Wednesday, August 2, 2017

River Towns: Ripley, Ohio

One of my goals is to travel the entire length of the Ohio River. The river, its history and folklore have caught my attention since I retired, and I am always happy when we travel the roads the border it. I have been to its birthplace in Pittsburgh, and I've been along all of its West Virginia border and its Ohio/Kentucky border as far as Portsmouth, Ohio. But I had yet to see the rest of the river, and since we needed to drive to Cincinnati to catch our flight to Florida, I figured why not take the slow way and add a little more to our "seen it" map? Ohio is our neighboring state, and yet I've not seen a great deal of it, so this was an opportunity to explore.

One of the places I wanted most to see was Ripley, Ohio. Our closest-to-home town is Ripley, WV so it seemed only fitting to visit its Ohio namesake. I knew that this Ohio Ripley was once a big tobacco town too. Back in the 1980's we grew tobacco and the history of the plant in this region interests me still.

We found Ripley to be a beautiful but struggling river town. There were many signs of its past bustling economy, but today most of the town is shuttered, like many places that time and interstates have passed by.

The town is fiercely proud of it heritage as an important station on the underground railroad, and the story of "Eliza" in Uncle Tom's Cabin is based on the true story of a slave who escaped to freedom at Ripley.

Founded in 1812 by Colonel James Poage on a grant in the Virginia Military District (land reserved in southern to be used as payment to US soldiers for their service), the original name was Staunton, Colonel Poage's Virginia home. The name was changed in a few years to Ripley to honor a general of the War of 1812.

The Belle if Cincinnati passed by as we ate at a riverside cafe.
The coming of the steamboat (the very first steamboat, the New Orleans, passed this site in 1811, just a year before the town was established) brought a method of transporting goods and agricultural products easily and surely aided in the town's growth.

I remember my sons having "Pride in Tobacco ball caps
when we grew tobacco.
After the Civil War, tobacco became a major crop in the area and Ripley became home to tobacco auctions--a tradition which sadly seems to have died out. I remember when we took our tobacco to auction in Huntington, WV, what an exciting event it was! But tobacco's prominence as a crop is dying out in this region, and although I am completely opposed to smoking for its health hazards, I still feel a twinge of sadness at the loss of an old tradition.

One of Ripley's past residents who is likely familiar to many people was Rosa Washington Riles, who was born in Red Oak (just north of Ripley) and is buried there. She was one of the "Aunt Jemima" personages recruited by Quaker Oats and toured the country playing that role. The Red Oak Presbyterian Church, in whose cemetery she is buried, was an important place on the Underground Railroad.

"Out of Staters Welcome" sign made us feel, well...welcome!
We stopped in town for a quick lunch. The main business area is beautiful, its history evident in the style of the buildings.

There were many empty buildings, however, and the evidence clearly pointed to a town struggling to maintain.

A few sights around town: 

Ripley bricks

We did not have time to visit the tobacco museum, or Rosa's grave, or to see the homes of the town's famous abolitionists, so we are already planning another visit. There are other towns in the area we need to go back to see as well. Road trip coming up!

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

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