Historic Host: Bed-and-breakfast proprietor offers whimsical lodging options with colorful histories in Hocking Hills area

Bed-and-breakfast proprietor offers whimsical lodging options with colorful histories in Hocking Hills area

Many people travel to Ohio’s Hocking Hills region to explore its breathtaking waterfalls, caves and hollows by day, then burrow inside a cozy cabin at night.

The scenery changes with the season and keeps people coming back year after year. But numerous cabins remain blandly familiar: log furniture, countrified decorations and a hot tub.

A unique lodging option in the Hills hearkens to the past. Historic Host offers a handful of bed-and-breakfast properties with fascinating histories. Travelers can stay in a cute cottage with a 1930s kitchen containing a collection of vintage cookie jars. Or they can bundle up in a century-old general store with shelves of touchable “merchandise,” such as stuffed animals and wooden cribs.

Overnight stays include breakfast, and a portion of the lodging fees goes toward restoration of more dilapidated buildings.

  • Fiddlestix Village is a whimsical raodside stop in Creola for visitors to sleep and eat.
  • Sue Maxwell
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“I call it sustainable preservation through tourism,” says Sue Maxwell, who started Historic Host in 2007 with her late husband, Jim Maxwell. In less than a decade, she’s transformed a collection of neglected buildings into unique tourist destinations that respect the history of this scenic Appalachian region in southern Ohio.

“My daughters like to rescue stray cats,” Maxwell says. “I like to rescue stray buildings.”

My family recently visited a 5-acre lot just north of McArthur, Ohio, that Maxwell affectionately named Fiddlestix Village. The whimsical, roadside stop incorporates old and new structures on a plot of land off state Rt. 93 in Creola.

At the heart of the complex is the Appalachian Quilt Cottage, a red, two-bedroom cabin that dates to the 1920s. At one time it served as a farmhouse for a nine-member family.

Sue learned of the building’s history through her visitors. One person told her that the front room once served as a roadside store where the owners sold eggs and homemade breads.

Another accommodation is a cottage holding hundreds of salt-and-pepper shakers that Sue found at auctions, antique shops and thrift stores. She’s billing it as a museum.

But the latest and most playful arrivals are a 1926 B&O caboose that comfortably sleeps two, and an old general store that my children especially enjoyed.

The front of the Martin Store resembles an old country shop, while the rear of the building has a bathroom and a cozy bedroom with a king-sized bed.

Like the other properties, Sue fell for the decaying, 1922-built structure at first sight along a stretch of U.S. Rt. 50 that crossed rural Vinton County. She saw potential and tracked down its owner, sharing her idea of preservation.

“If you can move it, you can have it,” he told her.

For more information, call 1-877-364-4786 or visit www.historichost.com.

The Blueberry Patch: Head to Mansfield to pick your own plump berries

Head to Mansfield to pick your own plump berries

If you typically avoid the tasteless blueberries that often populate your local supermarket, there’s no need to plan a trip to Maine to pick your own. Just head to the Blueberry Patch in Mansfield.

The Blueberry Patch is Ohio’s largest blueberry farm, 45 minutes northeast of Columbus. Steve and Lisa Beilstein began planting the now well-established bushes in 1981, and their foresight has paid off. The 27-acre patch yields plump, tasty berries that are easy to pick.

  • The Blueberry Patch
  • Head to Mansfield to pick your own plump berries
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Seventeen varieties of blueberries grow in the ideal sandy and acidy soil where thousands of honeybees are needed per acre for pollination.

Blueberry season is from late June through August. We arrived in late July to pick mid-season berries called Blue Ray, which are large and flavorful. Each member of our family was given a plastic bucket to take to a designated area in the patch. Rows and rows of bushes were loaded with blueberries, ready to pluck at our leisure. We combined our buckets into one then had them weighed. We paid $20 for four pounds of berries.

Stick around to see all the blueberry products in the gift shop. Troyer Home Pantry in Apple Creek, Ohio, uses the blueberries to make pies and jams. Also on site is a greenhouse, coffee beanery and Blossoms Cafe, where you can get brunch after morning berry picking, which begins daily at 8 a.m. The cafe is open until 4 p.m.

I had the quiche with a warm blueberry muffin, fresh fruit salad and blueberry iced tea, which was delicious. Of course you also can get blueberry smoothies, shakes and parfaits.

On a future trip, I’ll take time to enjoy the onsite winery aptly called Winery 1285 for its address. Sample a selection of wines including dry and sweet blueberry varieties, order wood-fired pizza or even participate in a “wine and paint” party. This handsome bar could fit into a vibrant Columbus neighborhood.

Once home, Mike transformed our blueberries into tasty scones, a sauce for angel-food cake and frozen yogurt.

Can’t make it to Mansfield in the near future? Blueberry Patch berries also are sold at central Ohio farmers markets including the Clintonville and Worthington markets.

The Blueberry Patch is located at 1285 W. Hanley Rd., in Mansfield. For more information, call 419-884-1797 or visit theblueberrypatch.org.

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.

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

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.

  • Marmon Valley Farm
  • Head to the hills of Logan County for inexpensive, quality pony rides
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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 www.marmonvalley.com.

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.

  • Former home of American author Louis Bromfield becomes merry gathering spot for barn dances
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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 www.malabarfarm.org.

[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.)

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.

  • Ohio Caverns
  • Ohio's largest cave system
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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 www.ohiocaverns.com.

Runway restaurant in Urbana serves up aerial delights and delectable pies

After visiting the Cedar Bog Nature Preserve in Urbana, we headed to a place that I had read about on the Web: Doug and Michele’s Airport Cafe at Grimes Field in Urbana.

It was recommended as the only place to eat in Urbana on a Sunday. I also read that it’s always crowded. Sure enough, when we arrived, the cafe was open and crowded.

It’s not the fanciest joint, just a lackluster building off Main Street. But it’s near the airport runway, and the full parking lot at this time of day meant that it was the real deal.

  • Airport Cafe
  • Now serving buffalo
  • Inside
  • Kid's menu
  • Our lunch
  • Homemade pies
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Grimes Field is Urbana’s municipal airport. It’s named for Warren Grimes, who is described as “father of the aircraft lighting industry.” As the story goes, Grimes was working as a lighting contractor in Detroit with his brother when Henry Ford approached him to create a light for the Ford Tri-Motor airplane, aka “The Tin Goose.”

Two days later, Ford adopted his design, and Grimes eventually employed 1,300 to produce the lights at a factory in Urbana.

This success led the city to name the airfield after Grimes when it opened in 1943. It remains operational and also houses the Champaign Aviation Museum. You can take flying lessons there, or just sit and watch the small planes take off and land.

The restaurant menu is an interesting mix of salads, burgers, omelets and dinners with surprising specials including bison and ostrich meat, which come from a nearby farm.

We sat outside and ordered mac and cheese and chocolate milk for Max, who especially enjoyed watching a steady stream of small planes taxiing the runway.

Michele, one of the owners, waited on us and said that people regularly fly in from all over the country to eat their homemade pies, made with local berries and apples. Like the restaurant, the black raspberry pie and butterscotch pie, at $2.79 a hearty slice, were the real deal.

The Airport Cafe is located at 1636 N. Main St., Urbana, Ohio. Hours are listed on the menu as 7 a.m.-7 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday; and 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Sunday. It’s closed on Monday.

For more information, call 937-652-2010 or visit www.urbanaohio.com/grimes-field/airport-cafe.html.

Learn about our trip to the Cedar Bog Nature Preserve.

View rare plants and animals at protected swampland

It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, and my husband and I had just dropped off Rosie for a play date. With nothing else to do, we decided to take our son, Max, on a driving adventure.

We made our destination Urbana, Ohio, for a walk in the woods and lunch with flying colors.

The first stop was Cedar Bog Nature Preserve, about an hour’s drive west of Columbus. The bog is a haven for rare plants and animals common after the Ice Age, such as small purple foxglove, leathery grape fern and the blue-spotted salamander.

  • Welcome to...
  • Cedar Bog
  • Choose a route
  • Learn
  • Learn more...
  • See exotic flowers
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Created about 18,000 years ago when glaciers retreated, the bog is one of 58 designated “Historic Sites” in Ohio that’s overseen and protected by the Ohio Historical Society.

A mile-long boardwalk guides visitors through the 450-acre preserve.

When we arrived, the visitors center, which offers displays and a gift shop, was closed but a sign stated the boardwalk was open. A $5 donation is suggested and can be deposited in a box on a post.

It was fun walking on the narrow boardwalk. It starts in a marshland then leads into the woods. The warm, swampy atmosphere made it feel like we were in Florida.

We soon learned, though, that the seclusion came at a price — the woodsy areas of the path were populated by swarming mosquitos at 2 in the afternoon. So we jogged along the majority of the path, slowing down at openings in the woods. If you go during times of high humidity, take bug repellant.

Minus the pests, Cedar Bog is peaceful and educational. You can learn about the area by reading signs that are positioned at children’s height. For instance, one warns you not to touch the poison sumac or anything else off the path. The woody shrub can cause painful swelling on the skin if touched.

In April, the bog boasts one of the best displays of marsh marigolds in the state.

Cedar Bog is located at 980 Woodburn Rd., off U.S. 68, in Urbana.

For more information, call 800-860-0147 or visit www.ohiohistory.org.

Learn about our next stop to Doug and Michele’s Airport Cafe.