Ohio’s Shawshank Trail
In 1993, “The Shawshank Redemption” was filmed at the Ohio State Reformatory and more than a dozen other nearby sites. We followed in the footsteps of Andy and Red. Here’s how you can, too.
Walking in, you expect Mozart’s opera “The Marriage of Figaro” to fill the room like it did when Andy Dufresne locked himself in the warden’s office at Shawshank State Prison and played a recording of it over the public-address system. The large, industrial machines stand in the same places they did then, and a flat square of wood with an X drawn on it hangs in the rafters.
Tour guide Bob Wachtman points to the piece of wood as he reveals a bit of the movie-making magic that happened here in August 1993, when director Frank Darabont filmed scenes for his Oscar-nominated film “The Shawshank Redemption.”
“That would be the loudspeaker where the music was coming from,” Wachtman says, explaining that the actors had initially looked in different directions and needed a focal point to focus their attention. “They said, ‘Ok, that’s what you all look at when you stop what you are doing.’ That’s a little backstory for you.”
Although the woodshop was on the prison grounds in the movie, it’s actually located 45 miles west of the Ohio State Reformatory, where much of “The Shawshank Redemption” was filmed. (Down the street is the Wyandot County Courthouse, which also played a role on-screen.)
But for those who have watched and rewatched Darabont’s classic film, visiting the Shawshank Woodshop is an essential experience, especially when you stand on the spot Morgan Freeman did as he gazed upward, entranced by the music that filled the room. Watching the scene again, you realize how brief the moment is on-screen compared to the space it occupies in your memory.
Part of the staying power of “The Shawshank Redemption,” a film that did not do well at the box office but gained immortality on home video, is because of the hold many of its moments still have on us. It’s the reason Destination Mansfield in Richland County, where the Ohio State Reformatory is located, launched the Shawshank Trail in 2008. The route covers 14 Ohio sites where filming occurred as well as the Renaissance Theatre in downtown Mansfield where the movie premiered on Sept. 13, 1994. (The 16th stop and only trail site outside Ohio is the Virgin Islands beach where — spoiler alert — Andy and Red meet up as free men at the end of the film.) Visiting the Ohio sites, which stretch from Upper Sandusky to Ashland, is a full day in itself and the reformatory offers much to explore.
The Shawshank Woodshop is our first stop on a warm June morning. It’s only open by appointment, but Wachtman says the attraction strives to accommodate fan requests. The brick structure built around 1905 is what’s left of the Stephan Lumber Co. following a 1978 fire. Bill Mullen purchased the building around 2000, not knowing about its cinematic pedigree. When he did, he returned the woodshop to its on-screen appearance, locating the room’s original machinery and setting up a few exhibits. Mullen also owns the 1937 bus Andy rode into Shawshank State Prison and the 1941 ambulance that hauled away the prisoner savagely beaten near the start of the film. They’re out back in storage, awaiting restoration.
“Bill is a collector,” Wachtman says, “and like Red in the movie, he knows how to get things.”
Based on a story by Stephen King, “The Shawshank Redemption” opened in limited release on Sept. 23, 1994 — less than two weeks after it premiered at Mansfield’s Renaissance Theatre. It eventually went into wide release, but domestic box-office figures topped just $16 million during its initial run — a lackluster showing for a film starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins.
Still, the movie was a critical success and the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards. “The Shawshank Redemption” ultimately found its footing on home video and today has a stellar 98% audience score on the website Rotten Tomatoes. It’s one of those movies you tend to end up watching through to the credits when you stumble across it on television.
After leaving Upper Sandusky, we head east to Malabar Farm State Park, where the opening scene of “The Shawshank Redemption” was filmed — the one where an inebriated Andy sits in his car loading a handgun after he finds his wife meeting up with another man. The scene was filmed just outside Pugh Cabin, built as a year-round weekend retreat by Ohio Public Service superintendent Jim Pugh in 1938.
The cabin site is free to visit, although Shawshank Trail organizers request travelers check in first at Malabar Farm State Park’s visitors center. The iconic oak tree that Freeman’s character, Red, travels to near the end of the film was located on a parcel of property near the Malabar Farm entrance. The tree was lost to high winds and removed in 2016, although visitors can still catch a glimpse of where it stood from their car. (Trail organizers ask that travelers stay off of the land where the tree was located, which is privately owned.)
A short drive from Malabar Farm, fans can see two of the film’s famous stretches of road: the intersection where the pickup truck drops off Red outside Buxton and the hill Red’s bus ascends on his ride out of town. Both spots — located about a mile apart — are fun to visit for diehard fans, although they’re most safely viewed from the inside of your car.
Shawshank Trail completists will want to visit all the sites, including ones that have brief blips on screen: In downtown Ashland, you’ll find the properties that housed the Trailways Bus Station where Red buys his bus ticket (now a thrift store) and the Maine National Bank where Andy gets his final revenge on the warden (now home to a financial-advisory firm).
In downtown Mansfield, you’ll find the park bench where the character Brooks sat, and the pawnshop window (today home to an antiques shop) where Red finds the compass that leads him to the oak tree. But the most recognizable stop sits 2 1/2 miles outside of downtown. Driving down U.S. Route 30 on a bright summer afternoon, it’s impossible to miss.
The Ohio State Reformatory rises starkly against the bright-blue summer sky. It’s a structure that is as beautiful as it is imposing. Architect Levi Scofield designed the sprawling building, which was constructed between 1886 and 1910 to house first-time offenders in a place that could help them find God, education and a job.
In short, it started as a place of hope, a major theme of the film and a coincidence that is not lost on fans of “The Shawshank Redemption,” including Thomas B. Clark Jr., the Ohio State Reformatory’s on-staff Shawshank specialist.
“This building was not built to put people away for life. It was a building that allowed them to turn their life around,” explains Clark, who started as a tour guide at the reformatory. “I always say a movie about hope helped save a building about hope.”
A lot has changed at the Ohio State Reformatory since director Frank Darabont brought his cast and crew to the site in 1993, three years after its closing. At the time, the building had been slated for demolition and narrowly avoided a date with the wrecking ball as movie production was set to begin. Afterward, the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society purchased the property to restore it as a site open to visitors.
Although the prison yard behind the building that featured so prominently in the film is now gone, the reformatory itself remains largely the same except for the ongoing restoration efforts funded by revenue generated by tours, special events and productions that pay to film inside the building.
The most recent upgrades have been the re-creation of the warden’s office, complete with the original safe from the movie set into the wall. (Fans who take a moment to look inside will notice a fun surprise contained within.) The office renovation is accompanied by the creation of a small on-site museum dedicated to “The Shawshank Redemption” that features original artifacts and screen-match replicas of items seen in the film.
All of it will be completed in time for Shawshank 25, a three-day celebration Aug. 16 through 18 at filming sites including the Ohio State Reformatory. It will feature appearances by actors Bob Gunton (Warden Norton), William Sadler (Heywood) and Mark Rolston (Bogs) among others. The schedule includes ticketed events — some with limited availability — but Clark points out that self-guided tours will be available for purchase, allowing visitors to explore the prison at their own speed.
The guided tours are incredibly informative, especially the “History Meets Hollywood” tour, which covers the movie productions that have filmed at the prison as well as what the place was like during its years as a reformatory. Afterward, you’re free to revisit favorite spots seen on the tour, which is a particular treat for fans of “The Shawshank Redemption.”
You can gaze through the tunnel Warden Norton peered down following Andy’s daring escape or sit in the parole-board room where Red was twice denied his freedom. You can even spend a few moments of reflection in the room Brooks stayed in following his release from Shawshank, which is actually located inside the reformatory.
It is these moments of communing with the film that make a visit so much fun, and those who work here understand that. You can even find the exact spot where Red and Andy sit leaning against the wall of the prison as the latter says the only option in front of him is to “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
“That’s a huge moment in the film — arguably one of the most famous lines in all of movie-making,” Clark says. “They can take their picture there, they can re-enact the scene if they want. … It’s a joy to watch movie buffs react. One woman last year burst into tears. She was so moved, she just couldn’t handle it.”
Shawshank Trail Guide
Here are the 15 Ohio stops along the Shawshank Trail. For more information about these locations and events surrounding the anniversary, visit shawshanktrail.com.
1. Shawshank Prison
Ohio State Reformatory, 100 Reformatory Rd., Mansfield 44905
2. Brewer Hotel & Portland Daily Bugle
Bissman Building, 193 N. Main St., Mansfield 44905
3. Pawn Shop Window
Carrousel Antiques, 118 N. Main St., Mansfield 44905
4. Brooks’ Bench
Central Park in Downtown Mansfield, Corner of Main Street and Park Avenue West, Mansfield 44905
5. 1994 Movie Premiere
Renaissance Theatre, 138 Park Ave. W., Mansfield 44905
KV Market, 359 W. Fourth St., Mansfield 44905
7. Road to Buxton
Corner of Snyder and Hagerman roads, Butler 44822
8. Red’s Bus Ride
Hagerman Road and state Route 95, Butler 44822
9. Shawshank Oak Tree
Pleasant Valley Road near Malabar Farm, Lucas 44843
10. The Hollywood Connection
Malabar Farm State Park, 4050 Bromfield Rd., Lucas 44843
11. Opening Scene
Pugh Cabin at Malabar Farm
4050 Bromfield Rd., Lucas 44843
12. Maine National Bank
Crosby Advisory Group, 19 W. Main St., Ashland 44805
13. Trailways Bus Station
Revivals 2 Thrift Store, 345 Orange St., Ashland 44805
14. Andy’s Conviction
Wyandot County Courthouse, 109 S. Sandusky Ave., Upper Sandusky 43351
15. Shawshank Woodshop
Woodshop, 226 S. Eighth St., Upper Sandusky 43351