Drive an hour southeast of Columbus and the city skyline will fade. You’ll swap the flat contours of the highway for the rolling hills of Ohio’s Appalachian counties.
Open green spaces, a cow here, a sheep there and country houses a quarter of a mile apart will replace the perpetual construction zones of the High Street, the latest political drama facing state lawmakers and the Buckeyes gathering in the state capital.
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This particular Appalachian band is well known for its Athens County hometown hero and current Bengal quarterback from Cincinnati, Joe Burrow, Ohio University and the scenic gorges and towering hemlocks that decorate the Hocking Hills.
But southeast Ohio is more than the combination of a college town and a sprawling state park.
This rich history – among America’s oldest – and deep cultural pride can be discovered in the following hidden gems:
By the turn of the 20th century, Shawnee was a booming coal town, inviting out-of-town miners to visit the historic Tecumseh Opera Theater on weekends and residents to visit the boutiques of Main Street, full of economic promise, with richly ornate architecture.
“It looks like a Wild West town that has been abandoned in a forest to the east,” a local resident told The Dispatch in an article last October.
Yet the village nearly 70 miles southeast of Columbus has been ravaged by extractive industries: coal, manufacturing, etc., and jobs that no longer exist.
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But thanks to the interest of a group of investors in southern Ohio, Black Diamond Development, Shawnee is experiencing a revival.
Black Diamond Development has restored the old Shawnee Tavern – now Black Diamond Tavern – to its former glory and has partnered with nearby Hocking College to serve local beers on tap.
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Down Main Street, people can stay in a newly remodeled Airbnb by Black Diamond Development (which can accommodate up to six people) while hiking the nearby Buckeye Trail system.
Under Airbnb, the Black Diamond Brewery and Distillery is slated to open later this year in the historic Harigle garage.
2. Stuart Opera House, Nelsonville
The Stuart Opera House, a nearly 150-year-old concert hall, is the cornerstone of Nelsonville in Athens County, another former mining town and manufacturing hub struggling for its future.
Maybe you’ve heard of Dwight Icenhower, one of the greatest Elvis Presley artists in the world.
His show at Stuart’s (Icenhower’s previous performance, before COVID-19 closed the historic opera house for a year and six days, was March 7, 2020) in May kicked off the post-pandemic reopening of the resilient theater.
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Stuart’s vaudeville, melodrama and minstrel shows from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. After the theater sat empty for 50 years, it was renovated in 1977, survived two fires over the next four decades, and now hosts over 75 events a year.
A cultural mainstay of Southeast Ohio, you can find a list of events: including concerts and an annual summer festival as well as a variety of performing arts programs aimed at kids, including a poetry competition and extracurricular music lessons.
People can also rent the space for private events, conferences, or even as a wedding venue, here.
3. Robinson’s Cave, New Straitsville
Tucked away in a wooded hill on the southern edge of Perry County stands Robinson’s Cave, carpeted in foliage and flowing water in New Straitsville.
Christopher Evans, a well-known union organizer from Southeast Ohio, led meetings throughout the Hocking Valley Coal Strike from 1884 to 1885 inside the cave. The miners gathered and whispered to each other across the cave. The acoustics of the walls allowed them to meet without anyone from the city hearing them.
Evans’ efforts ultimately led the miners to form the United Mine Workers of America, making Robinson’s Cave the “secret birthplace” of the union.
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Today history buffs and nature lovers can climb the stone staircase to the cave and whisper to each other from across the cave, echoing the angry miners who have been there. encountered at the end of the 19th century.
According to legend, these same miners met at Robinson’s before throwing kerosene-soaked coal wagons at the entrance to nearby mines, starting the world’s largest underground mine fire.
Susan Miller, President of the New Straitsville History Group, welcomes those interested in the region’s rich history and its connection to coal.
And you can visit the New Straitsville History Museum, located at the foot of Robinson’s Cave, by appointment.
4. Ohio River Museum, Marietta
How old is Ohio?
Well, five years after the War of Independence, the pioneers crossed the Appalachians to Washington County, Ohio, marking the county seat, Marietta, the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territories.
With its connection to the Underground Railroad, ghost tours, and earthworks at Marietta, one of the many Hopewell sites built by the ancient natives, the town is brimming with a rich history, including its connection to the river. .
At the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers in Marietta, the historic WP Synder Jr., the last intact steam “pool-type” stern-wheeled tugboat in the United States, is moored outside the Ohio River Museum.
Those drawn to the Ohio River can visit the Synder, learning about the origins and natural history of the river as well as the history of the steamboat era.
The kid-friendly museum attracts boating enthusiasts of all ages and is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
Céilí Doyle is a member of the Report for America corps and covers rural Ohio issues for The Dispatch. Your matching donation to our RFA grant helps keep writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax deductible donation at https://bit.ly/3fNsGaZ.