This week's “Walkin’ Shoes” is taking a little roadtrip. The whole family went on vacation. It was really a long weekend getaway, but it was out of state. On Monday, I walked over 3 miles at a single historic site. (Some of you may remember that I am a Brown Sign vacationer.) The kids liked it too. At least they said they did.
I think most of us have seen the movie “Shawshank Redemption” with Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. Well, everyone except George, I hear. Anyway, we went to the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield. It just happened to be the place that “Shawshank” was filmed. That was part of the allure about visiting, and Patience was very interested when I first mentioned it back in May when we were going to visit my sister.
Our earlier vacation was less of a vacation and really just a chance to congratulate my niece on her graduation. So, Wendy and I decided that we would take another quick trip that was more vacation. We decided to revisit Ohio, the Reformatory, President Garfield’s burial site, and the Great Lakes Science Center.
When you first pull up to the old reformatory, it is a very imposing structure. The large, sandstone slabs that make up the construction of the building combine in a jigsaw of Richardsonian, Victorian, and Queen Anne architecture. It is absolutely stunning and beautiful. According to the guide stick that we had, the architect designed it in this way in order to “encourage inmates to be reborn back into their spiritual lives.” Since it’s closure in 1990, the wall that surrounded it as well as most of the outer buildings behind the main prison have been razed, probably to make a parking lot for the active prison next door.
When you first walk into the main building, the Mansfield Reformatory Society has refurbished the first floor into a gift shop and museum. Immediately, the grandeur of the old building grabs your attention, and you’re transported back in time when the prison invited guests (of the non-incarcerated variety) to spend the evening with the warden.
When you reach the second floor of the administrative building, you start to get a sense of where this building was before the restoration began. Paint is peeling from the walls, and the floors are scuffed, with their patterns long ago disappeared under the steps of countless feet. In one area, we could see that the laminate flooring that was exactly the same as in our foyer. There is some beauty still shining through the scars of neglect and age.
On this second floor was Chaplin’s quarters which has been made famous in “Shawshank Redemption” as the place Red goes to face the parole board. Remnants of the movie production are still evident with the supports for the cameras still attached to the ceiling. Also on the second floor were the offices for Andy and Warden Norton. Originally, the room used as Norton’s office was the bedroom of the Assistant Warden of the prison.
The third floor had a room where dances were held. These weren’t dances with the inmates. Again, guests would visit the prison, some staying overnight. They had to be entertained. So, they would have small dances, and a raised area for bands to perform. I was not expecting a prison to be a social center of the community, but in this case it definitely was. Even the grounds outside were tailored for visitors with a trolley running from town to bring people out to picnic.
The same floor was also home to Brooks’ apartment from the movie. A room here was made up to be the apartment where Brooks went to after his parole. Across the ceiling is the infamous beam in which “Brooks was here” was carved, along with Red’s addition. Right outside this room were the stairs to the Chapel. From there we were able to go into the East Cell Block.
The East Cell Block was a later addition to the prison, built in 1908. It is still the largest free-standing, steel cell block in the world. It is six stories high, and it scared every bit of bravery right out of my 6-year old daughter. It is a long drop to the concrete below, and in some places, it is grating that you’re walking on. Sometimes it was pretty scary, even for me.
Looking down the rows of cells, it was hard to picture the place full of inmates. And then you look at the cells. There was not a heck of a lot of room for two people. Basically, there was a bunk system for beds, a sink, and a toilet. There was a narrow space between the beds and the opposite wall to use as an aisle to get to the toilet and sink. I would venture to guess that the cells were about 6 feet by nine feet. Those were some tight quarters.
Downstairs between the wings of cells was the “bullpen.” There is a lot of movie memorabilia in that room. The yellow line the new inmates lined up on is still painted across the stone floor. The tunnel that Andy chipped out behind the pinups is there, as well as the sewage pipe he had to crawl through. The magic of movies meant that these props were actually just that. You can’t tell by watching the movie that’s all they are. Lots of plaster and mesh can make anything on the screen seem real.
“Shawshank” was not the only movie to be filmed at the prison. Parts of “Air Force One” were also filmed there. In the bullpen there is Russian propaganda painted on the wall. Outside the building, there is a gate that was used as the gate for the gulag in that movie. With more of that cinema magic, the gate looks like a solid and permanent part of the grounds. When you get right up to it, you discover that once again it’s a little bit of plaster, chicken wire, paint, and a whole lot of camera angles. It is still very cool to see, especially after watching the movies.
Even the kids really enjoyed this tour. We walked over 3 miles throughout the building. Outside, we saw the fallen branch of the infamous “Shawshank Tree” which blew over in a windstorm. Walking back towards the building, one cannot help but be a little intimidated by the immense facade of the prison with all its inherent beauty. It was constructed to help rehabilitate young, first time offenders. Today, it is a stark reminder of those days, with a new, brighter future ahead through preservation.
There have been several movies filmed in our area. However, there is nothing like the tour for the movies at Mansfield. It was a fantastic time. I would strongly urge anyone who has the chance to visit the Reformatory, please do so. There is so much more than the movie connection. YOu can learn about the architecture, the history, the movie, and ghost stories. For those people into ghosts and hauntings, this is the place for you. With that much despair and melancholy, there has to be a lost of activity if you believe in that sort of thing.
Now I have to watch the movie again so I can point out the things we saw while on vacation. And I guess I’ll have to rewatch “Air Force One” too. Maybe once the weather gets cold enough that I don't want to go outside. Until then, it’s still time for these old walkin’ shoes.
Craig Bacon has never been in jail. While he plans to keep it that way, he will revisit the Ohio State Reformatory when he has the chance. You can visit their website HERE.