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Ohio small towns: Buckeye back roads

Courtesy Greater Licking County CVB

A New England village might be the last thing you would expect to see in rural Ohio. But that is what you will find in Granville.

“We call it our New England village, which it is,” said Susan Fryer, executive director of the Licking County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It was settled in 1805 by people from Massachusetts and Connecticut. It looks just like a New England village with its architecture, little antique shops and quaint mom-and-pop restaurants.”

Meanwhile, drive down the mile-and-a-half main drag in Geneva-on-the-Lake, and you will be transported back to the 1940s and 1950s.

“Geneva-on-the-Lake is the quintessential old-fashioned lakefront getaway, from its open-air burger stand to the arcades and bumper cars to miniature golf,” said Tammy Brown, public relations manager for the Ohio Tourism Division.

Although Ohio’s many charming small towns offer a wide array of ambiance, they all have the common ingredient of friendly, welcoming citizens, an unhurried pace of life and locally owned shops whose owners take pride in their businesses.

Here’s a sampling of some Ohio small towns that welcome motorcoach groups.

“You really have to see it in person to understand its charm,” said Fryer. “It is an incredible little village.”

The earliest houses in Granville were Federal style; they were succeeded by Greek-revival buildings in the 1830s. Many of the 19th-century buildings, including the 27-room Robbins-Hunter Museum, remain.

“It is a Greek-revival mansion built in 1842 and furnished in that period,” said Fryer. “A lot of the original furniture was returned when they heard it would be a museum. We do teas there and an 1800s undergarment fashion show for groups that is a lot of fun.”

Two other historic structures, the Buxton Inn and the Granville Inn, are across the street from each other.

“They are charming places,” said Fryer. “They were built from stone and oak from the area. The Buxton, which was built in 1812, was a stagecoach stop.”

The Granville Inn, built in 1924 in an English-manor style, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“They serve wonderful lunches and dinners in both places,” said Fryer.

“On Sundays from April through October, the Columbus polo league holds matches on the lawn of Bryn Du Mansion, a huge mansion built by a millionaire who made his money through oil and gas.”

Granville is home to Denison University, whose campus sits on a hill overlooking the downtown. The students provide a youthful vibe to the town.

“It is a social town,” said Fryer. “There is a lot of interaction between the residents and visitors.”

The downtown, which is easy to walk, has ice cream shops, antique stores, galleries, upscale women’s specialty stores and restaurants with outside dining.

Granville is centrally located, about 25 minutes east of Columbus. From there, groups can easily visit the nearby Native American Mounds Newark Earthworks.

“Also nearby, visitors can enjoy Longaberger Basket Homestead, Dawes Arboretum, Velvet Ice Cream and the Works Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate,” said Brown.

On the banks of the Hocking River in Fairfield County, Lancaster offers a lot to do within a small space.

“The downtown area is kind of unique in that it has five museums right downtown, literally within two blocks of each other,” said Greg Eyerman, executive director of the Fairfield County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Eyerman said although one of the museums is a hands-on children’s museum, the other four are museums that appeal to the adult group market.

The boyhood home of Civil War Union Gen. William T. Sherman has been restored and has many family artifacts. Next door, the Reese-Peters House is home to the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio.

“It was built between 1832 and 1835, and has been restored inside,” said Eyerman. “One of General Sherman’s sisters married an attorney in Philadelphia, and they built the house. He lived right next door to his mother-in-law.

“About a block away is the Georgian Museum. Samuel Mccracken, a developer of the Lancaster Lateral Canal, built a huge mansion in the mid-1830s. It has five big columns on the porch overlooking what used to be the canal.”

The Ohio Glass Museum has rotating exhibits of glassware and demonstrations of glassblowing.

“Main and Broad is the main town square, so to speak,” said Eyerman. “You can see all of the museums from there.”

A central park has a fountain, a Civil War cannon used by Sherman’s troops and a statue of the general. A monument in the park also honors the nine Medal of Honor recipients from Fairfield County, among them Jacob Parrot, who was awarded the first medal during the Civil War for his role in the Great Locomotive Chase.

“Square 13 is a whole block that is a national historic district,” said Eyerman. “It has different styles of architecture from all different time periods, most in the 19th century. All of the homes have been preserved and are private residences, but we offer a self-guided walking tour with MP3 players.”

Driving tours of the county include its 18 covered bridges, all but two of which are on public property.

Geneva-on-the-Lake — the lake is Lake Erie — has plenty of experience with tourists.

“Realistically, it was Ohio’s first summer resort,” said Mark Winchell, director of the Ashtabula County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Next summer will be its 142nd summer of serving tourists.”

Winchell said the town was constantly changing during its first 80 years, but in the 1940s and 1950s “time slowed down.”

“What you see today is reminiscent of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s,” he said. “It’s a throwback. There is no commercialization. You will not find a McDonald’s or a Motel 6. All the businesses are owner-operated; that is what gives it its flavor. It is truly Americana.

“You have footlong hotdogs in ’50s-style diners, old arcades, great live music — most of the wineries and outdoor cafes have music. In the summer, there is nothing better than sitting on a patio overlooking the lake with music and wine.

“The strength of our market has been wineries,” said Winchell. “One advantage of this area is the wineries are so concentrated. It has become Ohio’s wine country. People won’t travel two or three hours to go to a winery but will travel two to three hours if you have a group of wineries.”
Ashtabula County also has 18 covered bridges, including, it’s claimed, the longest and shortest in the nation.

“Wineries, covered bridges and the lake gives a nice rounded experience,” said Winchell.

A major new attraction comes to Tiffin this month with the opening of the American Civil War Museum of Ohio, which has moved there from Bowling Green.

“It’s in a former post office, and has exhibits, interactive displays and a 20-minute video about the life of a soldier,” said Malinda Ruble, director of the Seneca County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It has lots of hands-on activities, such as uniforms you can try on.”

However, Tiffin is best known for its glass.

“There are several great places to stroll into or plan a tour to learn how master artisans turn silica into extravagant crystal and glass vessels, windows and ornaments,” said Brown.
Crystal Traditions represents a dying art and is the only place in the country where glassblowing, crystal hand-cutting, sand carving, acid polishing and glass crystal repairing are done on the premises.

Visitors can watch master gaffer and glassblower Eric Cromwell create pieces of custom art glass and Aidan Scully, whose title is master brilliant cutter and designer, demonstrate hand-cutting crystal.

“Any glass without color is crystal,” explained Cromwell.

“He [Scully] has to cut backward and has to look through the glass,” said Ruble. “I always find it fascinating. Crystal Traditions is a big draw for motorcoaches.”

Crystal Traditions also has a showroom where it sells its custom glass and crystal creations.
Practically next door, the Tiffin Glass Museum covers the history of glass; a chronological display of more than 2,000 pieces of Tiffin Glass shows the evolution of glass production in the area.

A different type of material covers the outside of the nearby Ritz Theatre, built in 1928 as a movie palace.

“It boasts an Italian Renaissance design,” said Brown. “Terra cotta and buff brick cover the street-front facade. A terra-cotta mask of the Greek muse of tragedy, Melpomene, watches over the theater.”

The interior features a mosaic tile floor in the lobby, solid brass fixtures and black onyx marble walls.

“It has all types of different entertainment throughout the year,” said Ruble. “They will give behind-the-scenes tours, where you go up on stage and down into the dressing rooms.”
Another new museum in Tiffin is the Enchanted Moments Doll Shoppe Museum and Gallery, which opened in 2009 and is already expanding. “All the rooms will be open by early spring,” said Ruble.

Nelsonville, in southeast Ohio’s four-county coal region known as the Black Diamond, suffered as the local coal industry declined. A decade ago, most of the storefronts around its historic public square stood empty.

“Nelsonville has reinvented itself in the last decade or so,” said Brown, becoming an arts destination, with dozens of studio galleries, antique stores and gift shops.

“There are lots of stores, art galleries, fine-dining restaurants, pubs, a couple of antique places and a great quilt shop,” said Paige Alost, director of the Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“For group travelers, it is perfect; everything is within a block. And it is very walkable and fairly flat.”

Groups can also take a ride on the Hocking Valley Scenic Railroad, which operates one- or two-hour excursions through the scenic countryside from Nelsonville to Logan and back. On the return trip, the train continues south to Robbins Crossing, a restored pioneer village.

“They do woodworking, ironsmithing, sewing, soapmaking,” said Alost. “You have about 30 minutes there. Robbins Crossing is also accessible by motorcoach.”

Back in town, the Stuart’s Opera House has been restored to its 1879 glamour and presents a regular schedule of top musical and theatrical performances.

“The opera house is a restored coal-community theater,” said Alost. “Each village prided itself on the quality of entertainment it would bring in. Some was very simple, some very ornate. Stuart’s is one of the few remaining.

“If a group times it right, they can see a show at Stuart’s, ride the train, do the square and eat at Rhapsody Fine Dining, which is managed by the Hocking College culinary art program,” said Alost.

Another dining option is the Boot Factory Grill, inside the world headquarters of the Rocky Outdoor Gear Store, located in a three-story former boot factory near the train depot.

“FullBrooks Cafe, right on the corner, is a great place to people watch,” said Alost.

“Or grab a bite to eat at the Mine Tavern. I recommend the cheeseburgers,” said Brown.

In addition to coal, Nelsonville was also once known for its brickmaking, and the streets and sidewalks are made of its famous Star Bricks.

Another New England-style Ohio small town is Peninsula, in the heart of the Cuyahoga Valley near Akron.

“Peninsula is located along the old Ohio to Erie Canal and is steeped in the history of that age, complete with a great little canal-boat-building museum just up the towpath bicycle trail in Bath,” said Brown of the state tourism division..

The town also has several craft galleries, artists’ studios and antique shops, all within walking distance on Main Street.

“In addition to the artisan and antiques shops in the area, visitors can take a guided ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway through Cuyahoga Valley National Park,” said Brown.
Brown recommended a stop at the Winking Lizard bar and restaurant, which features pictures of the building from its dance hall days.

“A nearby bicycle rental shop makes it easy to go for a ride on the towpath trail; and if one plans ahead, load up the bike and ride back on the train,” she said.

“Plenty of great hiking trails lead to little waterfalls and other hidden natural treasures in the park.”

Although the fast-paced thrill rides at Kings Island theme park are nearby, the Warren County towns of Lebanon and Waynesville project an entirely different ambiance.

“Both towns embody that small-town charm,” said Jennifer Burns, marketing and public relations manager for the Warren County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Brown agrees: “Lebanon and Waynesville are adjacent communities that appear graciously stuck in a time of stagecoaches, rocking chairs on front porches and storefronts that draw visitors with their quaint simplicity,” she said.

Burns said both towns are great shopping destinations, particularly for antiques.

“They have lots of antique shops,” she said. “Waynesville, in particular, has block after block of antique ships. It is nestled down in a valley and has great appeal and charm about it.

“Lebanon has antique shops mixed in with some boutique shops and artisans. And, of course, there is great dining.”

The Golden Lamb in Lebanon, Ohio’s oldest inn, offers dining in a historic setting. “All the rooms are named after presidents,” said Burns. “Twelve presidents have visited, along with Mark Twain. It is rich with history and has a lot of great artifacts and antiques.

“Just a stone’s throw from the Golden Lamb, the Warren County History Center has the Midwest’s largest collection of Shaker artifacts, while the Glendover Museum is an 1840s Greek-revival mansion that is open for tours.”

The Hammel House in Waynesville is a former stagecoach stop that is now a bed-and-breakfast and restaurant.

“It is a great stop for a meal, lunch or dinner,” said Linda Smith, group sales manager for the CVB. “Over the holidays, they have a Christmas With Dickens that is very audience interactive.”

The Hammel House also offers a Ghosts and Goblins dinner that can be combined with a ghost walking tour of the town.

“Waynesville is known as Ohio’s most haunted village,” said Burns. “They tour Main Street and the Quaker Hill District. It can be done in the evening by lamplight or during the day.”

Burns said guides tell various stories of reported hauntings in the buildings, several of which are now stores. “All the stories are different,” she said.

The Hammel House is also, reportedly, haunted — by a cat. “It doesn’t have a cat, but they find cat hairs on the stairwells and see shadows,” said Burns.

“Many guests say that a cat came in to sleep with them,” said Smith.

Smith added that although the Ghosts and Goblins dinner is offered primarily in October, the Hammel House will do it for groups year round.

“After all, ghosts don’t care what time of the year it is,” she said.