Hocking Hills: A Cottage Industry

New York Chef Anthony Schulz had never heard of Hocking Hills, Ohio, when he applied for a position at The Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls, a snug retreat in the state’s remote and picturesque southern third. Trained at the French Culinary Institute and working on Long Island, he was ready for a change, although he admits, “My knowledge of Ohio was limited to Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati.”

A phone interview led to an invitation to travel west for the ultimate test-to create a four-course meal for the innkeepers, using whatever he found in the kitchen’s lander. Not only did he pass the test, he the also caught the vision. “We want to take the inn to the next level, and one way to do that is by offering a heart-healthy menu,” explains Ellen Grinsfelder, who operates the facility with her husband. Two years later, Chef Anthony, now a confirmed Buckeye, oversees the kitchen staff, teaches occasional cooking classes, and scours the local markets for the freshest produce to serve guests who come from as far away as Chicago and Detroit.

Grinsfelder’s plan is to preserve the delicate balance between the inn’s rustic setting and its first-clas service. The dining room is housed in an 1840s log cabin, but the art on the walls is original, the food on the tables is elegant, and the wines on the list are diverse. Guests can watch Chef Anthony prepare their North Atlantic flounder stuffed with ricotta and sweet basil knowing that the basil came from the herb garden located atop the inn’s roof, safely out of reach of the deer that wander the grounds.

Hocking Hills—all 11,000 square acres of it—is a sprawling community of cottage industries in the truest sense of the term. Some 200 innkeepers offer cottages, cabins, and rooms to the thousands of tourists who visit each year. Although summer and fall are considered high season for guests, “winter and early spring are my favorite times,” says Grinsfelder, whose mother opened the inn in 1987 to provide a place where city dwellers could retreat to a natural setting. Less than an hour’s drive southeast of Columbus, the region is a doable destination for urbanites in need of rejuvenation.

“Baby boomers are our largest single group of visitors,” says Karen Raymore, a recent transplant from northern Wisconsin and now the executive director of the local tourism association. “People that age—and I’m one of them—like to prove that they can still hike, climb, and zipline.”

Zipline? The latest craze to hit the area has adventure-seekers locked in harnesses and zipping along a network of cables at speeds up to 50 mph. The thrill begins with a 1.5-mile drive via golf cart through the woods to where a giant oak awaits. Guests climb up to a launch pad and for the next two and a half hours are airborne as they soar from one platform to another, some located as high as 70 feet above ground. The views are incredible (if you dare look down) and include the Hocking River, a waterfall, and dramatic rock and cliff formations.

The same rough terrain that draws zipliners also lures hikers who prefer to enjoy the scenery with their boots planted firmly on the ground. Nearby Hocking Hills State Park is massive, as is the state forest that surrounds it. A series of caves is easily accessible through trails and bridges that were built as public works projects during the Great Depression. The steps are still sturdy and the passages from cave to cave are large and airy, causing one claustrophobic hiker to remark with relief, “It’s not like slipping through a birth canal.”

To generate tourism after the spectacular fall foliage season, park officials schedule events that help fill the inns and cabins during the slow months. A six-mile winter trek draws 3,000 and has been a January tradition since 1965; a “sweethearts hike” commemorates Valentine’s Day; and March guests learn the process of turning maple sap into syrup before sitting down for a hardy pancake breakfast. Innkeepers collaborate with local venues to put together “packages” that offer a variety of places to stay, things to do, and restaurants to sample.

Working independently, the scores of inns carve out niches that set each one apart from its competition. For example, the Bear’s Den Cottages is a “nature and wellness retreat” that focuses on fitness and health. The Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls has a full-service spa that offers mother-daughter getaways and a “desperate housewives package.” The Hocking Hills Resort enjoys a reputation as a one-stop wedding destination with an outdoor chapel and an in-house minister.

“We’re not on Main Street, so we knew we had to be versatile,” explains innkeeper Melody Strickland, whose husband, Randy, is certified to officiate at wedding services. Working together, the Stricklands host about 100 weddings each year. Among the most memorable was the formal event they arranged for a New York City couple who were so precise in their plans that they sent recipes for the foods they wanted served at the reception. The pressure was on, but the inn passed the test, recalls Melody. “If we can do that, we can do anything.”

Read more about “stops along the way” by clicking here.

Baskets & Washboards in Hocking Hills

—Stops along the way
(a supplement to “Hocking Hills: A Cottage Industry” from the May/June 2009 issue of The Saturday Evening Post magazine)

From her workshop located high on a hill between Logan and Lancaster, Ohio, Leota Hutchison creates 500 hand-woven baskets a year. She teaches classes in her eclectic studio where one-of-a-kind baskets are heaped on tables and scores of teakettles hang from the rafters. She collected the kettles to use as pots for her dried flower arrangements, another craft that she mastered and turned into a cottage industry several years ago. Her productivity is legendary, especially since friends estimate her age to be somewhere between 80 and 90. (But don’t ask, because she won’t tell.)

Although Leota doesn’t advertise and has no Web site, her basket-weaving workshops draw a steady enrollment. Students sit on plank benches and, under the watchful eyes of their tough taskmaster, lace strips of pliable wood into small take-home treasures. Visitors who can’t spare the required two or three hours of instruction can rummage through the sizeable inventory and buy a Leota Original for a fraction of its worth.

Six miles south of Hutchison’s hilltop compound is the Columbus Washboard Company, another favorite stopover for visitors who want to sample the local culture. Once the producer of 1.3 million washboards annually, America’s lone washboard company now turns out about 20,000 a year. Some are used as musical instruments, others for decorations, and the bulk for scrubbing clothes the old-fashioned way.

Among the company’s most grateful customers are U.S. troops stationed in Iraq. “We came up with a kit for soldiers,” explains Jacqui Barnett, one of several friends who bought the Columbus-based company in 1999 and moved it to an old shoe factory in Logan. “We send washboards, clothespins, clotheslines, small tubs, and soap.”

Evidence of the military’s gratitude is displayed on a table at the center of the factory’s floor. Soldiers send photos and notes attesting to the kits’ usefulness. “The washboards and tubs arrived at a very opportune time,” wrote one officer. “Our sniper section was sent to a city occupied by Iraqi commandos. We lived on a rooftop when we weren’t out on mission. I will always have vivid memories of doing my laundry on my stomach using those boards and tubs while we stayed low to avoid direct fire.”

Iraq-bound boards are decorated with flag decals and a message that is appropriate for the producers and recipients of the kits: “Proud to be American.”

For information about Hocking Hills, Ohio, visit 1800hocking.com or call 1-800-hocking.