“That’s where Rita and Tommy lived.”
That simple sentence turned the plans for my first visit to Chestnut Ridge Metro Park into an adventure of genealogical proportions.
A picture-perfect Sunday-afternoon drive through historic Canal Winchester brought us to the 486-acre park in Carroll. At a two-acre pond near the park’s entrance, some people were fishing for bluegill, bass and catfish; others were standing on a wetland observation deck, hoping to catch a glimpse of waterfowl like the wood ducks, green herons and mallards known to frequent the pond. I spotted an umbrella of sleek white gourds on the shore that invited purple martins to nest.
The woods beckoned, so we took the Ridge Trail and began our hike through the park.
The park’s signature feature is a dramatically high ridge formed from an outcropping of Blackhand sandstone, similar to the sandstone cliffs in nearby Licking County upon which Native Americans made a hand-shaped carving that blackened with weathering or moss.
The sandstone at Chestnut Ridge was so plentiful that in 1835, canal-builders directed Irish laborers to hew hundreds of blocks from it to create the locks for the nearby Ohio and Erie and Hocking Canals. More recently, blocks of sandstone from the same source were quarried to create a semi-circular amphitheatre for park programs.
The trail gradually rises 150 feet to the ridge through a thick forest. Sycamore, sugar maple and beech trees abound on the lower slopes, while black oak, shagbark hickory, ash and oak trees grow along the upper slopes and ridge. Vast stands of American chestnut trees also covered the slopes of the ridge until a devastating blight arrived in the early 1900s, killing most of the chestnut trees in Ohio by the 1950s. Only a few blight-resistant hybrid chestnut trees grow at the park today.
An abundant shade-giving canopy protects wildflowers and wildlife alike. A furry white caterpillar destined to become a hickory tussock moth slowly made his way along the railing of the boardwalk that spans part of the Ridge Trail.
Reaching the top of the ridge, it wasn’t long before I realized why Chestnut Ridge is such a gem of a place. Considered to be the first ridge in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Chestnut Ridge divides two different regions of the country. We stood on the park’s two observation decks and beheld some beautiful scenery.
One provides a view of the Columbus skyline, about 19 miles away. The other is so picturesque that it moved David Rains Wallace, an author of several works on conservation and natural history, to capture it in writing. Wallace lived on the north slope of Chestnut Ridge from 1975 to 1977 while working as a public information specialist for Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks. His book, Idle Weeds: The Life of an Ohio Sandstone Ridge, is based on the journal he kept while walking the property and is dedicated “to Betsy, who was there.”
“The ridge might even be said to have a soul, at least a place that is always beautiful, from which beauty radiates,” Wallace wrote in Idle Weeds. “There is a little grove of sugar maples on the upper west slope just below the spring-wildflower-covered mound. The maples are young, no more than sixty years old, but something about the place makes them seem venerable….A quiet emerald light plays on the slope in summer, and in autumn the crisp sunbeams that stream through the golden canopy make the grove sparkle like cloisonné. In winter the trees stand as gracefully against the snow as in those leafless woods through which knights hunt wild boar in a medieval book of hours….Other tree species will move in as the maples grow older….The trees will die, the slope will be leveled by erosion, and the ridge will start all over again as a sandbank on some distant shore.”
We continued along Meadows Trail, a path following the edge of a high meadow that crosses over a stream, noticing wildflowers like Flowering Spurge, Great Blue Lobelia, Green-headed Coneflower and Tick Trefoil, so named for its furry pods that stick to cloth like ticks. Abundant patches of Snakeroot, the plant with the fluffy white flowers that caused the death of Abraham Lincoln’s mother, prompted a reader’s advisory for Amy Stewart’s Wicked Plants: A Book of Botanical Atrocities. We spotted Kentucky coffeetrees, sassafras and hawthorn trees, and stopped to watch a Nuthatch climb upside-down along tree trunks. More than 70 species of birds have been counted at Chestnut Ridge in one day.
Turning onto Homesite Trail, my anticipation mounted. Rita Born Quinn, my great-aunt, and her husband, Tom, lived on Chestnut Ridge, and the trail passes through their former property.
People began planting orchards at Chestnut Ridge between 1860 and 1880. One of them was John Wagner, a native of Payne, Ohio who served in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War and stayed there until 1918, when he returned to Ohio to start an apple orchard. He chose Chestnut Ridge because of the air that prevented damage from late frosts and its proximity to the Columbus market. After Wagner passed away in 1959, the Quinns bought over 39 acres of land on Chestnut Ridge, including Wagner’s orchard, and lived there in a home they called “Apple Hill.” My mother and her siblings sledded there during the winter and spent a week at a time there during the summer. They remember it as a very pretty property, with a stable and a large pond whose muddy banks provided an inviting home for muskrats.
Other city-dwellers like the Quinns bought parcels of land at Chestnut Ridge. Some used it as a weekend camping getaway; others built homes and moved there, utilizing the excellent growing conditions to plant pear and pine trees; grapevines and blueberry bushes; American holly, ginkgo and magnolia trees; perennials; flowering bulbs; daylilies; bamboo and ground covers.
Dr. Edward E. Campbell was one of those people. Around 1936, he built a home called Far View Farms. While the upper floor is gone today, the foundations still exist. Metro Parks is managing this and other old homesites at Chestnut Ridge to keep them from reverting to woodland.
The Quinns sold their property in 1962 to a buyer who subdivided the ridge into lots for houses in a subdivision called Chestnut Heights, advertised as “a delightful, unspoiled sylvan setting for quality homes,” Warren wrote. In 1963, Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks bought it and other parcels of land belonging to 18 other owners in order to return Chestnut Ridge to its natural state and preserve it as a park that would offer conservation and recreational programs.
Descending down the ridge, our final stop was a patch of pawpaw trees. The “Ohio banana trees,” so named because the fruit they bear in the fall resembles short, fat bananas, are in such abundance at Chestnut Ridge that I wanted to chant, “Pickin’ up paw-paws, put ‘em in your pockets, Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.”
For more on Chestnut Ridge Metro Park, read A Cultural History of Chestnut Ridge Metro Park, by Robert W. McCormick. It is also mentioned in 50 Hikes in Ohio: Day Hikes and Backpacking Trips in the Buckeye State, by Ralph Ramey. While working as a visiting lecturer in the creative writing program at the Ohio State University during the spring of 1993, Wallace collaborated with the Logan Elm Press on designing and producing a collection of selections from Idle Weeds. The cover papers are made by hand from Abaca and local weed fibers including Goldenrod, Aster, Cattail, Milkweed, Ironweed and Broomshedge. Click here to see the cover and a few pages from this special edition.