Hello, President Biden, it was nice to have you in Licking County!
I’m not quite sure on this, but I know we had Abraham Lincoln give a speech on Feb. 14, 1860 on his way to inauguration, from a train car just south of downtown Newark.
Other than that, which other presidents have we had in the area? In terms of “while serving” he’s on a short list. Presidents Obama and Trump certainly flew over — can’t miss the distinctive look of Air Force One, let alone the fighter escort — but didn’t visit on the ground.
Andrew Johnson came shortly after Lincoln’s assassination, and others have told that story at length, but it was another whistle stop more than formal event with “boots on the ground.”
Rutherford Hayes from nearby Delaware, Ohio came here for Grand Army of the Republic events as a veteran himself, and at a couple of those James Garfield was present, though well before his presidency.
And I keep running into stories that Andrew Jackson passed through on the old National Road, but I’m not so sure of that one, though it’s fairly well received that Jacksontown got its name from supporters of Old Hickory, if not from his actual presence here. Henry Clay did visit Hebron, and that’s also a longer story with a powerful punch, but he is simply “the man who was almost President.”
Presidents or potentates aside, the big question is “why a groundbreaking?” Especially when the ground is broken, dug, plowed, moved, and transported back and forth between piles and pits already.
OK, so it’s a symbolic act, like saying grace after a meal. You can be thankful after you’ve already eaten everything, right?
There’s a “saying grace” aspect to public and political events like this. We took the first shovelful months ago, but today we celebrate that we started and we’re well on the way to finishing. Speeches are actually more common than shovels, even when a dozen or more are wielded by a line of people noticeably not possessing manual labor skills: you see them all trying to coordinate that first scoop . . . on three, two, one, shovel! (Cue cheers.)
Why the attempt to synchronize shovels in the first place? It’s actually a fascinating piece of tradition and a kind of religious ritual. The ancient idea is that the wholeness of the soil, which when untouched for long periods does indeed need cutting, not just shoveling, is something to respect. To break the ground is to open up what is below, and who knows what might get out?
In Japan, I am told, groundbreaking ceremonies are still quite overtly religious, in terms of calming spirits that might be disturbed and asking for blessings from powers that may be awakened, to protect the builders and occupants of what is to be put on the site. A few prayers for the construction crews and coming employees might just still be in order.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he has prayed over a few construction sites, in fact. Tell him about the blessings you believe our community needs at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.