Economic History in Appalachian Ohio
most people think of Appalachian Ohio images of scenic hills and valleys, quaint
small towns, and a tranquil lifestyle often come to mind. However, the area is quickly
transforming into a flourishing center of venture capital, multi-county cooperation,
sophisticated technical assistance, and innovative business.
A tradition of trade, commerce, and entrepreneurship runs deep in the region. Twenty-five
hundred years ago, Appalachian Ohio was the center of a continent-wide trading empire
beginning with the Adena peoples, expanded greatly with the Hopewell, and reaching
its zenith with the Mississippian culture. European settlement of the region began
in earnest in 1787 when the Ohio Company of Associates acquired 1.78 million acres
of land at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers from the U.S. government.
The region became home to Ohio’s first town (Marietta), the first university (Ohio
University), and the first two state capitals (Chillicothe and Zanesville).
From the earliest settler days until relatively recently, extractive industries
have dominated the economy of Appalachian Ohio. Salt was such an important commodity
to the Native Americans and pioneers that lands containing salt licks were valued
higher than the surrounding acreage. Consequently, when Ohio became a state in 1803,
the U.S. government kept part of Jackson County’s territory in reserve for the production
of salt. The first salt well opened in Pomeroy in 1850 and by the Civil War, Ohio
ranked second in the nation for salt production.
Iron ore was another significant natural resource with some hilltop iron ore beds
reaching a depth of almost six feet. In the mid-19th century, the Hanging Rock Iron
Region of southeast Ohio and northern Kentucky became well known for its iron manufacturing
industry which thrived until the late 1800s.
In addition to iron and salt, one of the first resources found in this region was
clay. Artifacts from the Adena and Hopewell Native American burial mounds include
urns and other pieces fashioned from clay. Much later, in northern Perry County,
the existence of clay deposits spawned a thriving pottery industry that gained national
recognition for both its decorative objects and utilitarian ware. Around the turn
of the 20th century, the production of clay bricks boomed in the region. Vinton
County opened its Puritan Brick Plant in 1909, which was the biggest of its kind
in southeast Ohio. Legend has it that bricks from Nelsonville, Ohio were used to
pave the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Brick-lined streets still add an Old World
charm to many area towns.
Another crucial mineral—coal—dominated the economy for several generations. Underground
mining began in the early 1800s and thrived for more than a century. The arrival
of the railroad in 1856 provided a way for coal companies to transport and sell
their product easily, paving the way for rapid expansion. Around World War II, surface
mining overtook underground mining as the primary way to extract the mineral. Coal
mining continues today and is a major employer in a few Appalachian Ohio counties.
Some coal companies also engage in environmental restoration work. Natural gas was
also an important resource in the past century but it was less widely available
and profitable than coal.
In addition to fossil fuels, timber has proved to be an abundant natural resource
for Appalachian Ohio. Most of the virgin forest was cleared by farmers or used to
make charcoal for the iron furnaces but the tree cover has replenished itself. Today
the 29-county region contains more than two-thirds of Ohio’s 7.6 million acres of
forest. Ohio’s wood products industry accumulates more than $7 billion in annual
revenues. Related manufacturing concerns such as sawmills, woodworking shops, and
basket weavers add to the already strong industrial base. In Pike County, for example,
companies supplying paper products and modular housing employ many workers and the
county has also seen substantial growth in the cabinetry and furniture industries.
Nearby Adams County is home to Cedar Works one of the most renowned builders of
cedar birdfeeders in the world.
The landscape of woods and rolling hills bordered by the Ohio River is home to numerous
parks, nature preserves, and campgrounds. Visitors flock to this rural part of the
state to enjoy its natural beauty. Cultural and historic sites such as Amish Country
in the northwest and Underground Railroad posts along the Ohio River add to the
region’s appeal. These assets have made tourism a fast growing industry in the region
employing more than 85,700 people and bringing over $3.1 billion dollars in 2003.
Ecotourism is an especially attractive prospect given the presence of meandering
streams, horse riding trails, and rare woodland plants in several counties.
Agriculture has also been a mainstay of the economy in some parts of Appalachian
Ohio. Holmes County ranks second in the state in oats and hay production as well
as in cattle and dairy farming. Holmes County also makes Swiss cheese products that
are popular throughout the Midwest. In Harrison County, traditionally known for
raising sheep, the predominant cash crops are oats, hay, corn, soybeans, and wheat
with winery operations also getting under way. In 2000, the agricultural industry
in Highland County generated over $42 million in sales of soybeans, corn, tobacco,
beef, and dairy products. Flower farming is also a colorfully emerging industry
in Meigs County.
As Ohio moves into its third century, a fundamental shift is occurring in the economy
of its Appalachian region. Though local governmental agencies still build industrial
parks and shell buildings to attract traditional manufacturers there is an increasing
emphasis on job creation through the startup of small businesses. Athens County,
for example, saw 784 business startups between 1995 and 2000. Athens County is also
home to a variety of small companies specializing in biomedical research, renewable
energy and gourmet food.
The strong presence of higher education in the region provides the research and
development capabilities so essential to high-tech companies. Additionally, the
state has instituted numerous programs to help many different types of entrepreneurs
succeed. Those programs include innovation centers, small business development centers,
and information technology alliances. Federal programs offered through the Appalachian
Regional Commission also support this comprehensive effort. Today the region is
home to the nation’s first new markets venture capital company and one of the nation’s
premier university-based business management and technical assistance operations.
All of these resources are serving as catalysts to revitalize and transform the
Appalachian Ohio economy.