Bike Trail Atlas Mile 2.6: Gatton Rocks

Back when people wore too many clothes in the summertime and they needed to escape the heat in town, there were four excursion trains a day on the B&O Railroad to take them out in the country to Gatton Rocks.

It was a resort area for 40 years, with rustic cabins on the cliffs overlooking the Clear Fork, and folks came for the day or the season to swim and boat and drop their line into the catfish ponds.

They could bring a picnic and dine out by the swinging bridge under the shadows of Lover’s Leap; or maybe have a Sunday chicken dinner in the Big House.  At night there was singing by the campfire, and always wild tales by Cy Gatton.

The echoes of those days are faint and few now, but the Big House still sees thousands of visitors each year who come to walk through the amazing gardens of the Wade and Gatton Nurseries that bear testament to the famous fertility of his spot.

From the B&O station in Mansfield it was just a little over an hour by train to the whistle stop at Gatton Rocks, about halfway between Bellville and Butler.

The Big House at Gatton Rocks was built in 1880, and a wing was added in 1912 when the house expanded to include the Wade side of the family. 

In the decades since 1913, when the photo above was taken, the grassy hillside above the Clear Fork has sprouted dozens of garden beds exhibiting 2,000 different daylilies and a world-class collection of hostas at Wade & Gatton Nurseries.

The Gatton brothers came to settle in the Clear Fork Valley in 1817.  The tract of land that they settled on included not only the famous sandstone bluffs, but also fertile bottom land along the river, the gold-panning riverbanks, and high hilltops above the frost line that were ideal for fruit orchards.

By the year that Cy Gatton was born, in 1865, the orchards were flourishing, and during his lifetime on the farm he watched the business rise to eminence as one of the finest fruit farms in Ohio.  The railroad branched off a special siding at Gatton Rocks so that freight cars could be loaded with produce to sell in the cities.

Gatton Fruit Farm annually shipped 75,000 bushels of fruit to Cleveland, Cincinnati or Detroit.  Their produce included apples, peaches, apricots, pears, plums, cherries, strawberries and potatoes.

It was a popular place for day-outings from the very start, and the Gatton family encouraged it in the 1880 and 90s by providing camping grounds, fishing ponds, and rustic meals with campfires and entertainment.

By the time these photos were taken in 1913, the place had a small settlement of summer cottages where families vacationed, overlooking the valley from above the cliffs.

There were many outdoor activities at Gatton Rocks, including fishing in the river or the catfish pond, or horseback riding in the orchards.

In 1900 – 1902 a series of seven rustic cabins were built on the ridge above Gatton Rocks overlooking the Clear Fork Valley, as summer cottages for various families in Mansfield.  During the ensuing decades they became available for use as seasonal rentals, and often hosted Boy Scout events during the off seasons.  Today, what remains of them is a little too rustic for use.

Each of the cabins had a name, and they were The ParsonageFelsenheim, Rest Knook, Hemlock Lodge and Forest Lodge, Styx, and Old Hickory.

Cy Gatton

In the summer of 1913 Cy Gatton was 48 years old and he already had a reputation far outside the Clear Fork Valley that was larger than life.  Having grown up at the Gatton Fruit Farm with the legacy of buffalo hunts, gold rushes and Johnny Appleseed, he knew early on that if he was to make a mark in that epic place he had his work cut out for him.  He rose to the occasion by establishing himself as one of America’s preeminent storytellers, prevaricators, and raconteurs of tall tales.

The tourists who came to enjoy boating, fishing, and all the outdoor activities at Gatton Rocks, were drawn there just as much hoping to hear campfire tales from the resident genius of tall tales.

A principal attraction of Gatton Rocks, during its seasons as a tourist destination, was Cy Gatton himself.  Known locally and recognized nationally for his wild ‘tales of dogs and coons,’ Cy was granted a license to stretch the truth in 1908 by the Ancient Order of Reckless and Independent Prevaricators.

According to Cy Gatton:

There was a great big bass in the Clear Fork that Cy was determined to catch, and though he had tried many times before without success he set out undaunted that day in his tin bottom boat with an especially strong fishing line.

He hauled in 4 or 5 whoppers before noon but they weren’t what he was after so he tossed them in the bottom of the boat and just kept on casting.

Of course he finally hooked the big guy and in the fight that ensued the fish pulled him and his boat up and down the river until way past lunchtime.

As it happened the monster bass was pulling him skittering across the rapids at such a terrific speed that the boat got hotter and hotter until the fish he had already caught started frying in the bottom of the boat.  Old Cy just flipped them over and ate them for lunch while he raced up and down the stream.

Late that afternoon when it seemed to Cy that the pace might be slacking just a bit the big fish suddenly leaped out of the water over the boat a couple times and wound his fishing line around the red-hot metal to burn it in two.

And that was the one that got away.

Connecting a footpath route between the B&O whistle stop and Gatton Rocks was a swinging bridge across the Clear Fork River.  Spanning 185 feet, the suspension bridge was a primary photo op in the years around the turn of the last century, and shows up in old picture albums all over the state.

Never been to Gatton Rocks? Take a minute or two to wade into the waters of the Clear Fork and experience a summer morning under the cliffs:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s