“Little Towns on the Prairie”
29 June 2018
Every county trip begins with a strategic plan of attack and the one I formulated for Madison County involved treating it as if it were a mountain to climb. We would begin in the south and make our way “up,” or north in a zigzag, or switchback fashion (or “Serpentine! Serpentine!” if you’re a fan of “The In-Laws.”). We pierced the county at its southeastern corner on Ohio State Route 3 (or THE Ohio State Route 3 if you’re a fan of the Buckeyes.). Soon after crossing Deer Creek, we entered Mt. Sterling, one of the larger towns in the county, with just under 2,000 residents.
County trippers travel on their stomachs, so our first order of business was breakfast; and in Mt. Sterling, that’s almost synonymous with Ben & Joy’s. Locally, it sits on the corner of North London and West Columbus Streets, also known by their more familiar route names of Ohio-56 and US-62, so there’s a fair amount of traffic.
Ben and Joy Stroup purchased the restaurant in 1984 and Joy continued running it after Ben passed away in 1993. It looked as though she was ready for retirement a couple years ago when she put the place up for auction, but when the lone bid of $93,500 wasn’t enough to satisfy her, the 78-year-old decided to continue operating the restaurant.
I ordered the Belgian waffle for $6.50, with a side of bacon for $3.50. Michele went with the “#1 Breakfast,” consisting of scrambled eggs with bacon, home fries, and toast for $7.25. Two pesky flies came free. The food was a little slow in coming, which was odd as there were only two other occupied tables; two guys who had finished eating and were just jawing, and a lone woman who put in her order after us. Michele blamed her home fries for the delay. Once our plates arrived, it didn’t take long for the food to disappear. The home fries were definitely worth the wait.
After breakfast, we walked a couple blocks to the Mt. Sterling Public Library. It was built in 1911 of red brick and limestone and was another beneficiary of Andrew Carnegie’s largess. Mt. Sterling has the distinction of being the smallest community in America to receive a grant for a Carnegie library. (The town’s population in 1911 was 1,071.)
The basement of the library houses the Mt. Sterling Community Museum. It has limited hours, but we were lucky to find it open. Museum director Steve Chambers was in residence and couldn’t have been more accommodating, allowing us to freely wander the two rooms of town artifacts at our own pace, but being available for questions when asked.
Well represented in the museum are photos and ephemera of Mt. Sterling’s two most famous sons: former Ohio senator and governor John W. Bricker, and building contractor, sportsman, and philanthropist John W. Galbreath, both of whom graduated from Mt. Sterling High School.
Leaving Mt. Sterling, we traveled across the bottom of the county on State Route 323 past farms and turkey vultures. We entered the town of Midway, whose claim to fame is a 1953 high school basketball game in which one of its players scored 120 points. That Ohio record still stands and is also the third highest in the country. This achievement brings two thoughts to mind. First, what was the other team doing the entire time he was scoring? Were they all four feet tall and working crossword puzzles? And secondly, did sportsmanship not exist in the 1950s that a coach would allow his team to embarrass their opponents like that? I later looked up the story in the Dispatch and found the final score against Canaan was 137-46. While there might not have been sportsmanship in the ‘50s, there was justice. In Midway’s next game against Tecumseh, record holder Dick Bogenrife was held to 20 points and his team got whacked 107-55.
We headed north away from Midway on State Route 38, driving about eight miles along more farm fields. The corn was looking pretty good. (editor’s note: this story was filed last year and lost in the Pencilstorm warehouse until recently found) Just beyond Newport, we turned left on Old Xenia Road SW. Just around a bend in the road, we were surprised to come upon a large white globe sitting upon a 5-story metal base. It was an odd sight in the midst of all that agriculture. A razor wire-topped fence made its message clear that we should “keep out,” but there weren’t any other signs hinting at what the installation was being used for. Again, it took some post-trippin’ research to discover it was a government radar station. Built in the 1950s, it was under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration for almost half a century, but after 9/11, it became tied to the Joint Surveillance System, a coordinated venture between the United States Air Force and the FAA “for the atmospheric air defense of North America.” It’s one of two such stations in Ohio, the other located in the Cleveland area.
We turned north on Roberts Mill Road and stayed on it as it dog-legged past US Route 42 and skirted property belonging to the London Correctional Institute. (“Don’t pick up hitchhikers!”) Just north of Old Springfield Road, we turned into the parking lot of the London Fish Hatchery.
The London facility is the oldest of the six hatcheries maintained by the Ohio Division of Wildlife. It’s so old that the Division was known as the Ohio Fish and Game Commission when it was built in 1896. There are six staff members, five permanent and one seasonal, who run the operation. One of them was kind enough to brave the blazing sun and give us a tour of the property. So much interesting information was shared that I should have been taking notes. If I was able to retain only a tenth of what the accommodating staffer was telling us, I’d be the better person for it.
The hatchery is located on 80 acres, 13 of which are water, containing over a dozen ponds and an 800-foot raceway for the rearing of fish that are then used to stock Ohio’s public rivers and lakes. In the past, London produced coho and chinook salmon, northern pike, saugeye, and largemouth bass, but currently, it’s concentrating on rainbow and brown trout, and muskellunge.
Not all fish are sent away. Our guide introduced us to two long-time residents who have become like members of the family. They’ve not only been named, but they travel to the Ohio State Fair each year to be ogled by children and adults at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources building. Lisa Left-eye is a carp who swims around in an outdoor pool and can be identified by a cloudy cataract. Gary gar lives in an aquarium inside the office and has been at the hatchery longer than any of the current staffers.
After the hatchery, we drove east into London, the county seat. We came in on Old Springfield Road, which ended at North Main Street in front of the Madison County Hospital. We turned south toward the town square and parked along one side of the Madison County Courthouse. It was completed in the final decade of the 19th Century and incorporates a few different architectural styles including a Second Empire design with Beaux-Arts Classicist elements. A clock tower looks down upon a mansard roof and classical columns over the front entrance.
Once inside, I found the cozy warmth of the dark wood staircases outshone by a barrel-vaulted light court with a colorful stained-glass skylight. After a quick look around and a stop inside the County Auditor’s office for an updated county map, we left and took a stroll down London’s original business district on South Main Street. There were a few empty windows awaiting new shops and restaurants, but the strip appeared to be holding its own.
After crossing over two sets of railroad tracks, we stepped inside the brick Dwyer Bros. Hardware store, one of London’s oldest businesses. It opened in 1888 as a small hardware, tin shop, and implement dealer. It’s still owned by members of the Dwyer family and stocks everything you’d want in a hardware store. The aged wooden floors remind shoppers of the double-digit decades this store has been around. We purchased a box fan and backtracked up the street, the irony not lost on me that I was perspiring while toting a cooling device under a HOT sun. As we cranked the AC in our car, I noted the outside temperature was 88 degrees.
We drove to the London Public Library on East First Street, another Carnegie-funded library, built in 1904. A rear addition was constructed in 1989. We stayed just long enough to use a public internet computer to research the location of one of our upcoming stops.
We were departing London along East High Street when we pulled off at the Madison County Historical Society. The museum wasn’t open, but the grounds are accessible. Various historic buildings have been moved there including the Jonathan Alder cabin. The simple log structure dates to about 1806 and was the home of Madison County’s first white settler. More on him in a moment. After a quick photograph, we were back in the car and driving the short distance to Andrew Court East.
When planning our Madison County trip, I learned that the county was home to a Champion tree; not just a State Champion, but a National Champion. These trees are considered the largest of their species in the country. In this case, it’s a Downy Hawthorn. I wasn’t previously familiar with this particular type of tree, but after learning the largest one in the country was right here in Ohio, I can be forgiven for a slightly puffier chest and springier step. (Suck it, Michigan!)
The Ohio Division of Forestry has a Champion Tree Coordinator who keeps track of such things and has recorded that our champion Downy Hawthorn has a total point count of 173. That calculation is made by adding the tree’s circumference in inches (131) to its height in feet (30) and a quarter of its crown spread in feet (47). The Forestry website lists the tree and the county in which it resides, but doesn’t give its precise location, so I emailed the coordinator. He responded, “Unfortunately, the tree you are asking about is on private property and we are unable to disclose private information.” Undaunted by this rebuff, I was determined to find this tree, so I trawled the dark web and made inquiries of my sources in the deep state until I found the information I was looking for.
No, not really. What I did instead was use clues from the photograph the Division of Forestry provides on its website and compare them to Google Map street views until I found its location. It sits in the backyard of the house on the southeast corner of East High Street and Andrew Court East. Sure, it’s technically private property, but I was able to stand on the very public sidewalk to look at the tree and take its picture.
Now, please, if you’re a Downy Hawthorn fanatic, don’t go stripping off your clothes and holding a Woodstock-like festival in the yard where this tree is located because the authorities will certainly trace the dissemination of the tree’s location back to this article and the Men In Black will show up at my door and flash one of those little memory loss pens in my face and that would be regrettable. Remember, this is top secret information! Be responsible and use it only for good.
We continued driving northeast to the village of West Jefferson. I was told by a friend that West Jeff has more pizza places per capita than anywhere else in the state. We did indeed pass a few on East Main Street, but I didn’t do an official census, so I’ll leave it to someone else to confirm this fact. As good as pizza sounded at that moment, our destination was Ann & Tony’s Restaurant on the east edge of town. The restaurant has been serving delicious Italian cuisine for over 65 years, ever since the namesake couple, both children of Sicilian immigrants, decided to open their doors. Their son Tom and his wife Judy continue offering authentic Italian cooking. I ordered the small “combination dinner” that included healthy samples of homemade lasagna, penne pasta, and spaghetti with meatball. Michele stuck to the single entrée spaghetti with meatball. The delectable garlic butter that comes with complimentary rolls is enough to entice anyone to Ann & Tony’s, but their delicious red sauce is testament to the Italian eatery’s longevity. Despite our “small” portions, we were both stuffed by the end of the meal.
We attempted to walk off some of the calories at Prairie Oaks Metro Park, just a few miles north of West Jefferson on State Route 142. The park straddles the Big Darby State and National Scenic River and offers a variety of recreational activities in its 2,000-plus acres, but we limited ourselves to a stroll along the Coneflower Trail. We were rewarded with the sight of a rabbit and a beautiful monarch butterfly, but we also encountered a muddy section of trail and a swarm of hungry mosquitoes who would have been better served dining at Ann & Tony’s rather than on our bland skin. We opted to cut our hike short and return to the car.
Just a stone’s throw (if you have a very strong arm!) north of the park is the Foster Chapel Cemetery, the burial site of the aforementioned county settler. Growing up, I knew Jonathan Alder only as a name on a school building, but later I learned a little more about the man. He was only seven years old when he was captured by a Native American war party in Virginia in 1782. He was brought to the Ohio country and adopted by an Indian family. He remained with the Indians until the Treaty of Greenville of 1795. Alder served as an interpreter for awhile before returning to Virginia in 1805 to be reunited with his mother. Apparently, he wasn’t in a hurry since it took him a decade to make this journey. He eventually married and brought his wife back to Ohio, where he built a cabin and settled on Big Darby Creek.
We returned to West Jefferson and drove west on Main Street. Soon after passing under a busy train trestle, we turned right off Main Street so we could see the recently constructed Taylor-Blair Road Covered Bridge that spans the Little Darby Creek. It opened near the end of 2012, costing $2.7 million. Was it worth the price tag? Well, it was partially responsible for getting me to visit and inject a few dollars into the local economy. A man and two young boys toting fishing poles were emerging from the creek as I got out of the car to take a picture. I was quick with my photographic duties as it was 90 degrees outside!
We continued west out of town on Main Street, aka U.S. Route 40, aka the old National Road. Being an historically-minded man with simple tastes (Or am I a simpleminded man with historical tastes?), I get a thrill out of seeing remnants of the past. In Madison County, a big such find is evident about seven miles west of West Jefferson at the village of Lafayette. The Georgian style Red Brick Tavern was constructed in 1837, the same year the National Road reached Madison County, and three years before William Henry Harrison and Martin Van Buren both stayed there during the 1840 presidential campaign. It’s said that Van Buren drank tea with the aristocracy of the area while Harrison ordered a round of hard cider for everyone. On election day, voters proved they leaned more wet than dry by voting for Harrison.
In the yard on the west side of the Red Brick Tavern still stands an old National Road milepost. It’s a bit eroded, but so would you be after standing outdoors for over 180 years.
We progressed another couple of miles west on Route 40 before turning north onto State Route 38. At the village of Plumwood, we veered northeast onto Arthur Bradley Road. Less than two miles further along, we crossed Little Darby Creek and pulled into a small parking lot for the Little Darby Preserve. It’s one of the state’s newest nature preserves, having just been opened in 2011. It gets its name from the creek that it straddles, although after following about three miles of a mowed walking trail, I concluded that it could have just as easily been named the Bunny Trail Preserve. We didn’t get far in before a rabbit hopped out from the thick growth of tall meadow grass, paused to look at us and ponder where we’d come from, before skedaddling back into the grass. This scene was repeated numerous times during our hot and sweaty hike.
Back in the cooling comfort of our car’s air-conditioning, we continued northeast on the road fronting the preserve, which had changed its name to Lafayette Plain City Road NE. About six miles later, we turned left onto Converse Huff Road and then right onto Converse Chapel Road NE. A left on Boyd Road took us to a long lane leading back to Smith Cemetery. This small, remote graveyard serves as a microcosmic history of the township. The plants that cover the tombstones represent the landscape the settlers encountered when they arrived and the people listed on the tombstones can be matched to the names on nearby roads.
When the first interment was made here in 1816, the settlers called the area the Darby Plains. It was covered with thick prairie grass. Unfortunately, each year’s growth of grass would accumulate into a decaying mass that became a natural breeding ground for mosquitos. That led to an outbreak of malaria resulting in more burials in the cemetery.
The land was eventually tamed through a combination of ditching and tiling that turned a once wet prairie into rich agricultural land. Remnants of the tallgrass prairie can now be found only in small pockets such as the Smith Cemetery, thanks to management by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Natural Areas and Preserves.
Thirty years ago, I rode my bike out to the cemetery and snapped a picture that showed thigh-high grass left to grow wild among the grave markers. During this most recent visit, I found chest-high flora. Thirty native species of prairie plants have been inventoried at the cemetery. A few narrow paths have been kept mowed to allow access to the remaining tombstones, only a few of which can be spotted above the grass.
The summer day was waning as we returned to Converse Huff Road and followed it to U.S. Route 42 and north into Plain City. On its south side sits Der Dutchman Restaurant, a place we’ve been known to make special trips to from Columbus for the excellent made-from-scratch comfort food buffets.
My wife raised the touchy subject of county trip rules and whether our patronage of Der Dutchman was allowable. After all, “thou shalt not spend money at chain stores, restaurants, and hotels” has been one of the sacrosanct commands since the establishment of county trips. Der Dutchman, technically, falls into this category. Its original restaurant opened in Walnut Creek, Ohio, in 1969. Since then, four others have been established in small towns around Ohio, and another in Sarasota, Florida (??????). I don’t think they’ll be vying any time soon with Starbucks or Subway for the most storefronts in a square block, but it does meet the chain definition as “a series of shops owned by one firm and selling the same goods.”
I could take a moment here and devote a lot of words to rationalizing why eating at Der Dutchman upholds the spirit, if not the law, of the county trip rules, but that would just be inside-the-beltway self-indulgence, and anyway, all I wanted was a good piece of pie. After crossing the threshold without the county trip gods smiting us, we slid into a booth and placed our order. We were still rather full from our mid-afternoon lunch at Ann & Tony’s, so we stuck to the dessert menu. Michele enjoyed a slice of coconut cream pie, while I opted for lemon meringue and a cup of coffee. It was the perfect ending to an enjoyable outing.
All that was left was the driving. We made our way to Main Street via some residential side streets and then drove east out of the city. After bumping over railroad tracks and passing the Heritage Cooperative grain silos at Kileville, we exited the county at its northeastern corner.
Time spent in the county: 10 hours, 11 minutes
Miles driven in the county: 92 miles