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Ohio County Trippin' Part Four: Seneca County - by Nick Taggart

Previous County Trippin' from Nick Taggart: Meigs County - Medina County - Champaign County

SENECA COUNTY
“All That and a Bag of Chips”
3-5 February 2017

County trippin’ in Ohio in the winter can be a dicey affair.  With our weather’s proclivity to change on a dime, one can’t be guaranteed that conditions will allow a safe driving tour.  I like to book my accommodation ahead of time, but don’t want to be left on the hook for a room deposit if a sudden blizzard should materialize.  That’s why we opted for Seneca County for early February.  We had an in at an inn in Tiffin where we could be assured a bed without the risk of losing money.  The Hillcrest B&B is an exclusive residential hostelry that only makes rooms available to close family.  Fortunately for us, the proprietors are Michele’s parents, Bob and Linda Reinhart.  And even better, they allow pets, so we were able to take along our cat, Mocha.

We left home after work on a Friday evening, so it was already dark by the time we crossed into Seneca County in McCutcheonville, a town that straddles two counties.  We hadn’t eaten any dinner, so as we drove north along Ohio Route 53, Michele called ahead to place a take-out order from Reino’s Pizza & Pasta, a long-time restaurant in downtown Tiffin.  They claim that when Frankie Reino opened his business in 1950, it was the first pizza establishment in the city.  Our Italian sub and BBQ chicken wings were ready when I ran in to pay.  With food in hand, we drove on to Michele’s parents’ house, where we were welcomed like family!

The following morning, we kicked things off by attending a fundraiser for FACT, or Financial Assistance for Cancer Treatment.  The county nonprofit is dedicated to supplying money directly to cancer patients and their families for out-of-pocket expenses such as medical supplies, prostheses, hair pieces, and even the cost of transportation for treatment.  FACT is run by an all-volunteer board, so 100% of all donations stay in Seneca County and go directly to FACT clients.

The fundraiser came in the form of the 16th Annual Tiffin Polar Bear Jump.  It took place just outside the southern city limits at Camden Falls Reception & Conference Center, located at the intersection of Ohio Routes 18 and 231.  This annual event gives crazy people an opportunity to jump in frigid water in the middle of winter -- for a good cause.  I can’t see myself ever partaking in such a stunt, but I tip my wool-knit cap to those who do, and who pay $25 for the pleasure of doing so (or $20 for return jumpers).  We paid just the $8 voyeur rate that allowed us to stare in awe as seemingly sane people performed stone cold acts of insanity.  Our admission fee also gave us access to the breakfast buffet that included hash browns, scrambled eggs, sausage patties, pastries, and coffee and juice.  There was also a cash bar for jumpers who needed a little extra liquid courage.

Promptly at 11 am, everyone tramped outside to a pond where the Clinton County Volunteer Fire Department had chipped away the ice in a 20-square foot area.  To attain “official jump” status, one’s head had to be totally submerged.  For safety reasons, jumpers were instructed to “walk” into the water; no cannonballs or belly flops.  That didn’t stop many participants from jumping.  Personally, I thought that was the better strategy, so you wouldn’t have to will yourself to wade deeper after that initial cold water shock.  Having said that, the most badass jumper we witnessed was a young woman with a flair for the dramatic, who nonchalantly walked into the water and slowly submerged herself as though she were stepping into a hot tub.  She then emerged and just as slowly got out of the water.  I bet the pond water was warmer than the icy liquid running through her veins.

A total of 184 jumpers made the plunge; 100 of whom were first-timers.  The oldest jumper was 80 and the youngest was 7.  Two EMS workers in wet suits stayed in the water the entire time in case of emergency, but fortunately, they were never needed.  The event raised $16,800. 

From there, we drove north on Ohio Route 231, which becomes Washington Street in Tiffin.  We crossed the Sandusky River and pulled in at Ralph’s Joy of Living, a unique business selling everything from washing machines to craft beer.  Like Reino’s, the establishment traces its origins to 1950, when Ralph and Evelyn Smothers opened Ralph’s Appliances, originally selling washers and dryers. Over the years, they added refrigerators, ranges, dishwashers, and microwaves.  In the early 2000s, with a second generation of Smothers at the helm, the store expanded its inventory to include a large selection of wine, gourmet foods, fresh roasted coffee, craft beers, cookware and other items.  This led to renaming the store, to more accurately reflect the current business trade.

We perused the cookware and kitchenware and fun novelty items such as the Wino O Streetwise Bottle Bag, an insulated, waterproof, reuseable and resealable wine bottle holder that looks like a brown paper bag.  Genius!  Our own purchases included a bacon chocolate bar and a bottle of pinot noir.

Across the street is the Tiffin Police Memorial which includes a beam from the World Trade Center.  Across the road from that is a veterans memorial, and then farther west along the river is the Indian Maiden statue.  The plaque attached to the latter reads, “This Indian maiden keeps ceaseless watch where Red Men and sturdy pioneers drank from a spring whose sparkling waters flowed within the stockade of old Fort Ball.”  Fort Ball was a supply fort during the War of 1812. Lt. Col. James V. Ball, for whom the fort was named, chose this site for its large cold water spring, which he enclosed within a stockade.  A few years after the war, Erastus Bowe established a house and tavern on the site of Fort Ball.  This settlement eventually grew to become Tiffin.

When the Indian Maiden statue was erected in 1926, I’m sure it was meant with good intentions, but nearly a century later, I can’t help but feel the stylized “maiden” is just a little too patronizing and perhaps a touch racist.  Michele thinks it’s a surprisingly ahead-of-its-time tribute to the area’s Native American history, and perhaps a touch sexist.

A couple blocks south on the other side of the river, across the street from the 1928 Ritz Theater, is the Tiffin Glass Museum.  Locals take great pride in the beautiful handmade glass produced by the Tiffin Glass Company during its near-century in business.  A year after the glass house closed its doors for good in 1984, the Tiffin Glass Collectors Club formed to preserve the factory’s history.  In 1998, the Club opened the museum.  We were amazed at the extensive displays of glassware, glass-making tools, and photos.  Jon, one of the Club members, served as our tour guide.  I don’t think every visitor is guaranteed a personalized tour, but it was a slow Saturday, so we benefitted from Jon’s free time and willingness to share his passion and knowledge.  Display by display, we walked through a history of stemware and learned about the different processes for etching glass, including sand blasting where designs are formed using air pressure.  The colors of glass varied through time and one variety of glass –the highly collectible Twilight – even changed color based on the type of light shone on it.  You never know how interested you may be in a topic until you have an expert explain it to you.

The museum includes a retail shop, where a large collection of Tiffin Glass pieces are available for purchase.  We found a pair of black glass candle sticks dating from the 1930s or 40s, which now reside in our house, providing a pretty reminder of our visit.

A few blocks away on Perry Street, near the campus of Heidelberg University, we paused in an alley so I could take a photo of an octagon house.  I’m always curious to see these oddities of architecture which had a passing popularity in the 19th Century.  Tiffin’s version is said to have been built in 1851.  It’s a two-story brick structure painted white, but it hasn’t been maintained so the redness of the brick is once again making an appearance throughout the facade.  I read somewhere that the building was being used as student housing, but its current abandoned nature goes way beyond any minimalist standards that even the most frugal college student would put up with.

We left Tiffin heading north along River Road up to County Road 38.  There we turned right and then left onto County Road 15.  The road reaches a crest before making a slight descent down to a bridge over Sugar Creek.  It would be quite understandable for drivers not to realize that the simple concrete span they were passing over was none other than the Screaming Mimi Bridge!  It seems every rural district has one of these spots where “legend” has it an unfortunate incident occurred at an unidentifiable time in history resulting in a poor ghost having to haunt the area for eternity, thus ensuring entertainment for bored teenagers looking for something to do.

So what’s the story behind this particular haunted bridge?  Well, it depends who you ask.  Apparently, there was a woman named Mimi.  Everyone can agree on that point.  After that, details become murky.  Some think she went insane because she had a baby out of wedlock and was forced to throw the infant over the bridge.  Another story has Mimi beheaded and thrown off the bridge on her wedding night by a husband who wanted to inherit her fortune.
In order to conjure the apparition, one must park on the bridge, turn off the ignition, place the keys on top of the car, and then flash the lights three times and honk the horn three times.  Variant instructions require this be done at midnight during a full moon.  It always tickles me how paranormal specters require such exacting demands.

Michele remembers acting out this scene with friends in her younger days.  I don’t think they were successful in bringing forth Mimi, but there was a lot of screaming on the bridge those nights, mostly of the high pitched teen girl variety.

We pulled off the road next to the bridge, near Morrison Lake, a “members only” campground.  I got out and walked around.  I didn’t see or hear anything out of the ordinary, but then I wasn’t following the required ghostly directives.  Perhaps we would have seen Mimi had we come at night.  And flashed our lights and honked our horn.  And been intoxicated. 
Back in the car, we continued our journey north on County Road 15 to County Road 34 and then west into the tiny village of Old Fort, population 186.  It was platted in 1882 and named for Fort Seneca, another outpost from the War of 1812.  To commemorate its history, a replica blockhouse has been constructed in the park that runs along the railroad tracks.  I must admit to an ounce of disappointment as we pulled up along side it.  It was a bit smaller than expected; about twelve feet high and totally enclosed so you couldn’t walk inside.  I wondered if the architectural plans had been hastily written on a cocktail napkin with a notation for inches made in place of feet.

Skirting the northern edge of the county at this point, we crossed State Route 53 and continued west into the town of Bettsville, population 649, before turning southwest onto Ohio Route 12.  About half way to Fostoria, we pulled over near a barn with a very faded insignia painted on its side.  It was the Seneca County Bicentennial Barn.  The 1927 structure was owned by Larry and Alberta Babione when it was selected to represent the county in the state’s bicentennial project.  Perhaps I should feel fortunate that it’s still standing considering some of the other bicentannial barns have been razed since 2003, but its weathered and worn appearance just gave it a neglected look.

As we neared Fostoria, I spotted a tall smoke stack in the distance pumping out white smoke.  As we got nearer, I saw that it belonged to POET Biorefining, a “state-of-the-art ethanol production facility,” according to its website.  It began operations in 2008, and boasts that it employs approximately 40 people and enhances “the local economy with improved corn prices, value-added markets for farmers, good-paying jobs, and increased local tax revenue.”  It may very well do all those things, but what it does not do is provide a pleasing picture of welcome to those entering the city from the north.

It was mid afternoon by this point and we had failed to eat lunch.  Fortunately, Fostoria is home to Dell’s, a family restaurant dating back to 1934. (click here for Dell's website)  There were a few other diners when we entered, but we were definitely between popular mealtimes.  There were still some daily specials available though, so we made a couple selections from those listed on the handwritten chalkboard.  Michele went with the giant handbreaded pork tenderloin with a side of mac & cheese (made in-house and on the grill), while I opted for the breaded chicken ranch BLT with a side of fries.  My stomach, rather than my brain, appeared in control for the moment, so I added an order of BBQ loaded potato skins with pulled pork.  It could have been a meal in itself.

While we waited for our food, I checked out the restaurant’s décor.  A large collection of classic lunch boxes and thermoses from the 1970s and 80s adorns the walls.  It was a trip down memory lane to see the metal boxes with images of Kiss, the Bee Gees, Charlie’s Angels, Knight Rider, Laugh-In, and the Partridge Family.

The food was delicious and there were leftovers.  Fortunately, our next stop was back to Michele’s parents’ house, so we were able to take our extra food with us, along with a selection of pie: Snickers Bar and butterscotch flavors for me and Michele, and apple and peach for her parents.  On the way out of town, we made a detour into the Iron Triangle Visitor Center and Viewing Area.  This patch of parkland is formed by a triangle of crisscrossing railroad tracks.  Our arrival coincided with a train rumbling by; a common occurrence.

We drove back to Tiffin via Ohio Route 18, traversing the village of Bascom along the way.  We rested awhile and then shared stories of our day with Bob and Linda over pieces of Dell’s pie.

The following morning, we took my in-laws out for brunch to T.J. Willie’s, a casual restaurant on Market Street in Tiffin.  We were joined by Michele’s older sister, Pam, who drove down from Whitehouse, Ohio.  We all partook of the Sunday buffet where I loaded up on all manner of breakfast items from scrambled eggs and bacon to mini-waffles and pancakes.  If anyone went away hungry or disappointed, they had no one but themselves to blame.  We took our time eating (and eating and eating) while enjoying a relaxed family conversation.  After a couple hours, we had to say our goodbyes so we could continue county trippin’. 

Our next stop was out in the hinterlands of northeast Seneca County.  We took State Route 18 east out of Tiffin and followed it as it cut northeast at the village of Republic.  We then turned east on County Road 46 and rode it all the way to the county line, passing vast swaths of farmland.  We turned south on State Route 269, staying within the county, by a mere technicality, for the stone’s throw to drive to the entrance of Sorrowful Mother Shrine.

It seems odd to have what is promoted as “the oldest place of pilgrimage dedicated to the Blessed Mother in the Midwest and east of the Mississippi River in the U.S.A.” located out in the middle of nowhere, Ohio.  How did this happen?  Well, back in the mid-19th Century, Father Francis de Sales Brunner, a missionary from the Old Country, traveled throughout northwest Ohio, establishing parishes for the newly arrived Catholic settlers from Germany and Switzerland.  He had quite a fondness for Mary, the mother of Jesus, who he felt had guided him and other priests in their work.  As payback, in 1850, he built a small red chapel in honor of Mary.  It quickly became a popular place of pilgrimage where the faithful could come and “stand still in the presence of God.”  Twenty years later, a larger chapel was constructed to replace the original.  That chapel burned in 1912, but was replaced with a stone structure that still stands today.  Michele’s godparents married there in the late 1940s.  

The site became so popular for masses that the seasonal, outdoor Pieta Chapel was built on the property in 1968.  Its inverted white cone topped with a cross must have been very modern for its time.

The shrine is not just a couple of chapels.  It is also a shitload of grottos. (Whereas “shitload” is not yet an officially Church sanctioned group name for grottos, we have faith it will become so at Vatican III, as well as “cloisterfuck” for a gathering of nuns, and “bejesus” for a stable of altar boys.)  There are at least 12 grottos at Sorrowful Mother Shrine, representing various architectural styles, from a stone replica of Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto to a Spanish Mission style structure honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe.

We spent about an hour wandering the wooded grounds.  I can’t claim to have felt “the presence of God,” but it is a very peaceful and serene setting.  We also stepped into the gift shop where I purchased two holy cards (“Save ‘em, collect ‘em, trade ‘em with your friends.”) representing our two patron saints: St. Michael and St. Nicholas.  Michele pointed out that my money was going straight to an organization that opposes a woman’s right to choose.  Suddenly, my nascent holy-man trading card collection felt tainted.

We backtracked west and then north through the flat agricultural landscape of Thompson and Adams Townships.  We barely passed another car, but we did get stopped by a train.  Southeast of Green Springs, on Sandridge Road, we came upon another octagon house.  This one appeared much nicer than the one in Tiffin, probably because it is actually lived in.  It also dates to the mid-19th Century.  The 2-story house was reportedly in pretty rough condition when Eldon and Kathryn Powell purchased it in 2014, but based on our exterior view, they did a nice job of restoration.

We made a loop around the Clyde Reservoir, which put us on Ohio Route 101, a straight road back to Tiffin.  Hidden within the city’s northeast quarter among residential housing is the Ballreich’s potato chip company.  Tiffin has been home to this family-owned venture since 1920, when Fred and Ethel Ballreich opened their homemade potato chip operation in a dirt floor garage, using a copper kettle heated with wood scraps.  They described their chips as "marcelled," meaning "wavy,” taken from a popular women’s hairstyle of the 1920s.

When their potato chips became too popular for Fred and Ethel’s limited output, they brought Fred’s brother Carl and his wife Emma into the company.  The two couples lived side by side at 180 and 186 Ohio Avenue, with a small factory behind the homes.  The former house is now the location of Granny Ballreich’s, a retail outlet for all things Ballreich.  An older woman was working the register when we arrived.  I assume they only hire grandmotherly types to reinforce the image of “Granny Ballreich.”  I had a pleasant conversation with the friendly lady as Michele tried on Ballreich sweatshirts, settling on an attractive red one.  We also purchased a bag of snacks and some chocolate-covered potato chips.

On our way through Tiffin, we made a detour through Michele’s old stompin’ grounds and the neighborhood she grew up in on Ann Street.  As we all discover when we return to the place of our childhood, Michele found that the blocks had shrunk and the spaces between houses and streets had become noticeably shortened since the time she lived there.

We drove south out of town on Ohio Route 231.  Just short of the county’s southern border, we turned off the route and found the Howard Collier State Nature Preserve, named in honor of former state budget director Howard Collier.  The old-growth forest was originally acquired as a Scenic River area due to its location along a wiggle of the Sandusky River.  Wooden steps lead from the parking lot down toward the river, but once the terrain levels off, the manmade stairs give way to a dirt path that was somewhat muddy the day of our visit.  A one-mile loop trail follows the river for part of the way and a short side path leads to Hecks Bridge, an automobile span over the river on Pennington Road.  The area was rather bare due to the season, but we could tell the preserve would be worth a return visit in the summer.

Back in the car, we continued west across the bottom of the county through the barely-a-tic-on-the-map place names of Berwick, Frenchtown, and Springville, before arriving at the Springville Marsh State Nature Preserve, tucked away in the southwestern corner of Seneca County.  Again, the timing of our visit didn’t coincide with prime nature observation, but that didn’t get in the way of a pleasant outdoor stroll.  A mile-long boardwalk loop leads past a low observation tower and a wildlife blind.  The marsh was mostly dry, but there were plenty of cattails, robins, and large fallen trees exposing huge root systems to keep our interest.  Again, a return visit in the summer would yield even more nature at which to marvel, including a remarkable variety of flowering plants.  The preserve is said to be the largest inland wetland in this part of the state.

The sun was well on its way down as we left Springville and drove northeast on County Road 591 to New Riegel.  Since the time I met Michele and made my first visit to the New Riegel Café, the town has become synonymous in my mind with ribs.  Ever since W.J. “Pete” Boes purchased the café in 1953 and subsequently came up with his unique and VERY tasty barbecue sauce, the restaurant has been a popular destination.  The savory, garlicky aroma of the sauce often accompanies the diner’s clothing on the way out, but I’ve always found it to be a fair trade.  

As soon as we began planning our Seneca County trip, the New Riegel Café was one of the first items I made sure to place on our itinerary.  Michele’s parents joined us that Sunday evening for the occasion.  You can then imagine my surprise and dismay when we arrived to discover the restaurant had just run out of ribs about a half hour before.  I assumed they were joking, but apparently, this is a somewhat common occurrence at the end of a busy weekend.  They still had chicken, ham, and beef to offer, all with the signature barbecue sauce.  I opted for the chicken.  While I’ll still return to ordering the ribs on my next visit, I was far from disappointed with this one-time substitution.

The rural winter sky of northwest Ohio had become very dark and black as we chose the “scenic” path back to Tiffin, first traveling northwest on Ohio Route 587 before turning right onto US Route 224, which actually led in a direction toward Tiffin.  We stopped back at the Hillcrest B&B just long enough to gather our kitty and belongings and to thank our hosts for providing us with excellent lodging.  The chocolate on our pillows was proof of its class.  With a couple toots from our horn as we backed out of the driveway, we found our way back to Route 53 and south out of the county.

Time spent in the county: 48 hours, 13 minutes
Miles driven in the county: 169 miles