Watching the John Gee house tumble to the ground to make room for a larger Speedway gas station/convenience story left me with conflicting feelings.
I love history and dislike watching history erased in favor of the almighty dollar. On the other hand, who the heck was John Gee and why was he so important to local history.
Why was this house so special? He is said to have built several other structures in and around the city of Gallipolis. He was a mulatto – a mixture of African American and Caucasian – who was a skilled craftsman, builder and philanthropist. He was also a former slave purportedly born to a U.S. President, William Henry Harrison, according to local historians and preservationists, although no evidence can be found linking Gee to Harrison.
The Gee house has been an eyesore for quite some time. Countless families had lived in the house since it was built sometime between 1925-1840. Local records are not complete enough to pinpoint an exact year. The last family to live in the house at the former 809 Second Avenue home moved out several months ago, leaving a pile of debris and allowing the rats and termites to take over what the humans had not been able to destroy.
Despite the condition of the home, local preservationists attempted to save it. They wanted to move it to another location. Their efforts were too late as permits and funding couldn’t be secured in time.
As for shooting video, the demolition crew allowed me inside the fence as long as I wore a hard hat and reflective clothing as a mandatory condition. Because I am also with the news media, the site foreman –from Dayton, Ohio – said I could roam anywhere I wished and take photos/video from whatever angle I needed. I just needed to stay away from the moving heavy equipment and falling bricks and other debris.
I managed to capture about 40 video clips and 200-plus photos of the house in various stages of demolition. It was exciting to capture an aging house falling to the ground as this, in itself, was local history that is sure to be preserved.
The most difficult portion of this assignment was obtaining still photos of Gee, his mother and Harrison. I was most fortunate that the Gallia County Historical Society had these rare items and allowed me to make digital copies for use in my video. I also managed to incorporate a map I created, thanks to a previous assignment about infographics and “other cool stuff.” This helped me fill a block of time as an overlay piece in the middle of the video.
My video is shorter than two minutes, mainly because my guest, Lora Snow, a local historian and preservationist, rambled on about the oral history of Gee.
Probably the most interesting aspect of this man was he worked on the Underground Railroad. It is not known if the now-demolished house ever served as a “safe house” for runaway slaves, but Gee – being a former slave – could easily look across the Ohio River (he owned much land in Gallipolis at the time) and see what was then Virginia, a slave state.
Looking across the river in 2016 from that spot, it is now West Virginia, which didn’t officially become a state until 1864. So one must consider Gee to be an amazing man for his time: a former slave who owned swaths of land in full view of a slave state; he ran an Underground Railroad operation near the Ohio River in free territory while dodging bounty hunters and the like.
It was sad to see the house destroyed, but bricks from the home have been saved for the creation of a monument on Speedway property that will recognize Gee.