Soybean Jesus visits Fostoria

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My grandmother’s hometown, Fostoria, Ohio, achieved notoriety in a way it probably didn’t want in August 1986 when Soybean Jesus came to town.

No, not Touchdown Jesus, the Interstate 75 icon north of greater Cincinnati. Soybean Jesus.

Who (or more accurately, what) was Soybean Jesus?

In the summer of 1986, residents noticed a soybean oil tank on the grounds of the Archer Daniels Midland plant along Ohio 12 (Findlay Street) south and west of town that, when illuminated by sodium vapor lamps, displayed an image of Jesus Christ and a child.

The phenomenon is known, I’m pretty sure, as a simulacrum. An Archer Daniels Midland spokesman was pretty sure the phenomenon was nothing more than rust stains on a tank.

I can’t tell which tank it is from this Google Street View of the plant. People told The Blade in this front page story from August 21, 1986 that the image appeared about a month earlier. Once word got out, bumper-to-bumper traffic was the result: a mix of first-timers, and people who were making nightly visits.

You be the judge: here’s what it looked like, from toledoblade.com, which plucked this gem out of their files and scanned it in full size for all of us to enjoy.

My first thought was that it looked like one of the three Russian aviators from A Night at the Opera:

The Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera.
The Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera.

But the Jesus-watching only increased, and as word spread, Fostoria expected a big late-August weekend of miracle-seekers. Hotel rooms were rented out. Souvenirs were sold – in fact, one such item, an “I saw the Image” mug, is in a museum. Especially when miracles started popping up:

For the first time, reports of the sighting were accompanied by scattered rumors in the crowd of “miracles” that bystanders attributed to the image. WFOB radio in Fostoria said an unidentified woman called the station and claimed her arthritis pain was relieved after she prayed in front of the structure.

Restaurant and motel employees said visitors were coming from Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky and Michigan to Fostoria, a little town of 13,000 or so (2013) fifty miles southeast of Toledo where Seneca, Wood and Hancock counties meet. Well known for its Fostoria Glass (even though the company spent only four years there), today it is known for being a haven for train watchers since it is crisscrossed by railroads (the watchers have got their own park now, how cool is that?).

Interest in the image waned, however, as the weather cooled off. It especially waned after someone threw fifteen balloons filled with white paint at the tank. A Findlay firefighter was charged in the vandalism and eventually pleaded guilty to criminal damaging. The man, Ricky Sims, was irritated by the traffic jams Soybean Jesus caused, his chief said.

ADM decided a year later to paint the tanks entirely. From there, Soybean Jesus faded into Ohio memory, except a year later, when some residents reported seeing it again.

Wait, Jesus? Or somebody else? According to one of the stories:

” ‘To me, it looked like [The Blade’s assistant managing editor] Don Wolfe,’ said Gene Kinn, of Fostoria, a member of the Seneca County board of elections, who went to the site last night to check on the reports for himself.”

The really sad thing I learned about researching this is that in 1970, Fostoria’s population was about 17,000. It’s lost about 23% of its population in nearly forty years.

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