By Bob Jackson
They came in surprising droves, driving Harleys and Hummers and everything in between.
Some were believers, some weren’t, and some were on the fence. They were of all ages, and from all walks of life, but they’d all come to hear about Bigfoot and talk about whether he truly exists — and whether he’s left his big footprints in local woods.
Some 200 people crammed into Leetonia’s Community Public Library for a presentation by Ohio’s Genoskwa Project, a team of researchers dedicated to proving the existence of the legendary creature. There were so many people that not all of them could fit into the meeting room, leaving some to stand outside looking in, while some simply grew frustrated and left.
“I guess more people believe in Bigfoot than I thought,” said Paul Hayes of Canton, the group’s founder and lead researcher, who said he was surprised at the huge turnout.
“If they find him, maybe he ought to run for president,” 68-year-old Frederick Smith of Warren quipped about Bigfoot just before the event started. “He seems to be awful popular.”
Smith said he doesn’t really believe such a creature exists, but made the drive to Leetonia out of curiosity. When the meeting room filled to capacity before he got a seat, he simply chose to sit in the library’s lobby and read a newspaper.
The presentation included audio and video presentations of reported Bigfoot sightings, as well as plaster casts of supposed Bigfoot prints and other evidence of his existence.
Hayes and co-founder Dan Baker of Sebring said there have been reported sightings of Bigfoot in Columbiana, Carroll and Stark counties, as recently as a month ago in Franklin Square.
“That’s something that’s hard to believe,” said 78-year-old Frank Tavolario of Boardman, who said he’s a Bigfoot believer but isn’t sure that such a creature walks among the hills and trees of the Mahoning Valley. “I guess it could be, but I’m not too sure.”
He does believe, though, that “Sasquatch” is real.
“What’s interesting to me is the [number of] sightings by reputable people all over the world,” Tavolario said, “I don’t think every one of them is hallucinating.”
He also understands that while he is “one of those crazy people” who believes Bigfoot exists, most people are skeptical, if not scornful, toward those who believe.
“But that’s OK,” he said. “It’s good to be skeptical, but keep an open mind. They said the sign of an intelligent person is an open mind.”
Baker assured those in attendance that anyone who chose to share their Bigfoot experiences with Genoskwa team members could do so with absolute confidentiality. He said the group wants people to be able to share experiences without suffering persecution.
Brian Seese, 50, of Columbiana, and his 17-year-old niece, Rachael Lavender of New Middletown, showed up wearing ballcaps that said, “Gone Sasquatchin’” across the front. Seese said he’s been a believer for years, and he’s working on making his niece a convert.
“He got me interested because he made me start watching ‘Finding Bigfoot’ on Animal Planet,” Lavender said, laughing.
“I think people are always going to be skeptical, but we can’t be stupid enough to think that things do not exist,” said Seese, who believes there are several Sasquatches all over the country. “We can’t have looked in every nook and cranny.”
Vanessa Lalama of Columbiana, 36, who’d come with her husband, Brian, 36, and their 6-month-old daughter, Leighton, said she was not surprised by the large showing, or by the reports of Bigfoot sightings in the area.
“My husband and I both grew up around here, and we’ve always heard the rumors,” she said. “We came out today because we wanted to find out what other people have seen and heard.”
Youngstown State University students Liz Hornberger, 21, and Cally Wollet, 20, said they came at the request of a friend, who they said is a die-hard Bigfoot believer.
“I’m not a believer, so I came to see if I can be convinced,” Hornberger said. “So many people have videos, so maybe there’s really something to it.”
Justin Hite, Leetonia’s community development coordinator, said when the Genoskwa Project contacted the village about hosting such an event, he saw it as a tourism opportunity.
“I’ve been to northern California, where there’s a million small towns, and they all have a Bigfoot museum, and the parking lots are always full,” said Hite, 29. “I knew this would be a popular program, but I didn’t expect this.”