Most recently updated on March 7, 2023
Originally posted on April 25, 2021
We’ll be traveling from north to south through the heart of Ohio on our virtual journey today, but first we take a little 20-minute detour east.
The route brings us to the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights.
You may be familiar with this community of 29,000 people if you’re a fan of the 2017 novel “Little Fires Everywhere.”
This higher income town is the setting for the book by Celeste Ng as well as the 2020 Hulu series starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington.
As the town’s name implies, this settlement was established by the North Union Community of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, a group commonly known as the Shakers.
This northern Ohio community was organized in 1822 by Ralph Russell who brought about 80 settlers with him. The self-sufficient village was built on 1,300 acres.
The residents sold dairy products, brooms, furniture, herbs and linen goods to the outside world.
The colony peaked at 300 citizens in 1850, but then faded as Cleveland grew. It was finally abandoned by its final 27 residents in 1889.
In 1905, the land was purchased for $1 million by brothers M. J. Van Sweringen and O. P. Van Sweringen. The property was located at the 1,000-foot-elevation territory of Cleveland Heights.
The Sweringen brothers envisioned a “garden style suburb” outside of Cleveland’s urban setting. They imposed strict development guidelines that included tree planting and streets designed for quiet ambiance. They also dammed Doan Brook to form two lakes.
The community seceded from Cleveland Heights in 1911 and was incorporated as a village. In 1916, the Van Sweringen brothers bought the Nickel Plate Railroad and used those rails to create a rapid transit system into Cleveland. The commuter service originated in 1920 and is still in use today.
Initially, the community was mostly white due to restrictive zoning rules implemented by the Van Sweringen brothers.
In the 1950s, the community made an effort to integrate. African-Americans moved from Cleveland to the town’s Ludlow neighborhood. In 1963, Shaker Heights was reported to be the wealthiest community in the country.
In 1970, a busing system was implemented to integrate schools. In 1986, the city began a Fund for the Future of Shaker Heights to provide loans for people to buy homes in segregated neighborhoods. In 2017, the fund donated its assets to the Shaker Heights Development Corporation.
Today, the town is 53 percent white, 36 percent Black and 3 percent Asian. Its median annual household income is about $92,000 and a typical home costs about $275,000.
A 2019 Washington Post article detailed the Shaker Heights’ 60-year journey to try to create and maintain a truly integrated town from the housing loan program to the school buses. However, as the story written by a journalist who grew up in Shaker Heights points out, the town is still struggling to close achievement gaps in its education between students of different races as well as underlying racial tensions in some neighborhoods.
This ethnic mix, simmering resentment and income disparity were major themes in Ng’s book.
Ng grew up in Shaker Heights. She told “CBS Sunday Morning” in April 2020 about her life as the child of an interracial marriage between a Chinese man and a white woman.
Actor Paul Newman was also born in Shaker Heights. The Oscar-winning performer grew up here before moving away to attend Ohio University.
The rapper Machine Gun Kelly also has roots here. He was born Richard Colson Baker in Houston, Texas, but his family moved here during his childhood and he graduated from Shaker Heights High School in 2008.
From Shakers Heights, we turn south and drive for 40 minutes until we hit the town of Kent.
The community of 28,000 is most famous for a 1970 war protest that turned deadly, but it is also the home of the country’s best known tree service as well as an unusual type of squirrel.
The Mound Builders were among the early tribes that inhabited this region. It was first settled by Europeans in 1805 who liked its location along the Cuyahoga River.
The early economy was driven by water-powered mills. Manufacturing increased after the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal was completed in 1840.
The town was a stop on the Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves from 1835 to 1839 while abolitionist John Brown operated a tannery along with Zenas Kent.
When the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad was finished in 1863, Marvin Kent helped establish maintenance shops for the rail system. The town was named for him in 1864.
The Twin Coach Company was founded in Kent in 1927. At one point, the company was the second largest urban bus manufacturing firm in the country. It operated until it was sold in 1958.
The city is also home to Kent State University, which was founded in 1910 as a teacher training school.
Kent State is best known for a shooting that occurred on campus during a protest against the Vietnam War on May 4, 1970.
The demonstrations were sparked by President Richard Nixon’s announcement on April 30 that the United States had invaded Cambodia as part of its war effort.
The shooting happened on the third day of protests. About 3,000 people had gathered for a noon demonstration when 28 of the 70 National Guard troops on site opened fire on the crowd near a parking lot. More than 60 rounds were unleashed during the 13-second spree. Four students were killed and nine people were injured.
The killings shocked the nation and further undermined support for the U.S. military campaign in Vietnam. There were protests across the country in the days following. On May 9, a nationwide student strike was held. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young released the song “Ohio” that contained the words, “Four dead in Ohio.” In 1979, an out-of-court settlement was reached for $675,000 by the college and students injured in the clash and their families.
For two decades, Kent State officials resisted attempts to establish a memorial on campus. In 1990, a concrete marker near the shooting site was finally built. In 1999, the college blocked off four parking spaces where the four fatally wounded students fell. In 2006, a historical marker was installed. In 2010, a walking tour was established. Part of that tour includes a rusty sculpture where a bullet hole from a National Guard rifle shot remains.
In 2013, a May 4 Visitors Center was opened in the college’s old newspaper office. It includes the hats worn by the two women on the day they were killed. There’s also a memorial overlooking the grounds where the confrontation took place. An annual candlelight vigil is held, too.
There is a lot more to Kent State than the 1970 shooting, though.
The college is the number one employer in town. It consists of 119 buildings on 866 acres with nearly 20,000 students on its main campus here.
The college has also helped the city lure some high tech industry for its Centennial Research Park.
The park is part of the redevelopment efforts in the downtown area that began in 2007 and have resulted in $110 million in private and public investment. The first program was the Phoenix Project, which produced the Acorn Alley of shops.
Kent is also home to the Davey Tree Expert Company. The firm was founded here in 1880 by John Davey, who is considered to be the father of the science of tree surgery as well as arboriculture. Davey learned his craft while working at the Standing Rock Cemetery in Kent and planting trees there.
After starting his company, Davey published the book “The Tree Doctor” in 1901. He established the Davey Institute of Tree Surgery in 1908.
The company has been employee owned since 1979. It’s the 8th largest company of its type in the United States.
Davey Tree has 10,000 employees in North America with annual revenue of more than $1 billion. It announced plans in 2019 to double the size of its Kent headquarters.
The company partners with environmental groups on tree habitats. It has also gone into regions to help after hurricanes have damaged trees.
Due to Davey Tree and arbor-related efforts by local residents, Kent has been labeled as “The Tree City” with a number of local businesses such as Tree City Coffee taking on the moniker.
Many of the city’s trees are home to a growing population of black squirrels. The animals were introduced into the area in 1961 when a parks superintendent and an employee of Davey Tree released 10 black squirrels from Canada into Kent’s park lands. The original population has grown dramatically since then with the squirrels commonly seen throughout town.
Kent State has been holding a Black Squirrel Festival every fall since 1981.
Where the Rubber Used to Hit the Road
Out of Kent, we swerve southwest, eventually connecting with Interstate 76.
In less than a half-hour, we arrive in Akron, a city of nearly 190,000 that was once famous for rubber and tires but also has quite a history of toy manufacturing and is now a leading area for an important material known as polymers.
Akron is also the locale of a famous speech in women’s equality as well as the place where Alcoholics Anonymous got its start.
All this began in 1825 when the area’s initial European settlers laid out their town along the Little Cuyahoga River. They named it Akron after the Greek Word for “high place” since it sits at an elevation of 1,050 feet.
The community became a strategic point along the Ohio and Erie Canal after its completion in 1827 as well as the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal when it was finished in 1840. European immigrants as well as migrants from Appalachia and the South came looking for work.
A manufacturing industry arose. It included mills, furnaces and textile factories. Farmers brought crops to these facilities to be produced and transported.
The railroads arrived in the 1850s, bringing in more industry. That included an oat bar mill, cereal companies, and stoneware and sewer pipe manufacturers. The Diamond Match Company, which at one point made one-fifth of the matches in the country, set up shop here in 1881.
In 1884, the Akron Toy Company was established by Samuel Dyke. In 1891, Dyke founded the American Marble & Toy Manufacturing Company here. The factory manufactured clay marbles and it became the first mass produced toy in the United States. At one point, the plant churned out 1 million marbles per day. The company also produced rubber balloons, dolls, balls and other playthings. There is an American Toy Marble Museum in town.
In the late 1800s, the tire industry was also revving up in Akron. The B.F. Goodrich Company opened the Akron Rubber Works in 1871. At first, the plant produced fire hoses. In 1890, it began manufacturing bicycle tires. In the early 1900s, automobile tires became its biggest commodity, outfitting 1 million cars in 1913.
After World War Two, Goodrich shifted its focus to the aviation business. It had already provided the tires for the plane Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. In 1961, NASA awarded Goodrich a contract to make spacesuits for astronauts. In 1988, the company exited the tire business to concentrate on its aerospace industry.
The Goodrich company hasn’t been the only game in town.
In 1898, the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company was founded in Akron. In 1907, the company sold 1,200 tires to Henry Ford for use on his Model T automobiles. In 1916, it had become the world’s largest tire company. In 1917, Goodyear built its first blimp. In 1937, it introduced the world’s first synthetic rubber tire. In 1942, the company started building fighter jets for Corsair. In 1971, Goodyear achieved the milestone of being the first tires on the moon when its product was used on a vehicle in the Apollo 14 mission. In the 1990s, Goodyear started partnership operations in China and Japan.
In 1900, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company began operations here. In 1904, it developed pneumatic tires for automobiles. In 1905, Ford ordered his first batch of tires from Firestone. In 1910, the company manufactured 1 million tires. In 1911, Firestone started making tires for race cars and had a string of winning vehicles in the Indianapolis 500. Firestone also operated auto service centers where customers could purchase the company’s tires. In 1988, Firestone was purchased by Japan-based Bridgestone Corporation.
General Tire Rubber Company started up in 1915 in Akron. The company was known for an oversized pneumatic tire called General Jumbo that was a breakthrough for heavy-duty trucks. By the 1930s, the company was number one in the United States for truck tires. They also sealed a deal with International Harvester to make tires for agricultural vehicles.
At one time, there were 300 companies producing tires in the country. However, by the mid-1930s, the four Akron rubber companies dominated the market.
Those powerful companies helped Akron earn the nickname “The Rubber Capital of the World.” Neighborhoods such as Goodyear Heights and Firestone Park were built to accommodate employees.
The city’s population skyrocketed from 70,000 to 210,000 by 1920. It topped 300,000 by the mid-1920s. Akron was the country’s fastest growing city from 1910 to 1930.
Some significant growing pains hit the city during this time.
The surplus of jobs brought in European and other immigrants looking for work. That rapid expansion also resulted in labor unrest, including a 1936 strike by the United Rubber Workers over what union leaders said were low wages, poor working conditions and a lack of health and other benefits. In this protest, employees conduct a sit-in where they refused to work and also refused to leave their work stations. That prevented companies from sending in replacement workers. In the end, Goodyear and other companies recognized the union and negotiated more favorable contracts.
The Ku Klux Klan also established a strong presence in Akron in the 1920s and 1930s. At times, members of the white supremacist organization held positions on the school board as well as mayor.
In addition, the prohibition era brought in illegal alcohol sales and gambling during the 1920s.
The Great Depression hit the city hard with unemployment in industrial fields reaching 60 percent. World War Two helped revive local industry, but that rebound only lasted a few decades.
In the 1970s, Akron became one of many communities in the United States that saw its manufacturing base decline. The fall of the U.S. tire industry began when the French company Michelin developed the radial tire in the 1960s. Other European companies quickly followed while U.S. firms stuck to their older technologies.
The strategy didn’t work well as U.S. companies floundered and overseas competitors flourished.
Michelin eventually purchased Goodrich. Other firms snapped other U.S. brands.
Today, U.S. tire manufacturing is a $24 billion annual industry with more than 500 businesses employing 60,000 people. Many of those operations are foreign owned and Akron is no longer a player.
The last passenger tire was produced in Akron in 1982. General Tire closed its plant in 1983. BF Goodrich left Akron in 1996.
Goodyear Tire still has its headquarters here, producing tires for race cars at the Akron plant.
The industry that is thriving in the region now is polymers. These are molecular structures used in the formation of rubber, glass, paper, Silly Putty, waterproof sealants and other products.
The industry put down stakes in the region in the 1980s to take advantage of the mineral and transportation resources here. There was also an available skilled workforce from the fading rubber industry.
This area in northeast Ohio is known as Polymer Valley with its center in Akron. There are more than 400 polymer manufacturers in this part of the state with 94 located in the Akron region.
The Goodyear Polymer Center at the University of Akron employs scientists who work in two tall towers that include 60 labs amid its classrooms.
The local economy still has some manufacturing along with healthcare, education and biomedical research jobs.
Those industries are needed in a town that has lost one-third of its population since its heyday in the 1920s. Today, the ethnic mix of the city is 56 percent white and 30 percent Black. The median annual household income is $42,000 with a poverty rate of 23 percent.
The city is also dealing with a drug problem it has had for decades.
In 2019, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency pinpointed Akron as a major drop-off point for methamphetamines from Mexico that are then delivered to the Midwest and Northeast. In 2019, authorities also shut down a crystal meth pipeline that ran from Akron to Pennsylvania.
Like West Virginia, Ohio has suffered from an opioid addiction epidemic the past decade. Akron was one of the epicenters. In 2016, the city recorded 340 opioid overdose deaths, almost one per day. During that year, city officials were using a mobile morgue to store the bodies.
There was a decline for a couple years after that, but then fatal drug overdoses increased in Akron’s Summit County in 2019 and jumped significantly in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. The chief culprit was the synthetic opioid known as fentanyl.
Akron was one of the 2,000 government entities involved in a lawsuit against Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the makers of Oxycontin. That legal action was settled out of court in 2019.
The city was also the locale of violent protests in summer 2022 after Jayland Walker, a 25-year-old African-American man, was shot and killed by police after trying to flee from a traffic stop. Walker was unarmed, wearing a ski mask and running from his car when he was shot 60 times by officers. A curfew was imposed and the Fourth of July fireworks show was cancelled in the wake of protests over Walker’s death. The incident is under investigation, but no charges have been filed yet. The eight officers involved were reinstated to non-patrol duties in October 2022.
Akron does have a number of historic highlights.
In 1847, the Akron School Law was approved and created a K-12 education system where all schools in the city were placed in one district. That model was used throughout Ohio and the nation.
In 1851, Sojourner Truth, a former slave who became a preacher and a human rights campaigner, delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at the Women’s Convention in Akron. There are disputes about whether Truth actually said those exact words, but her speech nonetheless had quite an impact. There is a memorial at the Old Stone Church where the convention was held.
In 1935, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith met in Akron and started the process of forming the group Alcoholics Anonymous. The two men, both of whom were alcoholics, found that talking to others who had the same addiction was quite helpful.
The organization is well known for its 12-step recovery process.
Today, there are more than 60,000 AA chapters in the United States and more than 110,000 chapters in 175 countries worldwide.
Cigars, Klondike Bars and Car Crashes
From Akron we make our way toward the center of Ohio by heading southwest on Interstate 76 until it merges with Interstate 71, a freeway we’ll spend the rest of the day on.
After an hour of passing through Ohio heartland, we reach Mansfield, a town of 47,000 with an eclectic history of cigars, ice cream, prison movies and strange films about automobile accidents.
When this region started out, it was at the edge of the country’s frontier wilderness.
The Mohicans originally lived in the area. The tribe still has a presence here with the Great Mohican Pow Pow usually held in June and September.
The first European settlers arrived in 1808, building a log cabin at a fork of the Mohican River. The early economy relied on agriculture due to the rich farmland in this hilly countryside.
The town developed into a manufacturing center when four railroads were built between 1846 and 1863. Local companies produced doors, brass objects, linseed oil, paper boxes, suspenders, stoves, pumps and buggies.
Over the next century, a series of industries dominated the local economy at different times.
The first was the cigar industry. In the late 1800s, there were 41 companies in Mansfield that manufactured cigars. By the early 1900s, the city produced more cigars per capita than any other place. In 1909, the town, with just 24,000 residents at the time, rolled up 50 million cigars in one year.
The biggest cigar factory belonged to Hautzenroeder & Company. It had 285 employees. Hautzenroeder, like other local cigar manufacturers, employed a lot of women and teenagers.
In 1913, Mansfield’s economy bumped up another notch when the Lincoln Highway opened. The 3,400-mile-long road rambled from New York City to San Francisco. It was the first road across the United States and was the country’s premiere highway at the time. Initially, it took 34 days to drive the entire length.
It laid the groundwork for Route 66 as well as the freeway construction of the 1950s. A 100th anniversary drive was held in 2013 involving 272 participants in 140 vehicles. Much of the original route is now freeways, but the motorists did their best to stick to the Lincoln Highway’s path.
The Lincoln Highway also spurred a rival road in the southern part of the country. Feeling left out of the cross-country thruway, the United Daughters of the Confederacy sponsored a campaign to build a Jefferson Davis Highway that would run from Arlington, Virginia, to San Diego, California. Much of the road was eventually built, but it didn’t quite stretch coast to coast. One segment of the route linked Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, and was used by civil rights protesters in their famous 1965 march. Most of the highway has been taken over by freeways, although there are still “Jefferson Davis Highway” signs in a handful of regions. Those signs are disappearing quickly. In February 2021, one such highway marker was removed in Richmond, Virginia.
As the Lincoln Highway barreled through Mansfield in the 1920s, the appliance industry took over the local economy.
Westinghouse Electric was the biggest employer in this field. The local facility started out as 5 acres and eventually grew to 42 buildings on 16 acres. At its height, the plant employed 8,500 people. Among the products were home appliances such as electric ranges, toaster stoves, vacuums, fans and curling irons.
Tappan Stove also had a major complex in town. The plant began operating in the late 1800s. For its first half-century, the factory produced stoves and ovens. In 1955, Tappan manufactured the first home microwave. In 1965, it unveiled the first combination conventional range and microwave oven. The facility closed in 1992 and the building was demolished in 2014.
Mansfield also has had a thriving ice cream business.
Isaly’s Dairy Companies started in 1912 when the Mansfield Milk Company began making ice cream. It eventually became popular for “skyscraper cones” at its local ice cream stand.
However, the company is best known for its Klondike bars. William Isaly created the ice cream treat in his Franklin Street store when he dipped frozen squares of ice cream into pans of melted Swiss milk chocolate.
Klondike bars were originally only sold in Ohio and Pennsylvania. In the 1970s, nationwide distribution began. Unilever acquired the Isaly Klondike Company in 1993 and now makes Klondikes.
At one point, there were 400 Islay stores in Ohio and Pennsylvania with 1,500 employees. Nine of those stores were in Mansfield, but they are all gone now.
A rather seamy and perhaps disturbing business also had its day in Mansfield.
It involved some car accident films made by the Highway Safety Foundation in the 1950s and 1960s. The foundation took footage of automobile crashes in the Mansfield area and then made videos using the gruesome scenes to teach safe driving to high school students across the country. The best known of those film was “Signal 30.”
The foundation branched out into other films. It also loaned its camera equipment to local police to film gay men engaging in sex in a city park restroom. The footage was eventually made into the 1962 training film for police called “Camera Surveillance.”
The foundation’s filmmaking business folded in 1974.
Mansfield was also the home of the Ohio State Reformatory. The 600-cell prison opened in 1896 and closed in 1990. The Shawshank Redemption was one of six prison-based movies filmed there.
The Mansfield Reformation Preservation Society took over the facility in 1995 and now operates tours and ghost walks.
The prison wasn’t the only institution to close.
Mansfield’s manufacturing industry declined in the 1970s and 1980s. General Motors closed its plant in 2010, one of 14 shut down nationwide in a cost-cutting move by the automobile maker.
AK Steel is one of the few large manufacturers that still has a factory in Mansfield.
The local economy has shifted to more service-based industries. Retail, healthcare and education are among the top businesses.
A program called Downtown Mansfield was started in 1989 to revive the city’s core by improving its image and stimulating economic development.
Centering Ourselves in Columbus
Columbus, Ohio, is at the center of a lot of things.
For starters, it’s pretty much in the middle of the Buckeye State.
It has also been an epicenter of transportation, the Civil War, the buggy industry, water filtration and the country’s aeronautic history.
In spring 2021, the city was the center of debate over the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old Black girl by a white Columbus police officer. Authorities say the girl was attacking others with a knife when she was shot by the officer. Columbus police released the officer’s body camera video within hours of the shooting. In March 2022, the officer was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing by prosecutors.
Another white Columbus police officer was indicted on murder charges in February 2021 for the December 2020 fatal shooting of a 47-year-old Black man. The victim, Andre Hill, was shot inside a garage as he walked toward the officer holding up an illuminated cell phone. The officer was fired days after the shooting. He had been scheduled to go on trial in November 2022, but the court hearings have been delayed.
To get to Columbus from Mansfield, you take Interstate 71 south for about an hour. You enter the city on its north side and get a good look at its size.
More than 940,000 people live in the state capital of Ohio. It’s by far the most populous city in the state and the 14th most populous in the country. It’s the second most populous city in the Midwest, behind only Chicago. It’s also the third most populous state capital, following Phoenix and Austin.
The land here has been highly sought after for centuries.
Native Americans, French explorers, British settlers and western pioneers fought over the territory for decades. The city was finally founded in 1812 at the confluence of the Scioto and Olentangy rivers when it was still surrounded by dense forests. It was named after Christopher Columbus and chosen as the state capital because of its central location.
The population boomed after 1831 when the city was connected by an 11-mile feeder canal to the Ohio and Erie Canal. The National Road arrived in 1836, connecting Columbus to Cumberland, Maryland, to the east and to Illinois in the west. In 1850, the Columbus and Xenia Railroad began operations, followed by the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati Railroad in 1851.
During the Civil War, the city was home to a major base camp for the Union Army with Camp Chase housing 26,000 soldiers and 10,000 Confederate prisoners. There are more than 2,200 Confederate soldiers buried at a cemetery in that locale.
In the late 1800s, Columbus was known as the “Buggy Capital of the World” due to the two dozen manufacturing facilities that made the transports. The largest was the Columbus Buggy Company, which claimed to be the world’s largest carriage producer. In 1900, the factory employed 1,000 people. However, the company went bankrupt in 1913 after a failed attempt at producing cars.
Overall, Columbus had 200 factories in the late 1800s producing everything from shoes to cigars to farm tools to brooms to furniture.
The city was also a center for the labor movement.
In 1886, the American Federation of Labor was founded here. In 1890, the United Mine Workers of American was established.
In 1908, Columbus built the first water plant that used filtration and water softening. It was called “The Columbus Experiment” and drastically reduced typhoid deaths. The system’s basic design is still used today.
Aviation has also been a big part of Columbus.
In 1910, the world’s first cargo flight delivered 70 pounds of fabric from Dayton to Columbus.
In World War One, military aviators from the city made a name for themselves. One of them was famous flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker.
The Port of Columbus Airport was a key facility in a rail-to-air network that transported people from the East Coast to the West Coast. An inaugural flight in 1929 carried 19 passengers to Oklahoma. One of them was famed aviator Amelia Earhart.
In 1964, Columbus native Geraldine F. Mock became the first woman to fly around the world when she piloted the “Spirit of Columbus” after departing from her hometown. Her trip took nearly 30 days.
The city is home to the John Glenn Columbus International Airport and the Rickenbacker International Airport.
Today’s economy is diverse, led by education, health, transportation, utilities and high tech industry. The city is also home to the Battelle Memorial Institute, the world’s largest private research and development foundation, as well as The Ohio State University, one of the country’s largest colleges. In fact, Columbus officials like to say they are riding the “knowledge economy.”
Columbus, however, is struggling with a wave of violence the past few years. In 2021, the city recorded 204 homicides. That surpassed the record number of 175 homicides reported in 2020. That number dropped to 140 homicides in 2022.
The city does have a growing LGBTQ population as well as the largest gay pride parade in the Midwest.
The German Village is a 233-acre neighborhood in southern Columbus that was settled by German immigrants in the late 1800s when Irish immigrants were establishing a foothold in the northern part of town. The village still features German architecture and cuisine.
Finally, there is the Scioto Mile, a string of parks along the Scioto River. There’s also a science center, foundation and trails. In 2018, the Scioto Greenway Project led to the purchase of 33 acres of new riverfront development. In 2019, Columbus unveiled self-driving shuttles that carry passengers along the Scioto Mile.
The shuttles are part of the ongoing Smart Columbus program, which organizers say will use open mobility and a “connected cities” approach to drive economic growth and improve people’s quality of life.
Before we cruise south to our final destination today on Ohio’s southern border, we need to make a quick side trip.
Less than 20 minutes northwest of Columbus is the town of Hilliard, a suburban community of nearly 40,000 people with a median annual household income of $106,000 and an median home price of about $330,000.
Among the reasons listed for the city’s higher incomes is the 2,200 companies located in town that employ 15,000 people as well as the number of colleges within commuting distances, including The Ohio State University.
Hilliard has a pretty straight-forward history.
It was settled by John Reed Hilliard when he purchased 10 acres of farmland in 1852. It grew when the Columbus, Piqua and Indiana Railroad opened in 1853.
Three large subdivisions were built in the 1950s. The town connected to Columbus’ water and sewer systems in the 1960s. A freeway “outer belt” was built in the 1970s, making Hilliard even more of a suburban draw. A $3 million downtown renovation was launched in 2008.
What brings us to Hilliard today, however, is two items.
The first is the Early Television Museum, the only one of its kind in the United States. The complex contains 150 older t-v sets. They include mechanical sets from the 1920s and 1930s as well as samples from the television boom after World War Two and the first color t-vs from the 1950s.
There’s also a collection of cathode ray tubes and television studio equipment.
In addition, the museum showcases Murry Mercier Jr., who along with his father was among the first people in the United States to watch television after they built receivers in their Columbus home in 1929. They picked up signals from KDKA in Pittsburgh, WGY in Schenectady, New York, and W3XK in Silver Spring, Maryland. When television stations first came to Ohio in 1948, Mercier sold sets from his store on North High Street.
Hilliard is also home to the First Responders Park, a memorial that pays tribute to the 403 emergency personnel who died while responding to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The park was built in 2010 and features granite walls with 2,977 names of those who died on that day. There’s also a reflecting pool, a monument and a metal sculpture made with 7 tons of steel from the World Trade Center wreckage.
Hilliard also has the only flagpole from the World Trade Center that is not in a museum. It’s one of five flagpoles that survived the September 11 attack in New York City. The 55-foot flagpole stands in front of the city’s safety services building. It was dedicated in 2011.
Hilliard garnered one more claim to fame in summer 2022 when a local company, ADS, was named the top plastics recycler in the country by Plastic News. The firm used 650 million pounds of recycled plastics in 2021 to make products such as drainage pipes. ADS now has plans to build a $65 million, 110,000-square-foot engineering and technology center near its Hilliard headquarters.
The Story of Cincinnati
From Hilliard we work our way back to Interstate 71 and take that freeway in a southwesterly direction until we reach a corner of Ohio near where the Buckeye State, Kentucky and Indiana merge.
Cincinnati rests in this pocket, just across the Ohio River from Covington, Kentucky.
It’s a city that still boasts more than 310,000 residents, making it the third most populous community in Ohio, behind Columbus and Cleveland. It’s a diverse ethnic mix that’s listed as 48 percent white and 40 percent Black.
However, in many ways Cincinnati is a shadow of its former self.
This metropolis along the Ohio River was the first major city founded after the Revolutionary War. It was also the country’s first great inland city.
For a while, Cincinnati was among the 10 most populous cities in the nation. Now, it is 66th with fewer residents than places such as Riverside, California.
Nonetheless, Cincinnati is still the headquarters of a pair of major U.S. companies.
And it does have its signature chili. We’ll dish that up in a moment. First, some history as an appetizer.
The Shawnee tribe initially inhabited this region. The first European settlers arrived in 1788 when three entrepreneurs purchased 800 acres along the north bank of the Ohio River where it meets the Licking River.
The town was platted in 1789, just six years after the American Revolutionary War ended. It was named after a group of Revolutionary War veterans called the Society of the Cincinnati.
Pioneers set up camp with the notion of providing supplies to people traveling down the Ohio River. By 1795, a spinning wheel manufacturer, a brewer, a chair manufacturer and a butcher had opened businesses.
The introduction of steamboats on the Ohio in 1811 opened up Cincinnati’s trade industries and linked them to St. Louis and New Orleans. The main exports were hay and, in particular, pork products from local farms.
Trade expanded in 1843 with the completion of the Miami and Erie Canal as well as the Little Miami Railroad. German and Irish immigrants helped relieve a labor shortage in town.
In 1880, the city completed the Cincinnati Southern Railway to Chattanooga, Tennessee. It remains the only municipally owned interstate railroad in the United States.
By 1890, there were 15 railroads running through Cincinnati. The major industries included iron production, meatpacking and woodworking.
The city thrived throughout the 1800s as a boomtown in the center of the country. In 1840, it was the sixth most populous community in the nation and earned the nickname “Queen City of the West.”
Cincinnati survived the Great Depression better than most cities due to its river transportation and construction that helped rejuvenate the downtown area. Those projects included the Union Terminal in 1933.
The city’s population peaked at 504,000 in 1950 and has declined since as industries faded and residents moved.
The economy today is more diverse with the service industry leading the way. There is a wide array of manufacturing from food products to transportation equipment to chemicals to furniture.
Cincinnati remains the home for the headquarters of Proctor & Gamble and the Kroger Company.
Cincinnati also takes pride in a number of things.
First, the city is the birthplace of William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States as well as the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1921 to 1930. Taft is the only person to have held both of those high offices.
The John A. Roebling Bridge connects Cincinnati with Covington, Kentucky, over the Ohio River. The span was built in 1866 by John Roebling, who built the Brooklyn Bridge more than a decade later. At the time, the Cincinnati bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world, spanning 1,057 feet.
The Roebling bridge was closed to vehicle traffic in February 2021 as a 9-month, $4.7 million restoration project got under way. The work included repair and replacement of sandstone on the north and south anchorages and towers. The bridge reopened in April 2022 after 14 months of work.
In January 2023, President Joe Biden, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine were part of a bipartisan ceremony to celebrate federal infrastructure funding for improvements to the Brent Spence Bridge that spans the Ohio River.
The city is also home to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which was opened in 2004 to recognize Cincinnati’s role in this escape route for fugitive slaves. Cincinnati was located in a free state across the river from a slave state, so it became a destination point for many African Americans seeking freedom. Author Harriet Beecher Stowe lived here from 1832 to 1850 and based many of her characters in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on people she knew in Cincinnati.
The American Sign Museum is also here. The 20,000-square-foot complex opened in 2005. It showcases the history, art and importance of signs in the United States. It features a variety of signs from the past 100 years from Main Street to hotels to neon signs.
Cincinnati is also known for its goetta, a German meat and grain sausage that is typically served for breakfast.
However, the food the city is best known for is its Cincinnati chili. The dish is a special recipe of spicy sauce usually poured over pasta with cheese, chili, beans and onions. It was created in 1922 by Macedonian immigrant Tom Kiradjieff.
Cincinnati has more than 180 chili parlors. Local say that’s more chili restaurants per square mile than any other town in the United States.
Gold Star and Skyline Chili have more than 100 restaurants in Cincinnati.
But one of the best known places is Camp Washington Chili, which has been open since 1940. The restaurant is open 24 hours Mondays through Fridays. It closes at 4 p.m. on Saturdays for the rest of the weekend and reopens at midnight on Monday mornings.
On a full stomach, we will cut back through the center of Ohio again tomorrow, this time northbound with the nation’s automobile manufacturing center in our sights.