Oct. 9, 2007
By Linda Lockhart | Photos by Kevin Riddell
Stories of Conestoga "welcome wagons" that met westward travelers were the impetus for the creation nearly 80 years ago of an organized network of hostesses, called Welcome Wagon, which to this day continues to greet new members of communities and share information about civic and cultural activities.
Different wagons. Different organization. Similar purpose.
This past Friday, about 25 new Ohio University faculty members and guests boarded university vans for an introduction to Southeast Ohio via an all-day field trip. This was the first year for the excursion, planned by the office of Executive Vice President and Provost Kathy Krendl.
"New faculty will learn over time about the history, the culture and the challenges that exist in our region," Krendl said, "but I wanted to accelerate that process by sponsoring a tour led by faculty members who have an extensive knowledge of and a true passion for Southeast Ohio.
"Having faculty who are well-informed about communities beyond Athens is important in helping to continue our strong tradition of partnerships with the region," she added. "The tour also provided an opportunity to give our new faculty insights into why many of us have such an abiding affection for this place."
Tour guides Tim Anderson and Geoff Buckley, both faculty members in the geography department, provided narration along the route and pointed out the significance of the physical and cultural landscape at stops along the way. Richard Greenlee, associate provost for Appalachian access and enrichment programs, added insightful bits of regional history.
"One of the goals today is to do reconnaissance so you'll go back and look at some of these places," Buckley told the group before the vans departed from Baker University Center under gray skies and raindrops.
The tour wound through Athens, Perry and Hocking counties, where just a few miles separate two regions with very different physical landscapes, settlements and economic histories. One region grew up in the Appalachian hills amid coal mining, company towns and a diverse mix of immigrants drawn by the mining industry. A very different heritage is claimed on the opposite side of glacial deposits near Laurelville, where a Pennsylvania-German population settled fertile flat land to establish an agricultural economy.
"This part of Ohio is one of the few places where you can encounter two such different landscapes in such a small area," Anderson said. It is an area where one can "transition out of Appalachia and into the Midwest."
Between the two regions, a stop at the Rockhouse formation in Hocking Hills State Park for lunch provided an opportunity to experience some of the recreational opportunities available within a short drive of Athens.
"We wanted to show people that the university and the city of Athens are not characteristic of Appalachia," Anderson said of the tour's purpose. "We wanted to give people a chance to see Appalachian culture. For those who have opportunities for service components in their fields, they can see where there may be needs."
Evidence of the beauty and need were woven together in nearly every stop along the Appalachian portion of the tour. The group saw an orange streambed resulting from acid mind drainage at the Majestic Mine entry in lush Wayne National Forest as well as the once-grand Tecumseh Theatre, a neglected opera house that tells of part of the story of the town of Shawnee.
"We want you to see what they're up against in saving some of these things," Buckley said in his morning introduction to the tour group.
At the Majestic Mine and on the Nelsonville Square, participants learned about the importance of the canal system and railways to the growth of the Hocking Valley as a center for coal production. Many snapped photos of architecture that remains as evidence of the area's population boom and the wealth experienced by a relative few. They learned that the Hocking Valley also was the birthplace of the coal mining labor movement that led to the creation of the United Mine Workers.
For Steve Scanlan, an assistant professor of sociology, the tour was truly a homecoming: portions of it covered the district where he attended high school. He appreciated that the tour combined social, economic and historical perspectives.
"You think you know a lot (about your home), and you do at the surface," he said, "but from the different perspectives we covered, there was a lot more to know. I think this type of tour will help people to feel more invested in the community, and that is good for the community and for the university, too."
Alex Sergeev, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics in the School of Health Sciences, originally from Russia, came to Athens last fall and said he looks forward to revisiting the Hocking Hills area to explore further. Although he has become familiar with Athens in the year he has spent here, he took the tour to see areas outside of Athens, particularly the recreational opportunities they offer.
"The tour was a really good overall introduction to the area," said Greg Foley, the Robert L. Morton Chair for mathematics education in the College of Education. Foley grew up in Southwest Ohio, and what made the greatest impression on him was the difference between the areas.
Participants also got to know some of their university community neighbors, too, chatting on the way back about their impressions of the area, their own interests, their previous positions and even the locations of their offices.
"You bring a lot of knowledge and a lot of resources, and we encourage you to become part of the communities. The communities will welcome you," Greenlee told the group. "We at Ohio University are trying to be good neighbors. That's what it's all about."