The bridges of Ashtabula County, Ohio

covered bridge
Benetka Road Bridge.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I’ve been curious about covered bridges for a long time. I wondered about their purpose other than the obvious one of crossing from one side of a stream to another.

My curiosity got the best of me recently. Accompanied by my wife and another couple, we went exploring all 18 of Ashtabula County’s covered bridges. We discovered that the unique architectural wonders were so much more than a conveyance from one bank to another.

If you’re not familiar with Ashtabula County, it’s Ohio’s northeastern most county. It bumps against both Lake Erie on the north and Pennsylvania to the east.

It’s a big county with varied topography and land usage. Its trail of covered bridges is one of its most distinctive features. Most of the bridges are still in use today.

Covered bridge hobbyists admire the intricate architectural details of the wooden tunnels. I focused my admiration on their individual aesthetic characteristics.

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Covered bridges were once common across the United States. I wondered why 19th-century builders labored so to simply cover a bridge? I always had heard two main answers to that question.

The bridge had sides and roof so the horses pulling buggies and wagons wouldn’t spook from the sound of rushing water below the bridge or the sudden open space. The other was that the bridge was a respite from foul weather.

Never having driven a horse and buggy, I didn’t question the first reasoning. The second one seemed a bit questionable. I mean you could only get so many horse-drawn vehicles onto a covered bridge during a storm.

Like members of the same family, the bridges had many similar characteristics. Each bridge had its own history and personality.

Some were erected just after the Civil War, with others built more recently. I suspect county leaders recognized the economic value of having a covered bridge trail.

The bridges of Ashtabula County served as living monuments to a bygone era. Hand-hewn timbers joined by wooden pegs spoke of the intensive effort that went into building these nostalgic icons.

The bridges historically contributed to social, political, religious, and economic values of the county. In a way, history was repeating itself.

vandalism, graffiti
Calling card.
Besides the obvious purpose of crossing a stream, covered bridges were quite utilitarian. They indeed quieted horses and became a respite during a storm. Since the bridges were constructed entirely of wood, the covered sides and roof also protected the timbers and flooring from the elements and weathering. They minimized repairs.

The bridges had other callings as well. They served as gathering places for community meetings, political rallies, and religious services. Given the inspiring settings of some of the bridges, I could see why folks would like to linger there.

Unfortunately, other folks had little appreciation for either history or public property. Skid marks on the wood decking of some of the bridges evidenced raucous drivers thrilled with the sound of squealing tires. Others painted graffiti or left personal signatures, including an entire school class on an outing. Perhaps that’s why many of the bridges were outfitted with security lights and fire alarms.

After traversing fairly flat countryside for miles, the rural roads suddenly dipped and curved into steep, wooded ravines. The roads often rounded into and out of bridges, creating limited visibility. Passing motorists chased us to a bridge’s side more than once.

Most were courteous and slowed to a crawl. Likely we weren’t the first curious tourists they had encountered on their daily path across history.

root road covered bridge
Root Road.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

A love for agriculture come full circle

By Bruce Stambaugh

It’s no accident that Leah Miller’s life has come full circle. Agriculture runs deep in her genes, personal life and in her professional career.

She grew up on a farm, and now her life is all about farming, both at home and on the job, whichever particular job it is she happens to be doing. In between, her career took a productive, if not circuitous route before Miller, 61, planted her agricultural roots.

Leah Miller by Bruce Stambaugh
In a rare moment, Leah Miller was in her Small Farm Institute Office in Coshocton County, Ohio.

Born in Conneaut, Ohio near her parent’s home farm at Pierpont, Miller followed some pretty big family footprints. Her father and her father’s father were both agricultural teachers, in addition to running separate farms in Ashtabula County.

Miller’s mother, Celia Wright, took charge of the family farm when her husband, Eber, moved into regional planning. Ironically, that is exactly the job Miller took in Lake County after graduating from The Ohio State University in 1971. She became Holmes County’s regional planning director two years later.

There is a bit of double-irony in this scenario. The Holmes County regional planning office was in the front of Hotel Millersburg.

“My parents spent the first night of their honeymoon at Hotel Millersburg,” Miller said. “They got a late start from their wedding reception in Columbus and following U.S. 62, Millersburg was as far as they got.”

Miller served in this capacity for six years. Once she and her husband, Mic, started their family, Miller turned her efforts to community service. She served two terms on the West Holmes Local School Board. Later, she served on the board at Central Christian School. She also served a term on the Ohio Mennonite Relief Sale board of directors, and was a 4-H advisor for a dozen years.

Miller was the first director of the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce, once it expanded from beyond Millersburg proper. In the 1990s, Miller’s leadership abilities became political. She was twice elected as a Holmes County commissioner.

All the while she found solace from her demanding schedule on her 50-acre sheep farm, Blue Bird Hill, east of Millersburg. She also kept bees, as did her father.

Her love for land and the people that farmed stirred within her. In 2001, she worked with former state representative Joy Padgett to form the Small Farm Institute.

“There was a concern about erosion and farming,” Miller explained. “The emphasis was to help farmers do more grazing with their animals.” She said the sod would help reduce run-off, and at the same time provide a natural grass diet for cows, cattle and sheep.

Miller is the director of the Small Farm Institute, which is based at the United States Department of Agriculture’s hydrological station in Coshocton County. She assists small farm operations to improve income by providing helpful information on sustainable environmental practices that support strong family and rural communities. Her focus is on production, processing and distribution of product.

“We encourage people to look for value-added production to enhance profitability,” Miller said. “If they run a produce stand, they can increase their income by making jam or canning instead of selling all their fruit and vegetables fresh.”

Much of Miller’s responsibility revolves around facilitating grazing groups. She said this has been especially successful among the Amish, who tend to form their own peer groups in close proximity to help reduce the need for transportation.

“It’s been a joy to watch them expand,” she said. “They hold pasture walks where they share helpful grazing information with one another.”

As satisfying as that is for Miller, she also supports much larger events. Her skill sets also assist the annual North Central Ohio Grazing Conference for Dairy, which brings in hundreds of people, including many from other states.

Miller also advises the planning committee for the upcoming annual Family Farm Field Day. David and Emily Hershberger will host the event on their farm, located on Saltcreek Township Road 613 in Holmes County, on July 17, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

As if she weren’t busy enough, Miller works part time as stakeholder coordinator in agricultural economic development for the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster. She splits her time between there and the Small Farm Institute. Miller is the executive secretary of the Ohio Forage and Grasslands Council, too.

Miller has traveled extensively, including Australia, Mexico, France and Honduras, touring grazing and farm production operations and doing a little mission work, too. She uses these experiences to expand what she shares about improving local farming practices.

It seemed only logical then that Miller’s leadership abilities be put to use in yet another positive way for the community. Miller has successfully lead Leadership Holmes County for employees of area businesses for several years. In that fact, there is no irony.

This article was first published in the Holmes Bargain Hunter, July 5, 2010.