Most Northeast Ohioans are familiar with the many covered bridges in Ashtabula County. In fact, an annual fall Covered Bridge Festival takes place there.
But most people don't realize that Fairfield County, southeast of Columbus, has the most historic covered bridges of any county in the state.
Fairfield County has 18 restored covered bridges. None of them are younger than 100 years old. On the other hand, Ashtabula County has 17 covered bridges, some of which have been erected in recent years.
I visited a handful of Fairfield County's bridges on my Memorial Day weekend trip. I didn't visit McCleery, the oldest, which dates to 1864, but I did stop by Zeller-Smith, which is the youngest (1906).
Zeller-Smith is in Sycamore Park in Pickerington. The others I visited were Hartman II (1888) in Lockville Park over an old Ohio & Erie Canal channel, Rock Mill (1901), Roley Schoolhouse (1899) on the county fairgrounds, John Bright II (1881) at Ohio University-Lancaster and Estates (1888).
The only one of the six I visited that can be crossed with a vehicle is the latter. It is on a road leading into a housing development called Covered Bridge Estates.
Unlike Ashtabula County, few of the other Fairfield covered bridges can be traversed by car, and four of them are on private property and cannot be examined up close by the public.
Sharing the county's second oldest bridge honors are R.K. Baker (now standing on Fairfield Union school district property east of Lancaster) and Shade (the county's longest at 122 feet). They were built in 1871.
There used to be hundreds of wooden covered bridges in Ohio and throughout the United States, but only a few hundred remain. Some that lasted into the late 20th century were washed away by floods or simply were neglected and died of old age.
I've visited about 25 to 30 covered bridges and have photos of many of them in my archives. A number of books have been written about Ohio's covered bridges, featuring beautiful photos and historic details.
THE BIGGEST MILL IN OHIO
Rock Mill, northwest of Lancaster, was built in 1824 on the Hocking River. It replaced one built in 1824, is Ohio's largest remaining grist mill (5 1/2 stories high) and boasts the state's all-time biggest water wheel (26 feet in diameter).
The mill's wooden timbers and water wheel were in horrible shape until the early 1990s before being lovingly restored by Fairfield County Historical Parks crews. It is Ohio's only place where an original grist mill is adjacent to an original covered bridge.
The mill, which is not operational, and the bridge are situated beside a very narrow section of the river that squeezes through a steep blackhand sandstone gorge. A 14-foot waterfall is a few feet from the large water wheel and once channeled water to it.
The mill is positioned so that 3 1/2 stories rise above the rim of the gorge and two stories are below the rim. From the mill level, there is a 50-foot drop to the river.
SCULPTURE PARK, CEMETERY
South of Lancaster and visible from Route 33 is Flight of the Hawk Sculpture Park, a small grassy piece of land where seven metal sculptures of animals are displayed.
Sculptor Ric Leichliter has so far created the seven works -- two turkeys, four deer and a giant hawk. The latter is the centerpiece. The hawk, with a 14-foot wingspan sets atop an arch. The highest point of the bird is 42 feet from the ground.
The hawk sculpture weighs more than 2,500 pounds and is composed of more than 3,000 torch-cut pieces of steel welded into place.
Like Rock Mill, the parcel is under the jurisdiction of the Fairfield County Historical Parks Commission, which also maintains Stonewall Cemetery about 4 miles away.
The cemetery is the family burial plot of the Wilsons. Nathaniel Wilson III deeded the parcel in trust to the presidents of the U.S., but no presidents are buried there.
In 1838, Wilson erected a circular stone wall around the cemetery, and it is believed to be the only structure of its kind in the world, constructed using blackhand sandstone with every angle cut into the stone.
Visitors cannot walk inside the 6-foot wall because an iron gate is locked to prevent vandalism to the graves.
In previous road trip columns, I've mentioned Lakeside on the Marblehead peninsula and Epworth Park in Bethesda (Belmont County) as communities which developed during the American Chautauqua movement.
The Lancaster Campground is another Chautauqua community, and I visited it on my Memorial Day trip. It has existed since 1878 and resulted from the efforts of United Methodist minister, the Rev. William Holliday, who first had a camp meeting in the area in 1872.
Tents originally housed the camp meeting participants, but cottages began emerging in the 1880s. At one time there were about 400 cottages, and about 250 still exist, many in their original condition.
The Chautauqua movement arrived at the site in the 1890s. The National Park Service designated the Lancaster Campground a National Historic District in 1987.
There is an effort under way to raise funds to renovate the Davis Auditorium, the main meeting building in the center of the grounds, which was built in 1895 and can accommodate more than 2,500 people. Safety concerns led to the building being closed in 2007.
Other historic buildings on the grounds include the Woodside Hotel (1884), which is no longer used as a hotel, the hexagonal-shaped Temple, the Grocery (originally known as the Columbus Chapel), the Heritage House cottage (1881) and the Cafeteria.
Shuffleboard/croquet/basketball/tennis courts, a swimming pool, RV camping area and the Maple Leaf snack bar are other amenities on the grounds.
In the old days, many visitors came to the grounds via the Hocking Valley Railroad. A little-used railroad line still runs along the north side of the property.
SUGAR GROVE, FAIRGROUNDS
Sugar Grove, a town of about 430 residents in southeast Fairfield County, is an interesting place.
It has a welcome center located in a red 1949 former Chesapeake & Ohio caboose, which was transported from Nelsonville on the former Hocking Valley Railroad.
School groups and families make appointments to visit the caboose to learn about railroad life, and for many older residents the caboose reminds them of the days of their youth when passenger trains ran daily through town.
The town's old jail, built in 1894, has been spruced up and sets in an alley behind Town Hall. It was last used in the 1950s. It's a tiny wooden building, which had two cells inside and still boasts steel bars over a small window.
According to promotional info about the town, when disturbances occurred at local "watering holes," men were escorted to the jail for overnight stays. When uninhabited, the jail's door was left ajar so town passersby could spend the night.
Stoneburner's Grocery Store on the main street is an old-fashioned general store which has been in business for about 80 years. I enjoyed a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone there.
A corner of the store displays works of area residents such as authors, artists and music composers, plus photos and historical info relating to the town.
The Fairfield County fairgrounds has several historic and unique structures, including a pioneer village with a railroad depot, pioneer cabin, one-room schoolhouse, covered bridge, old-fashioned grandstand and a round cattle barn built in 1906.
The late 1800s-style grandstand is charming, but not used for seating anymore. A newer grandstand allows spectators to watch harness races and concerts. Fairfield boasts Ohio's last county fair of the season -- the first full week in October.
Across the street from the fairgrounds is Rising Park, which features a 250-foot sandstone formation overlooking the park and fairgrounds. Those able-bodied enough can climb a trail to the top of the cliff and get a great look at the fairgrounds and city.
WAGNELLS LIBRARY, MANSION
Most people have heard of the Funk & Wagnells Publishing Co., famous for publishing reference works. Well, one of the founders -- Adam Willis Wagnells -- grew up in Lithopolis on the western edge of Fairfield County.
I dropped by the library on a Sunday morning when it wasn't open. The tudor-gothic building, with a two-story square stone tower, was dedicated in 1925 by a daughter of Adam and Anna Wagnalls.
A family plot in the town's cemetery is occupied by the couple and a handful of family members, who lie in above-ground concrete sarcophages.
Since reading about it in various "haunted Ohio" books and on websites, I wanted to see the Mudhouse Mansion, which is an abandoned brick farmhouse northeast of Lancaster. It is thought to have been built in the late 1800s.
The house hasn't been lived in for years and is dilapidated. Because locals like to get a better look at the supposedly haunted house, its current owner has become very protective and is said to sometimes hide in weeds to catch trespassers, which she presses charges against.
There also are two brick outbuildings on the property.
Hearing the stories about the owner, I chose to observe the buildings from the road, although it was tempting to walk over to explore it. When I was young, my dad and I nosed around many vacant old farmhouses in Tuscarawas County.
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