(Editor's note. In his latest dispatch, peripatetic Illinois writer Doug Kamholz reveals hidden haunts in Ohio in his search for lesser-known Midwest gems. Who knew Ermal Fraze invented the pop-top? Or that cool cowboy Hopalong Cassidy was an Ohioan?)
by Doug Kamholz
I can try to remember, as an old song advises, when I was a young and callow fellow. On runs from college to my sweetheart’s, I sliced through Mid-Ohio with nary a sideways glance. Now comes great pleasure atoning for folly.
There is a band of wonders across Ohio that goes from blueberry pancakes in an 1802 mill to Tom’s Ice Cream Bowl ,where they serve champagne sherbet. It’s 150 miles that go from Abe Lincoln to Louis Sullivan, from cowboy Hopalong Cassidy to astronaut John Glenn, from Orville and Wilbur to Frank Lloyd.
Ohio’s state capital, Columbus, is about in the middle of all this. The capital’s Capitol — now gorgeously restored (see stained glass above) — happens to be the only place outside Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln paused to publicly orate on his way to assume the presidency, and where a mere fifty months later his body lay in state on his way home to assume the tomb. (As residents of Springfield, Illinois, we are obligated to shoehorn Abe into pretty much everything.)
The Buckeye State also is called “Mother of Presidents” as seven were born there, so Columbus is heavily coated in U.S. history. On the edge of town there’s a living history farm, and right downtown is a plant-based version of George Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte, featuring 54 life-sized topiaries.
Our Mid-Ohio swath starts at Richmond, Indiana. For decades Richmond built most of America’s school buses, so just before hitting Ohio’s state line you saw a vast yellow sea of them from the eastbound lanes of Interstate 70. I had a friend, Neil, whose night job here in Springfield was cleaning school buses. We always called Richmond “Neil’s Nightmare.”
Moving east, first is Dayton with its (locally-appropriate-adjective) top-flight art institute. As for those bachelor brothers Wright, we know too little about the only college-educated sibling in the family. Katharine got a degree from Ohio’s very progressive Oberlin College, ran the boys’ bicycle shop when they were off playing with airplanes and was their savvy media-handler when they got off the ground, so to speak. But the truly important Dayton inventor was, of course, Ermal Fraze. After getting caught short at a picnic without a church key, he went and created the pop-top. Thanks, Erm!
Just 20 miles east is Antioch College, proudly clinging to its long leftist legacy. Coretta Scott is an alumna from 1951. Her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave Antioch’s commencement address in 1965. The school has spurred a lively village called Yellow Springs, full of artisan shops and bookstores. (And yes, Dave Chappelle lives nearby so he hangs out in town.)
Before departing, one might walk a while among 400-year-old trees in Yellow Springs’ thousand-acre Glen Helen Preserve and then make just a few more miles east to Clifton, home to the pancake haven that is Clifton Mills. The Little Miami River cascades into a narrow gorge in Clifton and hits perfect speed to power grinding wheels. Of five mills that stood along a single mile of riverbank, those for wood, wool and paper are gone. But one still grinds corn, wheat and rye. You can tour the lowest of the five-story structure to see its stone wheels and wooden chutes. But upstairs is where plate-sized flapjacks are served while laughing water dances over paddles of a tall decorative wheel just outside big windows.
Almost every place I am writing about is within a few miles of I-70. Here’s a minor exception. My wife spotted tiny red letters on the Ohio map (Yes, an actual paper map) saying “Nat’l Afro-American Mus.” only ten minutes farther south from the pancakes. It turns out there are two Historically Black College and University sites, unusual for being in the north, at Wilberforce, Ohio. Central State’s campus houses the museum. It opened in 1988, long before the now-more-famous one appeared on D.C.’s National Mall. While there we saw an exhibit on Afrocentric comic books including a rare surviving copy of Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, a 16-page history of and guide for non-violent civil rights protest. In 1957, Fellowship of Reconciliation printed and shipped 250,000 copies to churches and other groups. The museum’s research found that distribution at least sometimes came with a warning to burn or destroy the comic after studying it, as possession might endanger the reader’s personal safety.
Due north from Wilberforce and on the other side of I-70 is Springfield and a personal story. While touring the newly restored Frank Lloyd Wright house east of the city center (and Wright’s only Prairie Style home in Ohio) I learned that Burton J. Westcott, who hired Wright, also invented a car and put his name on it. I learned there was one right downtown in the county museum. So I went to see his 1920 cream and black Touring Car model. Heading for an exit I spied two elderly docents shuffling my way. Being too polite to outrun them, I let them catch up. They had one question: Have you been to the military exhibits? I was just on my way, I lied. Let us guide you, they offered. So off we went through narrow winding corridors filled with the most common relics of war from 1861 on. When we got to WWII, there was a case with a set of fatigues, metal ammo boxes and other paraphernalia. Across from that was a case devoted to WAC nurses featuring hospital whites and medical stuff. It was there they stopped and told me those were their own uniforms from when they met serving during “the big one” in our U.S. Army. I will never forget the pride and the love in their eyes.
On our last run through Springfield, my wife Sheila (above) and I visited Hartman Rock Garden, what Roadside America calls “a happy architectural jumble of patriotism, education, history, religion, and popular culture.” Over the last decade of his life, H.G. “Ben” Hartman (1883-1944) turned his corner-lot yard into an art environment, a fantasy land built with several kajillion stones from a nearby creek. Among his many creations are Noah’s ark and Lincoln’s tomb. While we were there some decked out teenagers showed up for their prom pictures.
Our other exception to the I-70 corridor is 40 miles north of Springfield in Sidney. Two of the last works by great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan were financial buildings in Ohio. They often are called jewel boxes because of their modest size and exquisite detail. Sullivan designed Sidney’s Peoples Federal in 1917. It remains an independent bank. It is sheathed in blue-green glass and tapestry brick detailed with marble and terra cotta. If that’s not enough, right across the street is The Spot, a classic diner heavy with red Naugahyde, neon, Formica, chrome, cool lettering and warm pie.
We now head back to I-70 East for a 90-minute drive past Columbus to Newark and Ohio’s other jewel box. This 1915 bank, known as “The Old Home,” is nearing total restoration after decades when it was a meat shop, an ice cream parlor or just empty. Now it’s only months until every Sullivan mosaic and mural will greet visitors again. The Old Home is set to become the new home of a non-profit promoting Licking County. More generally, this town of 50,000 folks bubbles with community pride and products of that pride. From artful streetscapes to academic scholarships, Newark and Licking County are hard at and good at the work of improvement. (This year there’s a community survey asking simply what one thing do you think would improve life for others here.)
Newark was also the home of Heisey Glass, well-known for treating employees well and making cute colored-glass animals plus much more. The owner’s grand home is now a museum to his craft. And just south of town is Dawes Arboretum, a 2,000-acre wonderland where I saw my first and only Silver Ghost Lacebark Pine. Wowser!
Nearing the end of this Mid-Ohio jaunt is the town where Mr. and Mrs. Grey named their fourth child, a boy, Pearl. As he grew into an author of wild west adventures, he figured something a bit more manly might sell better. So he took his hometown’s name and became Zane Grey. However, Zanesville’s real fame is pottery. Revered twentieth -century brands such as Roseville and Weller were fired from southeast Ohio clay. The Zanesville Museum of Art displays the story of this one-time world center of clayware. Second-hand shops down on Main Street now can set vintage values on what were everyday-priced and all-American themed housewares. There is even Vasehenge, a circle of 18 six-foot flower pots. And Vasehenge stands at one of three ends of the town’s unusual Y Bridge across the Muskingum River.
Just up from another Y Bridge arm is Tom’s Ice Cream Bowl. (It’s also four minutes off and back on I-70.) Tom’s came around in 1948 and still serves fine scoops including that aforementioned champagne sherbet. There is a drive-through but the window is still an actual window. Tom’s early-‘50s menu reads like they invented it all: “Use our Phone-In Window,” they excitedly advise. They promise that only ten minutes later you can arrive at their “Drive-In Window. Never Leave Your Car.” (I’m amazed there are no exclamation points!)
After dessert, just a few miles farther east is Concord and astronaut John Glenn’s boyhood home, now a National Park Service site. I’ve never been, but I did hear a good story. One passenger on a bus tour was so tied to her conservative politics that she refused to step off and put her foot on Democratic ground.
Our final stop is Cambridge, home to another hallmark of the last century, Cambridge Glass. Their pieces, opaque or translucent colors as well as crystal clear, seemed to occupy many family china hutches and Sunday dinner tables. Cambridge Glass has a museum where docents are eager to explain the subtle Scottie Dog ear-flap alteration from 1924 to 1925.
On the way into town is (not a Y but) an S bridge, part of the National Road which started in Maryland in 1811 and went as far west as Illinois. When it got to a creek at an angle, for engineering reasons that are beyond me, it made sense to build a curve on both sides of the water; hence what is currently more than 200 years old still stands pretty sturdy though now only for pedestrians.
For those of a certain ilk and age, perhaps the real star of Cambridge is William Lawrence Boyd, much better known as Hopalong Cassidy, a mid-century western hero who made 66 movies along with TV and radio shows. He called Cambridge his hometown. It may indicate the size of his surviving fan base that the only collection of “Hoppy” stuff (and there was a ton of it) was in the back of a junk store that burned down a few years ago, so that section has been x-ed out in the local Hopalong Cassidy Trail brochure.
But for our purposes, let’s put Hoppy on his white horse Topper and let him ride on east, away from the setting sun all the way to the other end of Mid-Ohio at the bridge over the Ohio River and into Wheeling, West Virginia, where the Buckeye Hoppy says “So long, buckaroos!”