Clay Henry Cooper (1858 – 1913)

Behold ye stranger

As you pass me by

As you are now

So once was I

As I am now

So you must be

Prepare for death and

Follow me.

Thus reads the epitaph of Clay Henry Cooper of Upper Twin Creek whose memorial obelisk and grave is located on the ridge top, high above the old Cooper homestead.

When Clay Henry died in 1913, he was buried according to his wishes. Buried in a pine box with his “squirrel riffle,” Cooper’s death, according to popular telling, would lead to another round of conflict on Upper Twin, one that pitted the younger Cooper brothers against the older Cooper brothers. His burial became the opening scene of a feature-length article in the Cincinnati Enquirer, which published “The Coopers of Twin Creek: The Story of a Hill Feud in Ohio in 1929.” Written by Wilmer G. Mason and subtitled, “A Page Plucked Out of History, ’20 Miles and 100 Years From Portsmouth,'” the Enquirer’s article played upon popular stereotypes of Appalachia as “relic culture,” and described Clay as the “King of the Cooper Clan” and the Twin Creek region as “the place where hill history still lives and breathes and hates.”

Clay Cooper died of natural causes, not from a gunshot or knife wound, as would a number of his neighbors, relatives, and children.  That’s not to say he didn’t have his own stories of moonshine and near brushes with death.  In July 1897, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported on a fight between Clay Cooper, Thomas and J.R. McGraw and William and Thomas Lewis.  “Rocks, clubs, knives and a rifle were all used. All were more or less hurt. Tom McGraw placed a rifle against H. Clay Cooper’s head and pulled the trigger. Luckily the cap failed to explode. Warrants have been sworn out for the arrest of the two McGraws and the two Lewises, who have all taken to the woods.”

Clay Henry Cooper died before Prohibition was enacted throughout Ohio and the rest of the nation. The conflict, violence, and death that followed his ridge-top burial had more to do with the intrusion of the state’s law enforcement powers and expanded efforts to crack down on illegalities.  Prohibition in Ohio coincided with the creation of the Shawnee State Forest, which came to include large tracts of land in the watersheds of Lower and Upper Twin Creeks. As the old hillside stone quarries that had once provided work closed after the turn of the century and the ridges had been largely stripped of timber for the manufacture of railroad ties and other timber products, tax delinquencies grew and the state moved to add these so-called “unwanted lands” to their new state forest lands. Thus, in addition to new local, state, and federal prohibition related law enforcement efforts, the introduction of State Forest Rangers, with an eye for moonshine operations on state land, added to the increased presence of state power in the region.

When Clay Henry Cooper died in 1913 the old ridge-top roads were still commonly used by residents of the area.  The all-weather forest roads constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the WPA in the 1930s had yet to open up the region to the automobile and the location of Cooper’s memorial obelisk would have been known by everyone on the creek.  It marked the ridge road address of the Cooper homestead on Upper Twin, and its message to the passing stranger would have reminded many that life is short and that we will all one day follow Clay Henry Cooper in death.

On the 26th of January, 2018, Brian Richards, a longtime resident of Twin Creek, led an outing to locate Cooper’s grave and document the site for inclusion in the Ohio Historic Inventory (OHI). Richards, whose Elliot family tree traces back to one of the earliest settler families on the creek, first stumbled upon the obelisk back in the early 1970s.  He memorized the epitaph and would recall it near verbatim some forty years later when we struggled to read the original carved sandstone memorial.

Derrick Parker, an Ohio History Service Corps (AmeriCorps) Community Surveyor, accompanied Andrew Feight, the local site supervisor for the OHI Survey. The Cooper Memorial Obelisk and its associated history will be entered into the inventory, which is maintained by the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) at the Ohio History Connection.

Eli Allen, the President of the Scioto County Genealogical Society, joined the outing to Cooper’s Obelisk in hopes of adding the site to the Society’s records of lost and forgotten cemeteries. Allen brought along his 360-degree camera and uploaded an image of the historic site to Google Maps and Streetview.

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