HANCOCK COUNTY “Past Times Pastime” 8-9 December 2018
We were heading north on US Route 68 when the green county sign, standing lonely at a rural crossroads, marked our entrance into Hancock County. We turned left at that intersection and followed County Road 2 along the southern border for about two miles. Sitting neglected between the road and a frozen field was a stubby cement cylinder. It would have been easy to miss had I not been looking for it. It was placed on this spot just over a century ago to mark Hull’s Trail, a path from Urbana to Detroit, blazed by General William Hull and his troops during the War of 1812. The historical marker also makes note of a small supply stockade and blockhouse constructed for that war effort. Fort Necessity, “affectionately” dubbed Fort Mud by the poor sods who had to build and guard it, was located 400 feet north and 150 feet east of the marker. Any remnants of the fort are long gone. A wall of trees running along the road blocked our view of what wasn’t there anyway.
We drove a large loop along country roads before returning to US Route 68 and continuing our progress north. We passed through the village of Arlington, which clocks in with the third largest population in the county at just about 1,500 residents. It’s also one of the oldest pioneer settled spots in the county, beginning as a farming community in 1844, and then gaining steam as a railroad crossroads when tracks were laid across southern Hancock County. The main street was decorated for the holidays with vintage red lanterns and green garland hanging from the street lamps.
Another ten miles further north, we found ourselves in the middle of the county seat of Findlay. Turning left at the courthouse onto West Main Cross Street, we drove another few miles, passing over busy Interstate 75, and to our destination for breakfast, Pilgrim Restaurant. If the large black “FOOD” emblazoned on its pitched yellow roof wasn’t signpost enough, the nearly full parking lot served as a testament that this was the place to dine. I ordered the Pilgrim Omelet while Michele opted for the standard scrambled eggs and hash browns, supplemented with bacon and a cinnamon roll. We planned to get coffee anyway, but the signs decorating the interior left no doubt that java drinking was encouraged.
Drink Coffee. Do stupid things faster, with more energy.
Coffee! If you’re not shaking, you need another cup.
After a delicious breakfast, we returned to US Route 68 and proceeded north out of town. As we entered Allen Township, we passed by the land of giant things. A sprawling factory on the right belonged to one of the county’s largest employers, Whirlpool Corporation. Nearby is the Ball Corporation’s beverage packaging plant. Towering above them both is a field of seven mammoth white wind turbines constructed in the last few years by One Energy to aid in supplying clean energy for Whirlpool and Ball, as well as for Valfilms, a maker of films for food packaging, automotive, construction and telecommunication industries. Valfilms has its world headquarters in Brazil, but its North American headquarters in Findlay. To add a large dash of color to all the behemoths, a tall water tower - diminutive when compared to the turbines - was painted in a red, white, and blue star-spangled motif with the message, “Findlay Salutes Veterans.”
Near the northern boundary of the county, we pulled over in the town square of Van Buren to read a historic marker detailing the small village’s history. It’s another early community, having been laid out in 1833 and named for Martin Van Buren, a prominent national figure of the time whose election to president wouldn’t occur for another few years.
Positioned against the eastern edge of the village is Van Buren State Park, 300 acres of recreational land surrounding a long, skinny lake. On a cold December Saturday morning, it had the feeling of having been put to bed for the winter. Our car sat alone in a parking lot while we hiked for a spell along the water’s perimeter. Black locust pods littered the hard, frozen ground and big, beefy fox squirrels lumbered between leafless trees. We went as far as an open shelter house before turning around. It wasn’t the most exciting stroll, although we were rewarded by finding a quarter in the parking lot and spotting a bald eagle circling our side of the lake.
We got back in the car with Michele behind the wheel so I could navigate while unencumbered by such trivialities as watching the road. We drove west on State Route 613 and got stopped by a train just before reaching the town of McComb. It was a reminder of what a busy railroad corridor northwest Ohio is. Once the train passed and the crossing gates raised, we entered the village and looped through its quiet streets.
I assumed that’s what one should say in McComb when I saw a large mural of the big black cat on the side of a building. I later confirmed it is indeed the local school’s mascot.
We drove south out of town and then meandered our way east to County Road 99. Just shy of Interstate 75, we turned off the road so we could visit Jeffrey’s Antique Gallery. The seemingly endless collection of stalls located in a long, sprawling building isn’t resorting to hyperbole when it claims to be the largest antique mall in Northwest Ohio. After spending a bit of time perusing the collections of hand-me-down cultural mementos, I came to the conclusion that a better name for such establishments would be Reminiscing Emporiums. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you’re bound to come across something from your childhood being offered for sale at a price far above what you ever paid for it, or for that matter, ever might have sold it for in a yard sale. It’s all there, from NASCAR “collectible” figurines, to a vintage cardboard Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket from the 1980s, to dishes you’d swear you used to eat off of at your grandmother’s house.
And should you ever be forced to spend time at an antique mall against your will, here’s a surefire plan for passing the time quickly and enjoyably. First, sneak in a flask filled with your favorite adult beverage. Then, take a drink whenever you overhear someone say, “We used to have one of those.” Be sure to be accompanied by a designated driver though, because you’re sure to be snockered in no time!
After about an hour and a half, we found we’d barely made it through half of the mall. The rest would have to wait. We returned to the county seat and parked on the campus of the University of Findlay, an institute of higher education established in 1888. On foot, we found Croy Gymnasium, paid $8 each for tickets, and found a place to sit on the hard bleachers. We were in time to catch the final four minutes of the women’s basketball game between the University of Findlay Oilers and the Malone University [Canton, Ohio] Pioneers. Despite a string of last-minute 3-pointers drained by the visitors, it was the home team that dominated in a 69-50 win.
After a short intermission, the men’s teams took to the court. The pace was faster than the women’s game and the physical contact was a bit more aggressive, but the shooting wasn’t any more accurate. We left at half time with the Oilers leading by 11 points. I later learned they maintained their lead and won the game 81-75. In both games, it was fun to watch for the pure enjoyment of the sport without feeling the need to root for either team.
With the afternoon waning, we returned to the heart of downtown Findlay, south of the Blanchard River. We pulled up in front of the new Hancock Hotel. Located on South Main Street as part of the Marathon Petroleum Corporation’s campus, this beautiful addition to the city opened its doors to guests for the first time only ten months earlier in February. The staff were very friendly and helpful, especially after the desk clerk mistakenly sent us to the wrong room. He’d written “405” on our room key folder. After a few futile attempts to gain access to the room, I returned to the front desk and learned the clerk should have written “504.” Our keycard worked much better for that room!
After a short settling in period, we left the hotel on foot and paused for a photo next door at the Marathon Petroleum Corporation building. I’m usually not one to shill for an oil company, but Marathon is an Ohio company with its headquarters in Findlay, so why not show a little love. Its history is a tangled and complicated tale of mergers and acquisitions, trust bustings and spin-offs, but I’ll attempt a CliffsNotes version for interested parties.
In 1887, several small Ohio oil companies came together to form The Ohio Oil Company. Two years later, John D. Rockefeller stepped in with his big fat wallet and purchased the company to add to his Standard Oil holdings. A couple decades later, the Standard Oil Trust was broken and the Ohio Oil Company once again became independent. After purchasing the Transcontinental Oil Company in 1930, the Marathon brand name was created, which eventually led to the company changing its name to the Marathon Oil Company in 1962. Twenty years later, it became a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, but almost 30 years after that, the refining and marketing assets were spun off into a separate company called the Marathon Petroleum Corporation. And that’s where we stand today. [Whew!] According to Wikipedia: “Following its acquisition of Andeavor on October 1, 2018, Marathon Petroleum became the largest petroleum refinery operator in the United States, with 16 refineries and over 3 million barrels per day of refining capacity.” It’s something to keep in mind the next time you think globally and fill up locally.
Around the corner and a couple blocks away on East Crawford Street, we found the Findlay Brewing Company, where we enjoyed a couple of late afternoon beers. Michele tried the Ohio Weather, a pint of cinnamon vanilla porter with a cinnamon-sugared rim. I opted for a snifter of Chicote’s 2018, a chocolate habanero milk stout that slid down the throat with just enough heat left behind to make it an interesting brew.
We returned to our hotel room and had just enough time to change clothes before heading back out into the cold night for a brisk walk south to our dinner destination. A couple months earlier, we’d made reservations for the 25th Annual Victorian Christmas Dinner, a fundraiser for the Hancock Historical Museum. The event is held in a different local home each year. For 2018, Dave and Julie Wright volunteered their 1903 Colonial Revival house at 916 South Main Street. Our tickets were mailed to us ahead of time along with the dress code: “You may dress in period costume or formal attire, if you wish. Otherwise, business casual dress is appropriate.” Once in Findlay, I discovered I’d packed my frock coat and top hat in my other steamer trunk, so I made do with a sweater and ye olde khakis for my attire.
The furniture had been moved out of all the first floor rooms and was replaced by enough tables to accommodate about 50 diners. We sat with three other couples at a round table in the front room. “Servants” in period costume brought us our various courses: carrot crème soup, a garden salad with balsamic vinaigrette, and stuffed breast of chicken with dressing and gravy accompanied by mashed redskin potatoes and French-style green beans with almonds. With each new wave of food, the “help” would surround our table and then in unison, place the plates before each guest. I felt as though we’d entered an episode of “Downton Abbey.”
[Please note: Yes, I realize the Victorian Age officially came to an end with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and that the imaginary world of “Downton Abbey” took place in the post-Edwardian years before and after the First World War, but just so you know, this incessant need for nitpicky correctness is why people don’t like you!]
We drank wine with our dinner and coffee with our dessert of pumpkin bread trifle. We were serenaded with music by the College First Church of God Carolers and then entertained with a recitation of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by a man in a nightshirt calling himself Clement Moore. By the time we retrieved our coats and stepped into the 21-degree night, I was heady with holiday spirit.
The following morning when we checked out of the Hancock Hotel, we found the lobby teeming with children. Parents had brought their young ones for “Breakfast With Santa,” an opportunity for kids to visit with the jolly ol’ elf while dining on pancakes. There was also a craft table where they could create “Magic Reindeer Feed” (Which is now legal thanks to recent legislation, but only for medicinal purposes. Apparently, a lot of reindeer suffer from glaucoma.).
We drove up Main Street and paused to get a better look at the Hancock County Courthouse. Dedicated in 1888, there’s no mistaking it for anything other than a grand example of 19th Century architecture with decoratively carved stone all over its three symmetrical stories. A domed clock tower rises in the center and atop it is a 16-foot bronze statue of the county’s namesake, John Hancock.
A few blocks east of the courthouse on East Main Cross Street, we pulled into a small parking lot next to the Blanchard River. On the opposite bank is Riverside Park and connecting both sides of the river is a small cascading spillway that a more imaginative community booster will tell you is a waterfall. Regardless of your viewpoint, it was a quiet, pretty spot on a sunny Sunday morning. As if on cue, a bald eagle flew overhead, following the course of the Blanchard.
Timing is everything on a county trip and we were apparently a few years too late for our next destination. We drove about seven miles east out of Findlay on US Route 224 to see the county’s Bicentennial Barn, one of 88 barns painted for the state’s 200th birthday in 2003. If you want to see the bicentennial logo on Hancock’s barn, quickly take a look at it on Google’s Street View, dated August 2015, because it no longer exists in real time. I’m not sure if the old barn was completely replaced or just received a new paint job, but in either case, the logo was gone.
We returned to Findlay and searched for a couple of historic markers to fill in some local history detail. The first was easy to find on the southwest corner of Main Street and the Blanchard River. There, a sign marks the location of the original Fort Findlay, another supply depot ordered built by General Hull during the War of 1812. It was named for Colonel (later General, and later still, member of Congress) James Findlay, the officer who oversaw the fort’s construction. The pioneers who laid out a town on the same spot a decade later retained his name.
The second marker was a little more difficult to find. On the west side of town, after crossing railroad tracks and shimmying down an alley, we found a marker next to the Blanchard River near the rounded corner where River and Liberty Streets meet. The neglected area resembled a spot where young boys might later tell authorities they found a dead body. Fortunately, I didn’t make any such discoveries. I did, however, find the marker that had been placed there in 1937 to commemorate the location of the Great Karg Well. Its discovery in 1886 launched Ohio’s first major natural gas boom. Companies flocked to Findlay for the area’s huge natural gas and petroleum deposits. The resources were so plentiful that the city was able to illuminate its streets with gas lamps, earning it the nickname, “City of Light.”
Not quite rising to the level of historic importance as the Great Karg Well, yet still very popular among locals, is Wilson’s Sandwich Shop on South Main Street. Ever since Hoyt “Stub” Wilson opened his small restaurant in 1936, folks have been flocking to it for its menu of chili dogs, onion rings, and other similar simple offerings. It moved to its current location in the 1960s. We arrived soon after its noon opening and were surprised to find it so busy for a Sunday afternoon. Both the inside counter and the outside drive-thru were humming with activity. We stuck to the basics, each ordering a Wilson Chili Dog, and claimed something in common with former Vice-Presidents Dan Quayle and Joe Biden, who both had been Wilson’s customers.
After lunch comes dessert and the best place for something sweet in Findlay is Dietsch Brothers, a candy and ice cream shop whose origin dates to the late 1920s. We sat down at a booth and enjoyed a couple of cones. Mine was filled with the Buckeye blend of chocolate and peanut butter while Michele opted for cherry vanilla. We also did some shopping, selecting sweet treats from Dietsch’s vast selection of chocolate and candy. With the holidays fast approaching, we knew we couldn’t go wrong adding chocolate to a family member’s gift.
Our next stop, just a couple blocks away on West Sandusky Street, was the Hancock Historical Museum. Executive Director Sarah Sisser, who we’d seen the night before welcoming folks to the Victorian Christmas Dinner, was staffing the front desk. The museum is located in the Hull-Flater House and furnished in the late Victorian style. The first floor also houses a general museum containing exhibits representing the county’s history. Its most unique artifact – while not having any direct historical connection to Hancock County - has got to be the bathtub from the USS Maine.
For those who need a refresher course on their American history, the USS Maine was a United States battleship that blew up under mysterious circumstances in the harbor at Havana, Cuba in 1898. Two hundred and sixty American sailors died. The United States used the sinking as an excuse to declare war on Spain. The Spanish American War had three key outcomes: removing Spain once and for all from the Caribbean; making war heroes out of Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders; and lodging the phrase, “Remember the Maine” into America’s psyche, even if we no longer remember why we’re remembering it.
A bathtub from the USS Maine might seem like a somewhat bizarre relic, but its path from Havana’s harbor to the Hancock Historical Museum is a fascinating one. After the ship was raised from Havana’s harbor in 1911, everyone with a political connection wanted to obtain a piece of it. Ohio’s Congressman Frank B. Willis managed to obtain the captain’s enameled-steel bathtub which he planned to donate to his hometown of Urbana. The only problem was Urbana didn’t want it. The town of Findlay spoke up and said it would be happy to take it, but was rather disappointed when a rusted old tub arrived. Apparently, no one considered the toll taken on the metal after spending more than a decade under water. No one wanted to display it, so they stored it in a municipal building and used it for a time as a coal bin. Public outrage ensued and it was eventually put in a display case in a little-used hallway of the county courthouse. It’s said that a courthouse janitor got tired of explaining to visitors what it was so he taped a "USS Maine Bathtub" sign to the case. When the courthouse was renovated in 1960, the tub was sent to the Findlay College Museum. They used the case for other purposes and stored the bathtub in an old cigar factory. In the mid-70s, it was given to the Hancock Historical Museum where they left it in a basement for many years before finally dusting it off and giving it some prime real estate among the other exhibits.
After learning its circuitous history, one couldn’t help but feel fortunate to be standing in front of the rusty old tub. I just had to take a picture of it!
There are other buildings located on the grounds of the museum and we did a quick tour of the Crawford Log House, built in 1840, before driving on to our next destination.
We returned to the campus of the University of Findlay to visit the Mazza Musuem, an art museum devoted to illustrations from children's picture books. Examples of original art hung on walls above the children’s books in which they appeared. I had Michele pose for a picture in front of one of her favorites, Bread and Jam for Frances, illustrated by Lillian Hoban and written by her then-husband, Russell Hoban. It’s one in a series of Frances books about a loveable badger who, in this instance, is a fussy eater. Our tour was a fun walk down Memory Lane, being reminded of some of the books that helped start our lives as readers.
Our final stop of the day was a return to Jeffrey’s Antique Gallery. We had a bit of time to kill and hadn’t finished perusing all the booths the day before, so we continued our search for the ever elusive treasure that we didn’t even know we needed. Unfortunately though, despite a credit card and a valiant effort, another ninety minutes of shopping didn’t result in any purchases. I left, however, with a greater appreciation for Findlay as a cosmopolitan community. As I strolled around the antique mall, I found myself at one point near a young Japanese couple speaking their native language. That reminded me of the table of Spanish-speaking students I encountered the day before in Croy Gym, and the couples we found ourselves walking behind on the way to the Findlay Brewing Company who were speaking Russian. Who knew?.
It was dark by the time we returned to the road. Another short drive south on Main Street and then a longer jaunt east on US Route 224 took us out of Findlay and out of the county.
Time spent in the county: 32 hours, 59 minutes
Miles driven in the county: 97 miles