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Ohio coal towns aim to showcase history and resilience

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“New Straitsville is a history of survival,” says Susan Miller, a native of this village in Southeast Ohio and vice president of its history group. On Thursdays she mans the museum, a metal-roofed ranch filled with old high-school class photos and coal-mining paraphernalia.

When the coal industry went bust people here turned to moonshine for money and leisure. Today it hosts an annual moonshine festival and tales of hidden rooms used for bootleg distilling. 

Like many tiny boom and bust towns in this region, people found ways to keep going when times were tough, says Miller, a older women with cropped silver hair who seems to exemplify the spirit of resilience. When not giving history lessons, she serves as a local trustee until the afternoon when she drives to nearby New Lexington to waitress at K&D Diner.

Moonshine and a great mine fire that stemmed from a labor dispute put New Straitsville on the map. Today it’s a town of roughly 600 residents, a Dollar General and a 100-year-old church with an ancient organ. In the warmer months tourist come to see Robinson’s Cave, a large rock shelter where coal miners and emerging unions used to meet in secret because of its stellar acoustics.

An initiative started by a local activist is hoping tourists will be intrigued enough by the stories of resistance to stick around and learn about the region’s history, experience it’s nature trails and arts and crafts and inject some much-needed money into the local economy. 

Many towns in Appalacia are seeing tourism as a way to create jobs and rebuild communities torn down by poverty, the loss of industry and drug addiction. No one harbors the illusion that such efforts will return these towns to their former glory days, when populations were in the thousands and work was abundant. But many residents can’t or don’t want to leave, so giving up is not an option either. 

More is needed for real, lasting growth, say those working to develop the area. In Shawnee, the old opera house hosts community gatherings, but Main Street has no restaurant and most of the buildings are shuttered or structurally unstable. The public library and high school have closed. The nearest place to buy food is a convenience store at the Marathon gas station, which stocks everything from baby formula to packaged ham sandwiches to Southern Comfort.

Tim Ferrell, a water quality specialist working to restore a local watershed, says he moved to the area because there were more opportunities than in his hometown in the West Virginia panhandle. “People are open for change,” he says. “But what is that?”

With experiential tourism gaining traction among a younger generation, towns with history and heart may be well placed to benefit. 

“The stories attached to these towns can’t be mass produced,” says Selina Nadeau, an Americorps worker from Texas who says she has a soft-spot for the region. 

But ultimately unity and community cohesion may be key to keeping villages like Shawnee living. Disparate and isolated, people easily lose hope. Those who want to be here need to figure out how to tap their wit and knowhow to make it work, says one professor at nearby Ohio University. 

And in doing so they may change outsiders’ perceptions about a region whose grit is often overlooked by the image of abandonment.

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