Cover Story: Smallville

What's up with all the deer? As my equally half-witted assistant, Jessica, and I make our approach into Johnstown, Ohio, more and more deer populate the sides of the streets. Not red-blooded Bambis,

Aug 14, 2002 at 2:06 pm

What's up with all the deer? As my equally half-witted assistant, Jessica, and I make our approach into Johnstown, Ohio, more and more deer populate the sides of the streets. Not red-blooded Bambis, but ceramic fawn.

The citizens of Johnstown sure love their lawn ornaments, we think. And they love pushing their right brains to maximum capacity, treating their deer like four-legged Barbie dolls.

One of God's gentle creatures, painted hot pink to match the owner's hot pink house — yes, little pink houses for you and me — seemed primed to advertise Pepto-Bismol. One NASCAR-adorned creature is certain to do to deer lawn ornaments what Britney Spears did for boob jobs. Another, in the odd visage of a hunter, craftily explored the role of prey in society while showing that crudeness can be intelligent and fraught with meaning. (A lesson that Eminem would be wise to learn).

But as Jessica and I pull into the happening hub of Johnstown — i.e., the town square — the realization dawns that this is the poor man's version of Cincinnati's own Big Pig Gig.

The decorated animals are, in fact, a fund-raiser to benefit the Johnstown Historical Society.

The deer are a welcome bonus, but the crux of the trip focuses on the Johnstown Opera House and Jail.

This was to be no haphazard road trip for me. I wanted Ohio to be the final frontier and I its Capt. Kirk. The Johnstown Opera House and Jail beckoned my inner William Shatner — a perfect unification of the musical and the macabre.

Located on the northeast side of Columbus, Johnstown is about 5 miles wide in any direction. The main drag as it were consists of a pair of gas stations, a pair of all-American restaurants, a pair of pizza parlors, a pair of bars, a pair of flower shops and the quintessential Town Hall. This is life Andy Griffith style.

Both the opera house and the jail are kept under firm lock and key. Ida Kimes, president of the historical society, welcomes the chance to show them off. She's joined by fellow society member Betty Cupp. The two are like the Golden Girls minus the witty repartee. I'm sure they both must have a crush on me.

Kimes begins with the two-room museum on the ground floor, a collection of yesteryear assembled by the Historical Society. My penchant for knowledge bursting with fruit flavor, I immediately inquire about the long, bustled, formerly white dress preserved under plastic. "Are these costumes from the opera house?"

"No. They're just old clothes," Kimes responds.


But Kimes reels me back in with the tale of Johnstown's own not-so-Charmed Halliwell sister. To this day, people continue to visit the grave of the 13-year-old girl rumored to have been burned at the stake in the 1800s. One enchanted visitor left the words "A Perfect Child" written in beads at the site.

At 80, Kimes hobbles more than she walks, the result of a tumble she took. Her knee has yet to fully recover. Seeing her meagerly climb the steps to the opera house located on the second floor, I realize that I'm going to hell.

The opera house, however, is preserved better than a Madame Tussaud wax figure. Built in 1884, the auditorium boasts its original stage, velvet drapes, Our Town style backdrops and wooden seats. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings. Up to 248 people can gather for the high school's graduation or the current production of Vaudeville Tonight.

Walking the two blocks to the jail, I offer Kimes my hand repeatedly, trying to find some absolution for my sins. I'm somewhat dejected that the jail and opera house don't share residence, as I originally believed. How perfect would that be? If the fat lady sang off key, you just throw her in the clink.

The jail, built in 1888 and used until 1942, literally sits in a subdivision, its red-barn facade and double-barred windows decidedly out of place. The two cells, most often used to control drunks, is dank and dirty. The inside walls are chipping away. It's a stop-motion glimpse at history.

Upon our return to the office, a coworker, having spent her formative years not far from Johnstown, mentions the area's predilection for Satan worshippers. Oh, goody. Maybe that's the real explanation behind the deer.