Somerville: Americana (not) at the crossroads
Photos by Greg Lynch
It’s lunchtime in Somerville, Ohio, and Megan’s Grocery and Pizza, both the only grocery store in town and the only place to buy hot food, is bustling.
With a well-worn wooden floor, two tall racks of greeting cards by the front door and a massive display of Slim Jims on the counter, Megan’s looks as though it hasn’t changed much in the 25 years Randy McGaha has owned it, and except for the lottery paraphernalia, maybe even from the 25 years before that.
On front of the meat cooler, its top covered with individual servings of dry cereal and a pizza warmer with piles of foil-wrapped cheeseburgers, a hand-made starburst sign advertises $5.50 pizzas, cheese or pepperoni, every day. Somewhere behind it all, Randy McGaha hands out sandwiches and good-natured grief to the half-dozen men loitering in the cramped space between the cashier counter and the two aisles of groceries and soft drinks.
McGaha is a multi-tasker in the old-fashioned way, running the slicer, making and wrapping sandwiches, answering the phone, running the cash register, giving instructions to the kids helping him out, telling stories about Somerville and greeting every person who comes through the door by name. His wife Brigitte operates like a third hand, taking money and ducking into the back room occasionally to make a pizza, but mostly it seems like she’s just trying to stay on the fringe of the whirlwind her husband creates.
When he was a child, he said his grandfather had a small grocery in Dayton, Ky., but McGaha (pronounced muh-GAY-HAY) claims he didn’t know anything about the business when he gave up his job making false teeth to buy Sylvia’s Corner Market 25 years ago, changing the name to honor his new-born daughter.
“Now I have three daughters and two step-daughters,” he says.
“I just wanted something different,” he says, “and boy, did I get it. A lot of time; a lot of hours.
“It was doing pretty good when I got it, but there wasn’t any pizza or hot food or lottery in town, so I built it up.”
He grew up in Somerville, just a few doors away from Megan’s.
“It used to be one of the wildest towns there every was,” he says, “but it’s as safe as can be now. The town has slowed down, but not me. I guess it’s because there’s no competition.
“My mom still lives in the same house I grew up in,” he says. “I enjoyed it. I had a good childhood in this burg. We used to have a baseball team, played in Camden and Oxford leagues, out in Reily and Darrtown.”
Standing by the front door eating a lunch meat sandwhich, Alan Dunkelberger, third-generation owner of Dave Dunkelberger & Sons, another of the few remaining Somerville businesses, comments that McGaha is two days older then he is.
“You know how thick bicycle tires are?” he asks. “We rode around this town so much we kept wearing them out.”
A tall man in sunglasses tells McGaha, “Two packs,” and McGaha hands him Marlboros.
“They don’t even have to tell me what kind,” he says. “I know what everybody smokes.”
As he goes back to his slicer, McGaha says, “Everybody who comes in here knows me. I could be in a bad mood or a good mood and nobody cares.”
Somerville is not on the road to anywhere.
There is a state highway passing through, Ohio 744, but if you follow it east about seven miles, it ends in Jacksonburg, officially the smallest municipality in Butler County, and if you follow it north, it simply ends less than a mile out of town at the intersection of two county roads.
Somerville was laid out in 1831, presumably as a stopping place for travelers moving between Cincinnati and Ft. Wayne, Ind., in the valley along the winding Seven Mile Creek.
Like Camden, just across the Preble County border, Somerville took its name from a city in New Jersey, and for a time was a picturesque, vibrant little village.
“This town was known for being the most self-sufficient town in the county,” said Ruth Ann Felblinger, a lifelong resident who has recently turned to the elderly people of the town to compile an oral history while there are still some around to remember the its glory days as an apple pie slice of Americana. “We had a cannery and a butcher shop and a hat shop. You didn’t have to go anywhere unless you were wanting to visit someone.”
But as such things happen, with the building of US 127 in the mid-1950s as an express route from Hamilton to Eaton, Somerville was left with little but its past. Even its main access to US 27 went away when “the white bridge,” as it was known by the locals, fell into disrepair in the ensuing years and without funds to re-build, was demolished.
According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Somerville’s population peaked in 1960, a few years after 127 cut it off from the world, at 478. Most recent estimates have the population at 321 in July, 2008.
The village now finds itself in a metaphorical crossroads, however. The declining population also means declining revenues, so residents fear that they may lose its incorporation and will have to be absorbed by Milford Township, which means higher taxes and more ordinances, unless they get some money coming in.
“The community is really falling apart,” said Mayor Terri Smith, a young mother of six who’s just been on the job for a couple of months. “We’re trying to do whatever we can to keep things going, but we have a lot of financial problems and we need to do a lot more, a lot of pulling together to get the town back together.”
Smith, who grew up in Somerville, said there’s not an empty house in town, but there is a lot of property that could me made available for business.
“We’ve talked to a lot of companies about moving here, even if only to create a couple of part-time jobs,” Smith said. “We’ve looked at grants and other sources of revenue, but there’s not much we qualify for. We just keep hitting a brick wall.
“This town needs a lot of help,” she said. “We have a lot of ideas, but we’re short of resources.”
Earlier this year, a group of concerned residents and former residents banded together to create the Sommerville Beautification Committee as a vehicle to generate some civic pride, preserve the town’s history and heritage and to inspire some kind of rejuvenation.
“We want to make it so that when someone drives through they’ll say, this is a nice town,” said chairman Alan Dunkelberger. “We’re going to put some flowers out and make enough money to have some scholarships for the kids in town or help people in need.”
Linking to the past
Felblinger’s efforts to document town history is complemented by Charlie Johnson’s recent purchase of the former Methodist Church, which had to close when its membership declined to five and could no longer pay the bills. Although Johnson said he’d rather see someone come and open it up as a church again, he’s made it into an unofficial town museum, mostly to hold his own collection of Somerville memorabilia, newspaper clippings, old signs and photos.
One recent morning, Felblinger gathered some of her octo- and nonagenarian subjects in the old church to talk about Somerville’s heyday.
“The happiest days of my life were spent here in Somerville,” said Chic Rumpler, 92, who now lives in Oxford. “At one time, Somerville was the garden spot of the world. When God made this place he threw the mold away.”
They recalled when the one-lane bridge on Main Street was “the highlight of the town,” a showcase where women planted flowers in boxes along the rail and took turns watering them every day. It has since been replaced by a standard-issue two-lane concrete bridge.
The now-defunct white bridge (as opposed to the railroad black bridge) was also the site of the town swimming hole. There was a spot deep enough for daring young people to jump off the bridge, but at least one of them ended up paralyzed by missing the narrow target.
Prior to US 127 by-passing the town, there was a stoplight, but no one paid much attention to it, Rumpler said.
At one time, there was a Somerville High School, but it closed in 1934, Gladys Morrow said, and she ended up graduating from the McGuffey School in Oxford.
“We had lots of operettas to play in and there weren’t a lot of kids so we got to play basketball and softball,” she said. “We had one of the first gymnasiums in the county, but it was a matchbox. There were two rows of seats along the sides and a balcony.
“We lived in the greatest possible time,” she said.
Fighting a bad reputation
There was, admittedly, a dark side as Somerville had a reputation of being a rough town, for “fighting, drinking and carousing,” Rumpler said, but attributed most of the trouble to outsiders who would come up from Hamilton and down from Eaton on the weekends.
Up until 1962, when the town voted to go dry, there were three saloons in Somerville. One of them, the Fox Hole, particularly had a reputation for being rowdy.
“It was terrible on the weekends,” Rumpler said. “One guy came down from Michigan one night, said he heard this was a mean town and wanted to fight the meanest man in it.
“So I campaigned to get the town dry even thought I came from a drinking family,” he said, adding that the margin was two votes.
Jane Apfeld, who served as Somerville Postmaster for 25 years, said she moved here in 1948 when her husband William came back from World War II because they couldn’t find a house in Overpeck, where they were from.
“We looked all over and finally found a little place in Somerville,” she said. “I said I’d move into a home without a bathroom, but not without a furnace.
With a bathroom out back, her husband put in a shower and a wash bowl inside, “but it was several years before we got a commode in,” she said.
She recalled the town’s self-sufficiency and old-time values, where feminine hygiene products at Withrow’s store had to be wrapped in plain brown paper, and where there was even a shoe shop who would sew up the two baseballs owned by the Bulldogs whenever someone knocked the stitching loose.
There was never a movie theater in Somerville, but every Friday night there were free movies shown on the lawn of the school that the whole town would come out for.
Hoping for a rebound
For many, the final blow to Somerville’s town identity came in 1983 with the closing of Somerville Elementary, part of the Talawanda Local School District.
“When they took the school down, it took away a lot of the sense of community,” said Alan Dunkelberger, third generation owner of Dave Dunkelberger & Sons, a farm supply store (among other things) located on the dead end created by the demise of the white bridge.
“We’re hopefully on the rebound,” he said. “Some people from the outside look at Somerville in a different way, but if I fell down here right now, there’s any number of people that would run over here to see what’s wrong. If that little kid there was in trouble, we’d help him out.”
“It’s a nice community,” Felblinger said. “The town is safe. I wouldn’t want to raise my children anywhere else.”
Earlier this summer, the Beautification Committee organized a homecoming celebration in honor of the village’s 200th birthday, and Dunkelberger said that event went a long way in improving civic self-esteem.
They plan to follow-up by showing a free movie, like back in the old days, as a going-back-to-school treat for the children, which will also give the group an opportunity to hand out free pencils and school supplies.
“I’ve got a lot of attachment to this town,” said Mayor Smith. “I have 10 aunts and uncles who live here, so I’m not going to give up on it anytime soon.”