It has been a while since I’ve written, mostly because of the general type of my writings in our current social and ideological climate. Since then, articles by two older HCP contributors have piqued my interest and jogged my memory about growing up in Highland County well over a half-century ago.

Having passed through the trials of raising three children, and now experiencing grandchildren, I have come to note the many different challenges and restraints given to successive generations.

During my younger days growing up on the farm, my closest companion was my cousin Terry who was one year older. Being tied to the farm and its ever-present work, we both shared a moderate interest in baseball, but our greatest enticement was experimenting with chemistry sets and electronics during our limited and precious spare time.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, our electronics interest consisted of dismantling very old AM radios with vacuum tubes.

We would first dismantle them and clean out decades of dust and dirt, trying to discover how they worked. Then, we inspected the wiring mazes for breaks and checked the tubes on a tester in town. Transistors were then a recent phenomenon, and a modern radio’s miniaturization was clearly above our ability to embrace. The old radios had no labels warning that removing the protective case could result in electric shock. But if there had been, it would have made no difference to us. Yes, we frequently got “bit,” but that was all part of the experience.

In those days, we were fascinated at how a collection of wires, lights, strings acting as belts to performing tuning, and the hot, glowing vacuum tubes would receive and amplify words and music through a paper vibrating speaker from many different stations out of thin air.

The chemistry sets were another matter. They contained 20-30 little bottles of different chemicals and compounds, along with an alcohol-fueled wick lamp to provide heat, and an instruction book detailing various experiments. While educational, the experiments lacked the pizzazz to continually entice two young farm boys.

To use the set, you first had to buy alcohol to fuel the burner. It had to generate sufficient heat to boil various concoctions. This was when we became acquainted with the Ayres Drug Store in Hillsboro.

The giant mortar and pestle in front of the store on East Main Street set the tone, and we were delighted to discover that the substance we needed was known as “wood alcohol,” and Eddie Ayres would sell us pints of the liquid in brown bottles he would fill from a bulk supply. I don’t recall the price, but at the time it seemed reasonable.

Naturally, the performance of the small lamp enticed us to fabricate a much larger lamp with a greater fuel supply and larger wick that would produce far more heat. But our greatest discovery was yet to come.

Both of us were keenly interested in firearms and particularly in gunpowder. We could obtain small quantities of the precious and volatile material by “tearing apart” 12-gauge shotgun shells. This could now be used to fuel a small “firearm” that we fabricated from a bicycle spoke nailed to a wooden board. It would shoot a lead pellet, also liberated from the shotgun shell, with surprising force after being detonated by a cigarette lighter.

Looking in the encyclopedia (our only reference source at the time), we discovered that gunpowder could be made from three substances: sulfur, charcoal and potassium nitrate. Now, we had something to pursue.

Visiting Mr. Ayres, we found that he could supply two of the precious ingredients. The old gentlemen was very skeptical when two young boys asked for them after purchasing amounts of alcohol, but we rejoiced as we walked out the door with two steel quart cans of sulfur and “salt peter.”

Having no source of charcoal, we set to making our own by burning wood in limited oxygen and using components from the chemistry sets.

After much trial and error, we succeeded in concocting a variation of black powder that would explode under confinement, producing a profuse amount of acrid smoke, and using homemade fuses.

Of course, our experiments were not popular with the “old folks,” but we respected their position by not making any detonations close to a barn, house, or livestock.

I am still grateful that our parents very reluctantly allowed us to make these “experiments,” since we learned many practical lessons in perseverance and respect for potentially dangerous substances.

I can only imagine the reaction today (or the phone call made) by a pharmacist asked by two 10-12 year-old boys to supply materials to concoct an explosive.

Today, as I note the now omnipresent child restraints, bicycle helmets and other paraphernalia that my kids, and now grandkids, are subjected to, I think, “I’m glad that I lived when I did.”

Jim Surber, formerly of Highland County, is the Darke County engineer. He is a graduate of The Ohio State University and a columnist for The Highland County Press.

Editor's note: Ed Ayres was inducted into the Highland County Historical Society Hall of Fame on May 27, 2018. For more, go to