Garrettsville -- Julie Thompson is keeping the historic tale of America's last great train robbery alive.
Thompson, a historian and Garrettsville native, has spent more than a year researching the Garrettsville train heist of 1935 when notorious gangster Alvin Karpis led a group of bandits in robbing a train bound from Cleveland as it made a stop in Garrettsville at a depot that no longer exists.
The Karpis gang got away with the modern-day equivalent of $715,000.
Thompson's investigation has breathed new life into the decades-old story, which ultimately inspired the James A. Garfield School District's G-Men mascot.
G-Men, Thompson explained, was gangster slang for "government men" in reference to FBI agents. The term locally is tied to when federal investigators descended on the small Portage County town in the wake of the train heist nearly 80 years ago.
Despite its historical significance, James A. Garfield Historical Society president Kit Semplak said maybe one in 10 people even know about the event at all.
Thompson wants to the see the site marked with some historical designation -- and the Garrettsville community has joined her crusade.
A group including Thompson, the Garrettsville historical society and the school district recently kicked off a fundraising campaign to cover costs associated with securing and posting a historic marker at the present-day site of the robbery, which is near a segment of the Portage Hike and Bike Trail and bears no definitive markers. Even the railroad tracks are gone.
Several members of the public and some Garfield students sat in on Thompson's history lesson in August as Garrettsville football players from youth teams through the high school squad enjoyed the story of their mascot's origin for the first time.
"We're working with the football coaches to help build that sense of pride for our kids," Lysiak said. "It's our understanding the name has always been tied to this event, and that's a common tie everyone here shares. We want to preserve that in some way."
FOSTERING community pride and preserving the local heritage is Thompson's endgame.
"It's a motivation for people to see there is something else to Garrettsville, that something significant did happen here," she said. "It's a good reason to at least hop counties to see. It has national implications with the FBI and how it affected them long term ... and it all ties back to this little town in northern Portage County."
Raising money for a marker is one of many steps left to securing the recognition the site deserves. Thompson noted any marker would need final approval from the Ohio Historical Society.
Where the marker would go is also not quite finalized; the land itself belongs to the Portage Park District, which has a permanent easement on the property for the adjacent bike trail.
Christine Craycroft, executive director of the Portage Park District, said park officials are open to allowing a marker.
"Since the park district's mission is to conserve Portage County's natural and cultural heritage, I can see that our park board would be open to hearing more about it," Craycroft said.
Thompson said she's also working to secure an $800 grant from the state for historic-site markers to bolster efforts.
"This upcoming event is basically trying to pump people up, to help them gain knowledge on why this important, to let them discover the legend behind this local history here in our community and to get the sports teams to connect with the legend of their mascots," Thompson said. "It's all about creating a larger community spirit."
Anyone interested in donating to the effort should make checks payable to the James A. Garfield Historical Society. Lysiak said donations can be dropped off at the James A. Garfield Board of Education office, 10235 Route 88, but checks should still be made out to the historical society.
Anyone with questions can contact the historical society at 330-842-2822.
Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4155
Facebook: Jeremy Nobile, Record-Courier