June 4, 2019 — Today I learned the fate of two men who mattered in my life, two men who mattered in a lot of people’s lives: Jonas Nisely and Jim Proper.
I stopped by Jonas’ farm in southern Richland County to see how he was doing. His sons were outside working on the main house when I pulled in and I spoke with Eli. He went into a house across the lane to tell his father I was there.
Jonas is 92. He and my late father became friends in the 1970s, when my family stayed at the KOA campground up the road. Jonas taught in an Amish schoolhouse and my father was a bookbinder. Dad bound books for him in exchange for milk and eggs. I arranged for a reunion between them a few years before my father died. I have fond memories of driving dad’s Crown Vic on a dirt road through the woods to find Jonas working in his tree nursery. He and my father never stopped smiling as they talked, catching up on decades gone by.
I joined Jonas on a porch swing overlooking the farm. He appeared frail, but still had a gleam in his soulful blue eyes. I was relieved to see dirt on the knees of his homemade trousers — a sign that he was still getting out and working the land that he loved.
The bucolic scene unfolding before us served as testimony to his dedication to farm and family. Two young women in long blue dresses tended plants around the foundation of the main house, their bare feet rooted in the dirt and grass. A younger woman in a long brown dress mounted a pony and rode it down the lane, the same pony a young boy had been riding when I pulled up.
“Eli’s keeping the place in good shape for me,” Jonas said.
That clearly meant a lot to him.
Then we talked about my family.
“Your father always treated me well,” he said.
That meant a lot to both of us.
Earlier that day, I learned that Jim Proper had passed away in 2011. It had been years since I’d stopped by Jim’s place along the Mohican River at Brinkhaven. I felt guilty for not having kept in touch.
Jim was only 62 when he died. Like Jonas, he was a family man.
I camped in Jim’s yard on Memorial Day weekend 1980. It was the first place I ever camped along the river. Canoeing would become the focus of my life and — thanks to Jim — Brinkhaven would always hold a special place in my heart.
Back in the day Jim charged canoeists two bucks a night to camp in his big back yard near Brinkhaven Dam. Over the years I spent many a night there, lulled to sleep by the sound of water rushing over what was left of the low head dam.
Legend has it Jim’s place originally served as a roadhouse, known for its fine steaks and — according to some accounts — served with a side dish of rowdiness. Over the years, the Propers made additions and other improvements to the house. It looks quite stately, perched on a hill overlooking the river.
Eventually Jim stopped charging me and gave me his blessings to camp in his yard anytime. He seemed to sense my desire for solitude. Jim would wait till morning — when I was making breakfast or breaking camp — to come down from the house and talk with me.
Jim figures prominently in Mohican River lore — Brinkhaven in particular. In fact, some paddlers owe their lives to him. He was instrumental in chipping out a section of the right side of the dam, providing safe passage.
Even though it clearly pained him, Jim talked about pulling bodies of drowned paddlers from the river, victims of the dangerous hydraulic of the low head dam.
There’s another story about Jim I’d like to share. I’ll save that for another time.
I never troubled him for help with a shuttle, but Jim was known to do that for canoeists. I was content to enjoy his hospitality and conversation — and to watch his family grow over the years.
I was told his son, Matthew, has the place now. Next time I’m on that part of the river I should make it a point to stop by.
[This column was published in the Ashland Times-Gazette.]