Businesses surrounding Buckeye Lake suffering because of state sanctioned low water levels. Chris Alexander has spent his entire 60 years living and working on Buckeye Lake, which straddles the Licking, Fairfield and Perry County borders. Alexander—owner of the marina Alexander’s Landing—says the restaurants, bars and marinas […]
Blennerassett Mansion and parts of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Refuge reside on the Ohio River islands near Belpre and Marietta.
To a visitor driving on State Route 7 along the Ohio River, the five tree-covered islands separating the Parkersburg and Marietta areas might inspire a moment of curiosity, and maybe even a quick Google search.
Even local residents might have trouble explaining what Buckley, Neal, Muskingum, Blennerhassett and Vienna Islands offer.
“They don’t even know they are there, let alone how they would get there,” Dr. Ray Swick, historian at Blennerhassett Museum, says with a laugh.
Islands of Refuge
Buckley, Neal and Muskingum are just three of 22 islands that are a part of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The refuge system’s mission is to protect wildlife habitats and preserve natural resources for future generations. It also serves as natural habitats for all kinds of wildlife.
Matthew Magruder, the visitor services manager at the Fish & Wildlife Service center in Williamstown, West Virginia, says migratory birds and freshwater mussels both rely on the refuge’s physical offerings.
The islands function as nature’s version of a rest stop for the birds as they travel thousands of miles across the United States every year. “If we don’t have as many [islands] as we do then those gaps get longer and longer and it makes it more difficult to make that trip,” Magruder says.
But mussels are the islands’ year-round residents, and living in the river along the islands are over 40 different species of freshwater mussels, six of which are endangered. The mussels are essential to the river’s ecosystem, as they help clean it. The tiny mollusks reduce sediment, silt and pollutant buildup by filtering water and digesting plankton—thus maintaining proper levels of the organism.
The islands are also a habitat for another animal—humans. They are a site for the outdoorsmen and women to enjoy. Every day, between an hour before the sunrise and an hour after it sets, the islands, which are only accessible by boat, are open to visitors. During these daylight hours, visitors can hike, swim, fish and hunt with proper permits, take photos and generally explore, so long as it is not destructive.
The Blennerhassett Sanctuary
The history of these islands is as rich as its soil, and for the 200 years prior to the islands joining the refuge system in the 1990s, their list of owners and uses regularly changed. However, the 381-acre Blennerhassett is certainly the most storied.
The island features Blennerhassett Mansion, a reconstruction of the former home of Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett. It is known for its extravagance and accompanying scandal.
The story goes that in 1796, the Blennerhassetts arrived in Pittsburgh from Ireland to start a new life in America. With plenty of money in their pockets, they had their eyes set on settling in Tennessee, the Union’s newest state.
Before long, the two became aware of the brutal reality that was the American West, contrary to what they had been told was full of “Gardens of Eden.” Rather than settling in Tennessee, the family decided to plant their roots in the upper Ohio River Valley.
In 1797, they arrived in Marietta to live along the Ohio River. “It one was one of the great rivers in the world,” Swick says. “[Thomas] Jefferson said it was one of the most beautiful rivers in the universe. The land was extremely fertile and the most fertile lands were on the [river] islands.”
In 1798, the Blennerhassetts purchased 169 acres of Belpre Island, and by September of 1800, their mansion was completed.
Standing behind meticulously manicured lawns and gardens was a 12-room, white mansion that contained about 7,000 square-feet of living space. Trees were cleared in the front lawn of the home so passersby on the river could see the impressive Palladian-style home well from afar. The Blennerhassetts wanted to make an impression.
But the family’s stay in their home was short-lived, after they were accused of supporting former vice president Aaron Burr’s conspiracy to form an army in the west, a treason against his own nation.
Blennerhassett offered Burr financial support and his own home as a base of operations, and with militia coming to the island, the family deserted their homestead in 1807.
In March 1811, the island was under the ownership of Thomas Neale, who farmed hemp on the land and used the mansion to store around 20 tons of his crop.
It is said that his slaves started a fire for warmth in his cellar, and the fire spread to the hemp and, eventually, it burned down the house. Historians like Swick note the event as curious, given the slaves had means to start fires for warmth in their quarters.
The single-family ownership of the island lasted just more than a decade. After the house’s destruction, the island was divided into five farms and rented out for the next century. DuPont purchased the island in 1966, for water and aquifer purposes in its plastic manufacturing.
To this day, the whole island is still owned by DuPont, and the mansion site is leased to the state of West Virginia.
Swick credits American bicentennial fever that was sweeping the nation in the 1970s for the idea of reconstructing the mansion and making a state park out of the island. “The federal government was just
shoving money at localities,” he says.
And Blennerhassett was considered one of the most significant cites in the region’s history. Between 1973 and 1974, state archaeologists dug up the mansion’s ruins and uncovered its foundation stones.
In 1980, the island opened up as a state park, similar to today’s refuge islands. Besides natural sites, the visitors could see the foundation stones. In 1984, reconstruction of the mansion began, and on July 4, 1991, the rebuilt Blennerhassett mansion was opened to the public.
With the foundation stones uncovered, architects knew the dimensions of the house’s ground floor. A journal from a visitor tipped them off that the room layout on the second floor mirrored the ground floor. Those clues provided a solid start for a rebuild, but it was travelers’ accounts, court records and the Blennerhassetts’ own writings that filled in most of the remaining holes.
For example, architects knew how many windows were in the house and their sizes because they have records from when Harman was purchasing windows for the house. “Blennerhassett has the best recorded history of any island in the river,” Swick says. Anyone associated with it always recorded plenty of information.
For Swick and the rest of the staff that were involved in the rebuild, those records were like a mosaic. Eventually, they got enough information for a whole picture.
The front three rooms of the main part of the house are the most accurately reconstructed rooms. To the right of the main entry room is the lower drawing room, with polished black walnut panels from floor to ceiling. But while there is still a lot known about the rooms, there are still unknowns.
Upon entering the house, the wide, spacious and curved staircase to the second floor grab attention on the right side of the room. Swick says that the museum staff still is not sure exactly where the original stairs were. “There are still mysteries that this house has not given up,” he says.
The house is not all brand new. Along with the original foundation stones, the house holds 15 original artifacts. Three alabaster pieces that were found in Akron, Ohio, and a piano that was found in Gallipolis are also a part of the museum. When the Blennerhassetts deserted the mansion, they could take few possessions with them. Months after their departure, their belongings were auctioned off and scattered hundreds of miles.
All said and done, the mansion reconstruction cost almost $1 million.
Like the refuge islands, Blennerhassett is accessed only by boat. The difference is that visitors must purchase a ferry ride on a sternwheeler to reach the island. On the island, guests can tour the house, rent bicycles, take a horse-drawn carriage ride around the island, visit the gift shop and have a picnic under shelters.
Today, the island draws over 50,000 visitors annually. Swick believes the island continues to draw in visitors because of its unique story, which he calls a microcosm of American history. Though it is most known for the period that the Blennerhassetts inhabited the island, much more has happened on the little strip of land. Native Americans inhabited the island up to 13,000 years ago. Civil War incidents occurred on the island, as did bootlegging wars. “There was excitement at all times,” Swick says. “Whatever was going on in the rest of the nation, you will find examples [on Blennerhassett].”
“You drive past them, you see them, but you don’t really think about what is possible to do out there,” Swick says.
While our country’s history constantly shifts, the islands continue residing in the Ohio River, unmoving and constant. Sometimes those traits escape our notice.
In this case, you just have to look.
Prohibition Era-Styled Bar emphasizes good drinks, good music and the comfort of community.
Tara Gillum, the 33 year old owner of Steiner’s Speakeasy in Chillicothe, says her idea for the retro drinking establishment derives from a plan she and her now-deceased grandfather shared. “I just happened to see this place come up for sale the very next month after he passed, and I kind of thought that was an omen,” Gillum says.
Steiner’s Speakeasy opened June 2, 2014. Steiner’s is named after Gillum’s grandfather, Benjamin Steiner, and Speakeasy comes from her love for the prohibition era evidenced by prohibition bottle and lantern lighting.
Don’t expect bathtub gin at Steiner’s. This bar specializes in handcrafted cocktails and craft beer. The cocktails menu changes seasonally, so this winter’s drinks will use homemade simple syrups, for example, vanilla salted-caramel simple syrup and figs. “Think rich in spices and layers of flavor,” Gillum says.
Steiner’s also specializes in made-to-order mule cocktails. Gillum says that any liquor a customer wants can be put into a mule of his or her choosing. Steiner’s buys most of its ingredients from farmer’s markets so weekend drink specials are based on those ingredients.
One drink always served in Steiner’s is General Sherman’s Hooch, the speakeasy’s special and secret punch. The pink concoction comes served in a mason jar. “We don’t let people have more than three of them,” Gillum says about this signature— and strong—drink.
Drinks are not the establishment’s only popular feature. Steiner’s was named the no. 5 Americana music venue in the country by American Roots magazine, and its stage hosts both local artists and nationally touring artists, such as Zach Deputy. “I feel like the community has embraced our music program in general. It’s almost like if we have music, people are here, and that’s exciting,” Gillum says.
Steiner’s Speakeasy is a small bar, with only two staff members and no televisions. Gillum says the idea is that customers talk to the people around them, listen to music together and bring back that sense of community. Pictures of family align the walls, including a photograph of Gillum’s late grandfather and his wife on their wedding day. There is a small stage to the left of the main entrance, enhancing the space. The bar is set in the back of the room, taking up almost the entire left side. Steiner’s small space lends it an intimate and easy feel.
Gillum says her true motivations reside in the idea of community. “We care about our customers; they aren’t just money in our pocket. We want people to feel like they’re friends here, that they can come here and be comfortable,” Gillum says.
No doubt, such sentiment would make Benjamin Steiner proud.
The Lawrence County law enforcement officers participate in their annual Shop With a Cop program, giving presents to the children of local families in need. The program has continued to grow over the years, as well as the relationships between the officers and families of the community.
The Lawrence County law enforcement officers have taken the phrase “To Serve and Protect” to a whole new level. They are breaking down the barriers between the community and the police, creating a positive and trusting relationship. Not only are the law enforcement officials taking on their normal roles of protectors and enforcers of the law, but they have also added a unique job to the list: Santa Claus.
Lawrence County’s “Shop with a Cop” program was put together by several law enforcement agencies throughout the county seven years ago. The Ohio State Highway Patrol originally started helping a single family during Christmas 25 years ago. Local police departments, fire departments, the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office, and court systems wanted to be involved and partnered with the Highway Patrol – launching the Shop with a Cop program. The goal of the program is to provide Christmas presents to children in struggling families, as well as for children to bond with the officers and interact with them in a fun environment.
“It is so rewarding to see the joy in children’s eyes that normally might not get anything at all for Christmas,” says Lawrence County Sheriff, Jeff Lawless. “To see the relief in a parent’s eyes knowing that their child is going to receive a Christmas gift and that they’re not burdened with not being able to provide that gift is just such a great thing.”
Making It All Possible
Each year, a list is compiled by the law enforcement agencies. Schools or local businesses will turn in the name of a family that they feel needs help around the holidays. Once the list is completed, the families are told the date and time to be present at Walmart. Each eager child receives $225 to spend and is paired with an officer to go around and shop. Before any toy shopping can be done, the officers have the children pick out all the necessities first, including coats, shoes and clothing. This program does not just happen overnight. The participating law enforcement agencies have been planning and fundraising for this event all year long. All the money used to fund the program is from donations from sponsors-made up of local business, individuals and the law enforcement agencies. One of the biggest ways the department raises money is by selling apple butter for $8 a quart. The department goes through the entire process from preparing the apple butter and cutting the apples to cooking and jarring the butter.
A Success for Lawrence County’s “Santas”
Shop with a Cop’s most successful year was 2014, raising nearly $14,000 to help 49 local children. In previous years, the department was only able to help roughly 30-40 children. Due to an increased number of donations and extra work that law officials have done, they have been able to help out more children each and every year. “There is a need to help the less fortunate in our community and all over, and it’s our job to take care of these kids,” says Trish Scarberry of the Ohio State Highway Patrol. The Lawrence County Sherriff’s Department says that donations have been coming in higher than last year, and they “are very hopeful to be able to help at least 50 and beyond this year.”
After a profitable Kickstarter campaign, owner Rich Thomas introduces the latest incarnation of his lifelong tattoo museum project to the Bidwell community. Just west of Gallipolis, a small, golden building sticks out among the neutral scenery. Were it not for its striking yellow exterior, the boxy […]