Don’s Downtown Diner: Keep Bellefontaine restaurant top of mind for burgers, shakes when visiting nearby attractions

Keep Bellefontaine restaurant top of mind for burgers, shakes when visiting nearby attractions

The back of the menu at Don’s Downtown Diner in Bellefontaine, Ohio, reads: “You shouldn’t drive out of our community to enjoy a great meal.”

But Columbus folk like us who have driven an hour northwest of home will be lucky to find this modest joint in the heart of Logan County. Don’s serves “quality food at a fair price,” which includes the best chocolate-and-peanut-butter shakes we’ve ever had. It’s well worth the effort to seek it out.

We discovered Don’s on the Internet while researching places to eat in between exploring caves and riding horses at nearby attractions. The restaurant is located near Ohio Caverns and the Piatt Castles in West Liberty and Marmon Valley Farm and Mad River Mountain in Zanesfield.

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Don’s received rave reviews on Yelp, Trip Advisor and Urban Spoon. The most accurate, we learned, was one that read: “The exterior gives the wrong impression of the place.”

Once in downtown Bellefontaine, we nearly passed the squat, white-brick building while driving along Main Street. The restaurant is located one block south of the Logan County Courthouse and Court Avenue, the oldest concrete street in the nation – paved in 1891.

It’s small inside, too. There are a dozen tables and booths and a half dozen counter seats. The decor is mostly stainless steel and black vinyl. The floor and walls are white, except for a splash of red on the side where we sat. We could see the cook’s ball cap bobbing behind a wall as he prepared meals to order.

We also learned that produce is purchased in season from local farmers and fries are hand cut. The menu includes sandwiches, salads, sides and stellar shakes made with ice cream from Young’s Jersey Dairy in Yellow Springs, Ohio – more about that in a minute.

Don’s is best known for its steak burgers, which come from a local, family-owned butcher’s shop, and are priced from $6.99 for a hamburger to $17.99 for the Baby Matilda – a deluxe model made with two half-pound patties, two grilled cheese sandwiches, bacon and cheddar cheese.

Other out-of-the-ordinary menu items include deep-fried pickles, a bacon cheeseburger topped with peanut butter, and the “Fatty Patty,” featuring bacon and cheese served between two Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. We passed on that one, but I’d love to hear from someone bold enough to give it a try.

Kids meals, which cost $4.99, include the standard chicken fingers, grilled cheese, hamburgers and hot dogs, with fries and a drink.

Mike had a simple cheeseburger with pepper jack and extra pickles. It was pretty large, and he said it was “terrific.” My fried fish was tender and white on the inside and delicious between a wheat bun with a side of fries, and the kids ate their grilled cheese sandwiches and fries without complaint.

The highlight, though, were the shakes that arrived in the stainless-steel malt cups that they’re mixed in. They’re thick, creamy and full of flavor and served before your meal arrives, which might explain why they’re so good. Who wouldn’t want dessert first?

Don’s is located at 208 S. Main St., Bellefontaine, Ohio. For more information, call 937-599-4444.

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Marmon Valley Farm: Head to the hills of Logan County for inexpensive, quality pony rides

Head to the hills of Logan County for inexpensive, quality pony rides

Our son, Max, wanted a pony ride for his sixth birthday. But where to find a pony when it’s raining cats and dogs in Columbus? We decided to head to the country, where ponies are more plentiful.

With a little Internet research, we learned that Marmon Valley Farm offers inexpensive, quality pony rides at a 450-acre recreational farm one hour northwest of Columbus in Logan County for kids as young as two. Cost: $5 for 30 minutes.

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We made reservations in advance, so two ponies were saddled up and ready to go at riding time. Marmon Valley has a stable of 150 horses and ponies available for riding in an indoor arena as well as outdoor trail rides through the wooded hills of Logan County.

Max and his sister, Rosie, wore long pants and boots for their adventure. We brought along our own helmets, but they’re available free of charge, if you forget.

Max rode a gentle black pony named Faye and Rosie a spunky chestnut-colored pony named Copper. Parents, or accompanying adults, are taught to lead the ponies. Our instructor showed me how to hold the lead loosely with two hands and not wrap it around one hand in case the pony decided to take off.

These rides aren’t like the kind you find at the fair where children are lifted on a merry-go-round of sad-eyed miniature horses. Mike and I were able to lead the ponies around the arena and encourage our kids to steer with the reins and say “whoa” to stop. No trotting was allowed, though, which was fine for me and Mike.

Marmon Valley has served up farm-fresh fun for more than 50 years. The name “Marmon Valley” pays homage to the first homesteaders who called the valley home in the early 1800s.

Opened in 1964, landowner Bill Wiley dreamt of a farm camp for children, allowing them to experience life on the farm, if only for a week. The camp, held every summer, is Christian based.

It’s free to visit the grounds year round. You can have a picnic, swing on the swings, crawl through indoor hay tunnels and hike the trails. We were able to pet a pig, a goat, a donkey and ponies in the barn. The highlight was cradling baby bunnies in our hands. Their cuteness melts your heart.

Guests can reserve the property for parties and retreats. Barn dances and hayrides also occur throughout the year.

Visit free of charge year round Tuesday through Sunday, 7 a.m.-9 p.m.

Horseback riding is available Tuesday through Sunday 1-5 p.m., year round. (Reservations are required December through March and strongly encouraged during other months.) Trail riders must be at least 6 years old. Pony rides are available for kids as young as two.

Other options include group riding lessons for ages six and up for $25 a lesson and a summer horse camp for ages 7 to 17.

Marmon Valley Farm is located at 7754 St. Rt. 292, Zanesfield, Ohio. For more information, call 937-593-8000 or visit

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Malabar Farm: Former home of American author Louis Bromfield becomes merry gathering spot for barn dances

Former home of American author Louis Bromfield becomes merry gathering spot for barn dances

All is quiet inside the spacious barn, located in the middle of Ohio. It’s chilly outside on this late September evening, and the rising full moon is visible through a small window. The scent of hay prevails as a horse in the field whinnies.

Moments later the tranquility is broken by the cacophony of more than 300 people laughing, clapping and stomping their feet to the sounds of a square-dance band. The gala is called the “Harvest Barn Dance,” and it’s one of a half dozen barn dances held from April through October at Malabar Farm State Park near Mansfield.

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Many of the revelers have traveled hours from around Ohio to attend this wholesome, countryside event. They find good company. These happy barn dances are hopping with folks seeking out fun in a setting that reflects a simpler time.

“A square dance is a family event,” says Valerie Norman, who drove two hours from Zanesville to direct the moves of the participants as the event’s “caller.”

Barn dances at Malabar Farm date back to the late ’70s. Then, they were held in a barn built in 1890 that once belonged to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Bromfield, who lived on the property until his death in 1956. Bromfield, also an innovative farmer, hobnobbed with Hollywood celebrities and even held his own barn dances. The historic barn burned down in 1993 and was rebuilt the following year in the same timber-framed style.

The farm in Richland County is a perfect setting for a square dance. Situated among rolling hills, it contains Bromfield’s original country home, fields of corn and wheat, and storybook woodlands. Meandering about the pastures are chickens, goats and draft horses. The scenic setting served as the wedding and honeymoon location of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in 1945.

The tradition continued on this starry night. By the start of the dance at 7 p.m., the parking lot is filled with cars, trucks and minivans. People saunter up the walkway to the barn carrying lawn chairs, as if they’re attending a family reunion. They prop them along the barn’s walls, claiming their spots for the evening.

The crowd’s a slice of Americana. There are chubby-cheeked toddlers towed by their parents, grandfathers and grandmothers hand in hand, and a fair amount of young adults looking for a good time. Sporting everything from worn jeans and cowboy boots to sparkly dresses and strappy heels, they eagerly flood the worn, wooden dance floor.

The Back Porch Swing Band, Malabar’s resident musicians, hits the unpainted, plywood stage. Fueled by Mountain Dew, the four-piece band quickly has the crowd tapping its toes. A fiddle, trumpet, guitar and standup bass provide the musical accompaniment to Norman’s rhythmic instructions to the dancers.

“Ready to have some fun?” she asks.

“We’re going to do-si-do our partner,” Norman says. “Does everybody know how to do that? Shoulder-to-shoulder, back-to-back, shoulder-to-shoulder, all with no touching. Then we’ll do it all over again.

“We’ll start out slow, then speed it up.”

They do Eastern-style square dances here. Also called traditional square dancing, it typically starts with four couples arranged in a square that moves counter-clockwise as the caller directs their movements. Every dance is explained before it begins, unlike the more advanced and less casual Western-style square dance, which requires participants to know the steps before they begin.

“We get greenhorn dancers, and we teach them,” Norman says. “If they come out and try on their own and go away discouraged, they won’t come back. We start with the very beginning steps, so they walk away confident that they’ve learned something and they’ll want to do it again.”

So participants need not be experienced dancers to have a good time.

During a break, my family and I mosey outside, where the barn stands as a beacon amid the pitch-black night. People step out into the air to cool off and buy a candy bar or popcorn at a makeshift table, set up by a local chapter of the Future Farmers of America. Teenagers gather, no cell phones in site, to chat.

After a bit, the band goes back to work. Fiddle player Adam Jackson, a three-time state champion from Buckeye Lake, gets into a frenzy. The energetic quartet transitions from the quick-paced folk song “Frog Went A-Courtin’” to Elvis’ “Love Me Tender.”

“We play a lot of Western swing, jazz standards from the ’20s and ’30s, old country tunes, all blended together,” says Pete Shaw, who mans a Gibson guitar. “We just love to play music. And when we get everybody up and dancing, we just love that.”

Malabar Farm State Park is located at 4050 Bromfield Rd., Lucas, Ohio. For more information, call 419-892-2784 or visit

[otw_shortcode_info_box border_type=”bordered” border_style=”bordered”]2015 barn dance schedule at Malabar Farm: April 26: Wildlife Barn Dance May 24: May Barn Dance July 5: Liberty Barn Dance Aug. 2: Summer Barn Dance Sept. 27: Heritage Barn Dance Oct. 25: Harvest Barn Dance All dances are held in the main barn from 7-10 p.m. Admission is $1 at the door.[/otw_shortcode_info_box]

(A longer version of this article by Wendy Pramik published in Country Living in 2011.)

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Ohio Caverns: See crystal stalactites and stalagmites year round, no matter the weather

See crystal stalactites and stalagmites year round, no matter the weather

This year we took our son, Max, to a cave for his sixth birthday. Not because he’d been naughty, but because he likes to explore. And, it was raining.

Weather is irrelevant in a cave, where it’s always a reasonable 54 degrees and relatively dry no matter the outside conditions. So we set out for Ohio Caverns, an hour northwest of Columbus near West Liberty. Ohio Caverns is the largest of all the cave systems in Ohio, with 2 miles of surveyed passageways ranging from 30-feet to 103-feet deep. And, it’s open year round.

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These caverns are part of a 35-acre park in Champaign County and a member of the National Caving Association. I’m not sure what that means, but they’re a popular tourist destination that’s been operated by the same family for four generations, since opening as a tourist attraction in 1897.

Ohio Caverns offers several tour options focusing on the geology and history of the area. We took one called the “Natural Wonder Tour” that took us on an hourlong journey through sections of the cave that have white crystal formations.

We learned that the caverns were formed thousands of years ago when an underground river cut through ancient limestone and created vast rooms and passageways that later filled with beautiful crystal stalactites (which go downward) and stalagmites (which go upward).

We also learned not to touch the walls, as our group walked single file through the passageways. Most of the stalactite and stalagmite formations are still active. It can take 500 years for a cubic inch of calcite crystal to form. Touching them can stop the process, as we were warned (maybe a little too often).

Touching them also can discolor the crystals, as we discovered in an area called the Big Room, which has hundreds of formations. One crystal used to be called the “Good Luck Crystal.” As people passed, they’d touch it, leaving behind an ugly brown stain that’s still visible today. In 1926, a no-touching rule was established in the caverns, and the crystal was renamed the “Dirty Crystal.”

We also entered an area called Fantasy Land, where there are bunches of soda straws and helictites, including the Old Town Pump, which resembles a hand pump.

The best part of the tour, though, was seeing the Crystal King. Appearing like a giant, sparkling carrot, it’s the largest free-hanging stalactite in Ohio, measuring 4 feet, 10.5 inches long. It’s estimated to weigh more than 400 pounds and could be more than 200,000 years old.

The tour ends in the Jewel Room, which contains lots of colored crystals, from blue to orange to white to reddish black, making this area great for photos – so great in fact that a camera is set up to take your portrait.

The grand finale of every tour, we learned, is the playing of the song “Beautiful Ohio,” which has been entertaining guests since 1928.

Also on site is a shelter house with picnic tables, and a gift shop full of rocks, fossils and bags of rocks for mining in a sluice.

Daily tours are offered 9 a.m.-5 p.m., May through September, and 10 a.m.-4 p.m., October through April. The caves are closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The Natural Wonder Tour costs $17 for adults and $9 for children ages 5-12. There is no charge for children ages 4 and younger.

Ohio Caverns is located at 2210 E. State Route 245, West Liberty, Ohio. For more information, call 937-465-4017 or visit

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SportsOhio is located at 6314 Cosgray Rd., Dublin.

Spaces for city kids to play inside and out

Playing outside was easy when I was a kid growing up in northeastern Ohio. I simply walked out our front door and explored the world, often following streams wherever they led.

SportsOhio in Dublin offers spaces for city kids to leisurely play inside and out.

SportsOhio is a hundred-acre campus of rec centers with indoor and outdoor areas for soccer, baseball and ice skating. It’s also a fun zone for playing miniature golf, driving go-karts, hitting golf balls and baseballs, and jumping on inflatables.

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Two ways for families to sample what’s available at SportsOhio are during “Open Play Days” on select Fridays throughout the year and at “Phat Fridays” in the spring and summer.

My children and I checked out an “Open Play Day” at the FieldSports building in early April. I signed a waiver and paid $8 apiece for my kids to play for three hours. Rosie and Max went straight for the bounce-house area that included a jump house, inflatable slide and obstacle course.

They jumped, slid and bounced until they were red in their faces, at which point I purchased blue Slushies for them at the concession stand. We then climbed a set of stairs to rows of picnic tables. The perch also served as a lookout post over the vast indoor facility.

We spied ball fields on either side and a fierce game of dodgeball taking place in a court in front of us. Behind that was a basketball court where kids were riding scooter boards across a shiny, wood floor. The most appealing area was a turf-covered field filled with toys normally found outside, like hula hoops, bouncy balls, scooters, frisbees and big-wheeled tricycles.

The three hours zipped by, leaving my kids pleasantly exhausted for the ride home.

We’ll most likely return for “Phat Fridays,” when visitors get unlimited access to outdoor activities such as go-karts, mini golf, inflatables, batting cages and outdoor fields for $15 apiece from 7-10 p.m., beginning April 24.

SportsOhio is located at 6314 Cosgray Rd., Dublin. For more information, call 614-791-3003 or visit Learn about upcoming “Open Play Days.”

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