Historic Ohio Town Fights 'Mega Dairy'

The tiny Ohio village of Longtown was settled by freed blacks more than a century ago and has largely preserved much of its historical legacy — a legacy they felt threatened when a so-called "mega dairy" was proposed for the area. The fight sparked a movement to keep large animal operations from locating near historic places.

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There's a tiny village on the Ohio/Indiana border called Longtown. It is one of the earliest black settlements in Ohio. Today, Longtown has fewer that 100 residents and most of them had geared up for a battle with a mega dairy that was trying to move in. They may have won that skirmish, but now they face a new fight: trying to preserve the town's history.

Aileen LeBlanc reports.

AILEEN LEBLANC reporting:

This part of Ohio is typical, flat farmland, cropless and grey in winter. After passing through a sweet little town called Palestine, it's just a farmhouse here and there and a barn, no signs, no fanfare. Longtown may be short in development, but it's long in history; churches, cemeteries, schools and old houses tell its story.

Mr. ROANE SMOTHERS: This is the Clemens' Farmstead.

LEBLANC: Roane Smothers is one of our guides.

Mr. SMOTHERS (Guide, Longtown): On the National Register of Historic Places and also acknowledged by the National Park Service as an Underground Railroad House because the owners, the Clemens family, were conductors in the Underground Railroad.

LEBLANC: Roane Smothers is an historian who works for the city of Dayton. He wrote the nomination which put this house on National Register of Historic Places. The property was bought in 1822 by James Clemens, a black man. The house, now a home to a few freeloading raccoons and groundhogs, was built around 1850, and in the community of Longtown was soon settled.

Mr. SMOTHERS: Some of the Southern States in the early 1800s were making it very difficult for free people of color to live. There were actually slave rebellions going on in the Southern States of Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and they had passed laws making it difficult. They were taxing free blacks a higher rate than were actually taxing owners of slaves. So these folks loaded up there covered wagons and moved West, and at that time, this was West, Indiana and Ohio.

LEBLANC: Many residents were tri-racial, a mix of African American, Indian and White. This community of mixed race people attracted other people like themselves. By 1880, they numbered 900 residents. Wanting to protect Longtown's place in history Roane Smothers and other area citizens obtained a grant in 2002 from the National Park Service to restore the Clemens' farmstead. Then last February, some engineers began poking around. They were spotted taking soil samples on nearby property.

Local residents later learned that a company called Vreba-Hoff was planning to set up dairy in Longtown. The Netherlands based dairy would have housed and milked 2,100 cows. It also would have involved creating an eight acre open air lagoon that would hold 25 million gallons of manure mixed with water. Sixty-nine year old Jack Holland was born and raised in Longtown.

Mr. JACK HOLLAND (Longtown Resident): They met with the Darke County Commissioners. We found out and we sort of busted the party. That's how we found out they drilled 15 test holes.

LEBLANC: The residents were concerned about smells, flies, pollution, drawing down the water table. They also felt that efforts to attract visitors to historic Longtown would fail if there was a mega dairy next door. Holland took their concerns to the Ohio State Capital, where he met with Senator Tom Roberts. Roberts then introduced a bill designating Longtown as a state historic landmark. He also called for a moratorium on the type of agribusiness venture proposed by Vreba-Hoff, known as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs.

Mr. HOLLAND: We do know that they do create a large flow of traffic. They do create some odor in cases, and I don't think many people would want to come to a historical site if they have to put up with that kind of environment. Nor would the people feel comfortable developing a site, the investors in that kind of site, if they knew they were going to run into those kinds of environmental issues.

LEBLANC: Vreba-Hoff declined initial requests for a tour of one of their dairies. After weeks of bad publicity and legal challenges, the company announced that it changed its mind. It would not build on the Longtown property after all. A press release states, We came to recognize that our farm could have an unintended impact on plans to restore the Longtown settlement as a tourist destination. The move is seen by residents of Longtown as a victory, but they're not celebrating yet. The company is now exploring other sites in the county, which some believe could still have a negative impact on efforts to turn Longtown into an historic tourist attraction.

For NPR News, I'm Aileen LeBlanc.

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