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Tiny Towns, Big Fun

Hit the road to check out these villages that offer road trip-worthy attractions despite their blink-and-you’ll-miss-them size.

Peninsula
This Summit County village serves as a great home base for a day trip to Cuyahoga Valley National Park. 

For those visiting Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the tiny community of Peninsula serves as a welcoming gateway to the 33,000 acres of forests and fields situated between Cleveland and Akron. As soon as you pull into the parking lot adjacent to the Ohio & Erie Canal’s old Lock 29 you notice the hikers, kayakers and bicyclists who flock here for an afternoon of adventure on the Cuyahoga River or the Towpath Trail that runs along it. 

“Peninsula is the heart of the national park,” offers Rebecca Jones, a park ranger at Cuyahoga Valley National Park. “Part of our story is born there. People go to Peninsula as a destination and to enter the park.”

For more passive sightseers, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad has a depot in town, where riders line up to take an afternoon excursion that offers views that can’t be attained any other way. 

“The best way to see the national park is by train,” says Joe Mazur, president and CEO of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. “You are not distracted. You can concentrate on what you see and not how you get there. A great app is also available so you can hear the history of places that you pass.”

The train also caters to bicyclists and kayakers, who have the opportunity to stow their equipment and ride to or from another location within the park located along the rail line.

“I put in my kayak in downtown Peninsula and go down the river, then throw it on the train and go back,” Mazur says. “It’s a unique way to see the park.”

Century Cycles, a bike shop located in the center of Peninsula, offers great service to both regulars and out-of-towners who hope to see more of the park during their visit.

“We are very beginner-friendly,” says store manager Doug Charnock. “Most of our customers need some guidance. I’ll ask, ‘Do you folks know where you are going?’ And they’ll say, ‘Sure don’t.’ So, we point them in the direction of the Towpath.” Cuyahoga Valley National Park, nps.gov/cuva; Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, cvsr.com; Century Cycles, 1621 Main St., Peninsula 44264, 330/657-2209, centurycycles.com

GAR Hall in Peninsula
G.A.R. Hall: Built as a schoolhouse in 1851, the Grand Army of the Republic Hall later served as a meeting place for veterans. Today, the property is a music venue that draws Americana acts. “My favorite time is when the lights go down and the stage is lit,” says Karen Walters, executive director of the Peninsula Foundation, which manages the hall. “You know something special is happening here.” 1785 Main St., Peninsula 44264, 330/657-2633, peninsulahistory.org

Yellow Creek Trading Co.: Lynne Dowling fills this former general store dating back to the 1870s with home decor pieces, gifts and accessories that shoppers often comment they can’t find anywhere else. “We are best known for our seasonal offerings,” says Dowling. “We specialize in holiday decor that has a vintage feel or historic basis.” 1685 Main St., Peninsula 44264, 330/657-2444 

Trail Mix: This gift shop operated by the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park offers travelers the chance to find a patch, T-shirt, magnet or calendar to serve as a reminder of their visit. There’s also locally made jewelry, art and photography as well as snacks for the trail and maps. “Employees also answer lots of questions,” says Tracy Christoff, the shop’s retail manager. 100 W. Mill St., Peninsula 44264, 330/657-2091, conservancyforcvnp.org/stores

Winking Lizard: There are 19 Winking Lizard locations in Ohio, but none like this one. Built in 1858 as the Peninsula Inn, it later served as the Peninsula Nite Club before its current incarnation as a family-friendly restaurant known for wings. “We have locals and people from all over who come to use the park,” says Jim Callam, the chain’s owner. “It’s such a little town — it’s amazing what you can do here.” 1615 Main St., Peninsula 44262, 330/467-1002, winkinglizard.com 

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Milan-Thomas-Edisons-birthplace
Milan
The birthplace of inventor Thomas Alva Edison celebrates his life and contributions to modern society. 

Thomas Edison only lived in Milan for the first seven years of his life, and he rarely returned: He visited for his father’s funeral in 1896, his sister’s funeral in 1903 and a final 1923 homecoming during which he was horrified to discover that his boyhood home was still lit by gas lamps.

But the northwest Ohio village always had a special place in his heart. In fact, he bought his childhood home in 1906 after his sister died, and on the centennial of his birth in 1947, his descendants turned it into a museum that still welcomes guests today.

“We don’t have a park. We don’t have rides. We have the appeal of the Wizard of Menlo Park,” Thomas Edison Birthplace Museum director Lois Wolf says of the humble-but-fascinating home. “Edison still has a mystique.”

Edison was such a central figure in American history that everywhere he’s ever lived or worked has a museum dedicated to him, including his home and lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey; his winter residence in Fort Myers, Florida; and Port Huron, Michigan, where his family settled after leaving Milan.

The former Edison home offers guests a look into 19th century life, from a spinning wheel to chamber pots to a mustache cup (for drinking without getting your facial hair wet). One of the missions of the museum is to show Edison as an inspiration for youth, which is counter to the image most people have of him as an older, white-haired man.

The office next door features items from Edison’s career, including a display dedicated to his moving pictures, his inventions and a special technical Grammy Award he posthumously received in 2010. While informing guests about Edison, the museum also tries to dispel some of the misinformation as well, including the purported animus between the inventor and Nikola Tesla.

“Edison and Nikola Tesla both respected each other,” Wolf says. “If anyone had a rivalry with Edison, it was George Westinghouse.” 9 N. Edison Dr., Milan 44846, 419/499-2135, tomedison.org

The Milan Museum: This series of buildings across the street from the Edison birthplace commemorates the town’s days as a major port on the Milan Canal as well as its favorite son. Along with a replica blacksmith shop and a smaller working replica of a machine shop, the museum also features a large display of dolls and galleries dedicated to folk art. The Galpin Galleries include samples of glass made in northwest Ohio. 10 N. Edison Dr., Milan 44846, 419/499-2968, milanhistory.org

Milan Wine Post: This spot serves as a hub of activity on Milan’s town square. The small bar offers wine and craft beer to enjoy on-site or to go, as well as small plates of lighter fare. Manager Tara Kluding says sandwiches and other specials are offered during events such as the weekly summer car cruises. “We’re working on adding more food,” she says. “We’re trying to mix it up.” 1 N. Main St., Milan 44846, 419/499-0235, facebook.com/milanwinepost

Culinary Vegetable Institute: As its name implies, this place puts veggies — many grown nearby at The Chef’s Garden in Huron — front and center. “We’re not vegetarian, but we show how many ways vegetables can be used,” says director Marcie Barker. In addition to being available to rent for corporate events and parties, the institute offers cooking workshops that showcase how to use various vegetables. A recent one focusing on carrots shared how to use the taproot 24 different ways. 12304 Mudbrook Rd., Milan 44846, 419/499-7500, culinaryvegetableinstitute.com

Jim's Pizza Box in Milan
Jim’s Pizza Box: This family-run shop has been a Milan favorite for nearly 40 years (a second location in Huron dates back to 1997), but Jim West was slinging pies long before that. West started working in pizza shops in eighth grade and struck out on his own when he was 21, using his mother’s recipes for pizza sauce, soups and other entrees. “I take a bow because it’s my place,” West says, “but the real heroes are my family.” 10 N. Main St., Milan 44846, 419/499-4166, facebook.com/jimspizzabox

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Yellow Springs' Little Art Theatre
Yellow Springs
This Greene County village embraces an artistic vibe with shops and restaurants and offers a nature preserve a short walk from downtown

Yellow Springs was originally envisioned as a utopia — a place where a hundred families who followed Robert Owen settled in 1825 with a plan to share property and work together for the common good. That vision never quite materialized, but settlers made the most of the area’s beautiful terrain, including the town’s namesake spring that can be found in the heart of Glen Helen Nature Preserve, just a short walk from the center of town.

The village blossomed in the mid-1800s thanks to the railroad. In 1853, renowned education reformer Horace Mann became the first president of Antioch College, Yellow Springs’ historic liberal arts school. Well over a century and a half later, Antioch College is still there, now joined by colorful storefronts that pepper the downtown and serve visitors who travel to enjoy the area’s romantic waterfalls, babbling brooks and lush forests.

“The glen is my little place in the world,” says Jenny Cowperthwaite, who was born in Yellow Springs in 1956. She’s the executive director and former owner of Little Art Theatre, which opened in 1929 and now shows independent, foreign, documentary and classic films, as well as a few mainstream ones.

“I see Little Art as a service to the community. It’s entertainment, but it’s also educational,” says Cowperthwaite, who began working at the theater at age 15. “My father, who’s 93, and I were recently talking about everything offered in this village of less than 4,000 people. It’s unbelievable.”

Those offerings include mid-20th-century antiques store Atomic Fox, the geek-culture-paradise Dark Star Books and Winds Cafe. The latter opened in 1977 as a collectively owned and operated restaurant. Current owner Mary Kay Smith says the place has been sourcing ingredients from local farmers and baking its own bread long before it became trendy. “The Winds is a sort of evolution of the American culinary scene,” she says. Little Art Theatre, 247 Xenia Ave., Yellow Springs 45387, 937/767-7671, littleart.com; Winds Cafe, 215 Xenia Ave., Yellow Springs 45387, 937/767-1144, windscafe.com

Yellow Springs Brewery
Yellow Springs Brewery: This spot is an amalgam of great beer, art and atmosphere. Popular brews include the Captain Stardust Saison and American Zoetic Pale Ale. “We opened in April 2013, and after the first six weeks we had to close the taproom for 10 days because we literally ran out of beer,” says Lisa Wolters, who owns the place with her husband, Nate Cornett. 305 Walnut St., Yellow Springs 45387, 937/767-0222, yellowspringsbrewery.com

Sunrise Cafe: This eatery opened in 1948, but chef and co-owner Brian Rainey and his wife, Amy, bought it in 2004. The menu here swings from pancakes to Thai peanut tofu. “Our main focus is local and organic, but it’s a melting pot,” says Rainey, who pays tribute to such diversity in the Vick Burger, a chef’s-choice, anything-goes creation named for Vick Mickunas, a DJ at Yellow Springs’ WYSO. 259 Xenia Ave., Yellow Springs 45387, 937/767-7211, sunrisecafe.net 

Glen Helen Nature Preserve: During the 19th century, both a tavern and hotel sat beside the village’s famous yellow spring. The property changed hands until Taylor Hugh Birch, an attorney, investor and former Antioch College student, purchased it. “Birch donated the land in 1929 to Antioch College in memory of his daughter Helen,” says Tom Clevenger of the Glen Helen Ecology Institute. 405 Corry St., Yellow Springs 45387, 937/769-1902, glenhelen.org 

Ohio Silver Co.: This shop specializes in jewelry from around the world set with unique stones. “We have Baltic amber from Poland, meteorite jewelry form Czechoslovakia, and Larimer jewelry, a blue stone you can only find in 1-square-mile of the Dominican Republic,” says owner Marcia Wallgren. 245 Xenia Ave., Yellow Springs 45387, 937/767-8261, facebook.com/ohiosilverco

Photo credits: Peninsula by Kevin Kopanski, Milan by Cody York and Yellow Springs by Kelly Wilt

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