I probably would have gone just for the Pencil Sharpener Museum.
But the itinerary for the three-day tour of Ohio’s Hocking Hills also included a washboard factory, the last one left in America. And a moonshine distillery. Lunch at a place called JimBo’s.
Yeah, I was going. In fact, where had this place been all my life?
I know not everyone’s heart goes a little thwumpy at the thought of a whole passel of pencil sharpeners in one place. I can imagine that if you once actually owned and used a washboard, you might be glad you’re rid of it.
But the Hocking Hills region, a sprawling 500-square-mile swath in the Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio, is more than just another quirky roadside attraction.
In fact, the Hocking Hills are best known for spectacular scenery. I first stumbled upon the area in my research for a roundup of alternatives to the usual-suspect fall foliage hot spots. Hocking Hills, thanks to its unusual geology, seemed like a “veritable Disneyland of natural attractions,” with caves, waterfalls, cliffs, valleys and an amazing variety of tree species.
By 2013, when the story ran, it had also become the Canopy Tour Capital of the Midwest, with more than 50 zip lines.
But just because it abounds with nature, just because the folks still make moonshine with 100-year-old family recipes and just because (uh-oh, is this the deal-breaker?) cell service is unreliable, don’t start thinking flannel shirts and Spam dinners.
Because just as surprising as the existence of a moonshine factory (with tastings and souvenirs) were the high-end options for travelers. My log “cabin” at Cedar Grove Lodging was spotless, huge, gorgeous and had more of the comforts of home than I have at home. I had a five-course feast with a papaw cocktail created by a chef from the French Culinary Institute.
I spent time getting to know local characters such as Sandy Watrous, who named her diner Pearl’s — “just like granma’s cookin’” — after her mom and has a list of customers she calls when she makes certain dishes she knows they’ll like.
Or Joy Clark, who, since her husband, Jim, died in 2012, is the sole owner of JimBo’s restaurant, popular for its half-pound-or-more burgers. Joy keeps the place open in memory of her husband and radiates grandmotherly vibes of concern that all is well for her clientele: Despite the abundance of meat on the menu, she was ready for the lone vegan in the place, with two types of veggie burger.
Everything is just a little different here. You’ll begin to notice the change on the 40-minute drive southeast from Columbus, the most convenient airport for a trip to the Hocking Hills.
You’ll know you’re getting close when the relentless Ohio flatness noticeably begins to relent. When you start to see hills, forests and winding two-lane roads, you’re in Hocking Hills country.
The name came from the Hockhocking River, which in the Delaware Indian language meant “bottle,” because of a noticeable bottleneck in the flow above one waterfall. The Hocking Hills region encompasses seven counties. Hocking is one of the counties, and home to Hocking Hills State Park, which covers 2,356 acres.
Logan, the county seat, is at the eastern end of the county. It is home to one of the two visitor centers in the region (the other is at the western end, in Laurelville). We are following the signs for the visitor center off State Route 664. And just before the exit, I see it: a small, prefab structure, the back decorated with a mural of colorful tall and very sharp-pointed pencils.
The Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum sits opposite the visitor center, its permanent home since 2011. I’m pretty sure I was the first one out of the van, but I lingered outside this museum the size of a tool shed. It really was small. Then again, how big are pencil sharpeners?
I had the fleeting thought/fear: How many types of sharpeners could there be, anyway?
Well, about 3,400 at least. Here they were, lined up on floor to near-ceiling shelves in the one-room museum that was a result of one man’s all-consuming avocation.
Johnson’s wife, Charlotte, was responsible for sending him down the pencil-shaving-strewn path. When he retired in 1988, she knew he’d need something to occupy himself, so she gave him two sharpeners shaped like cars for Christmas. He spent the next 11 years seeking out unique sharpeners of all sorts.
The results are arranged in categories, indicated by yellowing labels, such as Transportation, Music (harp, gramophone, banjo, accordion, organ), the Zodiac, Dogs, Cats, Sports, Furniture/Household and one I call body parts. Johnson banned anything electric except for the big gorilla that one of his grandchildren gave him; its eyes glow red when the pencil is sharpened. Johnson never used his pencil sharpeners.
Our dinner at the Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls, where chef Anthony Schulz, trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York, treated us to fun and creative dishes. The inn is on 75 acres of a former farm; one of the original log cabins was incorporated into the Kindred Spirits restaurant. Before dinner, chef Schulz came out and explained something on the menu. Which brings up the topic of the papaw.
The papaw is the largest indigenous fruit in the U.S., and more vitamin- and protein-rich than most other fruits. But they’re around for only about four weeks, mid-September through mid-October. We got to sample the Muddy Waters, with papaw puree, Bacardi silver rum and pineapple juice. OMG.
During dinner, Schulz returned with a few of his prized morel mushrooms, scarce and like gold in these parts. He’d fried them, and he offered the plates in a flourish that seemed vaguely Merlin-like. After he went back to his kitchen, assistant innkeeper Nicole McCabe, who had joined us for dinner, leaned over and said: “He loves working with locally grown ingredients.” The inn is committed to that practice, she said. “People know that if they pull up a truck loaded with something grown locally, he’ll buy it and figure out something good to do with it.”
This seems to be the way most of the folks in Hocking Hills have operated over the decades and even longer.
For the last 45 years, New Straitsville — the “moonshine capital of the world” — has celebrated its heritage with a moonshine festival in May. Remnants of old stills are on display at the New Straitsville History Center along with a replica of the coal mine that started it all.
And visitors to this sleepy town of 800 can now get a real taste of moonshine history at the Straitsville Special Moonshine Distillery, which opened about six months ago in the town’s former general store on Main Street. When partners Amie St. Clair and Doug Nutter bought the place, it had been closed for nearly half a century. The previous owner went home sick one day in 1968, and three days later he died. Nobody had occupied it since.
In fact, they had to hire a “safecracker” to open the thick and rusting door to the safe in the back room — and Nutter was afraid it might have been booby-trapped to blow up if anyone without the combination tried to open it. The safecracker spent 90 tense minutes drilling through the door. No explosion, though there was a ghastly pounding noise from within when the air pressure suddenly changed. Inside were original documents, blasting caps, an old prescription for medication and stacks of silver certificates.
Nutter said he and St. Clair were talking (and drinking) one night and decided they should take advantage of recent legislation that made local breweries and distilleries legal. They said there were lots of rules involved — he was signing paperwork for months — but the final product, the moonshine, wouldn’t taste any different from the illegal version.
Nutter and fellow brewer Bill Merckle led us to the still in the back of the shop. The first step in the distilling process — for not just moonshine but any alcohol — is fermentation, where yeast chomps down sugar and produces alcohol. Corn mash is used most often for fermentation. The alcohol is then extracted by heating to its boiling point, vaporizing it. Through a series of coils or tubes, it cools down to a liquid state and is drained into a big vat like the ones we were looking at.
Nutter pointed to one of the vats as he explained that not all of what’s in the vat becomes moonshine. The first part of a run contains the highest alcohol content, but it also contains methanol, the stuff that actually will make you blind.
Merckle beckoned me over to a large vat and took off the cover to reveal it was three-quarters full of the brain-deadening liquid. “Take a whiff,” he said. “Slowly.”
I had barely bent my head over the barrel when my eyes started to, well, kind of bulge.
One more eye-opening experience in the Hocking Hills.
IF YOU GO
Straitsville Special Moonshine Distillery: facebook.com/Straitsvillespecialmoonshine
Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls: innatcedarfalls.com
Cedar Grove Lodgings: Offers one, two and three-bedroom cabins and lodges that can accommodate larger groups. cedargrovelodging.com/
Hocking Hills State Park: parks.ohiodnr.gov/hockinghills
Hocking Hills Tourism Association: Explorehockinghills.com