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In Search Of Ohio Relics

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea In Search Of Ohio RelicsAll photos via Icy Blu Daniel - @OhioRelics
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Relic Hunter

When Icy Blu Daniel goes looking for the forgotten places of Ohio, she’s looking for holes. Specifically, holes in a roof, which are usually a good indicator that a house is abandoned. So are clumps of trees close to a structure, the sort of thing a homeowner would generally cut down. From her computer, Daniel can pick a small town somewhere in Ohio, follow along the highways and backroads with Google Earth, and zoom down onto a promising location, searching for the clues. She found three likely spots the day she talked to me.

“Starting out I definitely would be on there for an entire day,” said Daniel. “I would just have a show on Netflix, binge it, and I would be on my laptop trying to find it. Now I can probably narrow it down.”

Other times, Daniel might find an old photograph of somewhere she’d like to add to her list, in which case she’ll do a little detective work.

“There was one that I looked at yesterday and it was an old gas station,” said Daniel. “I looked at the house next to it and I was able to see the house number, so I was able to type that in and find the gas station. So you just pick up little tricks like that.”

There are also times when Daniel will just go for a drive, showing up in Small Town, Ohio and asking the locals for guidance.

“The week before last I went to Newark and there’s a small town, Frazeysburg, right outside of it,” said Daniel. “There’s an old farmhouse and there wasn’t actually anyone next to it. I stopped in the gas station and I said, ‘Hey, do you know who owns this farmhouse?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, actually the lady that owns the Dairy Queen in town owns it.’ So then I went to the Dairy Queen and found her.”

“I like doing it that way to because you actually get to talk to the locals,” said Daniel “I like to at least make it known that I’m there. I don’t like the aspect of like, sneaking in. Because it’s not mine to do that with.”

Daniel is not a historian, or an archeologist, or a preservationist. She is a photographer who documents rural, abandoned structures, and she is most well-known for her presence on Instagram, where she posts under the handle @OhioRelics. It’s a project that Daniel has been working on for so long that she’s just about got it down to a science, complete with a detailed book of locations her companions affectionately call the “bible.”

“Everybody’s just kind of coined the term ‘travel bible’ even though it’s just a journal,” said Daniel.

Between the pages lies a meticulous documentation of each location Daniel visits.

“A lot of these places don’t have service… I can’t pull up anything on my iPhone, so I have it actually in the book,” said Daniel. “What I’ll do, if I can’t get a street view, I’ll just put like ‘123 West Main Street, drive quarter of a mile this direction,’ that type of thing… Sometimes I just go out to what we call ‘scout’ it… just kind of check it out and see what type of sun I want or something like that. Sometimes I shoot it and I don’t even care because I don’t know if it’ll be standing when I come back around. But I’ll write where it’s located, I’ll write who lives nearby, any history I learn on it, the date I was there, just little things like that. I’ll write if there’s easy access, or ‘no trespassing’ signs, just because I can’t remember them all by heart, but I can easily flip through that book.”

Daniel has been jotting notes in this book since 2014 and as far as she knows, she’s about the only person in the “urban exploration” community who keeps such a record. There are times when Daniel truly is an explorer, the first to document a forgotten structure somewhere on the forlorn plains of Ohio.

“It’s actually pretty common,” said Daniel. “I would say three out of every eight locations I post, I’m the first to shoot.”

And every time Daniel does photograph and post a building that’s never been documented before, she takes on a responsibility that she didn’t always anticipate.

“There’s a church in Caldwell I shot and I was the first one to shoot it,” said Daniel. “I wasn’t able to find any other pictures on the Internet of it and I posted it. And I kind of feel partially responsible, because as I’ve gone back over the years, the door has now been torn into with an axe… All of the windows are busted where they weren’t before and there’s graffiti on the inside.” 

Perhaps, thought Daniel, “if I hadn’t posted it, it wouldn’t have been defaced.”

The Explorer’s Code 

Daniel’s exploration of Ohio’s relics began during her high school years, when she would frequent the now-defunct website Forgotten Ohio. In those days, her methods were more rudimentary. She would pick a random back road to drive down, usually around Pickaway County, just to see what she could find. Eventually she lost interest in exploring and rural photography, but returned to it during a time of family tragedy.

“My dad was battling cancer and I kind of needed an escape,” said Daniel. “So that was my way to kind of take a road trip and get out of the house for a little while and it sort of snowballed from there.”

Her reignited interest in rural exploration coincided with a decline in rural Ohio that still hasn’t really ended. That decline has had a noticeable impact on Daniel’s work and she has seen its effects firsthand. Her Google Earth investigations have led her to structures that have already been torn down for developments, and driving all around Ohio has shown her how Columbus continues to expand while smaller communities deteriorate into ghost towns. Amid all that decline, Ohio relics dot the landscape, waiting for Daniel’s camera.

“When I went to school for photography,” said Daniel. “We had to come up with a running project to add to, like a series, and I looked back at my old photos and I was like, well this is kind of a series. It’s rural Ohio, so I kind of picked it up and ran with it.”

She called her series “Autopsy of Ohio,” and despite the ominous name, Daniel’s photography is decidedly more peaceful and optimistic than the gloomy decay and detritus that defines so much of the urban exploration community.

“It was different than the urbex, ruralex type of stuff that you see, because I don’t look at it as sad,” said Daniel. “I kind of look at it like… I don’t know how to explain it. Almost like maybe a tombstone or something like that. It’s not there to be sad, but it just is.”

“I think in general I try to have an optimistic look on life,” said Daniel. “I think that comes through my images, whether it’s an abandoned house or my portraits.”

Daniel would be the first to admit that there is some inherent sadness in her work. She recently posted a photograph of a virtually untouched farmhouse somewhere in Ohio, and in a long admonishment of the urban exploration community, she noted, “These places are cool yes, but rarely are they abandoned for a happy reason.”

“A lot of times I’ve talked to people where the family has died, or one of the parents has killed themselves so the family doesn’t live there anymore, they’ve let it go, they lose the farm,” said Daniel. “You’re not going to leave your house because of a happy reason… Even if it’s just a financial reason. And most of them are farmhouses and Ohio is kind of built on farming before the metropolitan area of it blew up, so I think to smaller communities, that does mean a lot.”

Daniel told me about one house she found near Shawnee. The house was falling apart, leaning over and getting ready to collapse, but she found the owner in a newer house built right next door.

“I actually sat down with him for a good 30 minutes and spoke with him about it,” said Daniel. “Just listening to the family history of how his great-grandfather built it and then his grandfather lived there, and the house was almost 200 years old… The house eventually became uninhabitable. They couldn’t live in it anymore, no running water, anything like that, so they built a house next to it. But it still meant enough for him to keep it and it still brought tears to his eyes. I guess it’s really never a happy reason.”

Daniel has adopted her own moral code for pursuing Ohio’s relics. First, she always tries to get permission from a landowner if she plans to visit their property. If that proves impossible, she refuses to park her vehicle on the property. Rarely will Daniel go inside an abandoned structure, but if she does, she does not touch anything. But the key element of her code — and the one that causes her the most controversy — is that Daniel does not publicly share locations. There’s a reason all the structures previously mentioned come with geographic qualifiers like “somewhere,” “near,” or “around.”

“It’s not that I don’t want anybody to know where these places are,” said Daniel. “I usually do end up sharing them, but I share them with people that I know that are gonna respect the property. I’ve had a few people ask for locations and I’ve seen what they’ve done to other locations and… I can’t in good conscience let you go to somebody’s grandfather’s house and bust out the window, and they know I was there last week.”

Anyone with a moral code is bound to run afoul of those who have none. According to Daniel, her geographic secrecy has made her “notorious” in the exploration community. She’s faced relentless messaging, she’s been called, “you know, the b-word,” and she’s received unfriendly reminders that she does not own the locations she photographs and has no right to hide them. But in other communities — the outdoor community in particular — the tide shift against geotagging and harmful Instagram exposure is already well underway.

“It’s kind of like the whole, if you pack it in, pack it back out,” said Daniel. “If you’re going to go into that house, don’t leave your cigarette butts, don’t leave your beer. There are houses that have been abandoned for 40, 50 years and I know this brand new Miller Lite bottle was not here.”

“It really bothers me because it’s not their story,” said Daniel. “It’s standing for a reason… It may look like crap to you, it may seem like fun to you, but that means something to somebody.”

Before It’s Gone

Daniel admitted that others have called her a historian, but she does not consider herself one. She is, first and foremost, an artist concerned mostly with the photographic value of a structure.

“That’s the main reason I do it,” said Daniel. “There’s other people that do it and they really dig into the homeowner and when it was built and everything… I don’t care about what year it was built. I care about who lived there, I care about what shape it’s in, and I want to see it before it’s gone.”

Daniel said she constantly hears about how her work has evoked childhood memories from people who grew up in old farmhouses much like the ones she hunts down and documents. And she expressed a certain amount of pride at the fact that other photographers have followed her work, found the places she’s explored, and taken their own pictures of the houses and barns — testaments to Ohio’s rural history — before they’re all gone. She wants people to follow in her footsteps.

“I want people to go out and see these places, and that’s why most of the time if they ask me and I check them out, I’m like yeah, here’s the location. Because it’s not mine to keep,” said Daniel. “I want them to get out, I want them to learn about Ohio’s history, I want them to go to the small towns, sit in the mom-and-pop diner, have lunch there, and go learn about the history. And I would like to see that happen more. Because it’s not always gonna be there.”

When Icy Blu Daniel goes looking for the forgotten places of Ohio, she’s looking for holes. They are the homes, the farms, the churches, the schools, and all the things that once made up the heart of a small community. Now the communities have consolidated and all that’s left of those revered places are the holes left behind, the relics of an Ohio long gone, lost things to find and forgotten things to remember.

All photos courtesy Icy Blu Daniel at @OhioRelics

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