CHESHIRE, Ohio -- Nothing is going to drive Helen Preston from the weathered gray house where she was born 88 years ago. Not the plumes shooting from the nearby smokestacks. Not the power company that's about to buy most of the Appalachian village around her.
"I just couldn't stand to go out that door for the last time," said the oldest resident of Cheshire, population 221, a sprightly woman whose late husband's name, Edward S. Preston, remains on a plaque on her front door.
Instead, Preston and other elderly residents, whose memories are here in this one-stoplight town on the Ohio River, have struck a deal to sell their homes but remain living in them rent-free for the rest of their lives. They will watch Cheshire as they know it evaporate over the next few months.
"It's gonna be deserted," said Charles W. Searles, 82, perched on a stool at the post office on a recent rainy afternoon, chatting with neighbors as they came and went.
American Electric Power -- the nation's largest electricity producer -- is set to buy most of the village, enabling it to expand its plant and escape complaints about its emissions, notably a sulfuric acid haze, known around here as "the blue plume."
About 90 percent of Cheshire's homes will fall into company hands under the deal, which gives residents two to 3 1/2 times the assessed value of their property in exchange for a promise never to sue the company for health-related claims.
Younger folks agreed to take the money and made plans to move. A small group of holdouts, elderly residents such as Preston and Searles, got the life tenancy deal. And then there is Beulah "Boots" Hern, 82, among the handful who told the giant power company to keep its money.
Well, in Hern's case, to be precise, she has scoffed at the $242,700 the company offered her and demanded $1 million or nothing for her 1 1/2 -story white Cape Cod on nearly 2 acres of riverfront.
"I don't want to be living in somebody else's house," said Hern, a small woman who loves to ride her tractor and care for her own lawn. "I'm too old to be beholden to that company. I'm so old this arm won't twist."
Besides, Hern said, her life is here -- where she met her husband, Charlie, and proposed to him in 1946, built this house with him in 1954 and buried him in 1995 -- up on the hill just beyond her property.
Here, she gets to stand at her kitchen window and watch the moon shine on the river, and watch the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen go by. When people ask if she's afraid to be left in an all-but-abandoned town, she reminds them that she has three dogs and three guns. Two of the guns are loaded.
"I know how to shoot 'em," she said. "And I'm a good shot."
Small river town
The village of Cheshire -- which borders the hulking coal-fired plant and its twin 830-foot smokestacks -- includes two churches, a post office, pizza place, a beauty shop, a bait shop, a park, a ball field, a gas station and minimart, a couple of village-owned buildings and a collection of bungalows, frame houses and double-wide trailers.
Settled in the mid-1800s by farmers, coal miners and rail yard workers, the hamlet evolved into a booming community by the early 1900s, home to the area's main hardware store, flour mill, blacksmith's shop, cotton vendor and post office.
When the Gen. James M. Gavin power plant was built in 1974, the town welcomed the more than 300 new jobs it brought along with the coal piles and overhead power lines.
Gladys Rife, 80, who moved here at age 14, describes a place where neighbors wandered in and out of one another's kitchens and young mothers gathered for afternoon picnics on the riverbank, children in playpens by their sides.
Sitting in a room where she gave birth to both her children, she recalled a favorite pastime of her youth: swimming across the river on summer days, getting a watermelon from a patch across the way and pushing it home.
What will remain of the village a year from now is anyone's guess. The buyout involves only homes, but the company isn't ruling out deals with other property owners. Some of the houses may be rented to company employees or contractors, but there's no telling how many will remain standing.
The village council is moving to dismantle the town government. The county historical society is photographing every building for posterity.
And even if the churches and pizza place, the gas station and minimart remain, people here wonder who will be left to support them.
The takeover is unusual in scope.
In the late 1970s, most of the town of Soldiers Grove, Wis., used federal aid to move to higher ground above the Kickapoo River after the last of a succession of floods wiped out the town.
And neighborhoods with environmental problems have been bought up elsewhere -- notably Love Canal in upstate New York and Times Beach, Mo., which were bought by the government.
But the Cheshire deal appears to be the nation's first pollution-related move that could uproot a whole town.