A trip to places called Ceylon in USA

By Dr Kavan Ratnatunga

In 1997 November when my son searched an encyclopedia on CDrom with the keyword Ceylon, it brought up the entry that said, former US vice president Walter Mondale was born in Ceylon. We discovered there was another Ceylon in Minnesota. In America there are many places with international place names. Towns have often been named after the cities from which immigrants came to populate a new land. but this surely was not the case here.

Top Hat Cafe Token
Top Hat Cafe Token

In those early days of the Internet it was possible to search for E-mail address by name of city and I sent E-mail to four residents I found listed under Ceylon, MN. I had this illuminating correspondence with Jerry Rosenberg who replied, I quote The railroad came through this part of Minnesota in 1899, and that is when the town was born. At that time, legend has it, there was a gathering in a local general store, were they were trying to pick out a name for their new settlement. Someone saw a box of Tea that was from "Ceylon", and suggested that as a name. Apparently the name was adopted! He told me that they had a State Bank of Ceylon, and I thought it would be cool to have an account at that Bank.

Years passed, and I had almost forgotten this encounter when in 2001 August I found on eBay a Brass Token from the Top Hat Cafe, Ceylon Minn while searching for coins and tokens from Ceylon for my collection online. Out of curiosity I bid and won this old US token which was to start of a new collection at my website. I found the old E-mail and wrote back to Jerry asking for details on this 1930's Cafe which he provided. Over the next few years I found more tokens issued by various establishments in Ceylon Minn on eBay, most of which I was able to win. Each time Jerry used to fill me in on the details of each store and it's history.

Centennial Celebration Logo.

I had unfortunately missed the towns Centennial Celebrations in 2000 July, but got a copy of the website which had gone offline and hosted it.

I contacted the Bank and told of my interest in opening an account with them. I was careful to explain the reason to ensure they didn't question why someone from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania wanted to open a Bank account a thousand miles away in Minnesota. They remembered that I had contacted Jerry many years ago, which made me realize it must truly be a small town.

Searching maps.yahoo I found few more smaller suburbs called Ceylon in USA. Ceylon in Green County, Pennsylvania is about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh where I had been living since 1996. Ceylon in Erie County Ohio is 50 mile West of Cleavland, and Ceylon, in Adams county Indiana was about 40 miles south of Fort Wayne. I decided on visiting all of them in fall of 2005.

I was not sure my 13-year old car could take a 2500 mile Trip. While I had been in Lanka on sabbatical, my car had remained in a open parking lot without being driven for about 8 months. As a consequence I had needed to fix a corroded exhaust to get the car passed by Pennsylvania's annual inspection. I was optimistic after it passed, but I was ready to abandon the car and rent one if it broke down and required a more costly repair.

A costly start to the trip

The adventure began while returning to Pittsburgh from a trip to Washington DC in mid August. Turning off the I-68 freeway I proceeded along route 40 toward Union Town. I passed a stretch of road being repaired and the car stalled unexpectedly. Attempts to restart it failed. I was not sure what was wrong and what to do. With emergency light flashing, I decided to let engine cool down a while to see if that was a problem. I was glad I was not on the freeway. Vehicles went around me, but none stopped with any offer to help. Then a big truck stopped behind me, and I had no choice but to push the car to the shoulder of the road.

I saw a vehicle of a road construction crew stopped a short distance away and walked up to seek help. He agreed to drop me at a nearby garage a few miles along the road. However, the mechanic was not very helpful insisting that it will be few days before he could even look at the car. I then spoke to a gentleman next door for help, he was repairing a classic Car. I later found out that he was the former owner of the garage and had now retired and only did the towing. He agreed to come and take a look and tow me to a garage. Within seconds after I tried to start the engine he said I had a broken timing belt. He phoned a friend who ran a junk yard a few more miles down the road, who agreed to fix my car the next morning. He told me that the young mechanic to whom he had sold his Garage a few years previously didn't know how to hire help and grow the business to meet customer demand. He found me a room in a local motel in between to spend the night and dropped me off after towing the car. I had been very lucky to find someone who could solve my immediate problems.

The National Pike (Route 40) on which I was traveling I discovered was the first highway built entirely with federal funds authorized by US congress in 1806. The National Trail motel at Markleysberg where I stayed overnight was a Tourist stop. I unfortunately didn't have my car and could explore only within walking distance. A few Antique shops and the famous Glisans Restaurant. Next day I waited till check out and hitched a ride with the cleaning lady to the garage fixing my car. Waiting until it was ready I explored the vast junkyard with rows of scraped vehicles arranged in rows by make. Many I assume would have still being running in a 3rd world economy. Discarded in USA by the high labor cost of repair. I had in 2 month now spent almost the resale value of the old car to get it fixed. This breakdown cost $40 to tow the car, $65 for a night a motel and $195 to replace a Timing belt, and a leaking water pump. With an unexpected $300 expenditure, I was however happy to be back on the road after delay of just under one day.

Ceylon in Green County, Pennsylvania

The place name Ceylon, in Pennsylvania is old. It is listed, dating back to 1893 on a genealogical site with birth records. I had stopped by a few years previously, but had reached the place only after dark.

Road Sign of Ceylon PennsylvaniaScenic homestead. original ?

Turning off Highway 40 to Route PA-21, I turned into Ceylon Road and reached the Village of Ceylon. About a dozen houses later I was already leaving the small scenic village with an 19th century charm to it. After taking some photographs I was wondering how to make contact with one of the residents. I was not sure who would welcome the intrusion when I spotted a sign which read 15 acres for sale by owner. I stopped and disturbed the owner who was fixing his TV aerial. With a straight face I asked the price. At $52,000 for the property, it was not significantly different to price of agricultural land in Lanka. The seller had no idea where the name Ceylon originated and said that the village was a suburb of Carmichaels which had the post office associated with the Zip code 15320.

I drove into Carmichaels and stopped at the post-office. The counter clerk who probably does not deliver the mail didn't even know that Ceylon Road lead to a place sign posted as the Village of Ceylon. I mailed some post-cards, picked up some Tourist brochures and left to return to Pittsburgh.

The next 3-weeks in Pittsburgh was busy packing and trucking 250 cubic feet of mostly boxes of books 350 miles to New Jersey for shipment to Colombo, Sri Lanka. The trip via Ceylon, OH and Ceylon IN to Ceylon MN was over 1000 miles and I decided that driving under about 400 miles a day will be relaxed. I arranged two extra visits to ensure a day of rest each way. Gas prices had just almost doubled in the week after Hurricane Katherine, I hoped they would not climb any further after labor day.

Ceylon in Erie County, Ohio

At around noon on Labor day I left Pittsburgh hoping to visit Ceylon OH and reach Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Berlin Township Fire Department, Ceylon Station, Ohio

Ceylon Road (Route OH-61) toward Ceylon OH is off freeway OH-2. Other than the two CEYLON road signs to mark village boundary, Ceylon OH, had a building with BERLIN TWP. FIRE DEPT. CEYLON STA. painted on the side. I stopped and spoke with some persons who were outside their residence. The freeway had cut through part of the village. There were abandoned roads close to the freeway which now served no purpose. One of them who was visiting had formerly lived near Ceylon IN. They told me the region was known as Berlin Heights and a suburb of Huron, which has the post office associated with the Zip code 44839. I dropped my postcards in a post box in Huron.

I reached Fort Wayne Indiana that evening after sunset. I checked in for the night at a Motel.

Ceylon in Adams County, Indiana.

The 1918 Standard History of Adams County, lists the town Ceylon as started by Dr. B. B. Snow, who in 1873, built the Snow grist mill, the first steam plant of that kind to be operated in Adams County, south of Decatur. At the height of it's prosperity Ceylon had factories, mills, and a number of well-stocked stores.

In 2002 I had found on eBay a 1976 Bicentennial Medal which lists Ceylon among 17 other towns in Adams County. What motivated the name "Ceylon" in the middle of a region settled by a Swiss community ? Maybe the celebrated mountain named Adam's Peak in Ceylon, which is associated by Christians with the Garden of Eden.

Ceylon Covered Bridge, built over the Wabash river in 1860

Adams County 1876 Bicentennial Medal.

Next morning I drove along US-27 south toward Ceylon IN, which was between the swiss towns of Berne and Geneva. Unlike the two previous Ceylon's in PA and OH there wasn't even a sign on the road. I was glad I had stopped at Berne and spoken with the operators of Swiss Heritage village before driving to Ceylon IN. Leaving highway I went toward the best known landmark, the Ceylon Covered Bridge built in 1860 and advertised as the last remaining on the Wabash river. The road no longer went through the Bridge, and the river was all dry. The graffiti inside the wooden bridge indicated it was probably now the local "Lover's lane".

I then drove a few miles along the same road to Armishville, which is the prominent sign on the US-27 highway indicating the turn off. I could not learn very much from them about Ceylon IN. I drove to Geneva which has the post office associated with the Zip code 46740, and posted a few cards. I visited the Geneva Public Library. I was able to refer to a history of Adam's county as well as read about a recent campaign to preserve the Ceylon Covered Bridge. Interestingly I found out that although the name uses the English spelling Ceylon, it is pronounced with the Dutch accent Ceilon, probably because of the European Heritage.

That evening I drove across the state to West Lafayette to meet and stay with a good friend Gamini Gunaratne. The next day a drive North to Iola WI where I was the guest of Krause Publications, compilers of the standard catalogs on both Coins and Currency of the World. I contribute to update their entries for Ceylon/Sri Lanka, it was nice to be able to get the corrections entered directly into their computer database.

Ceylon in Martin County, Minnesota.

On Friday I was back on the road driving to my primary destination Ceylon Minnesota, about a 6 hour drive. From Interstate I-90 Exit #93 to Route MN-263 is signposted as to Welcome / Ceylon. Welcome is the name of another town near Ceylon MN. Approaching Ceylon there was another large billboard which made clear residents were proud of the origin of their name. It read

Welcome to


Welcome Billboard to Ceylon, Minnesota

At City limits, Ceylon, Minnesota. Population 413

The Ceylon town Water Tower

I arrived at the Bank around 2 PM well in time before the State Bank of Ceylon closed at 3 PM. I had informed them of my visit, so they were expecting me and instantly recognized the stranger walking into the bank. About 4 years after opening a bank account with them, it was nice to be able to do a transaction at the teller. I was expecting one teller, and was pleasantly surprised to see space for three.

Visiting State Bank of CeylonPost Office Ceylon, MN 56121

Closing time on Friday afternoon was quite busy in the bank as local merchants came to probably deposit their weekly earnings. I was able to meet and talk to a few of them. I walked across the road to the Post Office to mail some post cards with the bank cashier when she took the bank mail. I was at the bank long after it closed at 3 PM. I was gifted a lot of items such as pens and clips with the bank Logo on it. I borrowed a framed photograph hanging on the wall of the original 1901 Bank building to scan for my website.

I showed Marlen Bents the President of the State Bank of Ceylon my collection of Ceylon Minn Tokens. I had been able to trace more of them in a few years on the Internet via eBay than he had in local Auctions over a much longer time. I also displayed for them a number of handicrafts and a book on Lanka, I had brought with me.

The bank staff felt my visit was of interest and phoned the local Martin County Newspapers who came and interviewed me. Few days later it took me sometime to figure out how some Lankans who E-mailed me, had seen the 'Ceylon' man visits Ceylon News report. After publication in the online edition of the Fairmont Sentinel which is indexed by Google News, had got picked up and posted online by LankaPage.

One of the staff agreed to show me the way to Jerry Rosenberg's Farm which was few miles from outside town since she was returning home that way. It was not too difficult to get lost when all around is just miles and miles of cornfields.

Just opposite his entrance is a plaque about the Lost Town of Tenhassen.

In 1898 the Chicago & North Western Railroad establishing a train station in the area had authorized Western Town lot Company to sell to settlers from the village they called Tenhassen. However the Post Office had rejected the name Tenhassen because there had already been an abandoned village of that name, and this had led to the selection of the name Ceylon. Both names (Tenhassen and Ceylon, Inc) appears on all old documents until 1950 when that was legally changed to just Ceylon.

In 2003 residents had moved backed the Decker Store to it's original location and dedicated a Plaque.

The site of the older City of Tenhassen

Jerry used to fly a small plane, and although he no-longer does, he maintains the airstrip as an alternate route to his residence during Winter. The large barn just at the side was of the same architecture as the photograph I had been sent of the Ceylon Dairy. That Barn which was at the Farm now owned by Marlen Bents, had been torn down.

Jerry was in the process of renovating his house by putting in new windows. He said the house was a mess inside and had set up his camper trailer for me. He had purchased and used it for just one trip, a few years previously, but had not enjoyed pulling it along on his vacation. It was now his spare room when they had visitors. Since I had never stayed in one, it was a novelty. It was like a fully equipped 250 square foot apartment with all facilities. An amazing amount of storage cabinets had been built to utilize all possible space.

A full size tractor used on a weather-vane

That evening we drove into Fairmont for a meal at Jerry's favorite diner. On the way he stopped to show me a weather-vane for which the farmer had perfectly balanced a old tractor on a steel beam and it was rotating freely with the slightest change of wind direction. When one farmer does something like this it is often copied by other farmers trying to out do each other in a typical attempt to have the biggest.

That night in the camper I showed Jerry the Tokens from Ceylon Minnesota, that he had provided all of the background information for my website. I surprised him by gifting him a rare Rosenberg and Lenz Good for 5 cents in Trade Token. He was truly over joyed since it was a Token from his Great Grand Uncles Liquor store, before 1910. After chatting late into the evening he said he would be going very early into town. I declined, deciding to take it easy. I however regretted not going since I missed the morning tradition of rolling dice at Buke's Place.

Rosenberg & Lenz token.

Ceylon Area Historical Society Museum.

Next morning we had arranged with Marlen Bents to visit Ceylon Area Historical Society Museum. It was formed to preserve items from the Ceylon High School which started in 1918 was sadly closed in 1996 due to shrinking enrollment. A majority of the items on display were from the School. Uniforms, Banners and various other memorabilia had been very nicely put on display. A panel had most of the graduating Class photographs and Marlen and Jerry pointed out theirs. There was a special room with a Veterans Memorial for those who had gone to war from Ceylon MN. There was also a Time capsule to be opened in 2025 of items which had been placed at the centennial celebrations in 2000.

I was able to purchase a copy of the Book Ceylon A Capsule of Time 1900-2000 which they had published for the event. It was a well produced 160 page book which was much larger than what had been put on the centennial website. It included lots of profiles of the businesses and families of Ceylon MN, and memories of various events in it's history.

The museum also had a large number of items had been loaned or gifted by residents and saved from been thrown away. There was however only one Token from Ceylon Minn on display, but it was one that I did not have, and was able to get a scan of it. I agreed to loan my Ceylon Minn Token collection for display at this Museum. I also gave them the handicrafts and books from Lanka I had brought with me so that they had some items from Ceylon which gave them their name. There was a vacant display case, which they will use.

We next visited Marlen Bents home to get some old Ceylon Minn postcards to scan. He showed me his antique automobiles which he was a proud collector. He goes each year to the old Car Show in Iola WI, where I had just been to visit Krause Publications.

Mannequin of Ceylon High School Cheerleader

After returning for Lunch at Jerry's farm, we called the Martin County Historical Society Pioneer Museum in Fairmont. We were told they were open that Saturday afternoon for a special group, and that we could visit. That museum had a complete collection of the Ceylon Herald which had been published from 1901 to the early 1960's. They had been gifted by a resident of Ceylon MN. It was a gold mine of information about Ceylon Minn. Jerry had not looked through them and we spent until closing time trying to find advertisements from Stores for which there were Tokens from Ceylon MN. I was not too difficult to find many of them. Jerry was excited to find advertisements of Liquor by Rosenberg and Lens in 1901. .

After returning I decided to explore on my own, to take a roll of photographs of Ceylon MN. The Petersen's Coffee Shop was closed, Buke's bar was almost empty, only the kids were out playing on the street. I later found out that most had gone to church that afternoon.

Jerry and wife Rhetis looking through old issues Ceylon Herald

The next day before leaving I went with Jerry so that I could put myself in some of the photographs near a few landmarks of Ceylon MN. We went into Petersen's shop and the owner Dorothy informed us that her building was the oldest structure in town. In fact it may have been the original building used by Rosenberg and Lenz as the title of the property mentioned their name. I bid goodbye to Jerry and stayed on to have breakfast at the coffee shop before leaving. In true Ceylon hospitality she refused to let me pay.

I was lucky to meet some residents who had dropped in for breakfast. Buke's Bar was closed on Sunday and the Petersen's Coffee Shop was the venue to roll dice. I was glad to see that tradition, although I could not figure out all of the rules. I also met a cyclist who had stopped for breakfast on a 3000 mile ride across-USA by bike. He had done it few time previously and said he took the back roads, camping on the way to his destination. My 2500 mile drive to places called Ceylon didn't look that crazy any more.

I was not the first Lankan to discover Ceylon MN. In 1966 October 29th, Shelton Gunaratne, on a World Press Institute fellowship at Macalester College, St. Paul had a friend from the Twin Cities bring him to Ceylon. He recollects I once told Senator Walter Mondale that he was born in Ceylon. The Senator had replied that he too was born in Ceylon, but soon discovered they were talking about two different places.

Leaving Ceylon, MN, I did a brief visit at the Granada Historical Museum to meet Chris Hanning from whom I had got that Rosenberg & Lenz Token.


Petersen's Coffee Shop
A trouble free return home.

Staying overnight at a Motel in Davenport, Iowa , I drove next day to Urbana Illinois, where I had been invited to give a talk on Gravitational Lensing and Cosmic Shear to the Astronomy Department of the University of Illinois. It was nice to meet up again with Prof Ken Yoss with whom I had written a paper over 10 years previously. I was glad to have a day of rest to prepare to talk about Space after a week of driving about 2000 miles on Earth.

The 475 mile drive back to Pittsburgh was longest I had done in a day on this trip, but was uneventful and took under 8 hours of driving. Averaging over 60 miles per hour on the US freeways is typical if there are no delays caused by road construction or accidents. In 10 days I had clocked about 2500 miles through 8 States on this trip .

I was glad I had decided to make the trip, and been able to visit rural USA, which is hardly seen by tourists who mostly fly between major attractions. A trip to places in USA called Ceylon was over, I had just 5 days, to pack, sell my car and catch my flight back home, permanently to mother Lanka.

An edited version of this article Searching for Ceylon By Kavan Ratnatunga appeared as the in the SundayTimes of Sri Lanka on 2005 November 13th. The printed copy of Newspaper included five of the Photographs shown above and not included in online edition. Access to the Online edition of the SundayTimes of Sri Lanka requires a paid annual subscription. See illustrated copy.