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DESERVING OF PRESERVING

Man discovered his beloved land is an ancient mound

Sunday, October 20, 2002

By Dean Narciso

THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

Fresh from a stint with the Army, Tom Montei was searching for a place to settle down when he ambled up a steep, wooded hillside off a dirt path in what is now Jefferson Township.

It was the summer of 1946.

A For Sale sign caught his eye. The view from the top closed the deal.

"I parked there,'' Montei said, pointing to a roadside gate. "I walked up the hill, and that's all there was to it. It's just beautiful up here.''

The mammoth oak and sassafras, which stand on 15 acres just east of Rocky Fork Creek and south of Morse Road, created a gateway to a retreat for Montei and his family.

It was the pristine, oblong hill that attracted Montei, an Ohio State University business graduate who worked with his father in various Columbus-area businesses after World War II.

"I was just looking for land, happy to be out of the Army and looking for a place to put my roots down,'' said Montei, 76.

He paid a few thousand dollars for the property. The land, however, was never used as a home for the Monteis; instead, it became the Bexley family's paradise.

But it would take more than a quarter-century for Montei to learn just how special the mound was -- to learn that it had been used by another culture thousands of years before.

In 1975 -- after having owned the property nearly 30 years -- Montei called the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to see whether the land could be turned into a nature preserve.

Montei thought that others should value the property as much as he did.

But Steve Goodwin, then head of special projects and planning for the department's Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, said the land would have to be home to unusual or protected plants or animals to qualify.

The domed hill on its eastern edge, Goodwin said, appeared to be man-made.

Goodwin referred Montei to the Ohio Historical Society, where Montei met Martha Otto, curator of archaeology.

Otto's staff verified that the dome was, in fact, an earthwork, likely part of an Adena or Hopewell village. The American Indians occupied parts of Ohio about 2,000 years ago.

With Montei's blessing, the property was declared an official archaeological preserve, which means it can never be commercially developed.

Although hundreds of American Indian mounds exist in Ohio, few are privately dedicated as preserves, Otto said.

"The designation stays with the land,'' she said. "It's sort of like a permanent easement.

"If it hadn't been for this arrangement with the archaeological preserve, he might have wanted to have kept this property that way, but the next generation might not have.''

But Montei -- who 20 years ago turned down more than $100,000 for the property, now valued at about $500,000 -- needed further assurance that the mound wouldn't be touched.

So he enlisted the help of lawyers and land preservationists and, in 1991, founded the Montei Mound Preserve, a nonprofit corporation to secure funds for its preservation.

Today, the corporation has more than $350,000, public financial records show.

Montei would like to see some of the money used toward transforming the mound into an educational site, where children could learn about the American Indians who used it.

"The land was always more important than the money,'' Montei said.

Word of the protected parcel has spread.

"That's one of the reasons we bought the house,'' said Mark Bueltmann, who moved in across the street two years ago. "We heard it was an Indian burial ground and because of that, they would never widen the road.''

Bueltmann's wife, Trese, has explored the area, despite the No Trespassing signs that are posted.

Mr. Bueltmann would like to see Montei's dream of an educational park realized.

"Anything that contributes to the beauty of the area is wonderful, especially so close to all this development.''

Just 10 miles southwest, the peak of the LeVeque Tower Downtown can be seen. The mound overlooks million-dollar mansions to the south and expanding commerce to the north and west.

An American Indian group agrees with Mr. Bueltmann.

"Apparently, God has touched this man's mind and heart (for him) to have such a love to preserve it,'' said Mark Welsh, program director of the Native American Center of Central Ohio. "Unfortunately, too many of them get sold, and then you have shopping centers or neighborhoods on top of them.''

But Welsh worries that publicity about the mound will bring out "relic hunters'' who might trash the site. Even now, the ancient ground is scattered with both freshly fallen leaves and a few weather-blanched beer cans.

Recently, Montei stood at the summit for the first time in a long time. A weakened heart has kept him from making the climb in recent years. He was driven there in his nephew's sport-utility vehicle to look over the land last week.

"You have to get up here on the top before you recognize the majesty of the place,'' Montei said.

He recalled how he and his father cultivated gladioluses, tulips and other flowers using their air-cooled tractor, which Montei drove from his Bexley home to the mound.

The tractor sits rusting today within the felled planks of its one-time shed at the base of the hill.

The beauty of the peak still comforts Montei, just as it did when he first saw it 56 years ago.

"I'm not much of a religious person,'' he said. "I believe in God because I wish to.

"This,'' he said, supporting his lanky, 6-foot frame with a weathered hand placed against a towering oak, "is as much of a cathedral as I've ever been in.''

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