Slaughterhouse 5.1

Used to be that, when us river rats wandered into town, the fine folks of Dresden rolled up the sidewalks, hid their women and livestock, and bolted their doors. The manager of a convenience store where canoe trippers went to replenish ice and beer supplies posted a sign at the door that read “ONLY ONE CANOEIST AT A TIME ALLOWED IN THE STORE.” So I was a little apprehensive years later when – during a two-week-long canoe trip to Marietta – they offered me a key to the village.

What changed? By then – the early ’90s – the Longaberger basket factory had been revived and the town was booming. Bursting at the seems, actually. It had become a Mecca for Longaberger devotees. Busload after busload of them descended on the Muskingum River town south of Coshocton, Ohio. Many of them were middle-aged housewives who sold Longaberger baskets in what some alleged was a pyramid scheme. The whole scene kind of looked like an Aunt Bee impersonators convention.

The devotees came to shop or eat at the spiffy shops and restaurants in the village – about 50 in all – or take guided tours of the basket factory.

The Dresden I knew in the ’80s was like any other southeastern Ohio ghost town. Dilapidated vacant storefronts lined the main drag. The few residents who hadn’t moved out looked haggard and pissed at the world. Especially outsiders like us.

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that, in the early ’90s, I had contacted businesses in towns along the river so I could fax my weekly columns to the Columbus Guardian during my journey. A little grocery store in Dresden was one of them. I also contacted local officials and asked if I could camp in the park along the river.

That’s when they offered me a key to the village. They granted my request and invited me to shower or work out at their state-of-the art gym in their refurbished park. After paddling and dragging a canoe all the way from Brinkhaven (water levels were low that year) and portaging around two dams, the last thing I needed was another workout. I did take them up on the shower though.

I also accepted their invitation to tour the basket factory. I mentioned the tour in one of  the columns I wrote during my canoe trip. The tour included a walk along a balcony overlooking the shop floor. Below, basket assemblers who were paid piecework, labored frantically. These folks had been rescued from jobs that paid minimum wage and offered an opportunity to make a decent living for themselves and their families.

Still, it was humiliating for them to have strangers watch them work all day long. The looks on their faces showed it. They clearly resented us and I don’t blame them.

For many of the workers, their prosperity would be short-lived. A few years later, Longberber’s pyramid scheme came tumbling down. The downfall was attributed – in part – to a recession and dwindling demand for the costly baskets.

I also mentioned in my Guardian column a banner at the plant urging employees to work harder – to hit their target. The banner depicted a WWII military plane. At the time, I wondered whether the workers or management appreciated the irony in light of the firebombing of Dresden Germany depicted in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five.

Today only a dozen or so of Dresden’s shops and restaurants remain open. A few vestiges of the boom years remain. And, so far, the convenience store manager hasn’t posted a sign limiting the number of paddlers allowed in the store at one time.

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A recent photo of Dresden’s riverfront park. Although the Longaberger basket boom has passed, the town remains better for it.