it started coming down last weekend, did it signal the end of the town itself?

A preservationist began taking it apart log by log, as delicate as one can be with huge timbers, to save the log house, but not here. Somewhere else. Town people came by, drove by, one by one, to watch as the addition disappeared, the side porch disappeared, the bricks on the side fireplace disappeared. The roof came apart, one slat at a time. By mid-afternoon on Aug. 17, all that was left were the beams.

Those who live here don't believe the town will go the way of the cabin — Chilo will survive — but it was the death knell for what could have been its signature landmark, a cabin of oak beams, four walls of hearth and home that had sheltered families for two centuries. It was a tiny slice of history, as tiny as the town itself.

Will the village be deconstructed and reassembled, like the log house itself, as something that will only suggest its former self?

All original stuff
The Ohio River is what has defined the town since the early 1800s, when it was first settled by pioneers and became the shipping port for Felicity, four miles away. A public landing bustled and steamboats were built here.

Among its tradesmen were merchants, a tavern-keeper, miller and brick-mason. The town had physicians, innkeepers, river traders and pilots. The Chilo Lock and Dam, built in the early 1900s, employed even more. The lock and dam closed in 1965, when the Meldahl Dam opened down river. The town got its first postmaster in 1825. Today, at least, it still has a post office.

The river has chased away people and has attracted others over the past 200 years. Yet the town was never very large. Pinched between the river and a forested hillside, its population probably reached its height in 1880 when 500 lived here. Today just 97 people live in Chilo, 25.4 percent fewer than in 1990 when 130 lived here. That was down 25 percent from the 173 who lived here in 1980.

By various accounts, the river and its natural fickleness for flooding had something to do with declining population. But so did the disappearance of commerce, the closing of the lock and dam, the village's remoteness, an older population leaving or dying and not being replaced, homes being abandoned and razed or even burning down, the property left vacant.

Close to half of just 39 households in the village are occupied by people age 60 and older. Nine homes are vacant. Just 10 residents are ages 20-34. According to the 1990 U.S. Census, the median value of a Chilo home was $28,300. Median household income in 1990 was close to $27,000.

Take a drive around Chilo, a quick trip in a community of less than a square mile. It is, as most residents will tell you without fear of cliché, peaceful and quiet. From Shirley Keller's porch, the traffic along U.S. 52 can be seen and not heard. Muffled. There's much greenspace and empty fields, some newly mowed of tall grass and weeds.

A handful of foundations survive, footprints of past history. There are mobile homes and modest homes with front porches that invite people to sit and enjoy the quiet. At the corner of Washington and Market streets, a small lot of corn stalks reaches chest-high, surrounding a hull of cinderblock. A few homes have been swallowed by vegetation, but another handful are spanking new brick homes that overlook the river.

While the village has lost population, lost its commerce, lost homes, Chilo had tried to preserve what it considered its earliest piece of history — the log house. Its log house.

The log house hadn't presented itself well in the recent past. It was sided over, a kitchen was added in back. It didn't look like a log house.

But the siding was stripped from it a year ago when word got out it had been sold and was slated for demolition. Enormous solid oak beams, 16 inches high, were revealed, many of the logs with the bark still on them.

The log house was constructed using a cathedral cut, a cut looking like a steeple where the huge logs fit into one another at the corners. The chinking — limestone and mortar — fitted between the timbers is original. The chinking and the size of the timbers explained its perseverance in the face of almost two dozen floods.

"This is all original stuff,'' says Joe Palazzolo, who owns a cottage in Chilo. "It's been here, it belongs here.''

Who owns history?
When the river flooded five years ago and a federal declaration of disaster was declared, the federal government came in. The Hazard Mitigation Grant Project, offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is designed to get people out of harm's way following a flood, so that damages and injuries are minimized in the event of another flood and money isn't spent on rescue and recovery efforts.

The Ohio Emergency Management Agency (OEMA) administered the project. In a nutshell, the project offers three options to people victimized by flooding — selling their homes, flood-proofing or elevating their homes or doing nothing. The program is strictly voluntary.

Federal money is offered only if the local or county government buys into it, because it requires a 25 percent match from local authorities. Along the river in Clermont County, 260 homes were identified as eligible to participate. About 45 homeowners chose to participate one way or another; the vast majority chose not to.

The cost of the program was more than $2 million, the federal grant being approved more than 16 months following the flood. Deadlines were extended, but in the end about 28 homeowners chose to elevate their homes, which involved literally jacking them up. Another half-dozen or so chose flood proofing, which involved moving water heaters, furnaces and other appliances out of basements and to higher ground.

About 10 homeowners chose to sell. By law, homes that were purchased with grant money had to be demolished and the property left as greenspace in perpetuity.

Constance Reiber chose to sell her two homes on Washington Street in 2000. The Ohio Historic Preservation Office, alerted by Clermont County that one of the houses was an older structure, sent a letter to the county, saying it didn't believe the house was eligible for listing with the National Register of Historic Places.

The log house, still covered in siding, was appraised in August 2000 at $34,000 and was finally purchased by the county in April 2001.

When some Chilo residents and officials learned of the sale and pending demolition, they began to organize. Some of the clapboard siding was stripped away, revealing the beams. They hired their own historic preservation firm. They convinced the county to halt demolition.

The Committee to Save Chilo's Historic Log Cabin formed a year ago and began lobbying county and state officials to turn the log house over to it. The committee would hold both the state and county faultless should future flooding damage the structure. But the committee was told two weeks ago the log house could be saved only by buying it back — for $34,000 — or disassembling the logs and moving it.

We don't have that kind of money, the committee said. Chilo isn't a wealthy town, they said. We prefer it remain where it was built, they insisted.

Rules are rules, the committee was told. The law is the law.

"Chilo is a very small village, but we're proud of where we live and we'd like to hang onto our history,'' Mayor Shana Stevenson had told the Clermont County Board of Commissioners last October.

"Our village will be forever changed for the worse if the log cabin is removed,'' Charles Jackson, a former Clermont County probate judge and Chilo resident, told the commissioners in October.

The committee's report on the log house, prepared by Jeannine Kreinbrink, an archaeologist with Natural & Ethical Environmental Solutions in West Chester, was presented to the commissioners in October. Based on construction techniques and county records and deed books, she estimated the house was built as early as 1835, if not earlier. It was probably used as a post office between 1870 and 1876.

"Local historical significance is important to the residents of Chilo,'' Kreinbrink concluded in her report. "They connect this log house through time and to the earliest residents and developers of their community. Preserving the log house would enhance the historical interpretation of Chilo and the other Ohio river communities in Clermont County, providing opportunities for education and tourism.''

County Administrator David Spinney told the committee last October that the county in effect owned the log house, using federal grant money, and the law required demolition.

"We have an agreement that requires us to remove structures that we acquire,'' Spinney said. "There would have to be some sort of waiver to consider your request.''

In the end, demolition was again delayed.

"History is important to all of us,'' Commissioner Bob Proud said.

The log house was allowed to stand. For the time being.

A Place where you can leave the doors Unlocked
Small towns struggle to survive in Ohio. Take the river towns in Clermont County. Neville, at 127 people, has lost almost 44 percent of its population since 1990. Moscow, with 244 people, is down 12.5 percent. Even New Richmond, something of a renaissance village with its arts and crafts heritage and with much more commerce than its sister river towns, lost close to 8 percent of its population, down to 2,219.

Ohio has 264 incorporated villages with fewer than 500 people, according to an Associated Press report in May; 156 of them lost population in the past 10 years. People ages 55-64 living in these towns are three times more numerous than people age 18-24. Nearly 80 percent of these small villages saw residents ages 25-34 move away.

The towns losing population are already small, rural villages. Across the country, the shrinkage is taking place in towns far from urbanized centers, with little or no culture or commerce — far from, say, an international airport.

Clifford Clark, professor of history at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., whose expertise is small-town America, said rural towns do disappear, especially if they lose an industry or public school or are no longer connected with a network close to commerce or industry.

"In the 20th and 21st centuries, what we see is a kind of a process by which if small towns are no longer connected, or if the economy they depended on has changed, they start to disappear,'' Clark says. "You can see that in North and South Dakota, Iowa, parts of rural Minnesota. These places get smaller and smaller, there's a process of decline. One of the key moments in the demise of a small town is when you can no longer have your public school.''

Or a post office.

"Usually, these towns just get smaller and smaller,'' Clark continues. "At a certain point the basic services that the town supplies — like is there water, is there sewage, do you have a police department — make a difference. One way to study this is look at the post office disappearing.

"In the 19th century, getting a post office established in your town was a big thing. If you have a post office address, you have an address. If you don't have a post office, you're not there.''

Chilo has a post office, it has a town hall, it has a mayor and village council. It doesn't have any local taxes. Its $35,000 budget comes from local government funds supplied by the state and county. It pays for garbage collection and street lighting. The village itself couldn't begin to cover the expense of buying back a $34,000 log house.

What Chilo lacked in political savvy and clout it made up in persistence over the past year. The village of 97 had held off big government and forestalled the wrecking ball.

Terrie Elkins lived in Chilo and moved to nearby Felicity for a few years. She missed Chilo and moved back.

"I moved out and I missed it,'' she says. "It just wasn't the same in Felicity. Here my son rides up and down the streets and I don't worry. I like it here.''

Charles Jackson is 80 years old and has lived in Chilo since 1975. Before becoming a probate and juvenile judge, he was a state legislator. He lived in Cincinnati and Norwood before moving to Clermont County in 1948. A realtor showed him a home on Green Street, and he fell in love with it.

"The neighbors know one another,'' Jackson says. "Not a whole lot has changed, which is good. It's a very nice, quiet community. People take pride in it. Very little or no criminal activity. There's the beauty of it, the proximity of the river.''

Mayor Stevenson has lived in town for 18 years, having moved here when she married her husband, who has lived in Chilo for 30 years.

"It's a peaceful village near the river,'' she says. "Lots of nice people. Just a comfortable atmosphere. I honestly don't know what will happen to Chilo. I'd like to hope it will remain.

"Yes, we are a small village, but we do exist. We're on the river and we're proud of what we have. We want to continue to be a part of the county.''

Bob Hull, 67, has lived in Chilo about 50 years. His parents lived in Chilo.

"I just stayed,'' Hull says. "It's a nice place to live. Nice and quiet. We don't have no robberies or anything like that. Just a nice, quiet river town. Someone left town on vacation and left the door unlocked. Not a thing was bothered. Nowadays you have to appreciate something like that. That's worth something anyway.

"We had a grocery store and carry-out and about two saloons. That's about it. Now there's a Dairy Bar and that's about it now."

Daniel Long works at the Dairy Bar, along with his wife, Clarissa Long; brother-in-law Jerry McKibben; and sister-in-law, Bonnie McKibben. They all live now in Georgetown in Brown County but grew up near Chilo.

"Used to be all kinds of businesses here — two gas stations, two bars, the old bus station across the street,'' Daniel Long says. "This was a booming little town."

All that booms now is the Chilo Dairy Bar, where you can get milkshakes for $1.75 and $2.25, where potato chips are stacked in racks and shelves hold loaves of Butternut bread. Sandwich platters with fries and slaw run about $4 to $4.50, and the specials this day include a ribeye steak sandwich at $4, a Philly sandwich at $4.75 and a spicy chicken sandwich at $4.

Joe Palazzolo owns a cottage in the village, but he's not a resident. Nonetheless, he thinks of himself as a shareholder in the community. He is passionate about the community and the log house, which he considers, in addition to the river itself, its remaining signature.

"That is Chilo's one little memento for that village,'' Palazzolo says. "That's all they had. It's their little heirloom. There are some people who don't give a rat about that cabin. But most do. Places need character and they shouldn't be those planned cookie-cutter subdivisions. There should be more to life than that. There should be some surprise to life, some excitement, some unusual stuff, some history.

"That's what the log cabin represented. That little slice and attachment to history. We're connected to the past. It's something that downtown Cincinnati doesn't have. It's their little thing. It's meaningful.''

Dan Burke lives on the outskirts of Chilo. But he has a vested interest in the town and its log house. He loves the beauty and silence of the village, its remoteness.

"It's so important because it is a slice of history that cannot be replaced or rebuilt." Burke says. "It's a crystal example of the ruggedness of the people who founded the Ohio Valley area in the early 1800s. That type of construction you don't even see in the in the refurbished log cabins. You don't get a flavor for the crudeness and the roughness and the strength with which these people had to endure. I think it's reflective of where we came from and it's a slice of history that will be lost forever. That's truly regrettable.''

Ed Dean sits on the deck in his back yard, overlooking the river. An American flag and Ohio flag flap in the breeze. The river flows by here wide and swift, with the horizon to the south filled with the hills of Kentucky.

"They ought to let the people here do what they want with this property, in my humble opinion,'' says Dean, 80.

Judge Jackson visits the log house and points with his cane to the beams, the chinking between the timbers.

"Twenty-three floods,'' he says. "That says something."

Will the town survive?

Shirley Keller believes so. Her home will. It did during the 1937 flood; following the flood, her father placed the house on logs and rolled it over one lot from the corner. She hopes the log house will survive.

"I hope so,'' she says. "We don't get nothing on this side of the county."

"I think there's a future to it,'' Palazzolo says of the village. "At some point it might be just summer residents than full-time. There will always be something in Chilo. If there is Americana, this is it. I saw the log house as one thing that could help bring a renaissance to this area. I think the town will persist.''

"It's hard to kill it,'' Burke says.

Just a house, just a village
FEMA completed another report in April. It was devastating. The log house, the agency concluded, had no historical value.

There was nothing significant or unique about the log house's architecture; indeed, the structure's integrity had been compromised by the addition and other alterations. Nothing significant happened there historically. People might talk about it being used as part of the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves, but there is no documentation for it.

In short, the log house didn't meet the criteria for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

The FEMA report did acknowledge that local historical value is important and that this log house probably served as a post office.

"The presence of a local post office to a small, emerging community was important,'' the report states. "The post office served as a community focal point where news and information was exchanged, business conducted and people engaged in everyday social interaction.''

But so what, the report notes. There was nothing unusual about that; the same was true at post offices all along the length of the river in Clermont County.

Joe Palazzolo saw supreme arrogance in the report.

"Because Daniel Boone didn't sleep there?'' Palazzolo asked. "Because the French and Indian War wasn't fought there? Historical significance doesn't always mean it has to be unusual. I'll tell you what — let me give FEMA a bunch of axes and a bunch of trees and have them build me a log cabin.''

Some members of the Committee to Save the Log House didn't see the report until June. Last month, when the board was going to consider a bid to demolish the log house, committee members asked again to address the commissioners. Mayor Stevenson led the small delegation July 18, complaining of the delay in learning the report existed.

Spinney, the county administrator, said the issue had become confusing in terms of the parties communicating with one another. But what had to be done with the property was clear, he said.

"We are required to demolish the building and clear the property,'' Spinney told the committee. "It puts us in a real bind here.''

For the county to do nothing, to ignore the log house and let it stand, could very well jeopardize future dealings with FEMA in the event of another — inevitable — flood, he explained. Unless FEMA and OEMA held the county harmless in letting the house stand, the county must act. Otherwise the county would have to pay back the $34,000.

"We are not in a position to pay back that money,'' said Commissioner Mary Walker.

The meeting ended without resolution, except that the demolition contract was tabled.

"They blew us off,'' Palazzolo said afterward. "We don't have a lot of people here. We don't have a lot of votes in Chilo. There's not a lot of money. A lot of them feel dispossessed.''

That kind of dough
The FEMA report was sent to the Ohio Historic Preservation Office for concurrence with the conclusions. The state office responded to FEMA July 12.

While the state office agreed in large part with the historical assessment, it chided FEMA for not offering "a more open opportunity'' to seek the community's input on the pending demolition. Finally, the state office recommended that FEMA and Ohio EMA "meet with the local parties to discuss possible alternatives to the demolition.''

That meeting took place Aug. 7, right by the log house and under the shade of the oak trees. Charles Jackson, who steadies his step with a cane these days, sat in a lawn chair. Two representatives of FEMA's Chicago office and three from OEMA in Columbus attended. So did representatives from the offices of U.S. Rep. Rob Portman and U.S. Sen. George Voinovich. Mayor Stevenson was there, as well as several village residents, Burke, Palazzolo and two Franklin Township trustees.

Lawrence Sanders, with FEMA's mitigation division, outlined the options: The log house had to be demolished, disassembled and moved or the money paid back. He was skeptical the property would be let go without repayment.

"I haven't seen this happen,'' Sanders said.

Even so, he understood Chilo's affection for the house.

"It's a nice log cabin," he said. "I like old things. If I had this in my back yard, I'd like to keep it."

Sima Merick, with OEMA, said it would be fundamentally unfair to spend taxpayer dollars and not have taxpayers get what the money was intended to do — clear the property, keeping structures and people out of harm's way in the event of future flooding.

But Palazzolo said he understood the previous owner of the log house only paid $9,000 for it. Why not allow the committee to buy it back for $9,000?

EMA officials shook their heads. The house was fairly appraised at $34,000, Merick told him.

"You paid three or four times more than it's worth,'' Palazzolo said.

But that's what taxpayers, in effect, paid for it, he's told. It was a good faith contract.

"We don't have that kind of dough,'' Palazzolo said. "This isn't Indian Hill. Get us a $9,000 price.''

"I don't see that happening,'' Merick said.

For close to two hours, under the oak trees, the very public negotiations took place. Ada McElfresh, 70, and her friend Letha Croswell sat on McElfresh's porch across the street and watched.

Again and again, the committee was told the options are buying it back or disassembling and moving it. The committee clearly didn't want to take the house apart and move it. A deadline at the end of August loomed.

"Let's cut to the chase," Palazzolo said. "Can we get some time?"

He wanted time to look for grant money and raise funds. How much?

"Three months,'' Palazzolo said. "Six months would be even better.''

Richard Roman, director of mitigation for OEMA, relented and agreed to take the request back to Columbus. Nothing was guaranteed.

"We'll do everything we can,'' Roman told them.

When everyone cleared out, leaving the yard empty and the narrow street shorn of parked cars, the log house sat empty and solitary, like a party broken up, the guests gone.

McElfresh, who's lived in her Washington Street home since 1962, has looked at the log house and the boarding for several months.

"I hope they fix it up,'' she says.

Letha Croswell is 92 and lived in Chilo from 1946 to 1976, when she moved to Florida. She's back in Chilo for a visit with McElfresh.

"This used to be a pretty little town,'' Croswell says. "People kept their yards nice, had flowers. But so many houses been torn down, burned down, washed away by floods.''

She lifts her chin to the log house right across the street.

"It's supposed to have been the first house built in Chilo," she says. "That's the way I heard it. I'd hate to see the old log cabin go. I just hate to see things killed just because they're old.''

Bureaucracy wins
The Ohio Emergency Management Agency went back to Columbus and quickly concluded any decision to delay the demolition belonged to the county. A fight that had played out in slow motion over the past year suddenly went full throttle.

The committee, heartened by what seemed a conciliatory meeting Aug. 7, now found the county commissioners were going to consider awarding a demolition contract in just one week. The commissioners seemed fed up.

"They had ample time to come up with reasonable terms,'' said Commissioner Mary Walker. "They had not followed through in any manner with that."

The bid was awarded Aug. 14 to Allgeier & Sons. Wolfhaus Custom Log Homes, in Neville, approached them about salvaging the logs. Allgeier agreed.

Steve Herndon, owner of Wolfhaus, began labeling the timbers for disassembly Aug. 16. By the next day, deconstruction had begun.

The kitchen addition was sheered off and reduced to rubble, the chimney reduced to a pile of bricks, the interior gutted of wallboard. The logs were disassembled and stored on the Wolfhaus property in Neville.

"We think we have a client just outside of Felicity interested in making a weekend home of it,'' Herndon says as he studies the timbers, now entirely exposed. "This cabin is probably on the older side, early 1800s. It's probably as old as anything you'd find in this part of the state."

At least the log house isn't being reduced to mulch, Joe Palazzolo says. Still, it's small consolation.

Ada McElfresh and Letha Croswell watch from across the street. Ed Dean comes by to see what's going on, as do Charles Jackson, Dan Burke and Terrie Elkins.

Dean is angry.

"For them to treat the citizens of Clermont County that way is horrendous,'' he says. "The county commissioners don't give a damn about anyone in Chilo. That is as sick as it can get. The county commissioners aren't worth a poop.''

Joe Palazzolo is taking photos.

"It didn't have to happen,'' he says. "Bureaucracy wins over history. I realize we're not as sharp as we could've been in dealing with bureaucracy, bit it still doesn't make sense. It's a sad day for the village.'' ©