In a Corner of Ohio, Lessons of 2016

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PIEDMONT, Ohio - H.A. Huff and Son's Feed and Hardware is the first building you see when you turn into town from the old National Pike. The wood-framed building's red paint has faded; part of its roof has collapsed. Clearly, customers haven't walked through its doors in years.

On one side of the building, Bob Biddlestone sits in a front loader filled with gravel. What is left of his contracting business is located a block past the former hardware store and across the street from three abandoned homes that still show signs of their former grandeur.

“It used to be you could set your clock to neighbors all coming out at the same time to mow their lawns,” Biddlestone, 56, said of the small Harrison County town that is on the outs with the new economy.

“I used to have 10 trucks, employees, and a booming business when coal production wasn't considered ‘aiding the enemy' … also did work for new housing and building development. They died with the housing crisis and the recession — which, by the way, has never recovered out here,” he said.

Biddlestone now is a one-man shop, doing what he can as he hustles for work.

“What I guess most frustrates me about politicians is that they don't understand that, for me and most people that I know, work is part of our culture. When they continue to make it harder for us to find ways to work, we eventually hit a boiling point,” Biddlestone said, trying to explain Donald Trump's appeal with regular voters.

“We don't fit in with Washington. We have done absolutely everything that we were supposed to do all of our lives and our values are looked at as backwards. Our homes are worth less than we paid for them and there is no great replacement for the jobs we are skilled to perform.”

If you stand in Biddlestone's yard and look at the post office across the street, you can see “State Bank” still etched in stone above the door. Joyce Orr sits inside behind a neat desk, sorting mail as the town's makeshift postmaster.

Downstairs, an old bank vault is scattered with canceled checks, some nearly a century old.

“Policies and laws made in Washington are never crafted or advocated to enhance the lives of people like us,” said Orr, 60, a trained nurse who took the post office job to do something different.

Orr is disheartened that her two children couldn't find jobs and remain in the area after graduating from college. “There are so many reasons why someone like me is looking outside of the political hierarchy for a president,” she said.

Just like Biddlestone, Orr hesitates a long time before admitting she supports Trump. Like Biddlestone, she starts by saying, “Well, you are not going to believe this but ...”

About 30 miles away, the sweet aroma of yeast drifts through downtown Cambridge as it has every day since 1925, when the Kennedy family opened its bakery.

The bakery's display windows along Cambridge's main street are filled with sugary treats; people travel hours to buy its famous tea cookies. Stepping into this iconic southern Ohio bakery is pure happiness.

Behind the counter, Jody Lawry, Barbara Larrison and Barb Wheeler greet customers warmly and cheerfully banter with each other.

All three are stunned to learn that two support Trump and the other “feels the Bern” of Bernie Sanders' candidacy.

“Wait, you like Trump too?” Lawry asks Larrison as Wheeler admits that Sanders has her vote.

“We never talk about politics here,” Larrison says. “And to be honest, people are cautious to admit if they like Trump because the media makes you feel as though that is something to mock.”

This is just a small portrait of one corner of Ohio. Yet this state and this country are flush with towns like this that are largely ignored by Washington. Economic pressures and cultural forces will continue to grind away at their way of life — and, if we don't find a way to work toward some economic and cultural touchstones that bind Main Street to Washington, our great divide will not only continue but will expand.

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at szito@tribweb.com
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