This is actually a double throwback event! The very long snippet below was written in early 2010, so it’s six years old. It was the start of a childhood memory about Swift’s Hollow, aka Gore Orphanage. I’ve written about Gore Orphanage in the past and wrote a short story based on the legends. As I said in the one post, it was a major part of my youth. I had planned on a major rewrite of this little snippet, but I think it’s fun to look at it as I wrote it over six years ago, totally unedited.
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It was a hot day. Not the crisp, sparkling heat of July that makes you want to go out and enjoy yourself after the disappointment of the typical cool and bland Ohio Spring. No, this was the dull, moist heat that only comes in August. A dog-lazy heat. In my child’s mind I always thought of the dog days of August as the days so hot and humid that nobody with any sense, not even a dog, would willingly go out.
Of course nobody ever accused an 11 year old boy of having any sense.
We had been riding slowly for about 30 minutes, talking back and forth often at a yell as boys do, pedals making loops around the small cranks of our bikes, 2 miles of fields and small bits of woods behind us. I was on my 5-speed, the white elephant which my misguided cleverness had stuck me with. There was only 1 sprocket in the back instead of the expected 5, like on a 10-speed, so I never figured out what the 5 speeds really were. When a gear was switched it almost seemed like the tension on the chain had changed, making it easier or harder to pedal without having any effect on the ratio between crank speed and tire rotation. As an adult I now know that the internal hub gears did change the ratios, but the changes were tiny, not nearly as great as on a 10-speed, so the difference between “slow gear” and “fast gear” was very small, much smaller than what was possible using only the back sprockets of a 10-speed. I was forced to live with this mistake for only 3 years before I moved up to a new 12-speed. My friend Tom was riding his old spider bike. I’m not sure why we called small bicycles like this “spider bikes”. I guess it was easier than calling them “general purpose child’s bike with less efficient design to maximize the cool factor”. Next year he would be riding a hand-me-down 10-speed, but for now we had to temper our speed to his smaller wheel size.
There wasn’t even a breeze as we approached the hill into Swift’s Hollow, our destination not only on that August day, but on most of our rides that summer. We could hear the quiet buzz of grasshoppers in the fields and the splatter of our tires sticking to the soft tar. The tar gave off a slight acrid odor that stood sharply out from the musty, almost sweet scent of hay and manure of the farm perched at the lip of the valley. The dusty smell of maturing corn was slowly being left behind.
“Remember to pedal the whole way, don’t just coast; it’ll make your bike more stable.” Tom’s advice seemed logical enough as we poked along on the flat, the sun-blasted tar still grabbing at our tires. Turning the last corner before the sudden drop, my heart racing with anticipation, pedaling just didn’t seem like a smart option.
I hit the hill first, my larger bike being much more stable at speed, its larger tires measuring the road at a more rapid pace. The wind quickly whipped my hair back, causing tears to form in my eyes, a wild rushing sound filling my ears. Tom, being a bit more brazen than me and pedaling like mad, stayed just a few feet off my back tire, the constant shimmying and rattling of his little bike making the ride that much more exciting. Just as I felt I had to tap the breaks a bit, the hill leveled off as the road curved to the left.
Of all of the descents into the Vermilion River Valley, the one from Sperry Road is perhaps the longest. There are several short stretches as steep as any other, from Mill Hollow’s east entrance to the north hill into Dean’s, but there are also long expanses at a much gentler grade. This not only makes the descent on a bicycle a little less hair-raisingly scary, it also makes it possible for a child to ride up without getting off the bike, or only walking for very short stretches. After the long curve another short steep slope spit us out into the valley proper. Or at least nearly so – going straight forward would only kick us out again, this time on Gore Orphanage Road. The hair-pin right turn to go deeper into the hollow, also on Gore Orphanage Road, was almost impossible to navigate, particularly on Tom’s spider bike. We came to a short, skidding stop before making a quick U-Turn to head towards the bridge and river.
It can be surprising to a visitor of flat Northern Ohio to find 75 foot shale cliffs, the shear vertical drop-offs contrasting with the otherwise gentle landscape. When the glaciers melted at the end of the last ice age the land, after being compressed by 2 miles of ice for thousands of years, sprung quickly, geologically speaking, up to its present height. Rivers, such as the young Vermilion River, made deep knife slashes into the soft shale. These steep-sided valleys make perfect playgrounds for overactive kids.
There were 3 main hollows within bicycling distance of my childhood house. The southern most of these was Dean’s Hollow. Just before hitting the rim of Swift’s Hollow you’d take a right onto Dean Road and travel about a half a mile. There wasn’t a lot for a kid to do there, at least not during the summer. The hill down was relatively short and very steep with a wall on the right and a sudden drop on the left, the sharp elbow left turn at the bottom being very difficult to navigate at high speeds. During the winters of ’77 and ’78 there was so much snow they had to close the road for the winter. We tried tobogganing a few times, an almost suicidal ride with us bailing out every time, before giving up and using sleds. Leaning as far back as possible, feet at the front steering the sleds, we pretended we were doing a luge run in the Olympics, watching the snow fly up in large arcs if one of us tried to turn. Besides the wild sled rides, we only occasionally visited Dean’s – it was small and had few visitors beyond the fishermen, who frequented the area mainly in the spring.
The northern most is Mill Hollow, which is in the Lorain County Metro Park system. When entering a choice has to be made: north side or south? The south side, Mill Hollow proper, has the old mill building and ancient silted up mill race. There still are a couple of large picnic pavilions, unchanged in the decades I have known them, and a shallow duck pond. The north, which is really Bacon Woods, is much larger and houses the nature center. There are trails in the woods and up the steep valley walls, while the south side was mostly bound by cliffs. These days the trails have been extended almost all the way to the Rt. 2 Bridge. The north side also seems to have larger open areas where, as a teenager, I would spend many hours hanging out and playing Frisbee. Both sides have easy access to the river, though the north always seemed to offer more opportunity to explore. People flock from all over to the obvious allure of Mill Hollow making it one of the most popular picnic spots in the region. As a kid, before the social aspect of a day at the park became paramount, I felt Mill Hollow was just too safe for anything more than family outings. Too safe and too well traveled, too well known. Too boring.
Swift’s Hollow, which lies between Mill Hollow and Dean’s, is a crescent shaped bowl carved by the river into the Devonian shale of the Northern Ohio plain. The river travels a little over a mile in this bowl, which is up to a third of a mile across. Gore Orphanage Road is in the Hollow proper for a little over half a mile, crossing the river a bit closer to the Sperry Road end than to the south entrance, hugging the west wall north of the bridge and then crossing to hug the east wall south of the bridge. The river snakes through the flat, fertile corn and bean fields that currently make up the balk of the bottom of the hollow. There are plenty of visitors to Swift’s Hollow, but they are only visible by the carpet of gun shells and piles of empty beer cans in a few of the more popular partying corners of the hollow. During the day the mysterious visitors vanish leaving the area mostly uninhabited, just a large expanse of territory for a kid to explore.
Tom and I rode slowly beside the corn field, the golden tassels towering up to 6 feet, though still slightly below eye level since the road, riding tight against the valley wall, is elevated. Although we had explored the stream that crosses under the road where Sperry and Gore Orphanage meet a couple of times, we usually didn’t stop until we reached the bridge. There wasn’t much to do before the bridge – the river is on the far side of the corn field and the hill only rises up to Sperry Road, which paralleled Gore Orphanage almost all the way to the top. Just before the bridge a pathway led out to the right following the river. We had only recently discovered, hidden in the weeds at the far end of this path, a couple of old foundations – people once lived in the valley. But that wasn’t our destination – once found I never returned to these old houses.
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The photo at the top was actually taken in Mill Hollow, not Swift’s Hollow. It should give an idea of the shale cliffs and shallow river.