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Moonshine, Washboards, and One Crazy Woman Built the Hocking Hills

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea Moonshine, Washboards, and One Crazy Woman Built the Hocking Hills
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  • Sumo

As we descend the hill, we leave the warmth of the day and enter the cool hollow.

Red cliffs high dressed in ice guard our passage, like soldiers with silver epaulets.

The way narrows and twists and puts us face to face with our destiny.

– Message left in the guest book of the Sumac Cabin, The Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls, February 6, 2005

My first memory of the Hocking Hills is a fond one, the kind you look back on nostalgically, even if you hated it at the time. Not that I hated Hocking Hills, it’s just that I was a teenager in 2009 and when you’re a teenager in 2009 you subsist largely on cell service, something the Hocking Hills does not have in great supply. It was a family vacation, but it was also a college visit, my first glimpse of Athens, which, as we all know, is the center of the universe.

I assure you I did not spend that entire visit trying to connect to a cell tower, though it did preoccupy my mind. I also assure you that I did come to appreciate being disconnected. The mind feels more alive, if only because it has to keep itself busy. I had more ideas, I felt more productive. So, yeah, I got it, eventually.

But there was this other moment I remember from that first visit. I don’t quite remember what trail I was on or what remarkable geological feature I came across. But I remember walking down a dry riverbed and coming to a giant cliff face. I realized I was inside a steep, beautiful gorge, the sort where it’s a little bit darker and a little bit cooler than it should be for the time of day. I wish I could remember where it was, but all I can remember is how I felt, what I was thinking.

I remember thinking something like, “This exists! In Ohio!”

That’s a feeling I think a lot of people try to capture when they go into the wild places of the world. It’s a path that can take us to cliché – “magnificent outdoor cathedral” and so forth. It’s a feeling you can find in a city, of course, but many of us find it out there, in the woods, in the parks, in the hills. It’s the feeling of confirmation that you exist in the same world as something grand. It is, to put it simply, a confirmation of dreams.

It’s certainly not a feeling one can only find in Hocking Hills, or a feeling one will definitely find in Hocking Hills. But I’ve found it in Hocking Hills, and so Hocking Hills has long stuck in my mind as a hidden, mysterious and almost mystical pocket of Ohio. A place of aquamarine water, Western film set rock faces, and people who make things happen, on their own terms or not at all.

 

Part 1: Do It Yourself

 

A Crazy Woman

Thirty years ago, Anne Castle came down to the Hocking Hills. Anne was a human resources development consultant who’d lost a lot of her money in a divorce. She’d driven through the northeast, where most of the inns and bed & breakfasts were at the time, and declared that Hocking Hills was as pretty as any place she’d seen. She started buying property.

In the spectrum of qualities that might define a pioneer, you might include a certain amount of daring and a certain amount of insanity. Certainly that would be true of those people we all consider pioneers, the actual pioneers, the people who slogged their way across this territory in the earliest era of the Republic, cobbling together what some history textbook somewhere would romantically call “a new life,” but what they almost certainly thought of simply as survival.

These were the folks who built the log cabins that Anne Castle started buying 30 years ago, when she became a pioneer in her own era. This was a time when there were few tourists coming to the Hocking Hills and fewer places to accommodate them, and anyone who wanted to build such a place must have had a certain amount of daring and a certain amount of insanity.

“When I met Anne…” remembered Terry Lingo, innkeeper at the Inn & Spa At Cedar Falls. “When I talked to other people I would tell them, ‘I’ve truly met a crazy woman.’ Because who would want to come to Hocking Hills and spend the night?”

Anne hired Terry as a contractor while she built her inn. It’s never easy for pioneers, it’s not supposed to be easy for pioneers, and it wasn’t easy for Anne Castle. Sometimes Terry would have to pull off the job when the money ran out. The money ran out a lot. It took almost three years to get the business stable and running.

“It still amazes me we survived those first few years,” said Ellen Grinsfelder, innkeeper and Anne Castle’s daughter.

There were a few shareholders back then, and there was a loan from the Small Business Administration. But still it took three years to put the money together, and about three years into the business Anne Castle died of cancer. Ellen, who had been working at the inn from the beginning, was there to take over.

Now, thirty years later, Anne Castle’s idea seems anything but crazy. Hocking Hills is one of the top tourist attractions in the state, and there are hundreds of cabins and overnight accommodations available all over the region. Now, thirty years later, the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls has B&B rooms, cottages, yurts, and log cabins dating back to the 1840s, as well as a fine-dining restaurant called Kindred Spirits. Now, thirty years later, Terry and Ellen have two adult children and manage the Inn together.

For Terry, the staff is the best part of running the Inn. For Ellen, it’s the guests. They have higher expectations now, which is to be expected with all the competition in the hills. Competition inspired, most likely, by Ellen’s mother. According to Ellen, whenever she was asked what she would do when she retired, Anne Castle, “always used the example of ‘my dream is to open an inn.’”

So when you come to these places – the Inn & Spa At Cedar Falls, yes, but really anywhere in the Hocking Hills – know that you are very much inside someone’s dream made true.

 

Proud To Be An American

You know how usually you can go through a whole day without thinking about washboards? That’s how I go through most of my days, at least. But now, it seems, I can’t get washboards out of my mind, nor can I think of a more useful device invented by humanity.

I’ll come back to that in a little bit, but first I want to talk about this guy named James Martin. James is English, and the thing about hearing an English accent in Appalachia is that your first thought is not, “Oh, this is an English person,” it’s more of, “Oh, here’s an Appalachian accent I haven’t hear before.” So it took me a couple of sentences before I realized James was English.

James is factory manager at the Columbus Washboard Company in Logan. The Columbus Washboard Company was established in 1895 and was originally located, as you might imagine, in Columbus. Grandview, to be specific, until the 1990s when it moved to Logan. Today, it is the last washboard factory in the United States, manufacturing washboards and sending them all over the world.

Washboard Company exterior.

Overseeing everything is James, who had somewhere else he needed to be and was not ready for the onslaught of questions and photographs that come with a traveling press tour. Someone taking photos told him, “You look so sad!”

“That’s because I’m from London,” he replied.

James just received his citizenship a few days before. He celebrated by buying himself a German car – a 1967 VW Bug – like a good American. Now, here’s how James, from England, ended up managing the last washboard factory in America. It has a bit to do with New Zealand.

Bear with me here.

In 1999, according to James, the Columbus Dispatch reported that the Columbus Washboard Company on Oxley Rd. in Grandview would have to close down. A businesswoman named Jacqui Barnett – originally from New Zealand – heard about the closing and decided to buy the business, moving its operations to an old shoe factory in Logan.

Meanwhile, in Britain (a small island in the North Atlantic), James Martin was busy manufacturing soap. Specifically, the old fashioned, hard bar style soap. Eventually, his soap customers started asking if he knew where they could buy “scrubbing boards” – the British term for a washboard. So James did some research online and came upon the Columbus Washboard Company of Logan, Ohio and gave them a call.

“I just happened to get through to a New Zealander and we just hit it off,” said James.

Now James supervises the manufacture and sale of 20,000 washboards a year, sending them all over the world.

“They are predominantly sold to Millennials now,” said James, emphasis his. “If we didn’t have that market, we would’ve closed.”

So there you have it; one industry Millennials have revived rather than killed. James touched on some of the reasons for the interest among my generation, not the least being all-powerful, yet ever-elusive authenticity.

“Your great, great-grandma would recognize one of those,” said James. “Because those logos have not changed.”

The more you use a washboard, the older and more authentic it looks. A washboard does not use electricity, and therefore does not impact your climate footprint. And most importantly, a washboard is truly a do-it-yourself instrument.

I can remember when I, in my youth, lived in an apartment without a washing machine (it was 2016). Going to the Laundromat every Sunday, converting my money, which is largely electronic, into little metal disks – it was hell. Would a washboard have helped? I can imagine my Millennial self, sitting in the basement, scrubbing my jeans on the washboard and listening to podcasts and thinking about whether or not homeownership is even, like, worth it, you know?

Which brings me to my original point: I cannot stop thinking about washboards. There’s the history of it, how in the 1930s they introduced glass and wood instead of metal, which took off during the World War II years because we needed all the metal available to, you know, kill Nazis. Today the glass washboards are useful in places with a lot of saltwater because salt can corrode the metal boards.

There’s the variety of users and uses, like how travelers and hikers and campers like the mini washboards to clean up stains on the go or out in the wild. Like how the washboard has been a musical instrument in America since the 1700s, when African slaves invented musical styles that used sticks and spoons drawn back and forth across the corrugated metal to keep rhythm. Like how so-called “preppers” stockpile washboards in their bunkers, waiting for an apocalypse when all civilization has collapsed, but that coffee stain? That’s got to go.

Or perhaps the apocalyptic expectations of the “preppers” are not so far off. At a discounted price, the Columbus Washboard Company has sent washboards to Puerto Rico and the Caribbean islands, where electricity is scarce as those regions recover from devastating hurricanes.

Over the factory floor hangs a large, white flag that says “We Support Our Troops,” which is something a lot of businesses say. In the case of the Columbus Washboard Company, it’s the real deal, as the factory has sent many washboards to American soldiers abroad who don’t have easy access to washing machines.

“As I am from Wadsworth, Ohio, it was a taste of home to see your name on a washboard that was left for us and I, and my team, have used your product each week since we’ve been here,” wrote Maj. Andrew J. Foreman, US Marine Corps, from Iraq in 2008. His email is displayed on the factory floor. “It was a reminder of home and thank you all from a bunch of Marines far from home.”

The washboards sent to soldiers overseas are branded with the stars and stripes and the words, “Proud to be an American.”

 

Clear and Unaged

Supposedly the fire is still burning deep underground. Supposedly, as recently as 2003, they could see smoke rising from the soil in Wayne National Forest. Supposedly it all began in 1884, when the miners in New Straitsville went on strike and shoved a burning coal car into the mine. Coal burns slow. Slow enough that the fire beneath the hills still burns today, supposedly.

As labor disputes and mine fires raged, the coal industry in the Hocking Hills started to collapse. The miners and their families, now without an industry to support (and exploit) them, invented an industry of their own.

Moonshine being distilled.

“I grew up in what was known as the moonshine capital in the world, in the little town of New Straitsville,” said Brian St. Clair. “More liquor came out of that area and Southern Ohio than any other place during Prohibition.”

Brian is one of the owners of the family-run Hocking Hills Moonshine distillery. When the distillery door opens, the whiskey smell just sort of smacks you. The room is decorated with items from the St. Clair family farm in an effort to recreate the look of an old time moonshining hideout. Much of the distillery’s aesthetic is meant to evoke the Prohibition era.

“Prohibition was one big joke,” said Brian. “It was just an open secret. Even the president never stopped drinking alcohol.”

There were a few reasons why Southeastern Ohio became a moonshining hub. For one thing, Ohio’s extensive rail system made it easy to transport the product to Chicago, New York, or to Lake Erie, from which it could go anywhere. Brian also notes the erstwhile mining industry attracted a wide swath of ethnic groups with their own cultural attachments – and recipes – for alcohol. Then there’s the landscape itself. The limestone rich soil in the Hocking Hills region contains minerals that improve the taste of the water used in the distillation process.

Today, of course, the laws have changed. The government will allow the production of moonshine – which, by the way, is not like some mystical potion that makes you blind. It’s really just unaged whiskey. The state and the feds don’t mind if you make it, so long as they can tax it and you follow their rules. And, of course, not everyone does.

“They still make illegal whiskey in New Straitsville,” said Brian. “I don’t know who, I don’t want to know, but I guarantee you.”

Brian, along with his brother and cousin, started their moonshining business from a knowledge base that stretches back through the history of New Straitsville. Brain knew the old moonshiners, he knew about the era they lived through and the work they did. There was a tradition to uphold.

“I was really the only one left,” said Brian. “It was me and Old Bob and then Old Bob passed and it was just me”

He did not specify exactly who Old Bob was, but in a way, don’t we all kind of know who Old Bob was?

The standard Hocking Hills Moonshine is 90-proof, clear unaged whiskey. From there, the moonshiners can mix in flavors to make several different varieties. Then, for the adventurous, there’s the 120-proof Buckeye Lightning. For the audacious, there’s the 151-proof Buckeye Thunder.

I tried the regular 90-proof and liked it. I really liked the Buckeye Lightning. It wasn’t the gut punch I was expecting. The woman who poured the sample said, “It gets smoother as it gets stronger,” which seems dangerous. But I liked it.

What, you want more than that? This ain’t a restaurant review.

I’m not going to get romantic and say I could taste the history. I couldn’t taste desperate and angry miners, I couldn’t taste an invisible fire burning for a century. I couldn’t taste hillside chemists, distilling in the Appalachian darkness, nor could I taste the rollicking adventures of bootleggers outrunning the revenuers in Model Ts. You can’t taste history, really. But it is there.

If anything other than whiskey, moonshine tastes like something someone put thought into. Moonshine tastes like something someone did themselves.

James Martin with a washboard.

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