Athens County, Ohio: Cream of the Country

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For Ohioans, there is Athens the county and then there is Athens, the bustling county seat and the home of Ohio University.
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Athens County's numerous parks and forests offer outdoors fans excellent hunting, fishing, boating and hiking.
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Ohio University's educational and cultural facilities are available to the community at large.
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Quiet moments come easy in Athens County.
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 Roxanne Groff (top) with fellow county commissioner Dean Kahler and former commissioner Karen Harvey.
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"I always wanted to farm," says Rick Duff, who produces honey, maple syrup, beef, lamb and vegetables on 140 acres.
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Albany's Clara and Albert Hutchison with an employee.
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Becky McCutcheon, shown here with her father, at her hardware store.
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"I love this place," says Tom O'Grady, county recycling program manager.
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Chimes ring out regularly from Ohio University's venerable Cutler Hall, the oldest college building west of the Alleghenies.
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At every turn, another slice of Americana: More than 800 miles of back roads lead you to the beauty and charm of Athens County.
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Athens County occupies 508 square miles in southeastern Ohio.

It’s a straight shot out of Columbus on route 33 to the hills of southeast Ohio, and I waste no time putting the airport and the All-American City’s fast, busy outer belt behind me. Columbus was home for eight years, and I remember–with some disbelief, now–how I used to thrive on early morning competitive car-dodging, a rush-hour ritual that was at least as good as a couple of cups of black coffee in sheer wake-up power. Now I just want to get away from the traffic; I barely glance at familiar buildings and landmarks. In the decade-plus since I left the area, Columbus has become a much bigger town–and I’ve become a much smaller-town person. Finally, the city fades in my rearview mirror.

Flat. Sheesh, I’d forgotten how flat central Ohio is. “Only” 2 million years ago, as geologists blithely put it, the entire state was rolling or steep hill country, the eroded remains of primordial seabeds after some 60 million years of wind and rain, freezing and thawing, heaving and upheaving. Then came the last ice age, when sheets of ice up to a mile thick slowly ground over the region, sandpapering the hills, filling in deep river valleys and generally leveling the land encompassing 56 of present-day Ohio’s 88 counties. The glaciers stopped just short of southeastern Ohio, leaving the rugged terrain there intact but adding new streams and rivers created by glacial meltwater.

As I drive south, passing beyond the bustling, industrial town of Lancaster, in Fairfield County, the countryside begins to change from glaciated flat to unglaciated rolling, and off to my left a wide plain of farmland is bisected by a winding path of willows and oaks, trees tracing the banks of one glacier-spawned tributary, the Hocking River. This is the northernmost end of the Hocking River Valley, a region of rich history and natural beauty that embraces all or portions of six Buckeye counties: Fairfield, Hocking, Perry, Vinton, Morgan and Athens. It’s October, and the hills, growing increasingly steep and close now, are aglow in vibrant gold and yellow fall foliage.

In Hocking County, I pass the exits for Hocking Hills State Park–actually a cluster of state-managed parks and woodland encompassing some 9,000 spectacular acres of forests, gorges and caves. The entire valley offers much, but I’ve decided to focus on Athens County (pop. 57,592) for its affordable real estate, cultural diversity, near-but-far proximity to major cities, and other reasons both objective and, I admit, subjective.

When I think of the first time I came to Athens County, I have to laugh and shake my head at the peculiar workings of fate and time. It was 19 years ago–1970–and I’d driven down from Columbus for the weekend to visit a friend who’d rented an old farmhouse in the hills. No one was home when I arrived, so I settled into a mostly seatless rocking chair on the front porch and picked up a copy of a strange little pulp-paper magazine I’d never seen or heard of before. The cover portrayed a couple holding hands in a farm field, watching a sunrise, over which was a banner that read “How to Get Out Of the City and BACK TO THE LAND.” It was issue 2 of THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

I cross the line into Athens County, Ohio. Here I am, almost two decades later, an editor for that little magazine, come to rediscover the county in which I discovered MOTHER.

Athens County, Ohio’s 2,000-Year Welcome

With the exception of some plateaus in the south, Athens County’s 508 square miles are mostly up, down or in between–ridgetops and river valleys and hills. The terrain has an embracing quality; not only are the people here warm and friendly, but the countryside itself seems to welcome you.

And so it has always been. The area has enticed settlers for at least the past 2,000 years. The first were the Moundbuilders, or Adena Indians, whose earthen burial mounds can still be seen throughout southern Ohio. Most of the mounds in Athens County have been destroyed, but some survive–particularly in and around the small village of The Plains, where archaeologists believe the Adenas established their largest and most important population center.

The county’s more recent history, like that of all Appalachia, is one of boom and bust. The first white settlers arrived here from New England in the late 1700s, finding a wilderness thickly forested and teeming with wildlife–including buffalo, bear, wolf and mountain lion. But by the mid- 1800s settlers had cleared the forests for farming even on the steep slopes–and most of the wildlife was gone. In 1880, an incredible 91% of the county’s acreage–294,807 acres out of a total of 325,120–was listed as farmland.

From about 1870 to 1925, coal was king in Athens County. Coal had been discovered in the area decades earlier, but large-scale mining began only when the railroads reached south of the county line. Every time a new railroad line or spur reached farther into the hills, mines opened and towns sprang up. In 1920, the peak of the boom, over six and a half million tons of coal were shipped from Athens County.

Then came the bust years–brought on by labor unrest and, later, the popularity of gas and fuel oil for home heating. By the onset of World War II, most of the mines had shut down, and many of the people had moved on, leaving poverty, piles of mining wastes, and empty storefronts behind. After the war and until the mid-1960s, the coal companies strip-mined some parts of the county, again creating ugly scars, but those operations, too, have ceased–for now, anyway.

Though the countryside is occasionally broken by reminders of the past–by gob piles and the ramshackle remnants of tiny mining towns near abandoned railroad spurs–Athens County clearly is in renewal. You can see the signs everywhere; in thriving community centers, village-wide cleanup campaigns, and school renovations. The hills, once denuded, are again covered with mature trees; nearly 56% of the county is back in forest. Wildlife–deer, ruffed grouse, wild turkey, quail, squirrel, rabbit, raccoon, beaver–is again abundant, providing excellent hunting (and fishing) on the county’s numerous public lands and lakes: Wayne National Forest, Zaleski and Waterloo state forests, Stroud’s Run and Burr Oak state parks.

In Nelsonville (pop. 4,210), the county’s largest city before World War II and once a major coal and brick-making center, residents have launched an ambitious Renaissance Restoration Project. The town’s handsome, New England-style village square has been lovingly restored. The old brickyards, with their huge domed kilns, have been turned into a tourist attraction. And the town still has a bustling industry: The Brooks Shoe Company factory keeps nearly 300 workers on the job producing more than 2,000 pairs of boots and running shoes a day.

Just outside of Nelsonville is another major employer and economic force, Hocking Valley Technical College, with 19 modern buildings spread over a 250-acre campus. More than 4,000 students from all over Ohio, 28 other states and 26 foreign countries are enrolled there, nearly doubling Nelsonville’s population. And right next door is Hocking Valley Tech’s close ally, Tri-County Joint Vocational School, which provides training for hundreds of high school students from Athens, Hocking and Perry counties.

Athens and Athens County

To Ohioans there is Athens, the county, and then there is Athens, the centrally located county seat (pop. 20,870) and the home of Ohio University. The college, or the core of it at least, is smack in the middle of town, where the campus’s stately, Corinthian-columned brick buildings and hushed, tree-shaded green add an air of classic dignity.

The sense of decorum is almost, but not quite, enough to offset the energy generated by some 16,500 students. Day and night during the school year, downtown Athens is abuzz. Bookstores, clothing stores, restaurants and taverns line Washington, Court and State streets. The flow of students cruising the sidewalks and driving the streets never really stops, though during the day there is a discernible rhythm of rise and fall, rise and fall, with the changing of classes. Music spills from passing cars and tavern doors; street vendors hawk burritos, tacos and T-shirts; footsteps and laughter and conversations blend into a single, continuous, carnival-crowd murmur.

And though the street scene sometimes gets loud and boisterous, Athens always retains its friendly small-town flavor and charm. Most of the buildings downtown date from the turn of the century or earlier. The massive brick Athens County Courthouse, built in 1879 and a landmark ever since, stands imposingly facing Court Street, its white, slate-roofed spire visible from almost anywhere in town. Narrow, brick-paved side streets lead to quiet residential areas.

Come summer, when most of the students leave, reducing the town’s population by more than half–to about 10,000–Athens is a typical (though perhaps unusually cosmopolitan) small, rural town. “Summer is always such a shock,” one year-round resident tells me. “You just wake up one day and you think, ‘what’s that? And then you realize: It’s the quiet! ”

Regardless of the time of year, Athens benefits from the art, music, drama and other events produced or brought in by the university, making the small town something of a cultural oasis in southeastern Ohio. Likewise, the college’s extensive libraries are available to the community, as are sports and recreational facilities–including a golf course and an indoor swimming pool. “Communiversity” classes, in which professors and townspeople alike teach the subjects they love most, are popular. And the university’s College of Osteopathic Medicine operates a medical center in which more than 35 teaching physicians provide community outpatient care; this is in addition to the fine facilities offered by O’Bleness Memorial Hospital in Athens and Doctors Hospital of Nelsonville.

Ohio University’s economic impact on the county is immense. With nearly 3,000 faculty and staff members, OU is the area’s largest employer. Jobs are scarce elsewhere and generally don’t pay as much. “Everybody’s trying to get a job at OU,” one Athenian tells me. In addition, the annual influx of students pumps over a million dollars a year into the county’s economy, supporting hundreds of local businesses. One study estimates that nearly half the county’s total work force is employed directly or indirectly as a result of OU’s presence. “The simple fact is, Athens is a company town,” a long-time resident says. “It’s just that the company happens to be a university.”

Athens and Ohio University

As in all university towns, conflicts do sometimes arise between the academic community and the nonacademic community, the university and local factions. In most cases, the issues are minor and fleeting, if not trivial. When I was there, the hot controversy was over whether the city’s mayor would allow the students to put up a bandstand on Court Street for the Halloween Bash, an annual but unsanctioned street party in which more than 10,000 costumed ghouls, goblins and what-have-you parade up and down and haunt the night away. Other issues are weightier, such as the ongoing discussion over the fate of the old OU-owned Athens Mental Health Center grounds: over 600 acres of prime land and a complex of ornate, strikingly beautiful High Victorian and Second Empire-style brick buildings.

One of the buildings, at least–a stately, slate-roofed dairy barn that housed the center’s champion herds back in the days when patients tended cows as therapy has already been saved from demolition. In 1977, when the state threatened to tear the barn down, citizens successfully rallied to save the structure and then refurbished it and organized a variety of local and national events there. Today the Dairy Barn Southeastern Ohio Cultural Arts Center is a major showcase for contemporary and traditional arts and crafts, and plays host to such noteworthy events as the National Jigsaw Puzzle Championship.

“This is a wonderful community for getting geared up on an issue,” says Roxanne Groff, one of Athens County’s three commissioners. Certainly Roxanne, who came to the county as an OU student in 1968, knows of what she speaks. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, the university was a hotbed of student antiwar activism, and the county a mecca for back-to-the-landers. Thousands of young people, students and non-students, chose Athens County in which to explore alternative rural lifestyles. Swelling the county by nearly half again as many people as were there the previous decade, they built their own homes, attempted subsistence farming, established cooperative communities.

Most of those idealists eventually moved away, but many stayed, becoming teachers and lawyers and craftspeople and shop owners–and public officials.

“If anyone had told me 15 years ago that I’d be a county commissioner here, I would’ve said they were insane,” says Groff, laughing. But in 1978, when loggers and oil drillers stepped up operations close to her home near Amesville, Groff started going to township meetings to demand reparations for the damage the machinery was inflicting on area roads. “I pestered the trustees to do something until one of them finally said, ‘Well, Roxanne, if you think you can do this job better, why don’t you run for township trustee yourself?'” she remembers. “So I thought, ‘Hmmmm, maybe it’s worth a try,’ and pretty soon there I was in my bib overalls and braids knocking on doors and asking for votes.” She won the election, and three years later ran successfully for county commissioner. Roxanne shares her responsibilities with the county’s two other commissioners, Dean Kahler (who is confined to a wheelchair as a result of being shot at Kent State on May 4, 1970) and Karen Harvey (who, since I visited, has left office to complete her studies for a law degree).

Athens County Communities

Because so many from the ’60s and ’70s chose to remain in the area and are now members of the mainstream, much of today’s Athens County is imbued with a distinct counterculture flavor. Unique handmade homes dot the countryside. A number of intentional communities, with names like Sunflower and The Far, remain active. Natural foods co-ops and restaurants, crafts shops and organic truck farms are numerous. And a sense of political, social and environmental consciousness abides, spawning a strong network of effective citizens’ organizations.

Over the past 10 or 15 years, whenever a coal company has announced plans to strip-mine in Athens County, a citizens’ group has emerged, challenged the company in court or through the regulatory process and essentially brought the project to a halt. “One of the reasons this is still such a nice place to live,” says Donald Wirtshafter, an Athens attorney, “is that we’ve been successful at defending it.”

Other groups have taken on such problems as unemployment. Athens’ unique Worker-Owned Network (WON) helps low-income and unemployed people start cooperative businesses. Two popular Athens eateries, Crumbs Bakery and Casa Nueva Restaurant, and at least eight other businesses–involving some 105 jobs–have been saved or created through WON’s assistance.

June Holley, the group’s coordinator, gives much of the credit to the community itself. “Unemployment in the county ranges from 8 to 9%,” she says. “But this community is extremely supportive of efforts to find solutions, to explore alternatives. That’s what we’re doing here. I love it. I’ve lived in 28 places in my life, and this is it for me.”

Tom O’Grady, who works for the health department as program manager for the county’s litter control and recycling program, echoes Holley’s sentiments. “Being a city boy from Cleveland, I can’t really say why I feel such a strong bond with the soil and the trees and the people here,” says Tom, “but I do. I love this place.”

O’Grady came to Athens as an OU student in 1980 and, while studying for his master’s degree in environmental planning and design, started working part-time for the health department surveying illegal dump sites and working as a litter enforcement officer. “I drove all over the back roads in the county and located something like 150 major dump sites and innumerable smaller ones,” he recalls. “That was in 1982. Since then, with the help of literally thousands of county residents–sometimes whole communities–we’ve cleaned up virtually every one of those sites. The people here really get involved in projects like this; it’s just a tremendous pleasure to work with them.” Athens County’s voluntary recycling program has become the largest in the state.

Cheap Land, with Caveats

Land here remains surprisingly inexpensive. Undeveloped land–typically hilly or steeply sloping, in mixed brush and second-growth timber–can be had for about $250 to $350 an acre, and sometimes less. Good farmland might go for $500 and up, with prime bottomland selling for perhaps $800 to $1,000. When I was there, a 220-acre parcel of brush and second-growth timber was selling for $40,000, and an 80-acre tract part of which was bottomland–was going for $28,000. A pretty little farm with a nice three-bedroom, oil-heated house on a paved road, a small barn, several thousand marketable Christmas trees and 80 level, tillable acres–with about 10 acres in corn–was on the market in the low $60s.

Generally, the farther away from town you get, the lower the price–and the fewer services available. Many smaller communities lack a municipal water or sewer system, and often wood and electricity are the only heating choices. A three-year drought and, in patches within old coal-boom regions, lingering water pollution from deep-shaft mines make it advisable to check the dependability and quality of a prospective property’s water supply.

In some parts of the county, mineral rights, too, are a consideration. Coal companies still hold claim to these in about 10 to 15% of the county–wherever there are, or were, coal seams. Ownership entitles the company–in the view of most such firms, at least–to come onto the property at any time to explore for or extract minerals pretty much any way it sees fit. Because of low mining activity, vigilant citizens and regulatory procedures, such incidents are currently rare, but if ownership of mineral rights is not specifically warranted on a piece of property, you may want to ask an attorney for a full mineral rights title search before signing any agreement. (A standard title search goes back only 40 years, and most rights deals were made before that.)

Also, many farms have leased natural gas (or oil) rights to coal or utility companies in exchange for royalties based on well production (the income is usually little or nothing) and for free gas from the well (a more powerful incentive, especially after a few winters of chopping wood). Some leases are more benign than others; an existing lease doesn’t necessarily make a property undesirable, but buyers are cautioned to review it with an attorney.

Making a Living in Athens County

Of course, there’s one big reason behind Athens County’s low land prices: Jobs are hard to come by, and wages tend to be low. Per capita income in 1985 was $7,178 compared with $10,371 for Ohio overall. Competition for jobs can be fierce; when a new factory came to Athens recently with 300 openings, over 6,000 people applied. More than a few county residents commute to jobs in Columbus every day, a drive of about 75 miles.

Often, making a living is more a matter of creating a niche than of finding one. Jack Kuehn, who came here in 1976 to homestead with his wife, Ellie, has turned his love for bees and beekeeping into a healthy retail and mail-order business, Ohio Bee Supply. “We joined an intentional community, built our own house and lived cheap–real cheap–for a long time,” says Jack. “But business is doing OK now–I just mailed out 10,000 catalogues.” Jack and his wife, who works for the Tri-County Mental Health Agency, now have a son, Seppe, and a daughter, Erika, and live in a pleasant older home in the town of Athens.

Just outside of Amesville, Ron Chacey raises and breeds longhaired sheep on a 100-acre-homestead he shares with his wife, Windsor, a teacher for the Athens city school system. Ron sells the thick, luxuriant, naturally colored pelts, markets the wool to spinners and weavers (and to doll manufacturers for hair) and sells breeding stock. He makes most of his income, though, as a craftsman, doing intricate custom metal-engraving and ivory inlay work for the Stewart MacDonald Company, an Athens-based maker of guitars and banjos. “The main reason why I started raising sheep,” he says with a grin, “is that I’ve got a lot of land out there that I want to keep clear, but I hate to mow. So I figured sheep would do the work for me.”

Down near the tiny town of Shade, Rick Duff makes his living fulfilling a lifelong dream: farming. “I always wanted to farm,” says Rick, who grew up in New Jersey. “In high school they’d ask me what I wanted to be, and I’d tell them a shepherd. Farming is just in me; I think a lot of people have the same instinct. Hey, we were all farmers three generations ago.” So in 1980, Rick came here with his wife, Ginny–and no experience–to farm. The Duffs’ 140-acre operation is diversified, to say the least: They raise beef and lamb for market, and also produce and sell maple syrup, honey, fresh vegetables and greenhouse-grown garden starts.

Over in the small farming community of Albany (pop. 1,030), life runs to the slow, steady cadence of customers coming to pick up a bale of hay at Clara and Albert Hutchison’s Tri-County Feed & Farm Supply, or maybe a box of nails down the street at Mac ‘n Bec’s Hardware Store, run by Becky McCutcheon. The McCutcheons moved to Albany in 1973 when Becky’s husband got a job at the OU Airport outside of town. “We were really young,” recalls Becky, “and it was unusual back then for a young couple to move here for a job; most young people were moving away for work.” The couple built their own home and started a family (they now have a son and daughter). “Then one day I picked up the paper and saw that the hardware store was for sale,” says Becky, “and I couldn’t leave it alone.” Why would a young woman with no experience in hardware decide to run a hardware store? “Well,” says Becky, “you know how they say life changes every seven years? I decided it was my seventh year.” Learning the business, she claims, was mostly a matter of listening to her customers. “They’d describe what they were doing, and we’d just kind of have to figure out together what they needed. There’s still a lot of that,” she says. “My customers are terrific, patient people; we all get along real well–nobody talks religion or politics at Mac ‘n Bec’s,” she laughs.

“It’s a Feeling”

Though the town of Athens is the county’s cultural and economic center, it’s the smaller communities, the hills and forests, the farms and homesteads tucked into the hollows and coves that are the real heart and beauty of Athens County. I spent my last several days in the area driving the gravel back roads (there are over 800 miles of them in the county), discovering at every turn another slice of postcardlike Americana, another soaring view, another old barn or log cabin or hand-built house, another placid ridgetop, another bib-overalled farmer with time enough to look up, smile and wave.

There’s something just naturally comfortable about the county, something that says “home” even if you’re a stranger. I think of the dozens of amiable, open people I met, and how the same words kept popping up when they described the county: community, friendly, neighbors, network, supportive. “I hope you get more than just facts about Athens County while you’re here,” Tom O’Grady told me. “I hope you get a feeling for the land and the people here, because that’s what Athens County is about: It’s a feeling.”

“Tell your readers this is a wonderful place to live,” one 20-year resident said. “Tell them there’s still lots of room here, and newcomers are welcome. Oh–and tell them not to be surprised if they have company on moving day,” he added, smiling. “Folks just sort of automatically turn out to help.”

Just the right kind of place, it seems to me, to heed the advice in that old issue of MOTHER. Just the right kind of place for folks who want to “get out of the city–and back to the land.”

Athens County Facts

41,004 sq. mi.
Athens Co.
508 sq. mi.

Population (1985)
Ohio 10,747,386
Athens Co.

262.1 per sq. mi.
Athens Co.
113.3 per sq. mi.

1. mining, 2. manufacturing, 3. transportation and utilities
Athens Co.
1. state and local government, 2. transportation and utilities, 3. mining

Per Capita Income (1985)
Ohio $10,371
Athens Co.

Taxes: 5% sales tax; 14.7¢ gasoline tax; 0.743%-6.9% state income tax
Athens Co.
Taxes: combined city, county property and school taxes per each $1,000 property valuation: $33.49-$62.48, depending on municipality; 5.5% sales tax; 1.5% municipal (city of Athens) income tax. Median house value: $45,000; median rental: $275. Average monthly utilities: houses, $100; apartments, $50.

Unemployment (1986)
Athens Co. 8.5%

Avg. precipitation: 37.5per year. Growing season: 193 days. Average daily temperature: January, 28F; July, 77F.
Athens Co.
Avg. precipitation: 39.6″ per year. Growing season: 193 days. Average daily temperature: January 29F; July, 76F.

Athens Co.
17 elementary, 4 junior high, 6 high schools. Average teacher‘s salary (1986): $24,599. Student-teacher ratio: 20:1; attendance rate: 93%; dropout rate: 1%.