Attractions, roadside and natural, in Hocking Hills, Ohio

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JimBo's Bar & Diner in South Bloomingville, Ohio, is known for its burgers - more than a half-pound each - and is a popular stop for motorcyclists. (Jill Schensul / The Hackensack Record)

LOGAN, Ohio - I probably would have gone just for the pencil sharpener museum.

But the itinerary for the three-day tour of Ohio's Hocking Hills scenic area also included a washboard factory - the last one in America. And a moonshine distillery. And a canopy tour.

Yeah, I was going. In fact, where had this place been all my life?

Hocking Hills, a 500-square-mile swath in the Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio, is more than just another quirky roadside attraction. In fact, Hocking Hills is best known for spectacular scenery. I stumbled upon the area while researching alternatives to the usual-suspect fall foliage hot spots. Hocking Hills, thanks to its unusual geology, seemed like a veritable Disneyland of natural attractions, with caves, waterfalls, cliffs, valleys, and an amazing variety of trees.

By 2013, when the article I consulted ran, it had also become the Canopy Tour Capital of the Midwest, with more than 50 zip lines.

But just because it abounds with nature, because it's the middle of nowhere, because the folks still make moonshine with 100-year-old family recipes, and because (uh-oh, is this the deal-breaker?) cell service is unreliable, don't start thinking flannel shirts, soggy boots, and Spam dinners.

Because just as surprising as the existence of a moonshine factory (with tastings and souvenirs) were the high-end options for travelers. My log cabin at Cedar Grove Lodging was huge, gorgeous, and had more of the comforts of home than I have at home.

I had a five-course feast with a papaw cocktail created by a chef from the French Culinary Institute. And the enthusiastic beermeister at Rockmill Brewery was so well-versed in his craft he lost me after the first two sentences.

In fact, in three days, I gathered more remarkable stories and visit-worthy places than I find on many longer, more far-flung trips.

Everything's just a little different here. You'll begin to notice the change on the 40-minute drive southeast from Columbus, the most convenient airport for a trip to the Hocking Hills. You'll know you're getting close when the relentless Ohio flatness begins to relent. When you start to see hills, forests, and winding two-lane roads, you've arrived.

The name comes from the Hockhocking River, which in the Delaware Indian language meant "bottle," because of a noticeable bottleneck in the flow above one waterfall. The Hocking Hills region encompasses seven counties, Hocking being one of them. Logan, its county seat, is home to one of the region's two visitor centers. We were following the signs to it off State Route 664 when, just before the exit, I spotted the shrine: a small prefab structure, the back decorated with a mural of colorful, tall, and very sharp-pointed . . . pencils.

The Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum sits opposite the visitor center, its home since 2011. It's about the size of a tool shed. How many types of sharpeners could there be, anyway?

Well, 3,400, at least. Here they were, lined up on floor-to-near-ceiling shelves in the single-room museum that was the result of one man's all-consuming avocation.

Johnson's wife, Charlotte, was responsible for sending him down the pencil shavings-strewn path. When he retired in 1988, she knew he'd need something to occupy himself, so she gave him two sharpeners shaped like cars for Christmas. He got the point, and spent the next 11 years seeking out sharpeners of all sorts.

Johnson banned anything electric - except for the big gorilla that one of his grandchildren gave him; its eyes glow red when the pencil is sharpened. Johnson never used his pencil sharpeners.

In Logan, look for the 24-foot-high Sunnyland brand washboard on the side of the building on Gallagher Avenue. The factory has been making washboards since 1895 and is the only manufacturer still operating in the United States. Before World War II, there were as many as 10. Factory tours are offered for six or more people, but the annual Washboard Music Festival each June beckons true aficionados.

What could Hocking Hills offer to top that?

There are some serious contenders.

At Robinson's Cave, nature formed a sort of amphitheater with fortuitous acoustics, not far from the main street of the once-bustling mining town New Straitsville. The cave is considered the secret birthplace of the United Mine Workers of America.

In the late 1800s, it was a good spot for local coal miners to meet with union leaders. A plaque there commemorates one of them, Christopher Evans, who took advantage of the good acoustics and the seclusion. The cave - more like a huge, scooped out half-shell - was the stage from which he addressed meetings with miners through the Hocking Valley coal strike of 1894-95. It was there, in 1890, that he gathered two union factions together for the first organizational meeting of the United Mine Workers.

It was there, too, during the 1884 strike, that a group of miners was said to have planned a retaliatory action against the mining companies. One October night, they set several coal cars ablaze and rolled them into the mines, where they ignited a 14-foot-wide coal seam that spread the fire and that stokes it to this day.

The New Straitsville mine was closed, bringing widespread unemployment. Houses and shops burned, the ground sank. A similar eternal-flame situation in Centralia, Pa., pretty much turned that mining enclave into a ghost town. But not here.

The fire became a national story. Ripley's Believe It or Not did a radio broadcast on the phenomenon, complete with the crackling of the fire. ("Yes, you could fry an egg in a skillet on the sidewalk.") Tourists came to see it for themselves. And the locals saw opportunity. They started selling 25-cent admission tickets, hiring themselves out as tour guides, charging parking fees.

They took advantage of one more aspect of the fire: the smoke. It was good cover for all the smoke created in another local industry, moonshine.

Prohibition ignited the demand for moonshine from the hills, known for its good quality and the taste some said came from the local water.

"Straitsville Special" became so popular that Al Capone supposedly got the Chicago mob involved in distributing it nationally. Between 1929 and 1931, 175 stills reportedly operated in New Straitsville. Jars of white lightning were shipped by train in boxes labeled potatoes or books.

New Straitsville became known as the "moonshine capital of the world." For the last 42 years, the town has celebrated its heritage with a moonshine festival in September.

Visitors to this sleepy town of 800 can get a real taste of moonshine history at the Straitsville Special Moonshine Distillery, which opened about six months ago in the former general store on Main Street. Stepping across the shop's threshold is itself a step back in time.

When partners Amie St. Clair and Doug Nutter bought the place, it had been closed for nearly a half-century. In fact, they had to hire a safecracker to open the thick, rusting door of the safe in the back room - and Nutter was afraid it might have been booby-trapped to blow up if anyone without the combination tried to open it. The safecracker spent 90 tense minutes drilling through the door. No explosion, though there was a ghastly pounding noise from within when the air pressure suddenly changed.

Inside were original documents, blasting caps, an old prescription for medication, and stacks of silver certificates.

Nutter and St. Clair decided they should take advantage of recent legislation that made local breweries (and distilleries) legal. They set out to make a moonshine that wouldn't taste any different from the illegal version.

The first step in the distilling process is fermentation, for which corn mash is most often used. The alcohol is then extracted by heating it to its boiling point, then vaporizing it. Through a series of coils or tubes, it cools to a liquid state and goes into big vats. But not all of the contents of the vats becomes moonshine. The first part of a run has the highest alcohol content, but it also contains methanol, bad-tasting and bad for you. Methanol is the stuff that will make you blind.

Local brewer Bill Merckle beckoned me over to a large vat and took off the cover to reveal it was three-quarters full of the brain-deadening liquid. "Take a whiff," he said. "Slowly." I had barely bent my head over the barrel when my eyes started to, well, kind of bulge.

One more eye-opening experience in Hocking Hills.