“I find I’m so excited that I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel. A free man at a start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”
Morgan Freeman’s Red brings the classic Shawshank Redemption to a close with a message of hope as he reunites with his old friend Andy Dufresne in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. After decades of imprisonment following an erroneous life sentence for the murder of his unfaithful wife, Andy must find a way to reinvent himself.
He had been wronged by a system beyond his control. But there was no point in dwelling on the path. Instead, he must look forward. The same can be said for the city of Mansfield, Ohio — a town of about 50,000 between Cleveland and Columbus that served as the hub of film production for the aforementioned tale of deceit, perseverance and hope. Indeed, they are reinventing themselves.
Since the stove manufacturing companies of Westinghouse and Tappan that gave the town life in the ’20s closed during the steel recession of the ’70s, Mansfield has struggled to recover. However, an opportunity came in the early ’90s when director Frank Darabont was looking for a location to film Shawshank Redemption. About to settle on a prison in West Virginia, the Ohio Film Commission approached the director to pitch the allegedly haunted Ohio State Reformatory.
The prison operated for 80 years before a federal court ruling in 1990 closed the building due to inhuman conditions. Historic German castles inspired architect Levi T. Scott to create a prison designed to punish the soul. Today, rumors of inmates and prison guards haunting the dilapidated building have spread throughout the country, drawing paranormal investigators to Mansfield. Needless to say, Darabont had found a home for Shawshank. And Mansfield has found an unorthodox way to breathe new life into the city — by invoking the dead.
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION TRAIL
Rust Belt Aesthetic
Most know Mansfield as the place you stop to piss on your way to Cleveland from Columbus. Mansfielders will be the first to admit it and are quick to point out the McDonalds off I-71 that serves as most traveler’s memory of Mansfield. Can you imagine that? I personally can’t think of anything more frustrating than living in a town with as much life and promise as Mansfield being known as a glorified piss stop.
Rob and I met Jodie of the Mansfield and Richland County Visitors Bureau at the downtown Holiday Inn and Suites on a rainy Thursday morning. Jodie’s spiky black hair was a perfect reflection of her delightfully energetic personality, as was her bedazzled jacket with the flashy colors of a 90s sitcom. Her passion for Mansfield is as admirable as it is evident by her 20 years of service with the visitors bureau. We got in her car — a rental for the trip — and hit the road.
I was impressed with my first glimpse of Mansfield. Driving in we passed by an incredible “Welcome To Mansfield” sign, painted on the side of a factory. For a fan of the rust belt aesthetic, it was great.
Further in, I saw a town center with shops and restaurants scattered along walkable streets. But as we left the city, dilapidated and boarded up homes populated the streets. I asked Jodie if this was the result of the housing crisis. She nodded.
On Your Mark
Our first stop was the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, founded and built in 1962 just outside of Mansfield. The track features a permanent road-racing circuit with two primary configurations: a 2.4-mile, 15-turn, and a 2.25-mile, 13-turn circuit. Everyone from amateurs to professionals are welcome to partake in a variety of locally, regionally and nationally sanctioned events throughout the year. New to the sport? Sign up for the driving school.
The rain let up prior to our arrival, leaving us a slick but drivable course. 19-year-old Max took us around the track for three laps a piece, hitting upwards of 100mph on the straightaway despite fallen leaves and rainwater covering the track. Sure we slid a few times, but you don’t put on a pair of shoulder pads and expect not to take a hit.
Next, we met up with fellow travel writers, Jamie and Rich, before heading to Snow Trails for a behind-the-scenes look at operations before the winter season. Here I learned that making snow is a bitch and a costly bitch at that.
Nate, our young host who’s no stranger to just about any athletic endeavor, showed us around the 200-acre facility featuring a sizable rustic lodge with the hole-in-the-wall Last Run drinking establishment. You don’t even need to be a winter adventurer to enjoy the wide-open view of the slopes surrounded by good company and drinks. I’ll be back this winter to fully embarrass myself by falling with style from the top of their rolling hills. Or maybe I’ll stick to tubing.
“The Big House”
Our afternoon and early evening were spent at Malabar Farm State Park. 875 acres of public land provided the perfect vantage point for a sweeping view of Ohio’s fall colors. It’s also the home of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Bromfield’s extravagant mid-20th Century home that just-so-happens to also be where legendary actors Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall exchanged nuptials in 1945. You may remember Mr. Bromfield himself from such works as Early Autumn, The Rains Came and Mrs. Parkington — of which the latter two were made into successful feature films.
In all, 32 rooms make up what Bromfield affectionately called the “Big House.” His study with a massive 10-foot wrap around desk, filled with hundreds of books (2,000 in total throughout the house) next to a separate writing desk with a typewriter overlooking the Ohio forest was without a doubt my favorite. It’s hardly a wonder why Bromfield was prone to kick literary ass with such peaceful, awe-inspiring surroundings, allowing the creative juices to flow.
Of course, it’s not all roses at the Bromfield home. Here we were introduced to the first of many, many ghost stories that surround the Mansfield area. Evidently strange sounds, smells, and sightings are regular happenstance at the Big House, including a young girl — unfamiliar with the ghost stories — who complained of feeling a dog “nosing” the back of her leg. That’s right. Ghost dogs.
Creepiest of all is the tale of Ceely Rose, who lived with her family in a tiny home less than an eighth of a mile from the Bromfield mansion. You see, little ole Ceely poisoned her mother, father, and brother in 1896, and it’s said the house has since had many “happenings.” It’s a heartwarming(?) tale the whole family can enjoy at “Ceely,” a play presented by the Mansfield Trilogy!
On our way to the Malabar Farm Restaurant for dinner, we stopped by a familiar sight to anyone who’s seen Shawshank Redemption — the Oak Tree at the end of the film where Morgan Freeman finds a note and money left by Tim Robbins’ character. It’s also the highlight of Mansfield’s Shawshank Trail for many who travel the world (you read right — the world) to see the tree for themselves. A Canadian traveler, in particular, is brought to tears when he revisits the scene every year.
Dinner couldn’t have come at a better time or at a better place. Everything about Malabar Farm Restaurant felt like a home. In reality, it used to be a stagecoach. But today, it’s home to delicious, mostly local ingredients that make you groan in ecstasy. Crab cakes, fried mushrooms, and herbed goat cheese were just the prelude to the best damn shrimp pasta I can recall having. Mushrooms, bacon, roasted garlic, cream, fresh fettuccine — everything I needed right then and there. It was a pleasant way to lead into the purposefully least pleasant portion of the trip — a “dead walk” at the
Shawshank Ohio State Reformatory.
A Haunted Show at the Ohio State Reformatory
This prison was designed to intimidate. Designed to torture the mind and soul. So why not walk around in the dark, while zombies try to harvest your flesh? That’s the story behind this year’s Haunted X experience at the Ohio State Reformatory.
Myron St. John, the producer of Haunted X, approached us outside the prison wearing black shoes, a black jacket, and black shirt to match his wavy black hair. St. John looks like the kind of guy you imagine starring in low-budget horror films — an evil Bruce Campbell.
Turns out, St. John is a regular in the horror film business, proudly proclaiming to us, “I’m the guy who kills you.” He proceeded to calmly described a scene in which he stabbed a man’s eye with the victim’s own femur before taking a satisfactory puff of his little cigar.
St. John walked us into the haunted prison, one of the top two percent of “haunts,” which is apparently slang for “haunted us,” and bid us farewell. “There’s security throughout the building,” he reminded us. “Don’t be ashamed if you want them to take you out. Most don’t make it all the way through.” Comforting.
Rob and I led most of the way as the rest huddled closely behind. The group’s logic was that the young guys should be the first to succumb to God knows what. However, it quickly became clear that the zombie-actors wait for the leaders to pass before leaping to action, scaring the crap out of everyone else. And the more you scream, the more they harass you. I decided it would be best if I looked straight, and continued to remind myself that these terrifying creatures are actors who can’t legally harm me. Ultimately I was successful, even if my heart-rate was significantly elevated throughout the 30 to 40-minute trek.
At the end, a gentleman armed with a chainsaw waited for us atop the basement steps that led to sweet freedom. Ignore him and you’re fine. Pay attention to him, like a certain shrieking teenage girl did, and he’ll chase you around in circles until you’re wise enough to shut the Hell up.
Despite the constant self-reminder that I was at no point in any actual danger, the prison conjured some pretty haunting images.
I needed a drink.
Cypress Cellars is a small winery located in the lower level of an old sandstone building in downtown Mansfield. You won’t find it unless you’re looking for the tall weather vane-esque contraption marked with designs that signal a wine bar — corks and bottles of wine.
Inside feels like a hideout from… I’m not quite sure. Nonetheless, the smell of fermenting grapes smacks you like a tsunami wave as soon walk through the front door.
Here I met Forest, a server at Cypress whose hair washed across the front of his face like a California surfer. Turned out, he had actually spent some time living in California. Nailed it!
Forest poured healthy samplings of wine — primo customer service — before I settled on a bottle of Petite Syrah and purchased a bottle of Reformatory Red, a cabernet sauvignon named after the ironically celebrated prison. We chatted about favorite movies before doing what urbanite Ohioans always do, complain about Ohioans who either refuse to enjoy the city or are too afraid to let themselves.
Forest talked about the difference in news coverage between California and Ohio. In Ohio, he lamented, everything is about how dangerous the outside world is, encouraging a bunker mentality. He’s right with some exceptions.
Mansfield, like Akron, Youngstown, and I imagine Canton (I’ll find out this weekend) has a walkable downtown with immense opportunity. Yet the people are missing. I didn’t see one soul on the streets during either my walk to Cypress or back to the hotel. It’s infuriating. It makes me want to grab each and every Ohioan out of their precious Olive Garden, and shove them into something with a little character, like Cypress or the lively Martinis On Main.
But I don’t have that power. Not yet, at least.
Photos by Rob Andrukat
Disclaimer: I traveled as a guest of Mansfield & Richland County Tourism. As always, all opinions remain my own.