Columbus has had its share of celebrities throughout its history. Their fame has been built on abilities in a variety of fields.
Tony Stewart is celebrated for his achievements in NASCAR; Ross and Don Barbour for their musical history as half of the Four Freshmen; Mike Pence for his political travels, which led to the governor’s mansion.
There are many more with ties to Columbus who have received national recognition, their lives transformed into open books for legions of followers across the country and, in some cases, around the globe. But there also is a group of other “celebrities” whose fascinating histories are known to much smaller audiences, mostly people who are part of the community in which they lived and who share a common trait — a love for good stories.
They are called “characters,” people who stand out not for any particular skill or ability but just by who they are and the stories they generate, some true, many mythical. As time passes the stories become more difficult to confirm, but that is of little importance. They’re good stories.
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One such character was Jack Rush, and there’s good reason to believe many of the stories about him that have been handed down for more than a century based on newspaper accounts written about him. Many of those stories were capsulized and included in a recently published booklet in conjunction with the opening of the Columbus Pump House, a brew pub operated by the Upland Brewing Co.
Restaurant is but one of the roles the historic pump house has played since 1871. It has served as a water works, a power house, a manufacturing facility, an eccentric artist’s studio and even a center for retired people. Most recently it has been an empty building that was finally purchased by local entrepreneur Tony Moravec.
Moravec, who also was the figure behind the restoration and reopening of the historic Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor, envisioned a future for the pump house that was tied to its past. That past included Jack Rush.
He was a Columbus native, born in 1871, the year the city’s first pump house was built. According to local historian David Sechrest, who researched the material included in the booklet, Rush was working as a foreman at the pump house, a job that required he be available 24/7.
That requirement turned the workplace into a sort of home for the young man. It also served as a second residence for a number of other colorful characters Rush befriended and, in a way, adopted. Some of them were not only colorful but also received quite a bit of fame.
One was a young man named Normal Selby, an out-of-sorts fellow who showed up at the pump house in the 1890s. Rush welcomed him as an interim resident and introduced him to his favorite sport: boxing. Rush had outfitted the pump house with all kinds of boxing equipment, and Normal was immediately attracted to a punching bag.
That is what created a boxer who went by the ring name of Kid McCoy and developed his own legends. Kid McCoy, who is said to be the model for the familiar phrase “the real McCoy,” rose to boxing heights, including holding the title of world welterweight champion.
He was famous in and out of the ring. He married a lot, at least nine times, three to the same woman. He was an accused murderer and was found guilty of homicide in the death of a girlfriend in Los Angeles. He was paroled after serving eight years and ironically settled down in Detroit at a time when Jack was living in that city. Whether Rush was placed in charge of the parolee is not known, but a good guess was that he had something to do with his rehabilitation.
Rush also adopted another wayward youth who became famous in a more unorthodox fashion. George Harold arrived at the water works in the 1890s as a homeless teenager. It was a time when Kid McCoy was starting to make his fame in the boxing ring, and Harold wanted to achieve a similar fame. Rush came up with an unusual idea that he start out as a boy tramp, a hobo riding the rails on trains across the country.
The boy took the idea to heart and did just that. In a piece of marketing genius, either Rush or Harold came up with the idea of lettering a sweater with the words “The Original Boy Tramp.” He wore that sweater on train cars across the country, and the title caught on to the point that he carried boxes of newspaper clippings detailing his travels. He also collected unusual and unverified items of infamy, such as the pistol which he said was used to assassinate President William McKinley, and pieces of hangmen’s ropes that were used to execute infamous criminals.
Sadly, Harold died of alcohol poisoning in 1908. It was Rush who made the arrangements for his funeral.
Rush also was an artist of sorts. In 1904, two years after the present pump house was built, he proposed that it be adorned with a large water fountain near the main entrance. His fountain of concrete and limestone was colorfully augmented with pieces of wedge-shaped glass and various light bulbs that were illuminated at night during warm weather months.
He expanded his artistry to create an even better-known fountain in the center of what was then Commercial Park, which was the primary gathering place for townspeople in the early 20th century. Today that yard is part of the First Christian Church complex.
In a way, Rush served as a model for another colorful Columbus character, Jack the Bum, a beloved hobo who served as a lifeguard at the city’s unofficial swimming hole under the railroad bridge near what today is Noblitt Park.
In his time, Rush created another community swimming hole below the pump house. He also served as the lifeguard, one time interrupting his work at the pump house to save a youth from drowning. The pool was so popular that in 1911 Columbus experienced a bathing suit shortage.
He also developed a homemade zip line that he dubbed the “Slide for Life.” Adventurous folks would traverse down a 200-foot long cable suspended from a nearby bridge into the water below.
Rush’s tenure at the pump house ended in 1917 when a new mayoral administration came into office. Seeking a new life, Rush settled in Detroit as a mechanic for Ford Motor Co. Nevertheless, he remained integral to the workings of the pump house.
In the 1940s, more than two decades after his departure, he was asked by a Columbus mayor to provide answers to problems that had developed in the building overlooking the East Fork White River. He provided a detailed response, identifying the location of every valve inside the plant.
Rush died in Michigan in 1947. In a brief story in The Evening Republican it was noted that “he established a wide acquaintance while working at the water works in the late 1890s and early in the 1900s.”
I’d describe that as an understatement.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at email@example.com.