May 2010 issue
My Ohio: Perfect Harmony
One hundred years ago, an Ohio river inspired a wildly popular song.
This year, the sales of arm garters will outpace durable goods, and barbers will abandon their shears for straw boater hats — all to mark the centennial of a song that came into the world and never left.
The story begins on an Ohio riverbank, and ends there, too. Desperation and Michigan play supporting roles. In between, a river runs through it.
His name was Tell Taylor, and he was born in Hancock County in 1876. Tell sang in the Presbyterian Church choir and at his desk at the county courthouse in Findlay, where he was a deputy clerk. When he wasn’t singing, he hummed. His talent was enough to carry him to the Broadway stage, and later — he wrote songs, too — to New York’s Tin Pan Alley.
In 1908, “Mr. Taylor, a little weary of life behind the footlights, had returned to the scenes of his childhood for rest and relaxation,” remembered Findlay’s The Republican-Courier
of Nov. 24, 1937. Tell found his way to the Blanchard River. As a boy, he swam near the old mill. The riverbank was where sweethearts came to hold hands.
Watching the water, Tell conjured enduring love. (Barely 30, he was guessing, I suppose.) He wrote:
My darling I am dreaming of the days gone by,
When you and I were sweethearts beneath the summer sky;
Your hair has turned to silver the gold has faded too;
But still I will remember, where I first met you.
His friends, raised on Sousa marches, wrinkled their noses and wondered where you might put the tubas. The song remained in Tell’s desk in New York for two years, until he handed it to a vaudeville act called The Orpheus Comedy Four. The quartet wired from Saginaw, Michigan, requesting another verse to that mill tune. Tell sent this:
The old mill wheel is silent and has fallen down,
The old oak tree has withered and lies there on the ground;
While you and I are sweethearts the same as days of yore;
Although we’ve been together, forty years and more.
“Rotten,” came the reply. They sang it anyway, to curtain calls. “A store in Chicago sold 25,000 sets of the sheet music in a brief time,” reported The Republican-Courier, “and in St. Louis 200,000 were purchased.” Sales eventually would total more than 5 million.
One photo tells the tale: Taylor, in a dark suit, stands beside the Blanchard, pointing. He looks like a man who has just pitched a lucky coin into a wishing well. In a way, he had.
“Down by the Old Mill Stream” has been recorded by The Crew Cuts and the Chipmunks, among others. Barbershop quartets still wrestle it to a draw daily on YouTube. It is as essentially “Ohio” as “Hang on Sloopy,” but rarely performed at football halftimes. Folks still don’t know where to put the tubas.
The Blanchard still flows through Hancock County. The Village of Ottawa sips it for drinking water, and the people of Findlay cuss it when it climbs its banks and laps at the courthouse steps. Sweethearts still come to the riverbank to walk and hold hands.
The mill is long gone, and so is Tell. He is dismissed as a writer of sentimental songs, and who am I to argue with the geniuses at Wikipedia? What Tell Taylor did was build a time machine. The chorus starts and you are standing by the Blanchard with Tell. It does not matter whether you are in Bangkok or Berlin or Bucyrus — people will smile. Just see if they don’t.
Down by the old mill stream where I first met you,
With your eyes of blue, dressed in gingham too,
It was there I knew that you loved me true,
You were sixteen, my village queen, by the old mill stream.
John Hyduk is a freelance writer based in Fairview Park.