Sleepy little Felicity is so small it doesn’t even have a stoplight. So it must have felt like an invasion last summer when a convoy of cruisers from the Clermont County Sheriff’s Department brought a task force of undercover narcotics officers, K-9 teams and detectives to bang on doors and haul away 13 suspects running a heroin network and meth lab.

“The undercover agents took one of them right out of our restaurant,” says Don Larrison, owner of the village gathering place, the Feed Mill. Most of Felicity cheered, he says. “Oh, yes, it was quite a bit of excitement.”

When it was over, 20 people were arrested in a town of less than 900. An equivalent bust in Cincinnati would require hundreds of officers to cuff 6,500 suspects. Quite a bit of excitement.

Felicity is south of Bethel, about 45 minutes southeast of Cincinnati. Everyone knows everyone. And everyone knows who is selling dope and cooking meth. But knowing and telling are not the same. Even the big bust last July didn’t clean up the town. 

“A few went away but the rest didn’t stay in jail very long,” says Larrison, 80, a friendly former grocer, farmer, real estate salesman and car collector who knows Felicity the way he knew every aisle of the IGA he ran for 30 years.

Lt. Doug Ventre, commander of the Clermont County Narcotics Unit, agrees that stopping the downhill slide of drugs is an uphill battle. He compares rural Ohio to his 30 years with Cincinnati Police, including SWAT commander. “What you’re seeing out here is that most deal in small amounts and make daily runs into the city to buy a gram or two, then they use half and sell the other half to get money for the next day’s trip. They are selling to support their own habit, and that’s a tough nut to crack.”

Big dealers make occasional deliveries, but the locals are strictly small town. And possession of heroin in small amounts is a low-level felony that usually results in probation, says Ventre. “They know exactly what they’re doing. As soon as they’re out, they get back in the game.”

Felicity Police Sgt. Matthew Kohus patrols a town that would fit in a modest soybean field. “We have a good handle on who is using and selling, but it’s a Catch 22,” he says. “It’s a very small, close-knit community, so it’s hard to get information.”

He adds, “Every community in the county and state is suffering from drugs. It’s not fair to pick out Felicity or say it’s the worst.”

True. The invisible plague of heroin makes headlines everywhere: Drug torture in Chillicothe, prostitution in Zanesville, Mexican cartels in Newbury, a drone dropping drugs in a Mansfield prison yard, and drugs blamed for 80 percent of crime in Muskingum County. 

In Clermont County, drug poisonings are double the statewide rate, and nearly half of all children removed from their homes were taken because of drug abuse.

This is the other Ohio, lost in the shadow of the City States that seldom look outside their own silos. Small-town Ohio is where people are from, not where they go to live or work. From our cities and suburbs we imagine little Mayberrys on the map, where Floyd the barber talks to friendly farmers about the FFA and the IGA, not the DEA and DOAs.

But rural Ohio is not in Kansas anymore. It’s Mayberry on drugs. 

So why pick on Felicity?

For one: “Arresting 20 people in a town that size felt like the whole population of Felicity,” says Ventre. A similar drug sweep in 2009 rounded up 16 locals for pushing pain pills and “small amounts of heroin.” Now heroin is No. 1 followed by pills and meth, Ventre and Kohus say.

Felicity is a snapshot of rural Ohio. “It could be worse,” says Ventre. “At least they’re not dodging bullets” like some drug-poisoned neighborhoods in Cincinnati. But crime and violence follow drugs like tattoos follow jail time. Domestic abuse. Thefts. Break-ins. Shoplifting. A Felicity man who killed his best friend and girlfriend last fall blamed heroin. When asked what he was on, he said, “Everything.”

And there’s that name: Felicity. It means happiness. Joy. Delight.

Not Junkie Jones with the sunken, pocked cheeks, caved-in mouth and mural of prison ink, or Mrs. Methlab with the belligerent hate-you stare. But those are the faces in the drug-sweep family album.

Felicity is a friendly place where good people do their best. Kyle Lightner, who took a break from logging to have breakfast at Tina’s Diner, says, “If your car breaks down, 30 people would stop to help.” 

“It’s quiet, privacy and open country,” says his co-worker Dave Stevens. 

But the topic everyone talks about is heroin. “It’s just as bad in rural areas as it is in the city,” says Lightner. 

“Oh my God yes, our biggest problem is heroin,” says Shayla Baker, working behind the counter. “The police do a good job, but kids aren’t allowed to run the streets. It’s not safe.”

Larrison remembers when Felicity had five grocery stores. “It’s a great little town, with wonderful, hardworking people. We have some of the best farms in Ohio.”

Now there is one grocery store—the IGA. And it’s also the town’s biggest employer, with about 40 jobs. Next biggest is the Feed Mill, with fewer than 20. Jobs are almost as scarce as stoplights.

When Felicity was a proud tobacco-farming town 200 years ago, it was a station on the Underground Railroad and home to some of Ohio’s leading abolitionists. A few homes still have hidden rooms where runaway slaves slept on their way north.

A map from 1870 shows four mills (hominy, grist and sawmills), two carriage makers, five doctors and two hotels. As late as the 1960s, Felicity protected Cincinnati with a Nike Missile base, where 100 soldiers watched the skies for Russian bombers. It was chosen for anti-aircraft missiles as “the highest place in Clermont County,” says Larrison. But “highest place in the county” sounds like a bad joke now.

“Get the trash out of Felicity,” says a local blog comment, aimed at the trailer parks where the meth lab was found and addicts cluster in sway-backed immobile homes. Some look old enough to be historic, if “historic trailer” didn’t sound like “vintage Wonder Bread.”

Here in the saddest corners of the Other Ohio, in trailer parks that back up to stubbled, windswept fields of soybeans and corn, the wheels fell off a long time ago. The new special sauce for addicts is deadly fentanyl, 50 times stronger than pure heroin. When minutes mean life or overdose death, a hospital is an hour away.

Kohus says kids need to be educated about the hazards of drugs.

Ventre says stiffer penalties for chronic dealers might help. “We’re not heartless. If somebody is serious about seeking treatment I’d rather see them get clean than go to prison.” But, “If you’re selling, you’re selling. Period.”

A post on a local website suggested: “If everyone in the Flea-city would become a snitch for a month it would be cleaned up.”

For a week. Then they would trickle back to the streets.

A few miles south on the banks of the Ohio River is a lonesome road marker that marks the lost town of Utopia. It was settled in 1844 as a commune for followers of socialist Charles Fourier, who prophesied that the oceans would turn into lemonade. Two years later the socialists were flat broke and sick of waiting for lemonade. Utopia was sold to spiritualist John Wattles, whose cult tried to summon the ghost of George Washington. They were wiped out by a flash flood in 1847, and Utopia was taken over by anarchists, who were also washed away by the river of history. 

“Thus, the ideas of the perfect society, or utopia, died,” says the historical marker next to the highway.

There is no Utopia. But hell is easy to find.