Visit the Scioto County Welcome Center and view Robert Dafford’s large canvas portrait of Ava and Louis Chaboudy.
Dr. Louis Chaboudy is remembered as “the person who originated the idea of having murals painted on the Portsmouth floodwall.” Bob Morton of Portsmouth Murals, Inc., authored the first history of the murals and according to his telling, “It all began with a Triple A motorcoach tour to the Wheeling, West Virginia, and Steubenville, Ohio, area in February, 1992. AAA escort Ava Chaboudy had her husband, Dr. Louis Chaboudy, on the tour with her. When the group toured the murals in Steubenville Dr. Chaboudy recalls remarking to Ava, “The floodwall in Portsmouth would be a good place for murals and they would fix something that has been an eyesore for over 50 years.”
Bob Morton, who served as the president of the AAA’s South-Central Ohio Club, at the time, was also there at the inception. In May of 1992, Dr. Chaboudy returned to Steubenville with Morton and George Clayton, a prominent Portsmouth businessman. Chaboudy and Clayton were members of the Club’s Board of Trustees and, along with Morton, the three men were attending the Club’s Annual Meeting. Upon their return to Portsmouth, they met with Mayor Franklin T. Gerlach, who embraced the idea. Morton and the AAA then organized a group tour of Steubenville’s mural project. Among the party, according to Bob Morton’s recollection, were “Mayor Gerlach, City Council President Ann Sydnor, Dr. and Ava Chaboudy, George Clayton, Leo Blackburn, Carl Ackerman, Doug Peterseim (the AAA employee who drove the AAA van) and myself [Bob Morton].”
Morton’s list highlights the important role Carl Ackerman, a local photo collector, would play in the development of the murals and their illustration of Portsmouth history. Robert Dafford, who was hired to paint Portsmouth’s floodwall murals, would rely heavily upon Ackerman’s collection to depict the city’s history.
During the tour group’s drive back to Portsmouth, Morton and other AAA officials agreed to procure club funds to hire Louise Snider of Steubenville as a consultant to what would become Portsmouth Murals, Inc. Snider, the Executive Director of the Steubenville Downtown Business Association, had led the Portsmouth AAA group on their recent tour of Steubenville’s murals. It was Snider’s recommendation of Robert Dafford that led to his choice as the Portsmouth project’s muralist.
Snider discovered Dafford’s work in Chemainus, a small town on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. In May 1994, the Smithsonian Magazine ran Stanley Meisler’s article, “Take a look at a town that wouldn’t lie down and die,” which highlighted the Chemainus’s public mural project. Meisler’s story of a small Canadian town, which had fallen on hard times following the closure of its largest mill, resonated with residents of Steubenville and Portsmouth, Ohio.
“Like mist over the nearby bay, a cold gloom hovered over the little Vancouver Island town of Chemainus as it faced the 1980s. The waterfront sawmill, mainstay for more than a century, was losing millions of dollars a year. Then the government of British Columbia agreed to subsidize a downtown revitalization program that would spruce up the shops on Willow Street with planters, benches and parking space. But supermarkets were sprouting in bigger towns just a few miles down the Trans-Canada Highway. Who would shop in tiny Chemainus, even a spruced-up Chemainus? ‘People were wondering whether the town was going to die or not,’ says Rodney Moore, a retired meal shop owner. The death knell seemed sure in 1983 when the mill shut down.”
“Yet today,” as Meisler noted, “Canada’s Chemainus is a thriving town, hued in sprightly pastels, a kind of gingerbread Carmel of the North that attracts 400,000 tourists a year, most making a detour to take in 32 murals now adorning the sides of buildings and standing walls in a festival of color. The population has swelled to almost 4,000. It is a spanking new magnet for young Canadians looking to put down roots in a town with a future and for older Canadians bent on retiring to a land of tranquillity.”
The supporters of the Portsmouth project believed a similar project, on an even larger scale, would have a similar impact here in southern Ohio. In late February 1993, Dafford visited Portsmouth and presented his vision for the first mural. “It was a scene of Portsmouth as it looked in 1903 taken from four photographs in the Carl Ackerman collection and would consist of four panels, each 40 feet by 20 feet.” According to Bob Morton, the unveiling was hosted at the former Ramada Inn (now Holiday Inn) on Second Street, with a wine and cheese reception, which in his words, “was not a resounding success with 34 people in attendance but the local media gave it good publicity.”
The informal committee moved ahead with their work and created Portsmouth Murals Inc. in April 1993. The officers were Dr. Louis Chaboudy, President, George Clayton, First Vice-President, Bob Morton, Second Vice-President, Ava Chaboudy, Secretary, and James D. Kricker, Treasurer. The committee elected a board of trustees, including Franklin Gerlach, Ann Sydnor, Leo Blackburn, Don Gordley, Mary Hall, Imogene Howland, Carl Ackerman, Chris Lute, Phil Jackson, Tom Stead, Jan Morton, E.L. Glockner, Kay Reynolds, Jeanne Sheets, Margaret Clyaton, and Jeff Albrect. Imogene Howland was chosen as the chair of the Art Committee, which worked with Dafford and Carl Ackerman to develop the mural subjects.
With some $20,000 raised from private sources, representatives of the project, including Dr. Chaboudy, George Clayton, Imogene Howland, and Bob Morton approached the Honorable Vern Riffe, then Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, about their project. “Speaker Riffe was acquainted with the Steubenville success, knew Mrs. Snider and had helped their project with some State funding.” According to Morton’s telling, “He was impressed with our start on the project and agreed to help the mural committee. And help he did in a big way!” With some state money promised, a $5,000 grant from the Scioto County Area Foundation, and major private donations, including $10,000 from Andy and Ebby Glockner, soon followed and the project began to take off.
The central role of Ava and Louis Chaboudy in the creation of the Portsmouth floodwall murals is rightly highlighted in Dafford’s portrait. This couple’s successful vision, it should be noted, was made possible thanks to more than just state grant money and a handful of substantial private donations. The hundreds of supporters, who contributed time and money to the project, those businesses who donated food and lodging to Dafford and his assistants, and those who bought the popular mural calendars deserve their proper credit.
The Scioto County Welcome Center, which displays the Chaboudy portrait, also includes exhibits illustrating the area’s rich industrial history, along with memorabilia associated with Branch Rickey and Roy Rogers, two of the county’s more noteworthy natives.
The Welcome Center is housed in a thoroughly remodeled retail establishment, once owned by George Clayton, who played a critical role in the earliest days of the mural project. In 2006, thanks to a $400,000 federal grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, the Welcome Center was dedicated by Rob Portman, who had secured the funds while serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Today, the exterior walls of the Welcome Center have been transformed into an extension of the floodwall murals. Here Dafford has completed his most recent Portsmouth works, including depictions of the old Norfolk & Western Railroad Station and the historic Portsmouth Public Library’s stain-glass, domed lobby.