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Lessons From the Center of the World

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

CENTER OF THE WORLD, OH -- In 1845, noted academic, businessman and admitted-eccentric Randall D. Wilmot from New York City came to a plot of land along the Mahoning River in Braceville and decided to settle here and establish a business.

It was a smart move at the time: The land was located along the vibrant Pittsburgh-to-Akron stagecoach route; every day, scores of travelers and merchants came through, hungry, thirsty and looking for a place to spend the night.

So he went about establishing an inn and general store. It thrived for more than 20 years and made him a very rich man.

Wilmot was so convinced of the importance of his geographical location and his brilliance in grasping it that he called his establishment the Center of the World, painting the words on a sign with a circle around it on the inn.

This wasn't Wilmot's first rodeo; in New York, he had an establishment called the Beginning of the World, but he had wanderlust to head toward the frontier, which at the time was Ohio.

Eventually, business dried up here when the railroad came through, and his customers opted for taking the train -- a less perilous ride in those days of treacherous highways.

But Wilmot was not the sort to give up. Acutely aware of the impermanence of good fortune and life, he appropriately moved just 13 miles away to Cortland, Ohio, where the frontier began to give way to permanent settlement and opened the End of the World, a grocery store to serve those settlers.

Wilmot left two legacies when he passed at the ripe old age of 84: a Trumbull county town with a name that never fails to catch the eye of strangers; and an adaptability to change and sense of mortality that his moment both in life and in fortune too would pass, just as his father's father's father's did.

Too often in American culture and in our politics, we promote a shocking lapse of self-abnegation. Popular culture dictates that we don't need to start with "the beginning of the world"; it tells us that we are entitled to be at "the center of the world" at birth and that whatever we want should be ours and be immortal.

That entitlement culture crushes the spirit of invention and competition that Wilmot thrived and prospered under: First place didn't work out? Fine. Find another way to make a living, and try it again. Second place worked well for a very long time until it didn't.

And yet, he persevered and persisted.

Wilmot never dreamed to whine that he was entitled to the business he lost when the railroads chose to build their hub in nearby Warren rather than adjacent to his inn along the Pittsburgh-Akron stagecoach route.

Poring over historical records, there is no evidence he felt what happened to him was unfair. You see, 150 years ago that was not part of our politics. Wilmot could have easily tapped his son David Wilmot, a powerful U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and confidante to President Abraham Lincoln, to block or influence the railroads, but he didn't.

The Center of the World was never more than a two-bit town -- even when Wilmot founded it. Drive through it today, and it still isn't. There are a sprinkling of well-worn homes, a motel that has likely not been open for at least two decades and a hauntingly beautiful Statue of Liberty that greets travelers who whisk by the crossroads of Ohio state Routes 82 and 5.

Sometimes, towns with peculiar names are more than just oddities. The secrets and lessons they hold for the curious are sometimes the stories and lessons worth exploring.

If we spend our time dismissing our history because our present culture and politics tells us it is too imperfect for our sensibilities, we become weak from that lack of knowledge and context.

The past isn't just made of ghosts of flawed men who came before us. We can learn a lot about who we are when we understand who we were.

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