Ohio drive: Travel through time in America’s heartland

Published in Endless Vacation magazine in September/October 2009.

A fall foliage tour of the region around Chillicothe, Ohio, is not just a drive through forests of golden maples and scarlet oaks and hickories. It’s also a journey through time, as you find yourself delving into layers upon layers of history. In Chillicothe’s downtown historic district, lavish Victorian homes and colonnaded municipal architecture evoke the town’s past as the first capital of Ohio. Just outside town, you’ll find 2,000-year-old Native American earthworks. More examples of the little-known ancient places can be found coexisting with simple 19th-century farmhouses and early settlers’ stone homes as you venture south and west to the rich natural areas and tiny towns of Bainbridge and West Union.

Make Chillicothe (shown right) your home base for this trip; it has the greatest range of services, from restaurants to lodgings, and easy access to all the sites mentioned here. You can choose to stay in one of the charming B&Bs for the entire trip, making forays to places of interest and returning to Chillicothe each night. Or stay in Chillicothe for just a day or two — long enough to explore the town — then bed down in rustic Highlands Nature Sanctuary, south of Bainbridge, followed by luxurious Murphin’s Ridge Inn, south of Locust Grove.

Chillicothe has dominated this region since its founding in 1796, when a Virginia land speculator named it with a local Shawnee Indian word meaning “principal town.” The new burg quickly drew so many residents — including former soldiers who received land in return for service on the side of the Colonies during the American Revolution — that in 1803 it became the capital of the new state of Ohio. By 1816, the town of Columbus had co-opted that honor, but Chillicothe still celebrates its storied past.

History buffs can get their bearings at the Ross County Heritage Center, housed in a grand 1907 brick home and a simple 1820s log cabin in the historic district. A Revolutionary War cannon guards the front door, and a pristine, cream-colored open-style motor car, built in 1906 by a now-defunct local car maker, dominates the lobby. Join a guided tour, which will take you through two floors of exhibits, including an electrified scale model of Chillicothe’s first railroad station, antique boys’ and girls’ toys, quilts and other household items, and a Conestoga wagon used to transport freight to the area back when it was on the frontier. 45 West Fifth Street, 45601; 740-772-1936; www.rosscountyhistorical.org; adults $4, students 13–21 and senior citizens $2; children 12 and under, free.

You’ll notice that the accent in this part of Ohio is redolent of the South — just like the food, which is typically down-home Southern-style — more Paula Deen than Alice Waters. Stop by the Old Canal Smokehouse on the north end of the historic district, for juicy ribs, brisket, pulled-pork sandwiches, and other country favorites. A dark, paneled barroom offers a wide choice of tap beers; meanwhile, in a series of small dining rooms, simple wooden country-style furniture means a cozy, family atmosphere (for contact information, see below).

Northwest of the historic district, you can get a panoramic view of the Scioto River Valley from hilltop Adena Mansion and Gardens. In 1807, Benjamin Latrobe, the architect of the U.S. Capitol building, completed the Georgian-style house (interior shown left) for Thomas Worthington, an early Ohio governor and the state’s U.S. senator. You ascend to the mansion via a narrow winding road flanked by woods, then emerge from this burgundy and gold tunnel onto 300 acres of spacious lawns and formal gardens. Original furnishings — including Worthington’s desk (with its secret drawer, a typical security feature of the time), a sideboard, a banquet table, and several beds — still grace the dwelling, which is on the National Historic Register. Though Adena is a stately home, two teacups in a kitchen corner cupboard are a reminder that in the early 1800s, this was a rough and tumble region, where residents of the new state fought enemies and sought allies. The cups were used to serve tea to the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, when he dropped by to parlay with Worthington and make him the gift of a peace pipe. Adena Road; 740-774-1500, 800-319-7248; www.ohiohistory.org/places/adena/; adults $8; children 6–12 $4; under 6 free.

North of town is Hopewell Culture National Historical Park (shown right). Ancient Native Americans constructed the 2,000-year-old place, which has 23 approximately 20-foot-high mounds, or artificial hills, surrounded by a six-foot, grass-covered wall that encloses about 13 acres. Centuries-old trees add splotches of brilliant color as fall takes hold. The site in Chillicothe is among the thousands of places the ancients constructed between 200 BC and 500 AD from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. At once massive modifications of the landscape and masterpieces of subtlety, the grass-covered earthworks rise gently from their surroundings. Some of the hundreds that have survived centuries of plowing and development are individual mounds; others, such as Serpent Mound (see below), are animal forms sculpted into hilltops. Yet others are vast geometric complexes in the form of precisely sculpted circles, octagons, squares, and free-form shapes enclosing up to hundreds of acres; many of these have features that align with important moments in the orbits of the sun and moon. To the amazement of scholars who study them, most installations have similar diameters and circumferences, though the individual places may be separated by many miles. The indigenous hunters, gatherers, and gardeners who built these places left no written language, so no one knows what they called themselves. However, scholars call their culture “Hopewell” after the farmer on whose land some artifacts were found in the 1800s. The site’s museum displays the culture’s artistry, including stone statuary, pottery, copper jewelry, ritual objects such as pipes, and eerie, translucent sheets of mica cut into the shapes of open hands. 16062 Route 104; 740-774-1126; www.nps.gov/hocu; admission free.

You’ll head into farmland and forests when you take Route 50 southwest out of Chillicothe toward Bainbridge, 20 miles away. Dubbed Skyline Drive, the state road takes you through an area that was a center of Native American mound-building culture two millennia ago. Along most of the route, a flat valley stretches along the left side of the road and is backed up by low mountains about a half-mile away. Rising up from the road to your right are rolling hills covered with towering trees that are all decked out in the bright colors of autumn. Fourteen miles out of Chillicothe, you can stop to take a look at hulking, flat-topped Seip Mound to the left, south of the highway in a state park. Signage provides historical information on this ancient place. Route 50; 614-297-2630, 800-686-1535; www.ohiohistory.org/places/seip; admission free.

Six miles later, you’ll hit the village of Bainbridge — population about 1,000 — where you can pick up four self-guided foliage loops that range in length from about 45 minutes to an hour. Before you head out, take a break at the lunch counter of Paxton Restaurant, in the middle of town, or have the cook pack you a take-out meal of burgers, meatloaf sandwiches, home-style soups, and seasonal fruit pies (for contact information, see below).

On the four foliage tours, which all start and end in Bainbridge, you’ll want to keep both hands on the wheel as you plunge into tiny valleys, wind along creeks, and veer up rugged hills. Go to fallfestivalofleaves.com for maps to download and print out, along with notes on historic sites you’ll pass along the way, including white clapboard churches, a covered bridge, and old cemeteries. The site also has information on the town’s annual foliage festival, which this year takes place October 16–19, 2009.

If you can do only one of the four tours, choose the Paint Vista Loop, which cuts through portions of the 3,400-acre Highlands Nature Sanctuary, with its caves, cliffs, gorges, and 14 miles of hiking trails. This is a protected area, so arrange for a hiking permit at least five days ahead of time. 7660 Cave Road; 937-365-1936; www.highlandssanctuary.org.

After your hike, refuel on super-sweet donuts, apple dumplings, and apple and pumpkin pies at the Mennonite-owned Country Crust bakery, three miles south of Bainbridge on Route 41. Or try the yummy salted soft pretzels. They’re all baked on the premises and packed up for you by fresh-faced young ladies in long modest grey or blue dresses. Across the road, Amish and Mennonite farmers park their horse-drawn buggies outside JR’s General Store, where they load up on bags of flour, sugar, and other bulk goods. Check out old-fashioned treats like root beer candy and locally made elderberry, peach, and raspberry jams, apple butter, pickles, and relishes. More regional items include the wide-brimmed straw hats Amish and Mennonite men typically wear; colorful, flouncy pinafores and matching bonnets for little girls; and wooden crafts such as birdhouses, rocking chairs, and tables. (For more information on both the bakery and the general store, see below.)

Locust Grove/West Union
Serpent Mound, 20 miles south of Bainbridge, is on the National Historic Register. This earthworks and several others are also being considered for inclusion on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. Travel south on route 41 to the hamlet of Locust Grove, turn right (west) on route 73, and follow signs to the 1,000-year-old mound, which is technically in the town of Peebles, though you won’t pass through its downtown. Serpent Mound is an effigy, or figure, sculpted into a hilltop that overlooks miles of gently rolling farmland. Climb the 35-foot tower to view the snake’s four-foot-high, quarter-mile-long body. You’ll see that its mouth appears to be swallowing an egg-shaped object. For a closer look, follow the footpath around the figure. Route 73, Peebles; open daylight hours; 937-587-2796, 800-752-2757; www.ohiohistory.org/places/serpent; parking fee $7.

You must make time for dinner at Murphin Ridge Inn, where the sophisticated cuisine is built on ingredients grown in the restaurant’s organic herb and vegetable garden. Dishes are updates of old-time favorites, such ancho-accented pork roast or lemon-accented fruit crisp topped with cinnamon-dusted vanilla ice cream (for more information, see below). The top-notch dining room packs picnic lunches for inn guests only, so if you sleep here the night before seeing Serpent Mound, you can have an exceptional breakfast, then enjoy more gourmet goodies while contemplating the snake.

Like other ancient constructions in the area, the Serpent has astronomical significance. The head points to the summer solstice sunset, while certain coils point to other solar and lunar events. We don’t know exactly what the site’s ancient builders had in mind, but we can guess that they encoded celestial movements in their constructions to make sure all was right between heaven and earth — an objective that’s appealing today as it was 2,000 years ago.

Chillicothe historic district
Greenhouse Bed and Breakfast
From the splendid carved-oak entry hall to the generously sized guestrooms, late 19th-century Queen Anne-style Greenhouse Bed and Breakfast (shown at top) is packed with antique furniture and decorative items. Ask to see the photographs from the first owner’s daughter’s wedding to a British aristocrat — a reminder of Chillicothe’s importance in times past. Another display includes Indian stone tools and arrowheads, found on a family farm outside town. 47 E. 5th St., Chillicothe; 740-775-5313; chillicotheohio.com/thegreenhouse; doubles $80–$100.

Atwood House Bed and Breakfast
One of President Richard Nixon’s former butlers owns and manages gracious Atwood House Bed and Breakfast (shown left). Spacious guestrooms in the elegant 1843 Greek Revival home feature Oriental rugs and well-chosen antiques in Federal and Victorian styles. 68 South Paint St., Chillicothe; 740-774-1606; chillicothebedandbreakfast.com; doubles $80–$100.

Victoria Manor Bed & Breakfast
Victoria Manor Bed & Breakfast is a 12-room 1856 Italianate mansion that sits on a hillside of golden-leaved maples. Tree lovers will be amazed to see the property’s rare American elm, whose 26-foot-diameter trunk makes it Ohio’s largest of this species. 30 Western Ave., Chillicothe; 800-852-1093, 740-775-6424; victoriamanor.org; doubles $80–$110.

On the road
Highlands Sanctuary
At Highlands Sanctuary, options for places to put up for the night include a turn-of-the-20th-century hunting lodge, an historic farmhouse, and a cabin on the rim of a wooded precipice. Rooms are country-style, with homemade quilts and Craftsman-type furniture. Rates for a self-catering stay (make your own bed, cook your own meals) vary depending on the number of people and the length of stay. They can be as little as $25 per night or top $100; one-time housekeeping fees or charges for firewood, if you order some, may apply. 7660 Cave Rd., Bainbridge; 937-365-1936; highlandssanctuary.org.

Murphin Ridge Inn
At Murphin Ridge Inn, about 15 minutes south of Serpent Mound, an 1826 brick farmhouse guarded by towering twin maples sits on 142 acres of fields and forests threaded with hiking trails. Guesthouse rooms and separate bungalows are fitted out luxuriously, yet simply, with artisan-made Shaker-style furniture. If you’re a fan of simple, sturdy crafts, the inn can direct you to shopping in nearby Union, where Amish craftspeople purvey handmade quilts, wooden furniture, and saddles, belts, and other leather goods. 750 Murphin Ridge Rd., West Union; 937-544-2263, 877-687-7446; www.murphinridgeinn.com; doubles $130–$250.

Old Canal Smokehouse
94 East Water St., Chillicothe; 740-779-3278; no website; dinner for two, $50.
Paxton Restaurant
108 West Main St., Bainbridge; 740-634-2922; no website; lunch for two, $25.
Country Crust Bakery
4918 Route 41 South; Bainbridge; no phone or website.
Murphin Ridge Inn
750 Murphin Ridge Rd. West Union; 937-544-2263, 877-687-7446; www.murphinridgeinn.com; dinner for two, $90.

If you get bitten by mound mania and simply must see more of Ohio’s intriguing earthworks, go to the new interactive website, ancientohiotrail.org. It provides maps, photographs, links to tourism information, a travel brochure to download and print out, and videos you can view on a computer (choose MP4 format) or download to your cellphone.

c. Stephanie Woodard; photo of mounds by Joseph Zummo; other photos by Stephanie Woodard.

Popular Posts

Wham! Pow! The CDC goes to Comic-Con

Dancing from the Heart: A Rehearsal at Zuni Pueblo

Create a Medicine-Wheel Garden