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Ohio County Trippin' Part One: Meigs County - by Nick Taggart

First off, some background:  In 2000, I struck upon the idea of visiting each of Ohio’s 88 counties.  The point wasn’t to just collect geographic spots, but to experience what my state had to offer.  I figured I could easily bag eight or nine a year, thus completing my goal within a decade.

Here it is, sixteen years later, and I’ve barely passed the halfway point.  Oh well, it’s the journey, not the destination, as Mr. Emerson once said.

There is not a set time I have to spend in a county for it to count, but it has to be a dedicated trip with the intention of seeing what there is to see.  So far, most trips have included an overnight stay, but some have been day trips.

Because I am who I am, I made up some rules before starting out:

Once I enter the county, I must stay within its boundaries until the trip is over;

I must avoid all interstates while in the county and, if possible, all divided highways.  Interstates, as the name implies, are meant to get one quickly across a territory.  County trips are meant to slow me down and give me an opportunity to look around.  This is an intentional nod to William Least Heat-Moon’s classic travel book, Blue Highways;

I must avoid all chain restaurants and patronize only independently owned establishments, whether they be eateries or lodgings.  This can be a tricky rule, especially when all the indie hotels in a small county look to be doubling as crack houses and brothels.  I have no intention of putting myself in danger for the sake of a rule, so on a rare occasion, special dispensation to ignore a rule has been given by the County Trip Governing Board (consisting of the ruling triumvirate of Me, Myself and I);

This project began a few months before I met my to-be wife, Michele, so with the exception of the first two excursions, we have shared each county trip.  What follows is my account of our latest.  Enjoy!

MEIGS COUNTY
“A Tow in the Boot of Ohio”
16-17 April 2016

The sun had only been up an hour when we entered Meigs County southbound along a county road.  Our course hugged a railroad track for nearly a mile before diverting off on its own.  At Ohio Route 143, we turned left and undulated between large farm fields, still dewy from the early morning.  As we arrived upon a hilltop, we approached our goal, the Snowville Creamery--although we had to use the numbers on nearby mailboxes to gauge that we’d truly arrived at our destination.  There weren’t any outward signs to confirm it was the creamery.  It wasn’t until we parked on the gravel lot and spotted a delivery truck with the company name emblazoned across its side that we knew we were where we wanted to be.

The creamery is a hodgepodge collection of connected mobile trailer compartments and one former insulated cargo container unit.  As we neared what looked to be a main entrance, we were greeted by John Stock, a tall, lanky man wearing a Snowville jersey and ball cap.  He’d been my e-mail contact a couple weeks before when I set up our tour.  He couldn’t have been better suited as a guide.  He was friendly, knowledgeable, and exuded a pride and enthusiasm for what Snowville was all about.

    According to Stock, as well as the company’s website: 
    We believe milk is perfect when it comes from the cow so we process it as little as necessary. We do not homogenize so the cream naturally rises to the top. In addition, we pasteurize at the lowest legal temperature, resulting in milk and other dairy products that taste sweet, clean and delicious…Our concept is to provide particularly wholesome and fresh milk from grass-grazing cows for retail sale in local markets, minimizing the distribution chain.

Along with milk, the creamery also produces yogurt, whipping cream, half & half, and crème fraîche.  The milk comes from nine independent farms scattered throughout Meigs and neighboring Athens County, as well as a couple of Amish farms across the Ohio River in Mason, West Virginia.  One of the farms sits next to the Snowville property and we could see its herd of 120 cows grazing on a sloping hill.  It’s one of the largest of the nine herds.  All the animals are grass-fed, which translates, according to the company, to milk that is “particularly nutritious due to the essential fatty acids found in the milk from pasture-grazed animals such as Omega-3 and Conjugated Linoleic Acids.”

Our creamery tour lasted two hours, which one might think is milking it, as it were, but it was one interesting fact after another.  When we began our tour outdoors, Stock explained how cows feeding on juicy grass produce lower fat milk.  As we moved inside the plant, he explained how the milk needs to stay below 45 degrees to allow a longer shelf life.  The temperature exception comes during the pasteurization process when it gets zapped at 170 degrees for a short period to rid the milk of any harmful micro-organisms.

We had to don hairnets before we were allowed to peer inside the milk storage vats.  Stock took us through the entire process from where the raw milk is brought in and deposited, to where the final product is packaged and prepared for delivery.  The company is in charge of distributing its milk to markets in Columbus, but works with other companies to get the milk to retail outlets as far away as Washington, D.C.  Snowville employs 30 people including drivers.

Near the conclusion of the tour, we were given cups of fresh Snowville chocolate milk.  It was the perfect ending of an outstanding trip around the creamery.  It cemented our status as Snowville consumers.

We then followed Ohio Route 143’s winding way as it slowly descended toward the Ohio River.  Before reaching water, we connected to Ohio Route 7, a stretch of road that runs along the west side of sandstone cliffs separating the river from the county seat of Pomeroy.  At Bradbury Road, we turned northwest and shortly thereafter found Millie’s Restaurant and Bakery.  It’s an unassuming, yet popular breakfast spot.  As we entered, we were greeted by a high pitched child’s screech.  Our waitress just rolled her eyes, signaling she and we were on the same page.  Both Michele and I ordered “Millie’s Breakfast Platter,” consisting of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, coffee, and a choice of hash browns (Michele) or home fries (me).  We relaxed as we filled up on the first meal of the day.  The front counter sported a huge cash register that would have looked at home in a restaurant a century ago.

We backtracked on Bradbury Road, crossed Ohio Route 7, and sliced through a section of cliffs that hide the community of Middleport from the rest of the county.  We turned onto 2nd Avenue, the main business route through town, and headed north.  Somewhere near the Pomeroy-Mason Bridge, the cable-stayed span that crosses over the Ohio River, 2nd Avenue becomes Main Street and Middleport gives way to the county seat of Pomeroy.  We passed through town quickly, knowing we’d be back later for further investigation.

At its east end, we followed Chester Road northeast to its intersection with US Route 33.  It was somewhere in that vicinity that I’d been informed I could find the Meigs County Bicentennial Barn.  It was by pure chance that, after crossing under the highway, I happened to look up and over and spot the logo.

The late 19th Century gable-roofed barn almost didn’t survive to see the state’s bicentennial.  It was slated for destruction when Route 33 was expanded, but a last minute rerouting spared the barn.  It now sits back atop a hill where it can be easily missed.  After a quick photograph, we returned the way we came.

We headed north on Flatwoods Road and then up Rocksprings Road to the turn off for St. Clair Road, which we missed the first time by.  St. Clair is a “no outlet” gravel road leading up to the Fur Peace Ranch, a guitar camp built by Jorma and Vanessa Kaukonen in 1989.  Jorma gained fame in the 1960's as the lead guitarist for Jefferson Airplane, and later as half of the blues band Hot Tuna.  He conceived of the spot as "a ranch that grows guitar players," where budding and seasoned musicians can “immerse themselves for several days, and emerge with renewed inspiration and tangible progress in their music.” (Click Here For Info on Fur Peace Ranch)

Neither Michele nor I are budding musicians, neither would we want to the pay the $1500 tuition for a weekend stay, but fortunately, the ranch has an attraction for non-musicians: the Psylodelic Gallery.  The name is taken from the authentic grain silo in which the two-story museum is housed.  Inside, one finds artifacts from the 1960's such as clothing from Woodstock and such esoteric items as “the actual typewriter that served as background ‘percussion’ in The Typewriter Tape, an eight-song collaboration between Jorma and the late Janis Joplin.”  There are also photographs and video from the hippie era as well as a round second floor containing tie-dye beanbag chairs and an array of classic ‘60's concert posters.

The gallery isn’t typically open on Saturdays, but an earlier exchange of e-mails with Vanessa Kaukonen and her assistant, Brett Thompson, assured us that they’d be on hand to open the gallery if we should decide to drop in.  Vanessa was sitting outdoors with her laptop at a picnic table when we drove up.  Even before she knew we were the ones who’d e-mailed, she greeted us warmly and gave us a mini-introduction to the ranch before leading us to the metal silo.  

Along with the small permanent collection, the gallery had recently opened “The Art of Jerry Garcia,” an exhibit of over 30 pieces of the late musician’s art, made possible by The Jerry Garcia Foundation.  Prints for eleven of the works were available for purchase, ranging from a low of $550 for “Barnyard View,” to a high of $2,800 for a Foundation Edition giclee (a fine art digital print made with an inkjet printer*) of “Wisteria.”  I’d left my checkbook in the car, so I had to pass on the prints, but I had enough cash on hand to purchase a couple of stickers and a tin of "New Song in the Morning" tea bags in the FPR Company Store.

(* The word giclée was adopted by Jack Duganne and is based on the French word gicleur, which means “nozzle.” (the verb form gicler means "to squirt, spurt, or spray”) An unintended consequence of Duganne's choice of name was its modern French slang for male ejaculation.)

As we returned to our car, we could hear the weekend music campers’ repeated guitar strumming emanating from the ranch buildings.

We drove back to Route 7, but turned north in order to find the town of Chester.  Overlooking the village sits a two-story brick building that holds the distinction of being Ohio’s oldest standing courthouse (and one of only three Federal-style courthouses still existing in the state). It was constructed in 1823 to serve as Meigs County’s first courthouse.  It held that position for nearly two decades until 1841, when the county seat was moved to Pomeroy.  Adjacent to it is the Meigs County High School and Teachers Institute, another early brick building dating to 1839.  We stayed just long enough for a photograph before turning around and returning to Pomeroy.

The county seat of Meigs is rather unique when compared to its 87 siblings.  With only a couple thousand residents, the village isn’t more than a narrow strip of land between high cliffs and the Ohio River.  Its population grew after coal mines and salt works were established inland and their products brought to the town’s port for transport.  Pomeroy’s narrow geography is responsible for one of its two inclusions in Ripley’s Believe It or Not!  It is said to be the only village in the country with no four way intersections.  

Pomeroy’s other appearance in the franchise of strange and unusual claims has to do with its courthouse.  Despite being three stories high, each of its floors can be accessed from ground level.  Built in the late 1840's, it’s Ohio’s fourth oldest continuously used courthouse.  One can get a nice view of it looking up Court Street from the river.

We parked our car in the large public lot that separates the Ohio River from the facing business district.  We perused a few of the shops including the Hartwell House, a combination antique store and craft shop.  Michele purchased a few pairs of socks with off-beat sayings stitched into them.  One showed a wholesome little girl and pony with the words, “I hate everyone too.”

It was a warm, sunny day, just the kind for lazy shopping and a cold beverage, so after our consumerism, we stopped in at the Court Street Grill for a couple of beers.  We were the only patrons at the time, but we sensed it might get busier later, so we made a reservation for dinner.

We drove south along the river and back to Middleport, the location of our overnight lodging.  We pulled into the drive at 232 North 2nd Avenue around 4 PM and found a middle-aged man out working in the yard.  He turned out to be Ron Carpenter, one of the owners of The Downing House Bed & Breakfast.  He and his wife, Linda, and family friend, Mary Lou Naftzger, purchased the property in 1998.  At that time, it was a rather down in the mouth private residence that had a lot of history behind it, but not much life ahead of it if it didn’t get some tender loving care.  The trio gave it that and then some in order to open it as the beautiful hostelry it has become.

The house’s past began with its construction in 1859 by the Downing family.  Major John B. Downing, who lived in the house at the turn of the 20th Century, was a riverboat captain who was said to be a friend of Mark Twain.  Downing opened an insurance agency that was later run by his grandson, Rodney Downing, the last of the family to live in the house.  He passed away in 1993.

We checked into the Becky Thatcher Room on the second floor, a comfortable space that contained an unsettling array of stuffed animals, all dressed as brides and grooms.  We spent some time in the first floor sun room reading and looking through photo albums containing “before” and “after” pictures of the B&B’s renovation.  It was a dramatic change and a testament to the hard work that Naftzger and the Carpenters put in before The Downing House’s grand opening in 2003.

After a short nap in our room, Michele and I found ourselves driving back to Pomeroy for dinner and the evening’s entertainment.  We made reservations at the Court Street Grill because of its popular monthly “Saturday Night Showcase” where host Brent Patterson introduces some of the finest musical talent in the Mid-Ohio Valley.  We were also told the evening would feature the best of the tavern’s Tuesday open mic nights.

The Court Street Grill was established in the 1930's and is one of the longest operating taverns in Pomeroy.  It’s not too big though, so it only takes about 30 or so customers to pack the place.  When we arrived, we discovered that the afternoon bartender mistakenly had made our reservation for the following night, but our kilt-clad waiter did a little finagling and managed to seat us at a round high top table.  We just had time to settle in and place our food order before the first act took the stage.  

Everything about the evening was congenial and enjoyable.  First off, the food was good.  Michele had a grilled chicken club while I opted for the Bungtown Burger, “a Grill original!” according to the menu.  The latter was a cheeseburger with cole slaw and grilled onions on Texas toast.  Its moniker came from the nickname for Burlingham, a nearby village that had a reputation for housing Prohibition-era distilleries.

The Pomeroy Mason Bridge

The Pomeroy Mason Bridge

We only stayed for three of the acts, but weren’t disappointed with any of them.  Host Patterson kicked off the music with a set of his own.  A woman from a nearby table joined him on vocals for a couple of songs.  He was followed by solo artist Chase Brady, who in turn, was followed by a young husband & wife duo, Morgan and Todd Stubbe.  The couple use the stage name Cradle & Grave and play a pleasantly harmonious mix of rock/folk originals.

One of the bar’s regular customers was celebrating a birthday that night, so the staff circulated complimentary birthday cupcakes to all the tables.

We felt like we left on a high note after Cradle & Grave.  Our drive back to The Downing House took us once more past the Pomeroy-Mason Bridge.  At that time of night, the arches are illuminated by purple lights.  Back in our room, we tried reading for a while, but it wasn’t long before sleep overtook us.

The following morning, Ron served us high octane coffee and our delicious complimentary breakfast in the first floor dining room.  We talked for a bit and he showed us some more pictures and historical paper artifacts found in the house during its renovation.

By 11 AM, we’d checked out and were driving once again along the river on Route 7.  We paused at the bridge so I could take a photograph.  It was constructed in 2008 by C.J. Mahan Construction Company and is one of only two bridges across the Ohio River from Meigs County.

The day was warm and partly sunny; a nice day for following a large body of water.  East of Pomeroy, the Ohio River Scenic Byway continues along Ohio Route 124.  The river swoops and bends and swerves, giving Meigs County the outline of a boot.  As we drove down the front of the ankle, we traversed small villages and even tinier towns; places like Minersville, Syracuse, Racine, and Antiquity.  We often had the Ohio River on our right side.  That was usually a good thing, but when the belching smoke stacks of the Mountaineer Power Plant came into view from the West Virginia side, militant environmentalist thoughts filled my head.

More signs for thinly populated places, such as Plants, Letart Falls, and Apple Grove, passed our view as we wound around the toe of the county.  Just past Great Bend, we turned off onto Great Bend Road, following the contour of the county’s heel.  Using my County Engineer’s map from 12 years earlier, I calculated our route would once again meet up with Route 124 near the back of Meigs’ ankle.  Imagine my surprise when we crossed US Route 33, near the Ravenswood Bridge to West Virginia, and we came upon a “No Outlet” sign.  According to my map, Ohio Route 338 should have led us on, but instead, a beat up track, with weeds growing from it, was in its place.  Later research revealed that the state was constantly making repairs to this road due to soil instability caused by its proximity to the river.  Sometime between 2008 and 2012, the state decided to abandon Route 338.  Maintenance was turned over to the township, which, also opted for abandoning the road.

With few options to choose from, we hopped on Route 33 and followed it a short distance back to Route 124 where we were able to continue our riparian route.  We didn’t have far to go before our next point of interest: the Buffington Island Battlefield Memorial Park.

Although Ohio supplied many troops to the Union cause in the American Civil War, most of the fighting took place in the southern states.  Ohio was host to only one serious skirmish during the war.  Confederate General John Hunt Morgan led a raiding party of 2,000 men into southern Ohio in July of 1863.  After a week, they attempted to return south by fording the Ohio River near Buffington Island.  Before they could complete their plans, Union troops sent by Major General Ambrose Burnside (he of stylish facial hair fame), and Navy gunboats in the river, were able to cut off the Confederates’ path.  The ensuing battle resulted in Morgan losing nearly half his men and all his supplies.  Nevertheless, Morgan was able to escape with a contingent of soldiers.  He headed north and was captured a week later in Columbiana County.

Along with a slew of memorial markers detailing the events of the Buffington Island battle, the Memorial Park is also home to a 20-foot high conical burial mound that’s believed to date to the Adena Culture, circa 800 BC-100 AD.  We spent some time roaming the grounds and trying to find a letterbox with dubious directions.  The object had been hidden nine years previous to our arrival and a lot had changed about the park including the addition of markers and the removal of trees.  After a time, our search was deemed futile and was abandoned. 

We would have continued on our river route unimpeded, but Michele noticed a nearby place name on the map that sounded intriguing: Bald Knobs.  It was only a couple miles inland along County Road 31, so we detoured to see what such a funny sounding place had to offer.  It turned out, not much.  There were a few houses, a church, and a graveyard.  Had the church named itself after the village, it might have warranted a picture, but it lacked civic pride. We returned to Route 124 and paused to take a picture of Michele next to a sign for Shelly Materials, a division of The Shelly Company.

The sun still was out and the day still appeared happy and bright, but as we rounded a bend at the town of Long Bottom, a loud metallic screeching sound began screaming from somewhere under our car.  We pulled over right away and looked around the wheels the best we could, but couldn’t detect anything obvious.  The horrendous grinding noise seemed to become more prevalent when I steered the car to the left, but otherwise, we were without a clue.

We were about a mile from Forked Run State Park, so I suggested we gingerly make our way there and call AAA for roadside assistance.  We turned into the first parking lot we came to, pulled out our emergency cell phone and…couldn’t get a signal.  There was a family at a nearby picnic shelter, so I asked if any of them had a phone I could use.  They politely informed me that we were in a dead zone for phone service.  It was suggested that a hilltop located deeper within the park might be a place to pick up a signal.

We began our walk up the park road under a rather hot sun.  Fortunately, one of the picnickers, a young guy in a pickup truck, took pity on us and offered us a ride.  We readily accepted and hopped in the truck bed next to a couple of fishing rods.  The hilltop was a mile or so inside the park, so the ride was greatly appreciated.  Sure enough, our phone was able to find a signal, so I called AAA and requested a tow truck.  We then got a ride back down to our car.  I gave our volunteer chauffeur a five dollar bill in appreciation for the ride.  He declined it at first, but finally accepted it at our insistence.
  
We had about a 45-minute wait in the shade before Calvin from Riverside Auto & Towing arrived with a tow truck.  The company is based out of Long Bottom, but Calvin had to come from his home on the other side of Pomeroy.  He hooked up our car with some cables and pulled it onto the flatbed of his truck.  Michele and I hopped in the cab with him and we were once again on our way, just not in the manner we had planned.

I didn’t want to explain the county trip rules to Calvin and request a route out of the county that would avoid any highways.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to.  He drove us back on Route 124 to Sand Hill Cemetery Road and followed it to Route 248, then Success Road (County Road 46), then Route 7 out of the county.

County trip postscript: We had our car towed back to Columbus to our preferred mechanic’s garage, Valentino’s Car Care in Grandview Heights.  Dennis Valentino called the following day to tell us he took the front passenger side wheel and brakes apart.  Once he had everything disassembled, out dropped a thumbnail size rock.  While it was frustrating to have something so minor cause such a major problem, in the end, we were more than happy to pay the bill for a working automobile.  And we got to keep the rock!

Time spent in the county: 31 hours, 6 minutes
Miles driven in the county: 119
Miles towed in the county: 10