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Southwestern Ohio: From Ripley to Rugrats


Thousands of slaves crossed the Ohio River at Ripley on their road to freedom. Copyright: Kathryn Means, 2001.At first glance, the Village of Ripley, Ohio, looks like any other small settlement frozen in amber along the bends of the Ohio River. But poke around in its past and a visceral panorama of good and evil springs to life. Ripley was a major stop on the Underground Railroad rolling north from the Deep South through Kentucky. Men and women of this tiny hamlet risked their lives to help thousands of runaway slaves escape to freedom.

 

One of those slaves was a young mother clutching her child to her bosom as she made a dangerous escape across the ice floes of the river. She was immortalized by abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe in her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe's father, Lyman Beecher, was a Congregational minister in Cincinnati who heard the story from his friend, the Rev. John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister who operated a "safe house" for runaways. His cottage, built in 1828, still crowns Ripley's Liberty Hill overlooking the river.

Stowe's epic novel, published in 1853, was such a powerful condemnation of slavery that when President Abraham Lincoln was introduced to her in 1862 during the height of the Civil War, he remarked: "So this is the little lady who made this big war."

Ripley, incidentally, was named after General Eleazar Wheelock Ripley, an American commander in the War of 1812, and not the famous "Believe it or Not" newspaper columnist Robert Leroy Ripley,

An early morning mist shrouded the river when I visited the Rankin cottage and climbed the "stairway to liberty, " the steep hill slaves would have climbed en route to freedom when they saw a candle in the window of Rankin's cottage.

I first read Uncle Tom’s Cabin when I was a child growing up just a few hundred miles away in Central Ohio. Ripley seemed a world away to me then. The river is wider and deeper than it was when the slaves crossed it in the 19th century. A series of levies has raised the water level.

A candle in the window of John and Jean Rankin’s cottage was a beacon of hope on the Underground Railroad. Copyright: Kathryn Means, 2001.In my mind's eye, I re-enacted Eliza's heart- stopping retreat with the bounty hunters and bloodhounds following close behind. I wouldn't have had Eliza's courage or the bravery of John and Jean Rankin – parents of 13 children – who, along with their abolitionist neighbors, outwitted the slave hunters and helped more than 2,000 slaves escape.

Perhaps even more amazing is the story of John Parker. Born into slavery, he managed to purchase his freedom and immediately began helping other slaves escape. Not content to wait passively for slaves to cross the river from Kentucky, he risked his life rowing across at night to pick them up.Against the greatest odds in a culture dominated by whites, John Parker established one of Ripley's most prosperous businesses, a foundry that employed both whites and blacks. He received several patents for his inventions and educated six children, among them lawyers, teachers and musicians. His home, now a National Historic Landmark facing the river at 300 Front Street, is currently being restored. Civil War buffs will also note that Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States, once boarded with a family who lived at 206 Front Street while he attended school in Ripley. Grant grew up in nearby Georgetown.

Betty Campbell, whose family has lived in Ripley for generations, conducts a heritage tour. Copyright: Kathryn Means, 2001.Among the collection of historic homes on Front Street is that of Dr. Alfred Beasley, an abolitionist who once treated both a severely wounded bounty hunter and the slave he was trying to capture without the other knowing it.

The home at 114 Front Street was the residence of Dr. Alexander Campbell, a Virginian who freed his slaves and moved to Ohio in 1803. Betty Campbell, the wife of one of Dr. Campbell's descendants, leads walking tours through Ripley. Her family was one of the earliest to settle in the area. Ohio's Governor Bob Taft was among those soaking up history on Campbell's heritage tour the day I visited. Locals watching the river from their front porch rockers soon found themselves shaking hands with a dignitary.

Ohio's current governor is a direct descendent of President William Howard Taft who grew up in this home. Copyright: Kathryn Means, 2001.Governor Taft's family history is loaded with historical icons. He is the direct descendant of President William Howard Taft and his father was Senator Bob Taft. William Howard Taft's boyhood home in Cincinnati is a much-visited national historic site. Ripley is 55 miles east of Cincinnati, a gentle one-hour scenic drive through rolling hills along the river.

Before heading back to Cincy, as it is called by locals, I detoured to Serpent Mound. Uncoiling for a quarter of a mile, it is the largest serpent effigy in North America, drawing curious visitors from all over the world. Who built the mound and why is still debated, but the land around it was occupied by the prehistoric Adena people from 800 B.C. to 100 A.D.

An Old Order Amish community is clustered in nearby West Union, Ohio, on the edge of the Appalachian foothills. Brothers Daniel and Gerold Miller sell hand-crafted Amish furniture purchased from more than 100 furniture makers, most of whom live in the Amish settlement in Holmes County, Ohio, or in Pennsylvania.

Gerold is an extravert who readily talks about the Amish and their traditions. "People think the Amish have long faces and short pocketbooks," he quips. He doesn't get rattled when a man asks how he can become Amish and avoid paying taxes. The Amish, in fact, pay school tax, support their own schools and pay income tax. They don't pay Social Security taxes, "but we don't draw Social Security either," Gerold explains.I drool over a solid cherry Mission-style dining table and chairs in the huge showroom before visiting the family bakery. The aroma of freshly baked strawberry-rhubarb pies makes my mouth water even more.

Murphin Ridge Inn is almost within hiking distance of Miller's Bakery and Furniture and that is where I pull in for the night. I'm convinced Sherry and Darryl McKenney were born to be innkeepers. Although Chef Renee Schuler presides over the dining room, Sherry loves to cook breakfast and Darryl is an everybody's favorite uncle-type who dishes out bonhomie and one-liners along with the pancakes.

Dinner is served in an 1820s farmhouse. The emphasis is on locally grown and organic ingredients. After a meal of soup, salad, homemade biscuits, roasted lamb chops from locally raised sheep, and toasted polenta cakes – all leading up to a white nectarine and blueberry crisp served warm with ice cream – I wonder how I will face a full country breakfast the next morning. Maybe I'd better take advantage of the tennis courts and go for a swim before retreating to my cozy room to enjoy the custom furnishings by southern Ohio's master craftsman David T. Smith. I end the evening watching fireflies dance over a wheat field.

Fountain Square dominates the heart of Cincinnati. Copyright: Kathryn Means, 2001.I can't leave southern Ohio without a quick visit to the Cincinnati Zoo where I saw my first exotic animals when I was a child. Owing to the success of its breeding program, it is known as the sexiest zoo in America. I want to check up on the pregnant Sumatran rhino. If she succeeds in carrying her baby to term, it will be the first time in 112 years that a rhino in captivity has given birth and may help regenerate that endangered species. (Note: A healthy male rhino calf was born at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 14.)

A nostalgic paddle-wheeler ride on the Ohio, biking on the Little Miami bike trail and rafting on the Little Miami River, plus trips to museums and historical sites round out my swing through southwestern Ohio. I end my four-day getaway clowning with Rugrat characters at Paramount's Kings Island, the largest theme and water park in the Midwest. Its new Rugrats "Reptar" roller coaster is, well, a runaway attraction. Kings Island is home to the world's longest wooden roller coast – The Beast, and its scary son – Son of Beast, the world's tallest, fastest and only looping wooden roller coaster. I'll wait for my second childhood before I board those again.

For More Information:

 

Ohio Tourism: 800-282-5393 www.OhioTourism.com
Ohio Historical Society: 888-909-6446 www.ohiohistory.org
Village of Ripley, Ohio: www.ripleyohio.com
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center: www.undergroundrailroad.org
Greater Cincinnati Convention & Visitors Bureau: 800-543-2613 www.cincyusa.com

Against the greatest odds in a culture dominated by whites, John Parker established one of Ripley's most prosperous businesses, a foundry that employed both whites and blacks. He received several patents for his inventions and educated six children, among them lawyers, teachers and musicians. His home, now a National Historic Landmark facing the river at 300 Front Street, is currently being restored. Civil War buffs will also note that Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States, once boarded with a family who lived at 206 Front Street while he attended school in Ripley. Grant grew up in nearby Georgetown.

Betty Campbell, whose family has lived in Ripley for generations, conducts a heritage tour. Copyright: Kathryn Means, 2001.Among the collection of historic homes on Front Street is that of Dr. Alfred Beasley, an abolitionist who once treated both a severely wounded bounty hunter and the slave he was trying to capture without the other knowing it.

The home at 114 Front Street was the residence of Dr. Alexander Campbell, a Virginian who freed his slaves and moved to Ohio in 1803. Betty Campbell, the wife of one of Dr. Campbell's descendants, leads walking tours through Ripley. Her family was one of the earliest to settle in the area. Ohio's Governor Bob Taft was among those soaking up history on Campbell's heritage tour the day I visited. Locals watching the river from their front porch rockers soon found themselves shaking hands with a dignitary.

Ohio's current governor is a direct descendent of President William Howard Taft who grew up in this home. Copyright: Kathryn Means, 2001.Governor Taft's family history is loaded with historical icons. He is the direct descendant of President William Howard Taft and his father was Senator Bob Taft. William Howard Taft's boyhood home in Cincinnati is a much-visited national historic site. Ripley is 55 miles east of Cincinnati, a gentle one-hour scenic drive through rolling hills along the river.

Before heading back to Cincy, as it is called by locals, I detoured to Serpent Mound. Uncoiling for a quarter of a mile, it is the largest serpent effigy in North America, drawing curious visitors from all over the world. Who built the mound and why is still debated, but the land around it was occupied by the prehistoric Adena people from 800 B.C. to 100 A.D.

An Old Order Amish community is clustered in nearby West Union, Ohio, on the edge of the Appalachian foothills. Brothers Daniel and Gerold Miller sell hand-crafted Amish furniture purchased from more than 100 furniture makers, most of whom live in the Amish settlement in Holmes County, Ohio, or in Pennsylvania.

Gerold is an extravert who readily talks about the Amish and their traditions. "People think the Amish have long faces and short pocketbooks," he quips. He doesn't get rattled when a man asks how he can become Amish and avoid paying taxes. The Amish, in fact, pay school tax, support their own schools and pay income tax. They don't pay Social Security taxes, "but we don't draw Social Security either," Gerold explains.I drool over a solid cherry Mission-style dining table and chairs in the huge showroom before visiting the family bakery. The aroma of freshly baked strawberry-rhubarb pies makes my mouth water even more.

Murphin Ridge Inn is almost within hiking distance of Miller's Bakery and Furniture and that is where I pull in for the night. I'm convinced Sherry and Darryl McKenney were born to be innkeepers. Although Chef Renee Schuler presides over the dining room, Sherry loves to cook breakfast and Darryl is an everybody's favorite uncle-type who dishes out bonhomie and one-liners along with the pancakes.

Dinner is served in an 1820s farmhouse. The emphasis is on locally grown and organic ingredients. After a meal of soup, salad, homemade biscuits, roasted lamb chops from locally raised sheep, and toasted polenta cakes – all leading up to a white nectarine and blueberry crisp served warm with ice cream – I wonder how I will face a full country breakfast the next morning. Maybe I'd better take advantage of the tennis courts and go for a swim before retreating to my cozy room to enjoy the custom furnishings by southern Ohio's master craftsman David T. Smith. I end the evening watching fireflies dance over a wheat field.

Fountain Square dominates the heart of Cincinnati. Copyright: Kathryn Means, 2001.I can't leave southern Ohio without a quick visit to the Cincinnati Zoo where I saw my first exotic animals when I was a child. Owing to the success of its breeding program, it is known as the sexiest zoo in America. I want to check up on the pregnant Sumatran rhino. If she succeeds in carrying her baby to term, it will be the first time in 112 years that a rhino in captivity has given birth and may help regenerate that endangered species. (Note: A healthy male rhino calf was born at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 14.)

A nostalgic paddle-wheeler ride on the Ohio, biking on the Little Miami bike trail and rafting on the Little Miami River, plus trips to museums and historical sites round out my swing through southwestern Ohio. I end my four-day getaway clowning with Rugrat characters at Paramount's Kings Island, the largest theme and water park in the Midwest. Its new Rugrats "Reptar" roller coaster is, well, a runaway attraction. Kings Island is home to the world's longest wooden roller coast – The Beast, and its scary son – Son of Beast, the world's tallest, fastest and only looping wooden roller coaster. I'll wait for my second childhood before I board those again.

For More Information:

Ohio Tourism: 800-282-5393 www.OhioTourism.com
Ohio Historical Society: 888-909-6446 www.ohiohistory.org
Village of Ripley, Ohio: www.ripleyohio.com
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center: www.undergroundrailroad.org
Greater Cincinnati Convention & Visitors Bureau: 800-543-2613 www.cincyusa.com