Note: This story appears in the Wednesday, July 17 newspaper on page A1.
Two centuries ago, a Southeastern Ohio county rose from the waters of the Muskingum River and the lush surrounding forests. By the 19th century, Morgan County, which neighbors Athens County to the northeast, grew rapidly due to river’s commercial trade routes and the spirit of determined settlers.
The newest documentary in the Emmy award-winning “Our Town” series focuses on the history of Morgan County. The WOUB Public Media series highlights cities in Southeast Ohio and focuses on their beginnings. This installment, first released in March, is the seventh film in the series and the first thus far to focus on an entire county.
Clips of the documentary were recently shown to participants of the Athens SeniorBEAT program at OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital. SeniorBEAT is an activity and wellness program for local senior citizens. (The Messenger will feature the program in more detail in an upcoming news article.)
Documentarian Evan Shaw gave a talk to SeniorBEAT members and offered insight into the making of the film.
“I knew nothing about Morgan County when I approached this project,” said Shaw, who works as a videographer for WOUB and for NFL Films. “This was also the first time this series focused on an entire county, so we had to pick important events and people from around the county and connect them.”
The documentary examines Morgan County’s early roots and how settlers acquired the land — a history that included mistreatment of Native Americans who lived in the region. Arthur St. Clair, an early governor of the Northwest Territory, told tribe leaders they had no claim to the land since they had fought for the British during the American Revolution.
Native Americans with the Wyandot and Lenape tribes rebelled, resulting in a 1791 massacre at Big Botton (near present-day Stockport in Morgan County). An estimated 25 settlers were killed.
“History is complicated, and if the Ohio Company had not done these things, we might not be here,” Shaw said.
Decades after the Big Bottom massacre, in 1834, Quakers settled in Morgan County and established the village of Chesterhill. The documentary recounts traditional aspects of Quaker culture. In one anecdote, Quakers responded to a saloon opening in town by purchasing all the alcohol and pouring it out.
However traditional some Quaker values were at the time, this group also played an integral role in the northern abolition movement and the Underground Railroad. In fact, many early Morgan County residents sought to protect runaway slaves from slave catchers by hiding them in their homes, leading them to protective caves and acting as “conductors” on the Underground Railroad.
By the time of emancipation in 1863, Shaw said, an estimated 300 slaves passed through Morgan County — this in turn contributed to a blending of cultural and racial heritage.
“There’s a lot of history to be uncovered about contributions freed slaves and African Americans made to this area,” Shaw said. “WOUB is actually starting another film on black history and we’re hoping to explore topics people don’t know much about.”
The Morgan County documentary clips included a bit of Chesterhill folklore, specifically the legend of Devil’s Tea Table rock where “romances were formed.” It was said that if a woman took a chip off of the rock, she would dream about her husband that night. When the rock fell in 1906, local residents declared that the devil had been driven out.
Athens resident Debbie Lowe grew up in Chesterhill and attended the SeniorBEAT presentation of the documentary. Lowe said she knew much of the history that was detailed, but was shocked to find how much of Morgan County played a role in the Underground Railroad.
“I grew up playing in the caves and exploring, and I remember learning about the Underground Railroad as a little girl,” Lowe said. “But I had no idea places like Deavertown were involved in the abolition movement.”
Shaw concluded the presentation by highlighting several famous figures from Morgan County, including George McDonald “Mac” Birch, a famous magician who grew up in McConnelsville. Birch traveled the country with his wife, Mabel Birch, performing two-hour shows that were widely celebrated.
The documentary’s soundtrack, comprised of folk music, was the work of Shaw’s parents. He said both parents are old-time folk musicians who compose all of the music for his documentaries and have won several awards. Recently, in 2018, the Shaws were given an Emmy award for Music Composition and Arrangement for the 2017 film “Our Town: Jackson.”
Shaw said his next “Our Town” project will focus on Gallipolis in Gallia County, and will premier in March 2020.