Ohio County Trippin' Part Three: Champaign County - by Nick Taggart

“Underground and Overtime”
26-27 November 2016

We got an early jump on the day, entering Champaign County about a quarter past nine. The cloudy morning cast a paleness upon the agricultural fields as we cruised along Ohio Route 29.  Only 2 ½ miles into the county, we entered the village of Mechanicsburg.  As we bumped over railroad tracks, we passed the huge metal silo belonging to the Heritage Cooperative, a sign that this was farm country.  The member-owned farming cooperative was formed in 2009 by a consolidation of smaller co-ops.  Heritage serves over 3500 farmers in a 20 county area of central Ohio.

In the center of town, South Main Street bends and becomes West Main Street.  On our way out of town, we passed the bulbous water tower with “Mechanicsburg” printed on it in large letters.  It was akin to reading “welcome” on an exit door.

We passed through the even smaller burg of Mutual, but we didn’t have time to tarry as we had an important agenda: breakfast.  We entered the county seat of Urbana on Oakland Street, a business strip of chain stores and restaurants.  Oakland merges onto Scioto Street near Mercy Memorial Hospital.  We slowed as the area, stocked with big old homes, became more residential. At the town center, we followed the round-about north onto Main Street and to the northern boundary of the city, one mile away.

We pulled into the parking lot for Grimes Field, a city-owned public-use airport.  We weren’t planning on flying anywhere, but we’ve found that small airfields are often home to good restaurants.  The Airport Café reinforced this hypothesis.  It supplies delicious meals for both locals and visiting pilots, or in our case, visiting drivers.  The small eatery was busy, but we found a couple of seats and ordered a couple of aeronautically-themed entrees.  I settled on the J-3, which included two extra large eggs prepared to order (scrambled, please), my choice of smoked bacon, grilled sausage, or ham (bacon, of course), and toast, all for $4.29.  Michele opted for the Aztec, the same as mine, but with hash browns.  A recently landed plane taxied by the window, providing us with a floor show for our meal.

After breakfast, we drove a mile farther north to Freshwater Farms of Ohio, “the state’s largest indoor fish hatchery,” according to its literature.  We weren’t exactly sure what to expect of it as a tourist destination, but we turned out to be pleasantly surprised.  The five-acre farm was founded in 1983 and is family-owned by three generations of the Smith family.  They raise up to 100,000 pounds of fish yearly and claim to be the only producers of trout products in Ohio.

Fish are raised both indoors and outdoors.  We walked to the back of the property where one can get trout riled up into a feeding frenzy by tossing fish food into the large tanks of water.  Inside one of the Quonset huts, an educational area provided a variety of aquatic life and signs to let the visitors know what they’re viewing.  There were snapping turtles (“Do not put your fingers in the tank!”), toads, salamanders, rainbow trout, yellow perch, Louisiana swamp crayfish, and HUGE sturgeon, which thrashed about in their tanks and jumped high above the surface of the water as if to say, “I’m ready now to evolve into a land dweller.”  Despite a sign explaining that it is okay to pet the sturgeon and that they don’t have teeth (although they have an extendable mouth that they use like a vacuum cleaner to suck up their prey), a quick evaluation of their size and current emotional state made me believe that they could easily take me in a fight.

In the retail shop at Freshwater Farms, we spotted potato chips for sale from an Urbana company called Mumford’s.  Michele recalled passing a shop – Mumford’s Potato Chips & Deli – so we drove back to it and purchased three bags of their chips.  The company traces its roots back to 1932, when local potato farmer Asa Mumford and his son Virgil opened a small business making old-fashioned kettle cooked potato chips.  We thought we were “buying local” until I asked the staff member ringing up our purchase where the chips were made.  He informed me that they used to be made in the back room of the building we were in, but now, they’re made in Canton.  Canton?!  I felt like those guys on the old Pace Picante commercial that learn their salsa is made in New York City.  The clerk was quick to add, “But they use the same recipe!”  I’m sure that was succor to the Urbanians who lost their jobs.  Later, I took a closer look at the packaging and noticed it reads, “Distributed by Mumford’s Potato Chips, Urbana.”  I suppose that’s technically true, but I still felt lied to, or maybe hoodwinked, or in the very least, bamboozled.  I won’t lie, though, the chips were good!

We had some time to kill so we perused a few retail shops on Main Street including Kaleidoscope, a very clean and well-kept antique shop.  Michele added to her Christmas decoration collection with the purchase of a very cute teddy bear dressed as Santa and I added to my nerd collection with a 1965 foldout Ohio highway map.  I reminded Michele that when telling others of her purchase to be sure to explain that her Santa teddy is a stuffed animal, unless she wants people to think she purchased a “naughty” holiday undergarment.

Our weekend visit to Champaign County coincided with “The Game,” the annual gridiron contest between The Ohio State Buckeyes and the team up north.  We didn’t want to miss the game, so after consulting with a Columbus friend who grew up in Urbana, we were able to get a good recommendation for a local bar where we could watch the game.  We arrived at Bracken’s Pub just before kick-off and settled into a table after picking up a couple of $2 pints of Yuengling from the bar and putting in an order for a pepperoni pizza and chicken wings.

We couldn’t have selected a better venue.  Bracken’s had all the needed ingredients for enjoyable televised football viewing: a large-screen TV, a congenial ambiance, and cold beer!  There were never more than a dozen people in the bar, perhaps due to the early noon game time, but everyone was there to watch the game, and the scarlet and gray they wore assured us we were among friends.  When “we” intercepted a pass in the second quarter and ran it in for a touchdown, everyone erupted into loud excitement.

While most of the clientele was friendly and welcoming, there was one guy (every bar has one!) who was a little too loud, a little too volatile in his expressed disappointment in a failed play, far too wayward in his comments (making homophobic slurs regarding OSU’s kicker after he missed his second field goal attempt), and overall, just a dick, but no one else joined his bandwagon of stupidity and crassness, which was encouraging.  

Two patrons even made it a point to stop by our table and welcome us since we were obviously not regulars.  One in particular, Ned, was nice and funny.  After introducing himself, he admitted to always being pessimistic about close games such as the one unfolding before us, but that if we should win, he would confidently tell all that he was sure of victory all along. In the second overtime Urban Meyer was contemplating his gutsy call whether or not to go for it on fourth and one or attempt a game-tying field goal, Ned called from across the bar, “Nick, what should we do? Go for it or kick?”  I could already see Meyer was going to go for it, so I backed the coach and confidently (?) shouted back, “Go for it!”  The bar exploded again when seconds later, we (just barely) made the first down, and then, a couple of plays later, ran it in for the game winning touchdown.  What a game!  It was an “instant classic,” as Meyer called it, and I’ll always remember where I was to see it!  O-H!  I-O!

Michele was back in time to see the end of the game, but she had taken a break during the third quarter in order to check out some more shops.  I might have questioned her Buckeye loyalty, but when she returned with two buckeye candies, all else was forgotten.

I was a bit keyed up after the game, so it helped to have an outdoor stroll next on our county agenda.  We drove about five miles south of Urbana to Cedar Bog State Memorial, a 428-acre preserve co-owned by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Ohio History Connection, and managed by the latter.  You’d think that with two state agencies involved, they’d know enough to name the place properly.  It turns out that Cedar Bog isn’t a bog at all, but rather a fen.  What’s the difference?  I’m so glad you asked.  A bog is a pond, created from glacier ice that melted into a depression.  A fen is also formed due to a melting glacier, but is located in a shallow area near a gravel ridge, or moraine.  A fen is constantly flushed from ground water that surfaces as a spring and exits via another body of water.  A bog, on the other hand, replenishes itself only from precipitation and the water’s only means of departure is through evaporation.

Not that we saw much water during our lap around the preserve’s boardwalk.  It all looked pretty dried up.  Perhaps autumn isn’t the best time for bog-walking…correction…fen-walking.  Regardless, we got in nearly a mile of pleasant strolling.  We returned to Urbana and checked into our room at the Scioto Inn, a recently (2011) renovated building on Scioto Street, just east of the center of town.  Our lodging was cozy and comfortable, just what a visitor needs.  Across the street is Scioto Antiques, also owned by the Inn’s proprietor.  We perused its interesting and eclectic collection before proceeding out on foot for dinner.      

On the opposite side of the town square, and just beyond Bracken’s Pub, is Coppertop, a fine-dining restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious meal.  My dinner selection was the baked salmon while Michele went with a warm chicken and walnut salad.

For our after-dinner entertainment, we walked south of the town square to The Gloria, a rehabilitated old theater that began life in 1904 as The Clifford.  A 1918 fire resulted in massive damage to the building.  It sat in disrepair throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, but was purchased in 1941 by Warren Grimes who re-christened it The Gloria after his youngest daughter.  The theater closed again in 2013, but was purchased the following year by the Urbana United Methodist Church.  They helped form the GrandWorks Foundation that would work to bring the aging theater back to life and provide the community with an entertainment center.  So rather than simply purchasing a movie ticket, we were supporting urban renewal by attending the evening’s feature presentation of “A Christmas Story.”

After renewing our holiday spirit with the humorous antics of Ralphie and the Parker family, we returned to the Scioto Inn and retired for the night.

Feeling refreshed after a good night’s sleep, we showered and packed up and returned to the Airport Café for our Sunday breakfast.  If it ain’t broke, don’t go looking for another restaurant that may not be open on Sunday anyway.  This time around, I had the waitress fly me over a Cessna, which was French toast and bacon.  Michele ordered the Crosswind, “two grilled fluffy pancakes and your choice of smoked bacon, grilled sausage, or ham” for only $4.79.

After breakfast, we drove north on US Route 68.  Just before reaching the county line, we turned east onto Ohio Route 507 where a giant red arrow informed us we were only three miles away from Ohio Caverns, one of the state’s most popular tourist attractions.  Neither Michele nor I had ever visited, but had been aware all our lives of its existence.  How can one miss the plethora of directional signs scattered about this portion of the state?!  I think I’d always disregarded the site as some sort of second-rate roadside attraction; the kind that might include a dancing bear or the world’s biggest ball of twine.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

First, a little history: The caves were discovered in 1897 when a local boy discovered a sinkhole and followed the draft of cool air into an underground hollow.  Since then, the owners of the property have been offering underground tours.  It’s not just the opportunity to do some spelunking that draws people, but the magical and colorful wonders that those subterranean rooms hold. The Ohio Caverns are filled with countless crystal stalactites, stalagmites and other amazing formations.  One can be easily excused from realizing, as they drive onto the 35-acre property, what natural wonders await them below the gently rolling farmland.

A visit isn’t cheap.  At $17 per adult, I had my doubts we were going to get our money’s worth, but knew we had to experience the attraction if for no other reason than it was there.  There weren’t any other visitors for the twice-hourly tour we’d signed up for, so Michele and I were given a “private” tour by a guide, a young college-age local.  He led us nearly 100 feet below ground to the caverns, where it’s a constant 54 degrees year-round.

The tour lasts nearly an hour and covers about a mile of territory.  The passage can be narrow at times, and when our guide momentarily shut off the electric light, we got a true sense of what darkness can be.

The tour includes various “rooms” full of the naturally formed crystals, or I should say naturally forming because the process continues.  It’s just such a slow process that we won’t notice a difference in our lifetime.  For example, the largest crystal in the cavern is the Crystal King, a wondrously white stalactite measuring about five feet, weighing about 400 pounds, and estimated to be over 200,000 years old; it drips once every seven to eight minutes.  Most crystals take an average of 500 to 1,000 years for a cubic inch of calcite to be formed.

I found myself taking picture after picture.  Everywhere I turned, I was confronted with another spectacular photographic opportunity.  The tour ends in one of the larger crystal-packed rooms where a recording of “Beautiful Ohio” is played, a tradition that dates back to 1928.

After resurfacing, we returned to the gift shop.  Not only did I believe the tour was worth every penny of our admission fee, but I continued to hand over more money in exchange for an Ohio Caverns T-shirt, some Ohio Caverns post cards, and a package of Crystal Kings, a confectionery created by Marie’s Candies of West Liberty and made to resemble the famous crystal by covering Bugles with white chocolate.  Ingenious!  

Still giddy from our tour, we backtracked on Routes 507 and 68 and pulled into the Mad River Farm Market where, after a bit of shopping, we came away with two bottles of liqueur: Apple Pie Crème and Egg Nog flavors.

We continued south on Ohio Route 68 to Ohio Route 296 and then followed a series of roads in a westerly direction across Concord Township.  We turned left onto Neal Road and then right onto the forlorn-sounding Lonesome Road.  It was there we turned into a teeny parking area at the entrance to Davey Woods Nature Preserve.  It’s named in honor of the Davey Tree Expert Company which provided half the funds (The Nature Conservancy paying the other half) to acquire the property in 1989.  The preserve has a hilly terrain and is described as having one of the best woodlots remaining in this part of the state.

We followed the 1.4 mile Conrad Loop trail through the forest of trees that were bare after having dropped their leaves.  Michele found a “cudgel” stick to carry with her and to protect us against any potential bears, dragons, or deranged deer.  The only other mammals we encountered on the trail were a woman and her three grandchildren.  They responded properly to our friendly greetings so we let them pass unmolested.  About a mile into the preserve, we passed a collection of old broken headstones belonging to the family of David and Barbara Pence who moved to the area from Shenandoah County, Virginia, in the early 1800s.

Back in the car, we dropped down to US Route 36 and followed it back for one last stop in Urbana.  On the city’s east side, off of Patrick Avenue, we turned in at Oak Dale Cemetery.  Thanks to some directional signs, we were easily able to find the two graves we were hunting.  One belongs to John Quincy Adams Ward, a famed sculptor whose grave is topped with a replica of one of his creations entitled, “The Indian Hunter.”  The original sits in New York City’s Central Park.  He was also the artist who sculpted the bust of Lincoln Goodale that sits upon a memorial in Columbus’s Goodale Park.

The other grave belongs to frontiersman Simon Kenton, who should be as nationally known as Daniel Boone if only he’d had better press, a Disney TV series, and a snappy theme song.  Ohio author Allan W. Eckert did his best to keep Kenton’s life memorialized in his book, The Frontiersmen.  

We left Urbana the way we’d come in the day before, along Ohio Route 29.  We once again passed through the village of Mutual and its one hundred residents, but then turned south onto Ohio Route 56.  We followed it for six miles before it deposited us out of the county.

Time spent in the county: 30 hours, 50 minutes
Miles driven in the county: 88

Read County Trippin' Part Two: Medina County Here    Part One: Meigs County