Northeast Ohio: Cleveland, Canton and a Lake Erie Islands Adventure
By Richard Varr
(NOTE: This post is excerpted from my story recently published in the spring issue of Coast to Coast Magazine.)
At first glance, it looks like any typical neighborhood home with a mustard-yellow façade, trimmed hedges and a shaded porch where I could easily pass the time enjoying a gentle summer breeze. But with a closer look, I realize I’ve seen this house before – not in person, but on television – over and over again.
All of a sudden, scenes of a famous Christmas movie come vividly to mind. “You’ll shoot your eye out kid,” says Santa to young Ralphie Parker who squeamishly asks him for a Red Ryder BB gun. Inside, I see the shapely leg lamp draped by a fishnet stocking that Ralphie’s father gloats over in an awkward family moment. And around back is the door where a pack of hungry dogs escapes the father’s ire after devouring the Christmas turkey. This house in Cleveland’s blue-collar Tremont neighborhood is where A Christmas Story was filmed in part – the 1983 movie we see every Christmas on the TBS network, a 24-hour marathon that started in 1997.
The home is one highlight of my trip to northeastern Ohio, where I visit Cleveland’s historic squares, bustling markets and revitalized neighborhoods, and needless to say, the iconic Rock and Roll Hall of Fame housed in a downtown scintillating glass and steel pyramid along a boat-filled harbor on the Lake Erie shoreline. Collections include everything a rock and roller might dream about – from Elvis Presley’s 1968 glittering gold suit and John Lennon’s 1964 Rickenbacker guitar, to the band Kiss’ drum set and the dress Tina Turner wore in her “Private Dancer” video.
A short walk leads to pedestrian-packed East 4th street, where on many nights you’ll find crowds swelled within its trendy bistros and cafes. Downtown’s streets stretch into Cleveland’s diverse neighborhoods, with some communities defined along historic ethnic lines – Slavic Village and Little Italy, for example. The craft beer-popular Ohio City neighborhood – once a separate municipality – is awash in colorful street art murals and is anchored by the city’s popular West Side Market with its 137-foot clock tower, a Cleveland landmark.
With a strong manufacturing base, Cleveland became the nation’s seventh largest city during the turn of the 19th to 20th century due in part to John D. Rockefeller founding Standard Oil. Lagging railroad and steel industries led to economic collapse in the 1970s and 80s, but in recent years Cleveland has earned the reputation as a “Comeback City” with renewed energy, revitalization and growth. Today, it’s home to nationally-known Progressive Insurance, Sherwin-Williams and the Cleveland Clinic.
The city’s thriving arts and culture scene sits within University Circle, with world-class museums, educational institutions and performing arts venues packed within a square mile. They include the Cleveland Orchestra’s domed neoclassical and art deco Severance Hall, the Cleveland Institute of Art, Cleveland History Center and Case Western Reserve University. Centered by green and treed Wade Oval, it’s where the stately façade of the Cleveland Museum of Art reflects off the still waters of scenic Wade Lagoon.
Yet another grand highlight is the impressive gothic-styled President James Garfield Memorial within Lake View Cemetery, also the final resting place for such notables as John D. Rockefeller and FBI organized crime fighter Eliot Ness. Relief carvings decorate its outside façade, while a 12-foot statue of the bearded 20th president stands within the tower’s ornate domed interior. “This is a grand monument to one of the poorest president’s in U.S. history,” notes guide Bob Hook. Garfield was shot in Washington in 1888, serving only about 200 days as president.
Just over an hour’s drive from Cleveland, Canton’s greatest attraction is yet another impressive presidential mausoleum – the domed William McKinley National Memorial. The 25th president died eight days after he was shot in 1901 while attending the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo. The granite memorial’s imposing exterior reaches 95 feet high. Halfway up the 108-step stairwell stands a statue of McKinley, a Canton native. In the adjacent McKinley Presidential Library and Museum, I’m amazed at the talking mannequin likenesses of McKinley and wife Ida standing among some of his original furniture during his life as a soldier, congressman, governor and then president.
Canton is also home to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, tracing the game’s beginning when the American Professional Football Association was founded in Canton in 1920. It was later renamed the NFL. Housed in an impressive glass and steel-fronted building, the attraction traces football’s roots from legendary Jim Thorpe, when protective gear was only simple pads, to the latest Super Bowl winners in their emblem-emblazoned colors and helmets. A particular highlight is the striking rows of bronze busts of the game’s best through the years. New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath comes to life in a hologram presentation.
And aviation history steps up to a new level at the Canton area’s extraordinary MAPS Air Museum. From the primitive stick-like and wood-paneled design of the historic 1908 Martin Glider, to a World War II B-26 Bomber and a late 20th century “Tomcat” fighter jet, the museum is home to more than 50 aircraft housed in a former military hanger and 130 historical displays in two galleries.
The Lake Erie Islands
From Sandusky, I hop a ferry to South Bass Island where I can’t help but notice golf carts crisscrossing island streets as the main means of transportation. And driving them is all part of the fun! Visitors quickly snatch up some of the 1500 available golf cart rentals, yet trying to find one during busy summer weekends can be a challenge. “On a Tuesday there are two for everybody, and on a Saturday there’s not enough for anybody,” jokes South Bass Island Ambassador Peter Huston with the Put-in-Bay Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.
Put-in-Bay – South Bass’ main village, often used synonymously as the island’s name – is centered with DeRivera Park, named after Joseph DeRivera St. Jurgo, the island’s original owner. It’s a grassy and shaded lakeside stretch of green space with a gazebo and picnic areas. Restaurants and shops line the park’s adjacent street, with parked golf carts bumper-to-bumper along curbsides.
Cannonballs in the park mark the original grave sites of six officers – three American and three British – from the pivotal 1813 Battle of Lake Erie. Those graves were later transferred to the island’s most spectacular site, the Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial. Topped by an 11-ton bronze urn, the imposing granite Doric column soars 352 feet high and dominates the view. The monument commemorates the Battle of Lake Erie, a key victory for the Americans in the War of 1812 against the British, British Canada and their Indian allies. From the battle comes the famous quote, “We have met the enemy and they are ours,” made by American Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry. The U.S. Brig Niagara is a replica of one of the battle’s ships and sits berthed along Putin-in-Bay’s shoreline.
South Bass Island is also home to Crystal Cave with quartz-like Celestine crystals – the largest Celestine geode in the world. On the grounds of Heineman Winery, the cave opened to the public in 1900. “My great-grandfather was digging a well for the winery and accidently broke into the Crystal Cave,” says owner Edward Heineman. Some weigh 200-300 pounds, he says, adding that some crystals from the cave are on display at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington D.C.
Golf carts are again the way to travel on nearby Kelleys Island’s rustic neighborhoods, where streets seem to weave in and around pastures and forestland with more hiking and biking trails than any other American island in Lake Erie. The island’s must-see attraction, however, is the Glacial Grooves Geological Preserve, where a great ice sheath 18,000 years ago carved out long, smooth tracks through sedimentary rock and limestone creating some of the world’s largest glacial grooves.
But most come here to relax, says Jeni Hammond, office manager for Portside Marina and Missy Magoo’s, an old-fashioned candy shop that still sells bubble gum cigarettes that I haven’t seen since childhood. “Go to a beach campfire, sit down with your family and play games. That’s what Kelleys Island is all about.”
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