If you live in a city of 18 million souls the legacy you’re remembered by may not count as heavily as it would in a small town of less than 5000. Mr. Wert Ash lived and died in a small town and for decades his legacy has been stained by what small town’s are good at; accepting rumor and half-truths as fact.
During much of his life, this descendant of a grandfather who had experienced slavery first hand, was known as “Hammerhead” or “Hammer.” Few knew his real name but most in town knew him by those nicknames, didn’t know why he was called them, but knew that shouting those words at Mr. Wert Ash would drive him to a fit of anger, evoking oaths, threats, and at times hot pursuit.
I’ve recently been privy to a discussion about Mr. Wert Ash and no one present knew what his real name was but most knew who he was and what his nicknames were. Just as they didn’t know his real name, they didn’t know how he acquired those nicknames. Some said it was because he had murdered his wife with a hammer. Others said he had killed a person with a hammer. Some that he chased tormentors and threatened them with harm using his hammer. Most remembered him as being someone they feared, or someone their mothers told them to avoid.
I had been one of those of the 1940s and 50s who taunted Mr. Wert Ash when given a chance. Of course I never did it alone, I wasn’t that brave. But in the company of friends and feeling safe in numbers, I would mindlessly become a willing tormentor. I think Saint Peter will forgive children, such as I, these things but I’m just as certain that if there is a heaven and hell, the same “get out of jail” card won’t be given adults at the Pearly Gates.
According to area resident, Connie Ford, Mr. Wert Ash may have originally lived in Bainbridge, OH. He had a sister named Navy Green. A brother, Levi Ash, married into the McCoy family of Greenfield.
He lived alone in an unpainted wood home at the junction of Child Street and SR 753 and was a neighbor of Richard Child. Mr. Wert Ash lived without electricity and running water and would draw water from a well in the back yard of the Child home. On those occasions when he needed electricity he would temporarily run an extension cord from the Child home to his. According to Jane Child Mills, daughter of Richard Child, Mr. Wert Ash died in their back yard while pumping water. And, ironically, the photo that Jane provided shows Mr. Wert Ash posing at that well and you can see that his hands are on the pump’s handles.
For many years Mr. Wert Ash worked at the Hennigan Farm located about two-miles Southwest of Greenfield on SR 138. Current owners of the farm are John and Wendy Royse. Mr. Wert Ash would walk the distance between his home and the farm several times each day which may help account for his longevity. I’ve not discovered his age at death but he was reported to be quite elderly.
I have garnered three different stories about how Mr. Wert Ash acquired his nicknames. All share one thing in common, the theft, or claimed theft, of a hammer. One source says he stole a hammer from his employer, Mr. Hennigan, and was let go. Another that he simply “stole” a hammer, and the third that he found a hammerhead and was falsely accused of having stolen it. The important thing is that nobody with personal knowledge connects him to the slaying of another with a hammer.
In our day it seems incredulous that such a simple act, regardless of which version is true, could garner one a life-long and damning sobriquet. But, Mr. Wert Ash lived in a different time and in a small-town America that may not exist today. The stigmas and social taboos of the 1950s are long gone and rumor and innuendo don’t have the staying power they once did.
I’ve tried in the writing of this piece to, when possible, refer to Mr. Wert Ash as, Mr. Wert Ash. There are two reasons for such. For well over half a century this man lived with, and died with, a legacy that tormented him. And unfortunately, his reactions to the teasing only added to the body of myths that grew to encase him. So, it is time to stop tormenting this man who every person who really knew him called, “A sweet person.”
The other reason is Jane Child Mills told me that her father, Richard, who knew Mr. Wert Ash better than most, once told her that she was to NEVER call that gentleman by any name other than, Mr. Wert Ash. She was to never contribute to his torment. Hopefully we will all take a lesson from this and do our part to restore and protect the legacies of those “characters” we all remember. Common decency requires that we recall them as people who added zest, variety, and substance to our lives. Not as oddities and subjects of demeaning myth.
NOTE: The Greenfield Community Directory of 1958 list a Levi Ash (wife Susie), of 122 North Street, as being employed by Cowgill’s Grill as a janitor.