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

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.)

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

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

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.

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  • Cedar Bog
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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

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

1,700-acre estate makes a great getaway from central Ohio

One of the main attractions of Oglebay Resort, two hours east of Columbus in Wheeling, W. Va., is the former summer estate of the late industrialist Earl W. Oglebay. The yellow mansion with stately white pillars in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains is a museum that’s a tribute to Oglebay and the history of the property.

But what my family found more delightful than the 1846-built home during a recent visit, is the surrounding explorable landscape, so thoughtfully cared for and manicured, making the 1,700-acre estate a great getaway from central Ohio.

Oglebay willed his property to the people of Wheeling upon his death in 1926 as long as they “shall operate it for public recreation.” Visitors can tour the mansion, a glass museum, and wander along a red brick path through a garden that dates back a century.

  • Oglebay Mansion
  • The Good Zoo
  • Oglebay Stables
  • Schenk Lake
  • Wilson Lodge
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My husband, Mike, and I, held our wedding reception at Oglebay in April 2005, and like so many others were photographed among more than 50,000 tulips, daffodils and hyacinths. We return most every year in the spring, but decided this year to visit with our children in June.

Now, taking a 7-year-old and 5-year-old through an old building with historical artifacts and keeping their attention would be an exercise in futility. Fortunately, the resort offers an enticing variety of activities that are fun in the summer such as golfing, fishing, boating, swimming and horseback riding. There’s also a quaint zoo that’s a pleasure to explore.

We stayed two nights at the Wilson Lodge – most of its 271 rooms were remodeled in 2008. Each morning we ate a hearty buffet breakfast at the Ihlenfeld Dining Room, which overlooks Schenk Lake and the encircling countryside, where friendly deer roam. Mike enjoyed a round of golf with friends. Oglebay offers courses designed by Arnold Palmer and Robert Trent Jones, Sr.

My children and I explored the pool at the Crispin Center, where little has changed since opening in the late 1930s. Built of locally-quarried sandstone, it’s elegant alongside the sky-blue pool. It’s one of the loveliest pools I’ve ever seen. I half expected to see ladies appear in modest swimsuits and caps, then jump off the platform in the center. I found the water too cold, but my kids didn’t seem to mind as they overtook the large kiddie pool.

We also explored the 36-acre Good Zoo. Opened in 1977 in a wooded area, it contains African wild dogs, meerkats, kangaroos, lorikeets, and recently added a dinosaur exhibit, with animatronic creatures. The lorikeets were particularly friendly if you entice them with nectar that the zoo sells for $1 a cup.

Wintertime it’s a poplar site for the Winter Festival of Lights, a six-mile drive showcasing millions of twinkling lights on more than 300 hilly acres.

Oglebay is located at 465 Lodge Dr., Wheeling, W. Va. Offers a variety of package rates. We stayed two nights via the Bed & Breakfast Package, starting at $151 per night, which includes lodge accommodations, buffet breakfast and use of the outdoor pool.

For more information, visit

Drive to Utica rewarded with silky ice cream at scenic setting

Normally we wouldn’t travel 45 minutes from Columbus just for an ice-cream cone when we have so many choices around our hometown. But on a pleasant Sunday in May, we decided a drive to the country was in order, and having a sweet reward at the end of our journey was motivation enough.

Our destination was Ye Olde Mill, a restored gristmill on 20 picturesque acres in Licking County. It’s also the manufacturing facility of Ohio’s own Velvet Ice Cream, which this year marks its 100th year making the tasty treat.

Founded in Utica in 1914 by Joseph Dager, the ice-cream manufacturer is now run by the fourth generation of the Dager family. The company relocated to Ye Olde Mill in 1970, and the location has become a family destination. More than 150,000 people venture here each year to sample the ice cream and other simple pleasures, such as fishing in a pond, riding in a horse-drawn carriage and hand-feeding miniature horses, a sheep and a goat.

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  • Milling Around
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The main building is the old gristmill, which dates back to 1817. It symbolizes how Velvet’s ice cream was originally made, using a hand-cranked method. The restored historic mill serves as its headquarters and has become the trademark on the cream’s packaging.

Inside is an ice-cream parlor, restaurant, museum and gift shop.

Velvet started out serving just three flavors: Vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. Today the selection includes nearly 50 flavors handwritten on a chalkboard. I ordered Italian spumoni, a flavor I normally only see in stores around Christmas. My children ordered double scoops strawberry cheesecake and cookies and cream. The icy, stacked spheres hid their faces as they slowly licked them away.

Ye Olde Mill annually hosts the Utica Sertoma Ice Cream Festival over Memorial Day weekend, an annual Father’s Day celebration with barbershop quartet and old-fashioned carriage rides, and regular entertainment on Sundays throughout summer. Visit on July 20 for National Ice Cream Day and Aug. 25 for National Banana Split Day.

Ye Olde Mill, located at 11324 Mount Vernon Rd. in Utica, is open daily from May through October. Free public tours are held weekdays at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. The walking tour lasts 30 minutes is wheelchair accessible.

For more information, visit or call (740) 892-3921.

Take children to pick their own strawberries

A hankering for fresh strawberries recently led our family of four to Jacquemin Farms, 20 minutes from Columbus in Plain City, Ohio.

My husband, Mike, wanted some sun-ripened berries to flavor a batch of homemade ice cream. We also thought collecting the strawberries together would make a fun family outing.

A quick search on the Internet revealed a number of pick-your-own strawberry farms in central Ohio. We selected Jacquemin Farms, 7437 Hyland Croy Rd., which has a three-acre, pick-your-own strawberry patch that includes five varieties of the juicy red berries.

Unseasonably warm weather has caused the strawberries to ripen ahead of schedule. Strawberry picking times at Jacquemin Farms are 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, through the end of June.

Founded in 1987, Jacquemin Farms offers fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as a small retail shop with home-style jams and jellies, and freshly fried doughnuts with strawberry glaze.

Almost all the crops sold in the shop are grown on the farm including strawberries, peas, red raspberries and pumpkins, all of which can be freshly picked by customers. Other crops, such as apples, peaches, cherries and blackberries, come from nearby farmers.

We arrived on a sunny Saturday morning ready to pick just enough berries for our ice cream. At a cost of $2 per pound, we grabbed two, one-quart containers to fill ourselves. The total cost, with a couple of strawberry slushies for the kids, was five bucks.

We were directed to a row of strawberries and asked to stay in our row. We were encouraged to eat and enjoy fresh-picked berries as we filled our containers.

A sign says that children must stay within 10 feet of their berry-picking elders. It also says not to step on the plants, words that I had to repeat several times to my children.

You can take as long as you’d like picking your berries, kneeling on the straw-covered mud walkways. Our chore was completed in about 30 minutes.

I enjoyed being out in the sunshine pinching berries fresh from the vine and seeing so many others doing the same.

Mike thought the berries were kind of small, but I liked them because they tasted much better than the giant, unnatural-looking ones you see nowadays in the supermarket. The bite-size gems produce 10 times the flavor as their counterparts and are perfect for homemade strawberry ice cream.

For more information, visit For current information on what’s ready to pick and when, follow Jacquemin Farms on Facebook or call 614-873-5725.

The farm is open through October.