Wales

US election: Huw Edwards samples opinion in Welsh corner

It's a two-hour drive south of Columbus to the village of Oak Hill, Ohio and this is a journey I had been hoping to make for the past 30 years but never quite managed it.

The sharp focus of this year's presidential election on the state of Ohio brought a great opportunity to sample some American politics in a remote Welsh corner of the USA.

It was a journey into my family's past, revisiting the story of the Edwards brothers who left Ceredigion in the first half of the 19th Century and suffered the brutal sea crossing to America.

They felt compelled to flee the poverty and hardship of their tenant farms near Bwlch-llan, risking everything in the search for a new life.

The journey along Interstate 35 past Chillicothe brings us to the rolling green landscape of Jackson County, and the village of Oak Hill, once a thriving economic hub where foundries and farms provided plenty of jobs for local people.

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Media captionHuw Edwards and 90-year-old relative James Lloyd whose mother was an Edwards

These days, jobs are scarce (the local high school is probably the biggest employer) and Mayor Roy McCarty Jr tells me that Oak Hill needs to find a stronger economic voice in partnership with other communities in the region.

He is a Republican who says President Barack Obama's policies will not produce the growth and jobs needed.

Welsh heritage

I asked him about the president's massive rescue package for the automobile industry, but Mr McCarty blames the deal for the closure of a local GM dealership which had employed dozens of people since 1935. He and his son lost their jobs when the dealership closed.

We discussed all this in the Welsh-American Heritage Museum on Main Street, the only centre of its kind in the USA, based in a former Congregational chapel and crammed full of old treasures.

There are big family Bibles, priceless photographs of early settlers, eisteddfod banners and chapel organs. It really is like stepping into a corner of early Victorian Ceredigion.

The first Welsh settlers came from Cilcennin in 1818, and the Edwards brothers of Brynele followed in the 1830s.

Image caption Oak Hill became a place for people from Wales to settle

They were heading for a settlement called Paddy's Run, in south-west Ohio, near the modern town of Shandon. The journey proved too much for them after repeated setbacks so they decided to put down roots in the Oak Hill area.

One of the leading figures in Oak Hill's Welsh community today is Elizabeth Davies, who moved here from Aberaeron in 1974.

She explained that there were several Welsh speakers among the older residents at that time, and she felt quite at home.

But the Welsh element has weakened considerably over the past four decades, and she expresses concern for the future of the Welsh-American Heritage Museum.

The young people of Oak Hill show very little interest in their heritage, she says, and most have never set foot inside the museum.

There are some visitors from Wales from time to time, but hardly a steady trade. The mayor agrees that more must be done to promote and safeguard the centre.

A short distance away on a hill overlooking the village, I knock at a door on Jim Reese Road. The man who answers is James Lloyd, a frail but alert 90 year old whose mother was an Edwards. We are related.

He has a comprehensive knowledge of the Edwards family saga, the original settlers, their triumphs and travails, and the pattern of settlement in the area.

'Ill-judged'

Jim is a great interviewee - his life has spanned 16 presidencies and he offers some robust political views.

He is a lifelong Republican whose nomination for best president is a Democrat Franklin D Roosevelt. And while Jim applauds FDR's big investment in infrastructure projects to create jobs, he dismisses Obama's big-spending strategy as flawed and ill-judged.

Finding Democrats in Oak Hill is not easy, so an Obama banner planted in a front garden on the outskirts of Oak Hill prompts us to stop.

We meet Laura Mauch, a retired teacher, who tells us that while rural Ohio is typically Republican, the state's big towns and cities will go for Obama.

She says Mitt Romney's supporters should remember the mess that Obama inherited from Bush, the kind of mess that can't be fixed in four years. Obama deserves another term, she insists.

At sunset we make our way to Moriah Presbyterian Church, a former Welsh chapel on a hillside a few miles from Oak Hill.

This was clearly an Edwards fiefdom, judging by the number of hefty gravestones bearing the family name in bold capitals. This is where I meet another two relatives of mine, Johanna Edwards-Crabtree and her son Charles.

They are both solid Republicans who favour Romney's economic plans and his promise to cut the welfare budget. They, too, stress the importance of bringing new jobs to Jackson County.

I point out to them that our shared ancestors came from a country where working people found a voice in the radical politics of the day, Liberal and then Labour.

Was it not ironic that the Welsh in Ohio were so strongly associated with the Republican cause? Johanna agrees but goes on to suggest that the Republican party has changed over the years and is more assertively conservative today.

Welsh Oak Hill has already declared informally for Romney, but this is a deeply divided state in the closest of presidential races.

Ohio could yet decide the outcome of the 2012 contest.

Huw Edwards presents The Wales Report on BBC One Wales on Sunday 11 November at 22:25 GMT.

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