On Location: Mansfield, Ohio's 'Shawshank' Industry The Ohio city where the prison drama The Shawshank Redemption was shot is home to an abandoned reformatory, a century-old oak tree, and now a cottage industry built up around the annual pilgrimages that fans of the movie make to see the locations.
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On Location: Mansfield, Ohio's 'Shawshank' Industry

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On Location: Mansfield, Ohio's 'Shawshank' Industry

On Location: Mansfield, Ohio's 'Shawshank' Industry

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

All summer long, we're hearing about the importance of place in some of our greatest movies. That's for our series On Location. Today, the 1994 prison drama, "The Shawshank Redemption," based on a novella by Stephen King, starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins. The story follows two men in prison for murder - one guilty, one innocent - as they help each other find hope in a place of terrible darkness.

NPR's Cory Turner takes us now to the Rust Belt city of Mansfield, Ohio, where nearly all of the movie was filmed.

CORY TURNER: Westinghouse, the Tappan Stove Company, Ohio Brass, Mansfield Tire and Rubber, and General Motors. They've all closed plants in Mansfield since America's heavy manufacturing boom went bust. But at least one closure has brought a strange bounty.


TURNER: After nearly a century of use, the Ohio State Reformatory closed on New Year's Eve 1990. The massive prison is a combination of three architectural styles: Victorian Gothic, Richardsonian Romanesque and Queen Anne. If that doesn't mean much to you, let me put it this way: It's gorgeous and terrifying, which may explain why Hollywood thought it would make a perfect Shawshank Prison.

RON PUFF: It's the largest free-standing steel cellblock in the world. It's all steel. It's got six tiers. The cells are seven by nine, two inmates per cell, which means two beds, two foot lockers, the works. It has approximately 600 cells.

TURNER: And that's just the east cellblock, which wasn't used in the movie. But it's amazing how much of the Reformatory was used. Tour guide Ron Puff gives me a Shawshank tour, walking me through the movie room by room, the warden's office, the parole room, the library, showers, and one of the most popular stops.

I'm about to get my own solitary experience. Thanks to Ron here. All right, Ron, here we go. I am in. It's dark and the door's open.


TURNER: Even the fake sewer pipe that Tim Robbins' character uses to escape is still there, propped up on a little platform, as if the camera crew had just left for lunch.

When "The Shawshank Redemption" opened in theaters in September 1994, audiences largely ignored it. But home video and cable changed that. Lee Tasseff is president of the Mansfield and Richland County Convention and Visitors Bureau. And he was in Mansfield when the filmmakers came looking for a Shawshank Prison. A few years after the movie opened, he says, people simply started showing up.

LEE TASSEFF: They were random, and we never knew where they were coming from. Sometimes it was somebody from Korea who was here. The gentleman who hitchhiked from England just, you know, stopped into our door.

TURNER: I call them the Shawshank pilgrims.

MICHAEL DEMETRIADES: In order to immerse myself into the experience, I wanted to go with actual images, printed out images of the movie so that I could compare it back to the real scenes when I was actually there in person.

TURNER: Michael Demetriades lives in Florida and he flew to Mansfield for the Shawshank experience. Those images he mentioned, he printed 120 of them, carried them around in a binder. He also listened to the film's soundtrack as he went.

DEMETRIADES: Yeah. Well, you know, I don't want to sound like too much of an extremist but I was definitely prepared.

TURNER: The Shawshank pilgrims, of course, want to see the Reformatory. But the biggest draw for many of them, including Demetriades, sits about 15 miles south, in an old farm field.


TIM ROBBINS: (as Andy Dufresne) If you ever get out of here, do me a favor.

MORGAN FREEMAN: (as Ellis Boyd Redding) Sure, Andy, anything.

ROBBINS: (as Andy Dufresne) There's a big hayfield up near in Buxton. Do you know where Buxton is?

FREEMAN: (as Ellis Boyd Redding) There's a lot of hayfields there.

ROBBINS: (as Andy Dufresne) One in particular. It's got a long rock wall with a big oak tree at the north end. It's like something out of a Robert Frost poem. It's where I asked my wife to marry me.

TURNER: That oak tree is at least 100 feet tall and 175 years old. And for many visitors, seeing it is a spiritual experience. Go to YouTube, and you'll find videos of people simply recording themselves driving by it.

SYBIL BURSKEY: It's almost like a cult following here. We get phone calls. We get visitations. You can always tell when someone's looking for the Shawshank tree because they come into the gift shop, and they kind of have a puzzled look on their face.

TURNER: That's Sybil Burskey. She's the administrative assistant at Malabar Farm State Park, which just happens to be across the road from the Shawshank tree. The tree's owner, a local attorney, is not amused by her tree's cult status. So, she put up a fence, but that hasn't stopped thousands of people from driving slowly down Pleasant Valley Road, snapping pictures or missing the tree and ending up confused in the Malabar Farm gift shop.

JODIE PUSTER: We launched the Shawshank trail three years ago.

TURNER: Jodie Puster works with Lee Tasseff in the Mansfield Visitors Bureau. They put together a brochure with a map to help visitors find all of Mansfield's Shawshank locations. But the trail is also a savvy bit of marketing.

PUSTER: There's Ed Pickens' Cafe on Main and he created a Shawshankwich.

TURNER: That's right, a Shawshankwich. And for dessert, Squirrels Den across the street sells a Prison Bar candy bar. While you're there, be sure to check out the chocolate scenes from "The Shawshank Redemption." And if chocolate isn't your thing, there's always the Eatmor Bundt Company. Here's owner Joyce Wells.

JOYCE WELLS: This is the Shawshank bundt cake. We made in the shape, best we could, as the Mansfield Reformatory.

TURNER: On my way out of Mansfield, I drop by the Reformatory one last time. While the state had planned to tear it down after "The Shawshank Redemption" was filmed, a core group of enthusiasts stepped in. The state eventually sold the building to them for a dollar.

It's a Saturday, when place is usually close for private parties. And there to greet me is Rob Klarman, another tour guide.

ROB KLARMAN: There's not an available free weekend in this building at all this year.

TURNER: Thanks in part to "The Shawshank Redemption," the Ohio State Reformatory is hip. You name it, people want to do it here: tours, conventions, trade shows, ghost hunts, concerts, high school proms, even weddings.

KLARMAN: There are 14 weddings here scheduled for this year. There are already I think four or five scheduled for 2012. And there's one wedding scheduled for 2013 already. So word has gotten out. It has spread. And it's just amazing.

TURNER: There's no way to measure exactly what "The Shawshank Redemption" has done for Mansfield. There's the money, of course. But it's really about more than money. It's about the last words spoken in the film.


FREEMAN: (as Ellis Boyd Redding) 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.

TURNER: Shawshank pilgrims come to Mansfield to be inspired, to feel the same way they felt the first time they saw the movie. And for the hard luck city of Mansfield, to be the source of inspiration for so many perfect strangers is, itself, a source of pride and hope.

Cory Turner, NPR News.


BLOCK: We have one postscript to our story. Last Friday, after Cory's visit, a violent storm tore through Mansfield, Ohio and we're sorry to report high winds split the Shawshank tree in half. Part of it is still standing, but it's unclear for how long. To see photos from Cory's visit of the oak tree, of the reformatory and that luscious Shawshank bundt cake, go to NPR.org.

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