Things to do in Ohio: Exploring 4 hidden gems and unseen corners of southeast Ohio
Drive an hour southeast from Columbus and the city's skyline will fade. You'll trade the flat contours of the freeway for the rolling hills of Ohio's Appalachian counties.
Open green spaces, a cow here, a sheep there, and country homes a quarter-mile apart will replace the perpetual construction zones on High Street, the latest political drama facing state lawmakers and Buckeyes rallying across the state's capital city.
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This particular swath of Appalachia is well known for its Athens County hometown hero and current Cincinnati Bengal quarterback, 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 sprawling state park.
That rich history — some of America's earliest — and deep cultural pride can be discovered in the following hidden gems:
In the early 20th century Shawnee was a coal boom town, beckoning out-of-town miners to the historic Tecumseh Theater Opera House on the weekends and residents to visit the shops on Main Street — full of economic promise, featuring ornate architecture.
“It looks like a Wild West town that’s been dropped in a forest in the east,” a local resident told The Dispatch in a feature last October.
Yet the village nearly 70 miles southeast of Columbus has been ravaged by extractive industries: coal, manufacturing, etc., and the jobs that no longer exist.
Shawnee's renaissance:How does a former coal-mining town reinvent itself?
But thanks to interest from a group of southern Ohio investors, Black Diamond Development, Shawnee is experiencing a revival.
Black Diamond Development has restored the former Shawnee Tavern — now Black Diamond Tavern — to its former glory and partnered with nearby Hocking College to serve local brews on tap.
Down Main Street, folks can stay in an Airbnb recently renovated by Black Diamond Development (which can host up to six guests) while hiking the nearby Buckeye Trail system.
Below the Airbnb, The Black Diamond Brewery and Distillery is expected to open later this year in the historic Harigle Garage.
2. Stuart's Opera House, Nelsonville
Stuart's Opera House, a nearly 150-year-old concert hall is the cornerstone of Nelsonville in Athens County, another former coal mining town and manufacturing hub fighting for its future.
Maybe you've heard of Dwight Icenhower — one of the world's foremost Elvis Presley performers.
His show at Stuart's (Icenhower's previous performance, before COVID-19 shuttered the historic opera house for a year and six days, was on March 7, 2020) in May kicked off the resilient theater's post-pandemic reopening.
Stuart's originally featured vaudeville, melodrama and minstrel shows in the late 19th through 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 southeastern Ohio cultural mainstay, you can find a list of events: including concerts and an annual summer festival as well as a variety of performing arts programs geared toward children, including a poetry contest and afterschool music lessons.
Folks can also rent out the space for private events, conferences or even as a wedding venue, here.
3. Robinson's Cave, New Straitsville
Hidden within a forested hillside on the southern edge of Perry County stands Robinson's Cave, carpeted by foliage and trickling water in New Straitsville.
Christopher Evans, a well-known southeast Ohio union organizer led meetings throughout the Hocking Valley Coal Strike of 1884-1885 inside the cave. Miners would gather and whisper to one another across the cavern. The walls’ acoustics allowed them to meet without anyone from town overhearing them.
Evans’ efforts eventually lead miners to form the United Mine Workers of America, making Robinson’s Cave the “secret birthplace” of the union.
Today, history buffs and nature enthusiasts alike can climb the stone stairway up to the cave and whisper to one another across the cavern, echoing the angry miners who met there in the late 19th century.
As legend has it, those same miners met in Robinson's before launching kerosene-soaked coal cars into the entrance of the nearby mines, setting off the largest underground mine fire in the world.
Susan Miller, president of the New Straitsville History Group, welcomes those interested in the region's rich history and connection to coal.
And you can visit the New Straitsville History Museum, located at the foot Robinson's Cave, by appointment.
4. Ohio River Museum, Marietta
How old is Ohio?
Well, five years after the Revolutionary War, pioneers traveled past the Appalachian Mountains to modern day Washington County, Ohio, marking the county seat, Marietta, the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory.
With its connection to the Underground Railroad, ghost tours and Marietta Earthworks, one of the many Hopewell sites built by ancient natives, the city is full of rich history — including its ties to the river.
At the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers in Marietta, the historic W.P. Synder Jr., the last intact steam-powered “pool-type” stern-wheeled towboat in the U.S., is docked outside the Ohio River Museum.
Folks drawn to the Ohio River can tour the Synder, learn about the origins and natural history of the river as well as history of the steamboat era.
The kid-friendly museum attracts nautical enthusiasts of all ages and is open from 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and from noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays.
Céilí Doyle is a Report for America corps member and covers rural issues in Ohio for The Dispatch. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation at https://bit.ly/3fNsGaZ.