This article by Danielle Keeton-Olsen ran April 17 in the Post, a student publication of Ohio University’s Athens Campus. It is reprinted here with permission.
Ohio’s Hill Country Heritage Area is an organization that celebrates and recognizes the historical depth of Southeast Ohio.
Tom O’Grady’s knowledge and love of Ohio started on the back roads from Cleveland to Athens.
As he drove between his parents’ home to Athens for his jobs as president of the Athens County Historical Society & Museum and professor of astronomy at Ohio University, he would stop and try to learn as much as possible about the buildings on the route.
“The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn, and inevitably, it doesn’t take long before you know a little bit more than the average person,” O’Grady said. “It doesn’t take long until people are asking you to come and tell the story.”
His interest in the area involved him with others who loved Southeast Ohio as much as he did, including Nancy Recchie, an architect specializing in historical preservation, and Pat Henahan, of the Ohio Arts Council.
“I want to find what these communities want, and grant (them) the money,” Henahan said.
What started as social gatherings to tell stories about Ohio turned into 90-person meetings, Henahan said.
In February 1997, the group of people with a shared interest in Southeast Ohio’s history worked with Ohio Arts Council to form Ohio’s Hill Country Heritage Area, of which O’Grady now serves as president.
The organization aims to establish a “heritage area” in Southeast Ohio which would recognize the region’s history and culture.
Heritage areas are not unique to Southeast Ohio, said Amy Grove, OHCHA’s treasurer and a program assistant at Ohio State University’s extension in Morgan County. Ohio has five heritage areas.
“(The heritage area) is interdisciplinary, it has multiple jurisdictions, it’s all related to heritage and the heritage can be interpreted in many different ways,” Recchie said.
In addition to publishing a monthly newsletter, the organization currently works to put on two major activities during the year: the Inspiring Practices Award and the Appalachian Heritage Luncheon.
The Inspiring Practices Award used to be given out every year, but is now distributed when the group sees fit. OHCHA recognizes organizations in four categories — arts heritage, community heritage, business heritage and built environment and historic preservation — for use of history and culture to promote tourism or economic development, O’Grady said.
In 2011, OHCHA most recently recognized Ross County’s Tecumseh Outdoor Drama with a community heritage award for reenacting treaties and battles relevant to the Shawnee, a local Native American tribe.
To give out the award, the board traveled to the drama’s amphitheater, where they participated in several Shawnee rituals and presented the award on its outdoor stage.
“(OHCHA) gives us an excuse to go to different parts of Ohio and the Hill Country and have fun,” O’Grady said.
While acknowledging those who already celebrate the region’s heritage, OHCHA also tries to expose the entire state to Southeast Ohio through the Appalachian Heritage Luncheon.
The organization tries to put on what it can, but as a nonprofit run by volunteers, they’ve had to take breaks from hosting certain events, such as Roamin’ the Hills, when they would hold several events highlighting one Southeast Ohio town.
Though there used to be constant funding for OHCHA’s executive director from Ohio Arts Council, the organization had to reallocate those funds to some other organizations in the region, O’Grady said.
“You’re competing with all the other nonprofits for the same money in the same region of Ohio, and this is a region that isn’t rich in industry and commerce,” O’Grady said.
OHCHA is able to pay for the Inspiring Practices Awards and Appalachian Heritage Luncheon through membership fees, small grants and serving as fiscal agent for the PawPaw Festival in Athens every September, Grove said.
“Having that awareness built while we were at the conference between all the entities as to how (we) might work together, it makes that idea of more national recognition more of a reality,” Grove said.
Despite little funding, O’Grady said he takes pride in OHCHA’s board, which has stuck around for more than 15 years and devoted the time it can to the promotion of Ohio’s history.
“What always has fascinated and impressed me was how much of what is done out there is done by individuals and volunteers who have no resources, and when you start supporting those efforts, the great strides that they can make with some financial support,” O’Grady said.