Three women walking in downtown Lancaster (photo by Megan Leigh Barnard)
Ohio Life

Best Hometowns 2023: Lancaster

A rich history, downtown revival and location with easy access to both Columbus and the Hocking Hills make this Fairfield County community a great place to live and visit.

The Sherman House Museum sits along East Main Street, commanding your attention with its brick facade and Civil War-era cannon sitting out front. A wrought-iron fence hems in a small front yard that is accessible from the sidewalk by way of a short set of stairs.

The original portion of the home dates to 1811, but the Sherman family built onto it five years later. The brick facade was added in 1870. Today, the museum it houses tells the family’s story, including that of Lancaster’s most famous former resident, Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who was born in the home. 

“The bottom [floor] and a couple of rooms upstairs are laid out the way it would have been when General Sherman was born, so you get to experience what it was like when he was a young child in that house,” says Michael Johnson, director of the Sherman House Museum. “The descendants of Sherman have been excellent about giving what they have to the museum, so we have a lot of pieces that belonged to the general.”
      Lancaster’s downtown fountain and Sherman House Museum exterior (photos by Rachael Jirousek)

The fountain in the center of downtown Lancaster is a replica of one found in Etain, France. (above left). The Sherman House Museum tells the story one of the city’s famous families. (photos by Rachael Jirousek)

In one room, a canvas field tent frames a screen that shifts through images of the general and depictions of the war, setting the tone for a neighboring upstairs room that houses Civil War artifacts, including parts of uniforms and weaponry.

The home next door, the Reese-Peters House, was built for the general’s sister, Mary Elisabeth Sherman, and her husband in 1835. Today, it houses the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio, a nonprofit museum that preserves the home’s beauty and history while hosting a diverse range of art exhibitions. History runs deep in Lancaster, which is evidenced not only in attractions like the Sherman House Museum and Decorative Arts Center of Ohio but also the beautiful and well-maintained homes in the Square 13 Historic District that were all built in the early 19th century.

Pioneer Ebenezer Zane founded Lancaster in 1800 after blazing the trail known as Zane’s Trace through the Ohio wilderness between West Virginia and Kentucky. Soon after, Zane’s sons, John and Noah, began selling land in Lancaster.
      William Tecumseh Sherman statue and historical marker in downtown Lancaster (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

A statue of Civil War hero William Tecumseh Sherman stands in the heart of the city. Sherman was born in the home that now houses the Sherman House Museum. (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

Today, the city of 41,600 residents is positioned on the cusp of both central and southeast Ohio. Depending which way one is headed, it is either the last stop before Columbus’ booming southeastern suburbs such as Canal Winchester and Pickerington or a gateway to the Hocking Hills region’s forests, caves and trails. This juxtaposition, along with new development and economic growth, has led to a revived and attractive place to call home. 

“Economic development provides opportunities for your kids and your grandkids, so they don’t graduate from high school and move away,” says Mayor David Scheffler. “If you’re a new high school graduate or new college graduate, and if there’s opportunities that present themselves here, you’re more likely to stay.”

Lancaster City Schools is composed of nine different school buildings — with a new high school set to be completed in 2025 — that serve the district’s more than 6,000 students. Additionally, the city is home to a branch of Ohio University. The largest industry is manufacturing, with many residents working at Rock Mill or East Side industrial parks. Magna, an auto supplier that opened in 2021, now employs 600.
      Homes in the Square 13 Historic District in Lancaster (photo by Megan Leigh Barnard)

Homes in the Square 13 Historic District are some of the oldest in Lancaster. (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

Since 2018, economic development has brought an additional 1,500 jobs to the city. That total is projected to grow as well due to a Google Data Center that opened in September 2023, with others to come, according to Scheffler. 

“Our median family income is increasing because of all those jobs,” he says, citing a report showing an average 35% wage increase in Fairfield County since 2019. “Fewer people are commuting outside the community to work.”

Although Lancaster is not usually the first Ohio city people associate with glassmaking — that distinction belongs to Toledo, the home of Libbey Glassware Co. — the Anchor Hocking Co. started here in 1905, making kitchen and tableware. The company still operates here today and recently added more than 300 jobs, showing that its relevance to Lancaster is more than just a matter of history.
      Glassblower works at the Ohio Glass Museum in Lancaster (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

The Ohio Glass Museum downtown hosts regularly scheduled glassblowing demonstrations. (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

Yet that rich history is also alive, as shown by the Ohio Glass Museum along West Main Street downtown, which features colorful exhibitions of glassware, displays dedicated to Anchor Hocking and live glass-blowing demonstrations. In the front window sits a giant globe covered in glass bulbs made by residents throughout the year. Each New Year’s Eve it is hoisted high above the city’s Zane Square for the annual Glass Town Countdown.

Lancaster’s downtown has been on the rise since 2015, starting with the municipal court’s $11 million purchase of the historic Columbian Building for city offices. This inspired local business owner Matt Brady to make investments of his own. Brady set out on a multimillion-dollar renovation of the building next to his Minute Bar pub that he expanded and rebranded as 1890 Ale House. His effort led to similar renovations of other downtown establishments that now house local restaurants and shops.

“[My husband and I] might get tired and not want to cook dinner after work, and so we’ll decide to meet each other at the Irish pub,” says Amanda Everitt, executive director of Destination Downtown Lancaster, who lives less than two blocks from the middle of downtown. “Inevitably, we’ll run into neighbors who are walking their dogs, and they’ll say, ‘Hey, we would like to grab a pint with you.’”
      Glassware from Gay Fad Studios and Art & Clay on Main in Lancaster (photos by Rachael Jirousek)

Gay Fad Studios revived the name of midcentury glassware pioneer Fran Taylor’s business and now creates new designs (above left). Square Seven Coffee House and Art & Clay on Main share a downtown space. (photo by Rachael Jirousek)

The downtown businesses that help create that sense of community range from Provisions Bakery and Deli to the paint-your-own-pottery lounge Art & Clay on Main and Double Edge Brewing Co.

Lancaster also has access to outdoor recreation across its more than 19 square miles. From the bandstand at Zane Square to the disc golf courses at Keller-Kirn Park and Alley Park, 32 parks fall under the oversight of the city of Lancaster. The most well-known outdoor spot is Rising Park, which boasts a short trail, a steep climb up 250 feet and beautiful views. Plus, with the Hocking Hills nearby, getting out on the trails is only ever a short drive away.

“We are so beautifully positioned,” Everitt says. “To be able to hop in a car and be in downtown Columbus in 35 minutes … and then to know we’re 30 minutes outside this thriving vacation spot … it really feels like we’ve got this perfect little slice of really authentic small-city living.”

Best Hometowns 2023-24:
Celina | Cuyahoga Falls | Grove City | Lancaster | Sharonville