American Civil War

Lancaster, OH: Sherman House Museum

I’ve been dying to see more presidential sites in Ohio, but none of them are anywhere near where my parents live. So, knowing we’d be in Columbus, I was googling attractions down there, hoping to find some previously overlooked presidential site (Taft’s house is the dream, but it’s all the way in Cincinnati), and I found what I guess is the next best thing: the childhood home of another famous Ohioan, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, which contained furniture once owned by the Grant family (as in Ulysses S). Granted, it was in Lancaster, which is about 30 miles south of Columbus, but 30 miles is nothing in America, and if we’d come that far south, why not go a bit farther?

Like the more famous Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Lancaster, Ohio appears to be mostly a farming community (judging by all the cornfields), but going by the lack of buggies, I don’t think the farmers here are Amish (Ohio’s Amish communities mostly live further north). I did guess that Lancaster’s downtown would be historic and adorable, and I was not wrong. This included Sherman’s house, easily identifiable by the cannon mounted out front.

  

Unfortunately, I don’t have many pictures to show you because when we walked in, there was a tour already in progress (with only one other couple on it), which we joined immediately after paying ($6, or $10 if you want to see the nearby Georgian Museum (which was confusingly built in 1832) too, but we only had time for the Sherman House), so we weren’t sure whether you could take pictures or not until we got to the museum space upstairs, so we didn’t (but as we were leaving, I spotted a sign that said non-flash photography was fine, so turns out we could have after all). The house is only viewable via guided tour, which I was initially fine with despite our tight schedule (we had to meet my uncle for happy hour in Columbus that afternoon), because I didn’t possibly think it could take more than an hour. How wrong I was.

  

Anyway, our tour guide was affable enough, showing us around and pointing out any special features of the rooms, but it felt more like any generic historic home tour until we got to the Sherman Museum upstairs. He did talk a bit about Sherman’s family, but because I didn’t know a whole lot about Sherman’s background, I didn’t really know who he was talking about until I saw the family tree quilt in the museum. But apparently, like most families who emigrated to Ohio when it was still the Western Reserve, Cump’s parents (Cump was Sherman’s childhood nickname, apparently derived from the Tecumseh bit of his name (itself taken from the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, who Cump’s father admired), and I like it, so I’m going to use it) came out from Connecticut in the 1810s and lived a pioneer lifestyle for a while until Ohio began to develop and grow, and they were able to double the size of their house. However, with eleven children, it would still have been quite a small house, and after Cump’s father died middle-aged and in debt (he was a lawyer who served on the Ohio Supreme Court, but had apparently loaned out money to tax collectors who worked for him who had yet to repay him), his mother was forced to allow most of her children to be raised by family and friends, including Cump, who was taken in by wealthy neighbour Thomas Ewing, as Cump was reputedly the most intelligent child.

  

Cump grew up to attend West Point Academy, where he excelled but had a lax attitude towards the rules, which prevented him from graduating at the top of his class. He married Ewing’s daughter Ellen, his foster sister, and they seem to have had a somewhat acrimonious marriage as all Ellen wanted to do was move back to her hometown of Lancaster, whereas it seemed Sherman couldn’t get the hell away from the place quickly enough. After serving in the Second Seminole War, he was denied the chance to see active duty in the Mexican-American War, which left him so salty that he resigned his commission and became a banker in San Francisco instead. The bank failed in the financial panic of 1857, and he subsequently became the head of a military academy in Louisiana, which he was happy enough doing, but then the Civil War happened.

This is where the story of Cump gets kind of shady (if fighting in “Indian Wars” wasn’t shady enough). He wasn’t actually opposed to slavery at all; in fact, he offered to buy Ellen slaves when they moved to Louisiana, but she refused because she didn’t think it was a good business transaction, bringing her white servants from the North with her instead. He only fought on the side of the North because he believed so damn much (to hear our tour guide tell it) in the Union, and he didn’t think the South had the right to secede. So yeah, he would have totally been a slave owner if his wife hadn’t opposed it on financial grounds. He’s not exactly an abolitionist hero or anything. His whole famous Union Army career followed, including the March to the Sea, etc. etc. – it’s all detailed here in the small museum, right down to the replica of his army tent, which included a writing desk and chest that actually belonged to him.

  

The most interesting thing in the museum, for me, was the picture of Sherman with Father Pierre De Smet, because I am a huge Laura Ingalls Wilder nerd, and the town she lived in in Dakota Territory was named De Smet for this priest. Cump met him in his post-war career, which included more “Indian Wars” out west (of course, because I guess being named after a Native American means you should kill as many of them as possible. One of his “brilliant” ideas was to kill all the buffalo so that the tribes would starve. Ugh). After he’d had his fill of killin’ he moved to New York, and was the person responsible for deciding that the Statue of Liberty should be placed on what became Liberty Island. This was also where he acquired the Grant’s parlour furniture, which is indeed in Sherman House’s parlour – probably the most interesting room in the house itself, containing as it does photographs of the family using the furniture, the last portrait of Sherman painted from life, and a partial set of Shakespeare themed chairs that Sherman had made for his home in New York (it sounded pretty swanky). The rest of the house was fairly standard historic home, as I said, with the obligatory “guess what this old-timey object was” game in the kitchen, and stenciled walls in one of the bedrooms upstairs in which a mistake had deliberately been made in the print, to show that “no one is perfect except God.” Our guide was fine (except for a few odd, slightly sexist jokes, like when he said I should cover my ears so I wouldn’t be shocked when I “learned” that poor people in the 1800s only owned one pair of shoes), but very talkative, especially at the end of the tour, when he talked for about half an hour to give us the entire rundown of Cump’s life story (which is probably the same thing I’ve done in the post, sorry about that), which meant we were late meeting my uncle, but it wasn’t really the guide’s fault since we didn’t say we were in a hurry or anything, and he was just trying to be informative, which he certainly was…just a little TOO informative.

  

So I basically learned that Sherman was a fairly terrible human being who only fought on the side of the North because he loved the Union more than practically anything, but I guess by the standards of the time, he was fairly normal, and certainly better than some, because despite his personal views on slavery, he did help win the Civil War (but then killed a bunch of Native Americans…OK, he was mostly terrible). Despite his many, many flaws, it was neat getting to see the house he grew up in, because I am quite interested in the American Civil War from a social history perspective, though it did seem like all his personal possessions were in the museum rooms or the front parlour, and everything else was either stuff owned by his parents (which was fine) or just items from the right time period that had been donated. Surprisingly, for a town this size, Lancaster does have a genuine museum “district” which in addition to Sherman House and the aforementioned Georgian House also includes the Ohio Glass Museum and the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio, which was free and hosting an exhibition on Victorian photography that I would have loved to visit if we hadn’t already been running extremely late, so I think this town is well worth a visit (via my uncle’s partner, I also found out that they have a very tasty looking doughnut shop, which I unfortunately didn’t learn until it was too late). Sherman House was an interesting experience, albeit not quite what I was expecting….just make sure you leave yourself plenty of time if you’re planning a visit. Lancaster is quite near to Hocking Hills, which I still haven’t been to (and wasn’t visiting on this trip, hiking in 90+ degrees Fahrenheit?! No thanks!), but it’s an area pretty well known for being gorgeous, so you can probably do an extended trip and see all this stuff if you fancy it. 3/5 for Sherman House.

 

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Massillon, Ohio: The Massillon Museum

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Massillon is a town just south of Canton which is probably most famous for being both the childhood home of the film star Lillian Gish, and the home of the Massillon Tigers, which the entire town seems to be obsessed with, though they’re only a high school team (apparently they have the second best track record of any high school team in the country).   I’ve got nothing against Lillian Gish, but I haven’t gotten around to watching any of her films yet,  and I couldn’t care less about football, so I mainly am familiar with Massillon through trips to their local pizza parlour, Smiley’s (mostly on the way home from Amish country, since the Amish aren’t really known for excelling at vegetarian cuisine.  Seriously, I tried to order plain noodles one time, and they still threw some chicken chunks in them), and and their rather adorable Victorian/Edwardian style downtown.  On this trip however, in addition to enjoying a pizza pie, I also took the time to visit the Massillon Museum.  Founded in 1933, and housed in an old department store, the museum is free of charge and, in the way of small local museums, tries to combine art and history so as to appeal to as many local residents as possible.  Admission is free, and the galleries are spread out amongst three floors, easily accessible by elevator.

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The museum’s “mascots” are Oscar the skeleton, and to a lesser extent, Harvey the dog, the “longest enlisted soldier in the 104th.” Oscar is the museum’s literal skeleton in the closet, being hidden away in the basement gallery inside an old armoire with a sign reading “Open me if You Dare!”or something to that effect.  He was donated to the museum shortly after it opened by a local doctor, and is the skeleton of an approximately 40 year old man.  Harvey the dog served in the Civil War from 1862, when he was adopted by soldiers after wandering into camp, until the war ended in 1865, and was wounded at least three times.  He bears a close resemblance to Pete from The Little Rascals, so was probably at least part Staffie.   In keeping with the military theme, the basement galleries also currently hold an exhibition of art done by veterans; some of the pieces are quite impressive.

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The ground floor only has one gallery, and it is presently devoted to a temporary exhibition featuring local artists.  Though some of them are representative of everything I hate about modern art (random piles of crap, paintings of poorly drawn multi-coloured squares, etc), others were pretty cool.  I loved the painting of ravens and lilies, and there were some funny cat pictures too, especially the one of the cat with bat wings.  The jewellery made with real butterfly wings was skillfully done, but you all know of my lepidopterophobia, so I had to quickly look away so I didn’t get icked out.

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Upstairs is home to the museum’s best loved attraction, the Immel Circus, hand-carved over a period of years by a local dentist, Robert Immel.  He apparently had such fond memories of childhood trips to the circus with his uncle that he wished to recreate it (in miniature, obviously) and would exhibit it to children after their dentist appointments (remember, this was the 1940s we’re talking about here).  It consists of 2,620 tiny pieces, and takes up most of the room.  I read that Immel was allergic to the mahogany he carved the miniature horses from, and had to actually receive allergy shots so he could finish working on his project!  Now that’s dedication!  I’m not a big circus fan myself, both because of their clowns, and their shameful reputation where animal welfare is concerned, but this model circus is pretty awesome.  My favourite part was probably the sideshow, and I kind of loved the straightforward names he gave to the attractions (the “fat man” was simply known as “Mr. Obese.” Delightfully to the point).

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Although the circus is enough of an attraction in its own right, they’ve filled out the gallery with other circus related objects, including a collection of acrobats’ costumes, a large tiger painting, some hand-carved clowns, and a few pictures of circus employees.  The clowns in the old-timey pictures are notably creepy (I’ve been writing about a lot of clowns lately, for which I am terribly sorry.)

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I’m really interested in the story of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, so I was excited to see the small case on them and PT Barnum at the back of the room.  The artefacts on show included a photo album belonging to Tom Thumb (which we could only see two pages of, maybe make copies of the other pages for people to leaf through?), a dwarf-sized knife and fork, and, most thrillingly of all, a box containing a piece of their wedding cake!  Again, the box was closed, so I just had to hope it was in there; I would imagine it’s probably in a sorry state these days anyway, but still might have been interesting to at least see a picture of the cake from the wedding, if such a thing exists?

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There were a few other rooms on this floor; being Massillon, there was naturally one on football, devoted largely to Paul Brown, who was evidently a famous football coach from Massillon, and Paul David, another famous coach who was following in Brown’s footsteps; you could have your picture taken with a cutout of one of them, but I cannot for the life of me remember which one, he’s pictured just above if anyone else knows.  Also thrown in here was a temporary exhibit about a local nursing school, with a few medical bits and bobs, a small photographic exhibit of photos from the 1940s, which I enjoyed, and some triptychs and other 15th and 16th century religious art that is part of the collections to pay homage to the man Massillon is named for: Catholic missionary Jean Baptiste Massillon  (who never visited the town; it was named by city founder James Duncan). The section I was keenest on was the small Civil War display against the back wall, where I learned about the regiments of Camp Massillon. Tragically, many of the local soldiers who survived the war were killed during the explosion of the Sultana, which was a Mississippi River steamboat overloaded with soldiers who had just been released from Confederate prison camps, and were on their way home when the explosion happened.  1,800 people died, 83 of them from the division that included Massillon (I’ve always known sultanas (as in raisins) will result in nothing good).

And on that rather depressing note, I’ll end my tour of the museum.  Well, I should mention that the compact gift shop downstairs had Oscar and Harvey magnets, which I found kind of exciting, and there’s a coffee shop right in the lobby, which is probably quite handy in these winter months.  The museum isn’t all that big; you can easily see everything within an hour, though you might want to spend extra time examining the intricacies of the Immel Circus.  3/5.

Lake Placid, New York: John Brown’s Farm

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When my boyfriend and I were first planning this road trip, I decided I wanted to go up to the Adirondacks both to see Almanzo Wilder‘s childhood home, which is about 40 miles north of Lake Placid, and to see the old TB sanitariums in Saranac Lake.  Unfortunately, both these plans fell through thanks to a combination of poor planning on my part (the TB Museum was closed on the one day we were there), and the rather infrequently updated and unhelpful website of the Wilder House (it had the opening hours for the summer season listed, but it never stated when the summer season ended, and then, in mid-October, well after we’d booked our hotels, they posted they were closed for the season.  It would be great if they had just listed the end of the season in the first place!).  So after enjoying a superb waffle and mimosa from the Breakfast Club in Lake Placid, wandering in a few souvenir shops, and grabbing a soft serve from the local ice creamery, we needed to find something else to do.  I’d noticed signs pointing to John Brown’s Farm when we drove into Lake Placid, and was intrigued.  (Just to be clear, this is John Brown the abolitionist I’m talking about, not John Brown, servant and confidant of Queen Victoria.)

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The town I’m from in Ohio is actually quite near to some John Brown sites; his father owned a tannery in Hudson (there’s an Owen Brown Road running through Hudson’s rather posh shopping district), and John Brown also lived in Kent and Akron.  There’s even still a John Brown House standing in Akron, though I’ve never visited it (which is strange, since I went to a university right by it for four years), but the Summit County Historical Society has odd opening hours, and they don’t really advertise their properties.  I remembered reading about a farm in New York in Tony Horwitz’s excellent Midnight Rising (recommended if you want to learn more about John Brown’s life and the events leading up to Harper’s Ferry), but the town it was in was called North Elba, so I never made the connection with Lake Placid (apparently Lake Placid is a village within the larger town of North Elba).  John Brown was a peripatetic man, spending time in Connecticut, Ohio, Massachusetts, and of course Kansas and Virginia, so he only lived at the New York farm for two years, having moved there to support a social experiment wherein land grants were given to poor black families to encourage them to become self-sufficient (which ultimately failed due to a combination of the bigotry of local residents and a lack of farming experience on the part of the settlers).  However, he is buried there, so has taken up a more permanent residence in death.

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We were greeted by the rather paternalistic statue above, having parked some ways down the road, as it wasn’t clear whether we could park in front of the property.  It is run by the National Park Service, who charge a modest $2 entry fee to the site.  After checking out Brown’s grave, which is under a massive rock, per his request, and the graves of a few other men who were killed as a result of the raid on Harpers Ferry, including two of his sons, we headed into the cabin, where we were greeted by a very enthusiastic ranger.  He gave us a detailed history of the farm and the cabin, and pointed out objects of interest in the house.

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These included a daguerreotype of Brown’s son Oliver (who was killed during the raid) and his wife, and a shaving cup made from a piece of the scaffold Brown was hanged from (Oliver seems like he might have been a bit of a looker, but I might just like his facial hair).  The cabin is pretty tiny, only four rooms, especially considering Brown had twenty children, though only half of them lived to adulthood, and some of them were grown men by the time he was living there, so probably weren’t under the same roof anymore.  I’m sure the ranger explained exactly who was living there, as he mentioned how one of Brown’s sons had the cabin built on his behalf to John Brown’s specifications, but the details escape me; not because they weren’t interesting, but because it was a lot to take in.

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I have to mention how nice the ranger was – I didn’t catch his name, but you could tell he was really passionate about John Brown, and wanted to know everything he could about him, which is really great to see .  I love fellow history nerds (we talked for a bit after he finished his presentation, and he seemed genuinely interested in my background in history as well).   I was so impressed with the staff of the National Park Service on this trip, especially relative to the much more reserved (dare I say, occasionally snobby) employees you get at National Trust properties.  Anyway, after finishing exploring the cabin, we headed down to the barn, which had a video about slavery and the Underground Railroad inside.

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John Brown’s Farm is a small site with a fascinating history, and I’m glad we stopped by.  It makes a nice change if you’re tired of all the Olympic and touristy stuff in Lake Placid (although you can see some of the ski jumps from the property, as pictured above, so you won’t be escaping entirely), but bear in mind that it is only open from May-October.  It won’t take you very long to look around, but I think it’s well worth seeing the final resting place of a man who played such a pivotal role in American history due to engineering a link in the chain of events that would ultimately trigger the Civil War.  3/5

Adventures Around Ohio: A Post of Odds and Ends

There are a few places in Ohio I visited that for one reason or another don’t merit their own write-up, but I’d still like to mention them, so this post will serve as a kind of dumping ground for the odd ones out (I’m so eloquent, aren’t I?).

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First up, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Cleveland’s Public Square.  I’ve admired it from the exterior many, many times before, but had never been inside.  I’m glad I was finally able to check out the interior as well, because it was pretty awesome.  The man inside gave us a brief history of the monument, which was built in 1894 by architect Levi Scofield as a memorial to deceased Civil War soldiers from Cuyahoga County.  The interior holds a few glass cases with various Civil War memorabilia, , as well as some information about African American and Jewish soldiers.

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It also features some gorgeous decorations, like delightful stained glass windows commemorating different divisions of the military, and the most special thing of all – four bronze relief sculptures that dramatically depict events from the Civil War (with great artistic licence taken, mind), including the emancipation of the slaves, the ladies of the Soldier’s Aid Society (with Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes), and the beginning and end of the war.  Lincoln is superbly rendered.  The walls are lined with the names of all the fallen soldiers, and a bust of Scofield hangs above the door.  Obviously, the exterior is very attractive as well, and the lady at the top was modelled after Scofield’s wife.  Going inside is free, and only takes a couple of minutes, so I definitely recommend doing so if you visit Public Square on a weekday.

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Secondly, I paid a visit to the International Women’s Air and Space Museum inside Burke Lakefront Airport.  It’s also free to visit, as it is located just inside the airport’s entryway.  It consists of a few display cases around the centre of the room, and some more lining the hall, with information and objects belonging to famous female astronauts and aviatrixes.  Everyone knows about Amelia Earhart and Sally Ride, but there were many lesser-known women featured here as well, like Bessie Coleman, and Katharine Wright (sister to the Wright brothers, and owner of a gorgeous lace dress that she wore to meet President Taft, or T-fat, as I call him).

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There were even a couple of planes, including the “Purple Puddy Tat,” and a stumpy little plane used for training exercises.  The NASA section had a few interactive bits, so you could practice exercising in space, though sadly, there was no practice astronaut toilet.  This museum is quite small, but it was better than I was expecting, and it’s always nice to learn more about women who were pioneers in their field, so I hope by posting about it, I can bring some attention to it, as it seems somewhat overlooked.  They even have a shop, so again, please consider stopping in if you are downtown and have some time to kill.

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Next, there’s the Canton Art Museum, which I only popped into briefly during a “First Night” event (basically a kind of arty open house thing).  It seemed pretty small, only three rooms, but there were craft stalls set up around the place for the special event, so some parts of the museum may not have been open, I’m not sure.  The parts I did see featured all 20th-21st century artists, including a special exhibit on environmental themed art, which was actually quite cool.  Those polar bears above are made from plastic utensils, and there were lots of other naturey type paintings.  And they seemed to have detailed explanations on a lot of the pieces, which I appreciate, as I’m definitely more of a reader than an observer when it comes to art.

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Then, there’s Farnam Manor.  I was reluctant to even post about Farnam at all, because despite appearances to the contrary, I really don’t like to say only bad things about a place, especially somewhere historical, but this place was seriously awful.  I went for one of the “lantern tours” for Halloween, which they stress is not a typical haunted house experience.  What it is, in fact, is parting with $20 for the privilege of waiting in an unheated carriage house filled with creepy dolls for an hour, because although I called in advance and was told I could show up any time, the people running the house were incredibly disorganised and didn’t employ enough staff.

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I knew I was in trouble when a group of incredibly earnest and overenthusiastic preteens showed up who had evidently been on the tour before, and were avid “ghost hunters.”  This meant they took pictures with flash every two seconds throughout the tour, hunting for “orbs,” so I was basically blinded the entire time.  The only other people on the tour seemed to be ones who actually believed in ghosts.  Now, I like visiting “haunted” stuff, and I won’t say I’m entirely disbelieving when I’m left alone in a dark room at night, but I am generally a skeptic, and these people were just over-the-top gullible.  The tour ended with them asking yes or no questions of a candle, which appeared to be responding because the woman leading the tour just happened to open the window.  The entire tour was really lame, contained almost no history (and the few “facts” she did spit out were incorrect), and had weird “historical actors” in several of the room, one of whom was so enthusiastic that he almost crushed me with a door.

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I’ve posted some pictures I took around the house so you can look for orbs or mist too…although I suspect my camera lens wasn’t dirty enough.  There was also an outdoor “Trail of Terror” that had crappy lighting, and wound through a forest, which I ended up leaving early because it was so lame and I just wanted to get the hell out of there. Seriously, avoid this place.  It is NOT a good time.

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Finally, to end on a more positive note, I visited the annual Apple Butter festival/Oxtoberfest (that’s not a typo, they roast an ox) in Burton.  I went to this quite a few times as a kid, and mostly just remember eating apple fritters whilst freezing my ass off, but I was pleasantly surprised by my visit this year.  It helped that it was still really warm outside, but I also think more buildings were open than in the past.  The festival is held in the historic village of Burton, and so many of the old buildings are open to the public, some with costumed interpreters practicing various trades, but the apple butter is also a key attraction, with people taking turns stirring massive cauldrons full of it over an open fire, and then canning it, so you can buy a still-warm jar.

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Of course, it is a festival, so expect lots of other carnival type (i.e. fried) foods.  The apple fritters are still there, and definitely a treat, as are caramel apples, freshly cut fries, and funnel cakes.  You’ll also find a variety of craft stalls.  It’s held during the peak of leaf season in Ohio, and Burton is fairly rural, with cute shops on the main street, so it’s a good chance to take in the scenery and indulge your greasy food cravings.  I definitely appreciate the fact that there’s some history on offer as well, and people-watching at these sorts of events is a must!

Well, I think that about does it for now as far as NE Ohio is concerned, though you can expect more Ohio posts when I go back again next month for the holidays!