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Looking back at centuries of local history

As I have written here before, I have always been quite the history buff.

Perhaps it is because I had parents and grandparents who were considerably older than those of my peers. I have always had an appreciation for doing things the “old-fashioned way” and for taking valuable lessons from our past experiences.

Recently, I have had quite a few opportunities to revive my interest in things historic. From closely inspecting some older buildings that my husband and I own as we plan upgrades and maintenance to really examining the details of furniture passed down through generations of my family, I have had the chance to look back at the past and truly appreciate the craftsmanship, quality materials and long-term care that have helped these structures and objects survive for more than a century.

But you don’t have to have antiques lying around to enjoy history on your own. We live in an area that is rich with the history of people of many different cultures.

All of Eastern Ohio lies in what once was the western frontier of America. We are situated right at the point where pioneers emerged from the Appalachian Mountains and began to explore the wilderness of the West. Our familiar U.S. 40, or National Road, was the first major improved highway in the country. Begun in 1811 as an artery between the Potomac River in Maryland and the Ohio River at Wheeling, it was later extended along the path of Zane’s Trace, built in the early 1800s by Ebenezer Zane and family, who lived in the local region.

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge, which helped traffic cross the Ohio River without using a ferry, was added to the road system in 1849.

So you can see that, if you are in the right mindset, even a simple drive down a familiar road can help you to step back in time.

With early settlement of our area dating back to the 18th century, there is no shortage of fascinating stories, sites and structures you can enjoy. Even before European people came to this region, Native Americans were living here and leaving their mark. While it may be uncommon to turn up an arrowhead in your backyard these days, signs of their past impact on the Ohio Valley are all around us. In addition to their words forming the basis of place names and English words such as Wheeling and Ohio, those indigenous people left scattered burial mounds and truly impressive structures including the Grave Creek Mound at Moundsville, the largest conical-type burial mound in the United States.

Alongside the winding country roads, some of which may have origins as native footpaths, there is all sorts of interesting local history to see if you watch for it. There are old barns that have stood the test of time and still feature advertisements for Mail Pouch tobacco. There are sturdy brick homes that were built during the Civil War. You can find an occasional log cabin both inside and outside some of our smaller communities. And nearly every cemetery you pass contains the graves of people who lived and died in the 1800s. In a few cases, the individuals buried there were laid to rest in the 1700s.

If you enjoy learning about history but would prefer not to go out and find it for yourself, the region offers numerous museums you can visit. Some of these remain closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but many are opening back up or making their collections and educational programming available online.

Another great way to learn about local history is to talk to the people who lived through it. Often, older relatives or neighbors will have incredible stories to share. They can tell you about the old market house where they bought penny candy. Or they can explain why a neighborhood has a special name, such as Cider Press Hill.

Perhaps they will tell you about their school days, when there were no buses to transport them to and from class. Or maybe they will share details of some of their ornery exploits, putting coins on train tracks to be smashed or tipping over a neighbor’s outhouse.

In any case, they likely will be grateful that you asked them to share their wisdom. And, striking up a conversation, whether over the phone or outdoors from across the lawn, will provide you an opportunity to check on these folks and see how they are doing amid the isolation and sadness of the pandemic.

Taking a walk down memory lane — or stepping back quite a bit further than that — also could be a good way for you to take your own mind off of the trials and tribulations we are facing today.

Whether you go for a drive on a historic highway or choose to stroll through a quaint community like Morristown or Mount Pleasant, you could learn a lot, connect with our common heritage and just appreciate all that has happened to get us to where we are today.

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