Memories, music, and an old Mercury come to life in Middletown, Ohio

Mary Apel

In classical mythology, Mercury was heralded for bringing messages down to humans from the gods. On a day trip to Middletown, Ohio, I’ve come to visit the Sorg Opera House, pick up a ‘61 Mercury, and visit with some ghosts from the past. My traveling companion today is Brad Kettler of Kettler Motorwerks, a true “car guy” in all senses of the title. If anyone knows what message this old Mercury has for the present world, it will be Kettler.

Goldie (right) meets an older relative in the Mercury family.

Nestled in the heart of southwestern Ohio, Middletown boasts a rich industrial past. Founded in 1802, Middletown once thrived as a hub for steel production and manufacturing, earning it the moniker “The Steel City.” However, the decline of the steel industry posed significant challenges to the city’s economy. In response, Middletown has diversified and borne fruit, with investments in healthcare facilities, educational institutions, and a revitalized downtown area. Echoes of its industrial history remain throughout cities like this in the former Steel Belt, now called the Rust Belt. But they are not without hope–restoration projects popping up all over the map show how our past can help us sustain a functional present and optimistic future. The Sorg Opera House in Middletown is one such place.

Looking out from the stage at the Sorg Opera House in Middletown, OH.

I intended to visit the Sorg to find out if the ghost stories I’d heard were true. Originally built in 1891, the Sorg Opera House has long been a cultural cornerstone of the community, hosting a wide range of performances. The stage has hosted performers and entertainers over the years, including John Philips Sousa, Harry Houdini, Will Rogers, Al Jolson, Bob Hope, and Sophie Tucker. When live performances gave way to film, the Sorg adapted to the times and multi-tasked as a movie theater. An example of a building being “loved but not loved on”, a comprehensive renovation project was initiated in 2018 to restore the venue to its former glory. The painstaking process included refurbishing its ornate architecture and installing state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems. Despite ongoing renovations, it was still being used as a movie theater when I went through, as the movie Hocus Pocus had been shown the night prior. Popcorn littered the floors between the seats. It could have been the 1920s or the 2020s standing there–time felt irrelevant, the energy of all the sights and sounds still lingering in the air.

Inside the Sorg Opera House in Middletown, OH.

Many say that’s not all that lingers. Over the years, numerous reports of paranormal activity have circulated from inside these hallowed halls. Tales of unexplained footsteps and ethereal whispers heard by staff and visitors during the night contribute to the mystique of the Sorg Opera House, which has been the subject of several paranormal investigations and ghost-hunting enthusiasts.

Our tour guide, Ashley Baumgarten, is a Middletown resident and musician, as well as being the owner of the car we’ve come to pick up. She has graced the stage at the Sorg many times, and also at the Swire Inn across the street where we stopped in for a late lunch. Over a couple beers (and really fabulous beer cheese and beef pizza), we shared not just the car’s history but also a bit of our own, of all the things that had shaped us over time.

Here’s a clip of Ashley singing at the Swire:

Ashley was raised around cars. Her father owned a car lot and always had classics around, she recalled. They would go to car shows and cruise-ins together, so she’d grown up with exposure to a wide variety of vehicles. When she saw Goldie, as her Mercury is named, she knew it was the one she wanted. Ashley found this car in the weeks after her mother died, an era which she says says is difficult to remember–not just metaphorically but literally, as she doesn’t remember large chunks of those days. Those who’ve experienced such loss can relate: Trauma can create what are called memory gaps, as our brain tries to protect us from the things that it knows will hurt us most. This is one reason our link to tangible items becomes so strong, why something like a car can be a time capsule that helps take us back, helps us remember. In this way, I’ve always considered re-membering as the opposite of dis-membering; a way we can put back together the pieces of our lives that we’ve left along the way.

And Goldie is the perfect vessel for a trip down memory lane. She’s a beautiful gold 1961 Mercury Monterey 4-door, powered by a 390 cubic inch V8 engine. “Montereys were mid product line cars, offered as an alternative to a Ford Galaxy. A little more upscale in trim and options and slightly larger,” Kettler says. In 1961, when this car was made, the United States was experiencing a period of significant change. Kennedy had just been elected. It was the birth of the “Camelot” era with all its hope and promise. The average price of gas was approximately 31 cents per gallon. Passengers in this car would have ridden on golden broadcloth seats and listened as Chubby Checker was doing The Twist, Roy Orbison was Crying, and Patsy Cline was Falling to PIeces through its factory AM radio.

Ashley Baumgarten and Brad Kettler get Goldie ready to head to College Corner.

Later that day, Goldie rolls into College Corner, a small town that straddles the Ohio/Indiana state line. She arrives at Kettler Sport and Logistik, where she’ll have a full check up and restoration. She will be sharing shop space with some notable stable mates, including Brad’s black Acura NSX, a Blue Porsche 911 lightweight, a ‘57 Ford thunderbird and a ‘54 Mercury Monterey that Brad’s moved in to provide moral support. Behind her are 3 Ford Powerstroke duallys, a couple of Honda motorcycles (a ‘69 CB750 and a ‘70 450 Scrambler), and Lamborghini engines being prepped to go out.

Kettler made a name for himself in the auto industry as a racing engineer, winning LeMans a staggering six times in the roles of crew chief or lead race engineer. When asked what that job entails, he says simply that he was the voice in the drivers’ headsets, the one voice reaching the race car. A brief google search tells me it was much more, however. A longtime development engineer for Porsche and Audi, Brad is also a Multi race winner in the American LeMans series. Dubbed “Mr. Everything” by MotorTrend magazine, Kettler has worn many hats in the automotive industry and reached the highest pinnacles of success therein. His roots, however, are in classic and antique cars, an interest he shared with his father and grandfather growing up, having worked to resurrect many of them together. He’s from people who loved anything that had to do with cars, trucks and bikes. This ‘61 Merc was a trip down memory lane for him as well.

Brad Kettler working on an engine pipe in his smaller “Brick Shop” down the road. Taped to the wall behind him: a Porsche from his days at Rohr Racing whose parts spent a lot of time in this shop, seen winning Daytona in’97.

He speaks of this car as if it’s a living thing, as he does all the cars he encounters. And perhaps it is—- as much as the ghosts and memories can have life, so can the objects around us. Cars become part of our collective and personal culture. They guide our fashion choices, change our view of the world, offer us freedom. Goldie was clearly special to someone, in the way experiences, places, and things become part of us. She’s another example of something “loved but not loved on”, and there is no shame in that. We all rest in garages from time to time on our journeys. The beauty of this car–and this opera house, this city, and the people seated around this table–is the fact that a little love can bring us all back to who or what we were built to be. Perhaps then the past is there not to haunt us but to guide us, not to drag us down but to push us forward. Not to define us but to remind us that we are all worthy of a little restoration.

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