Editor’s Note: Contributor Vera Marie Badertscher recently traveled the Shawshank Trail as part of a press tour arranged by the Mansfield Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. We’re lucky to have her first-hand account of the trip, as well as how the town of Mansfield, Ohio was affected by the filming. All photos in this story were taken by Vera and belong to her.
“The Shawshank Redemption” tells the story of friendship and survival and hope. Red (Morgan Freeman) and Andy (Tim Robbins) are the unlikely pair who meet in a gruesome prison. Red is the fixer who can provide anything anyone needs. Andy is the new guy, clean cut, intelligent and determined, who finds ways to illustrate his line: “You either get busy dying or you get busy living.”
Like many movies, Shawshank made some u-turns from its literary parentage. Stephen King wrote the novelette, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Not only was the title changed, but Ohio played the role of King’s state of Maine.
When director Frank Darabont went looking for a prison for the setting of The Shawshank Redemption, he not only found the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio, but his decision affected that central Ohio town in ways that still reverberate.
Darabont based his decision to use the Ohio State Reformatory as the setting for the movie on the amazing architecture of that hulking mass of gray stone, built in the 1800s. The objective of the original designer of the prison perfectly aligns with the theme of hope and redemption in The Shawshank Redemption.
The administrative portion of the prison was housed in a late Victorian Gothic structure complete with turrets. The processing hall that would be a new inmate’s first impression has a towering ceiling and tall Gothic-arched windows that invoke the Heaven-reaching sentiments of the architects of Gothic cathedrals. The two wings with six stories of cell blocks inspire an entirely different kind of awe.
Because most of the movie takes place in the prison, the bulk of the filming would take place in Mansfield, so actors rented houses from locals (who willingly moved into motels for the duration), and Morgan Freeman even brought his riding horses to Ohio and rode through the countryside with locals.
The whole movie crew settled into Mansfield for the duration, because unlike many movies, hardly any of The Shawshank Redemption was shot in a studio.
Once they had located the prison, the Hollywood crew scouted Mansfield and nearby Upper Sandusky to find sites for the hotel that Brooks (James Whitmore) goes to when he leaves prison; the wood-working shop (actually a historic lumber company) that is seen in a few scenes; and the opening scene cabin (at Malabar Farm) where Andy Dufresne’s wife is caught being unfaithful to her husband. They also found the gorgeous 1898 Wyandotte County Courthouse at nearby Upper Sandusky, where Andy’s trial takes place, as well as a nearby historic bank and a store, featured in brief scenes.
Needing hundreds of extras, the director put out a casting call, and everyone in the area who was NOT in the movie was probably related to someone who was. Additionally, a local man, Bill Mullen, volunteered his antique car and was put in charge of rounding up the enormous number of 1930s and 1940s era cars needed for the movie.
Everyone got involved. When the director looked around the courtroom, a bold court stenographer poked her nose into the action and asked, “Will you be needing a period steno machine?” “We had not thought about it, but, yes, we should have one,” came the answer. So she wound up finding an antique steno machine AND being cast as the court stenographer.
The building chosen for the hotel, the Bissman Building, belonged to a family that had been distributing beer and groceries for three generations, since 1886. So naturally, when the movie company needed vintage beer bottles for the scene where the prisoners take a break from tarring a roof, the owner of the building used his contacts and got copies of period labels. Then he took contemporary bottles that his company was distributing, scrubbed off the current labels and replaced them with the old ones.
Despite all the activity, and the feeling of camaraderie that developed between the town’s people and the Hollywood company, nobody in Mansfield really thought the movie was going to be a big success. After all, who knows what a Shawshank is? And who wants to watch a movie about a prison?
Not many, it turned out, on the first weekend when the movie was a big time flop. However, it was quickly released on video, and word of mouth spread about the message of hope that it conveyed. Beginning a few weeks after the initial release in 1994, the popularity just grew and grew, until it was ranked among the top five most popular movies on IMDB.com. Today, it hovers in the top two — switching positions with The Godfather and Star Wars.
Well, of course people in this world-wide fan base wanted to see where the movie was made, and they started finding Mansfield and asking around about the places that were used as locations. Meanwhile, a foundation that owns The Ohio State Reformatory started giving tours.
Soon the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau realized they could capitalize on the interest and set up the Shawshank Trail, a do-it-yourself driving tour to see the movie’s sites. Others set up guided tours, and you can engage Darrell Banks, mayor of a nearby town, as a knowledgeable guide.
Bill Mullen, who supplied the cars for the movie, bought the historic Steven Lumber Company, which had played the movie role of wood shop, and rounded up historic wood cutting machinery to refurnish it. The beautiful brick building is still a work in progress, but he rents it out for events and hopes to continue to make it available for Shawshank fans.
Helped by his wife, he organized a 10th anniversary reunion for all the locals who had been part of the film, and even obtained a video from director Darabont in which he expresses his appreciation and affection for the people of Mansfield, Ashland and Upper Sandusky. Visit in 2013, and you may be part of the 20th anniversary celebration.
In addition to the Shawshank Trail, bakers make Shawshank cakes, a candy maker sells “Prison bars” and “chocolate rocks”, Ed Pickens Cafe makes a “Shawshankwich,” and just about every shop in town carries Shawshank coffee mugs. The total absorption with the movie is clear when you notice the peephole in the wall of the Cafe. Look through it at the town square, Central Park, across the street and you will see that it is aimed at the very park bench that James Whitmore sat on!
On the press tour of the Shawshank Trail that I took as a guest of the Mansfield Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, the other writers and I walked past cars that appeared in the movie and into the courtroom. There, we saw members of the jury and audience dressed in their 1940’s best. These people who played extras in the movie talked to us about making the film and the requirements for their job, which mostly consisted of sitting around and waiting.
(Note: If by some odd chance you have never seen the movie, you will not fully comprehend the next paragraph. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know exactly what I am talking about.)
The highlight of the press tour came at the lumber yard. Bill Mullen had assembled volunteers garbed as inmates, along with a couple of “guards,” all busy running lumber through the cutting, sanding and planing machinery. Suddenly, the strains of Duettina Sull’Aria from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro came from speakers overhead, and each “prisoner” stopped in his tracks and looked skyward at the music. I am not a sentimental person, but I have to admit that tears welled up in my eyes.
Because all of these people are volunteers, I have to warn you that you will not see costumed extras everywhere you go. You can take a Hollywood tour of the prison, which lasts about two hours, most days and you can print out a brochure to guide you on the Shawshank Trail. But the town has not yet turned into a Williamsburg of the 1940s, filled with re-enactors.
However, if you round up a group and arrange with Mullen in advance, he may work a few miracles for you, turning the clock back, if not to 1940, at least to 1993 when Hollywood came to Mansfield, Ohio.