They used to sell bumper stickers here that proclaimed "I Survived Route 39."
For years, the gateway to Ohio's Amish country from Interstate 77 was a perilous drive. The gray asphalt turned suddenly, rose steeply and churned stomachs with sharp, unexpected drops — all on a tight two-lane road.
That all changed more than a decade ago, when the state plowed a straighter, wider and safer stretch of state Route 39 through Tuscarawas County between Dover and Sugarcreek. Those nostalgic for the more primitive driving conditions, however, can still opt to navigate County Road 139, the name given to "old 39" once the new road was completed.
Both routes are an inviting first leg of driving for Greater Clevelanders who wish to trade in the suburbs for a couple of days exploring the farm, cow and corn country those who live far from here imagine when "Ohio" is mentioned.
And once you tick off the rather unremarkable 90 miles of I-77 between downtown Cleveland and Dover's state Route 39 exit, the roadside scenery turns from shopping malls, chain restaurants and flat groves of forests to rolling slopes and weathered barns that announce you've arrived at the outer edge of the Appalachian foothills.
If You Go
Carlisle Village Inn: Intersection of state Route 39 and state Route 515, Walnut Creek, Ohio, (330) 893-3636. Rates $99 per night May through October. This is a 52-room, elegant, Victorian-style inn with most furnishings made by local Amish craftsmen.
Breitenbach Wine Cellars: 5934 Old Route 39 N.W., Dover, Ohio, (330) 343-3603. Take a turn down "old 39" and look for the purple barn. Sample Amish-made cheeses, German smoked meats and pick up a few bottles of locally produced wine.
Heini's Cheese Chalet & Amish Country Mall: 6005 County Road 77, Millersburg, Ohio, (330) 893-2131. Sample more than 50 varieties of cheese and take a tour of the adjacent production facility.
There are a few facts to keep in mind before tackling this trip. First, nearly half of all Amish people live along this route. Leave your road rage at home because getting stuck behind a horse and buggy is bound to happen. The good news is it turns out to be infinitely less stressful than negotiating the city's crawling rush-hour traffic — almost pleasant, if you can imagine. Also keep an eye out for Amish children, who walk to school along the side of the road and routinely run errands on bicycles. Don't plan a Sunday visit either: Most businesses are closed.
?hat said, the prime sightseeing portion of state Route 39 is the roughly 50 miles of two-lane road that stretch from Dover to Loudonville. Along the way, there are a handful of crossroads that offer small jaunts worth a brief detour. Head north at the state Route 515 intersection, for example, and you'll arrive in Wilmot, where The Wilderness Center offers a sprawling reserve to explore by foot. (Don't be swayed by signs advertising the "World's Largest Cuckoo Clock." Though the Wilmot roadside attraction costs just a quarter to view, the 23-foot-tall clock leaves you walking away feeling cheated if you've had to wait any longer than 10 minutes for the top of the hour to arrive.)
üead east on state Route 62 and follow the signs to Kidron for another worthwhile diversion. There, you'll find Lehman's — an old-time hardware store that feels as if it was plunked 100 years into the future with its fully functional array of gas refrigerators, oil lamps, apple peelers and pickle kegs.
ühe first town you'll encounter along state Route 39 after leaving Dover is Sugarcreek. Billed as "The Little Switzerland of Ohio" in honor of the town's founding Swiss immigrants, the aging facades of many downtown businesses — from restaurants to candy stores to gas stations to the local public library branch — resemble Alpine lodges. Swiss music is piped into the street through tinny speakers.
Peek through the front window of Moomaw Chevrolet on Main Street. The fourth-generation car dealership is housed in what looks to be an old brick firehouse with showroom, offices and repair bays all packed into a space not much larger than an elementary-school gymnasium.
In Sugarcreek, you'll see members of the local Amish community. The religious sect eschews electricity and modern inventions in favor of a simple life of interdependence upon one another. Tourism pamphlets tout the way of life as a "unique lifestyle most people don't know still exists." That's not to say the region has escaped the grasp of capitalism.
What you learn very quickly while traveling state Route 39 is that there are scores of small shops which count on the region's heavy tourism for their livelihood. Once you pass through Sugarcreek and across the Holmes County line, they creep closer to the road and are less bashful about vying for your attention with brightly colored signs and billboards.
Sure, some offer "Amish" fare of the "Made in China" variety, but there are plenty selling locally produced items, whether handcrafted oak furniture, pale yellow blocks of Swiss cheese or 8-week-old puppies. There are also people selling Beanie Babies.
The Holmes County Amish Flea Market in Walnut Creek is a hulk of an attraction. There's not much Amish about it (aside from a Der Dutchman stand in the food court), but it's a worthwhile stop. After paying $1 for parking (the only parking fee we discovered during our trip), you are free to wander a 100,000-square-foot warehouse with nearly 300 neatly arranged booths. Vendors peddle everything from $1,200 oak bunk beds to car floor mats to Thomas Kinkade prints.
Cruise west into the tiny town of Berlin and the shopping is ratcheted to a fevered pace. It's the only bottleneck of the trip. Parking spots are hard to find, traffic slows to a crawl and, even on weekdays, visitors clog both sides of the streets, filing in and out of the tightly packed stores or resting on rows of wooden rocking chairs. Merchants peddle everything from brightly colored, albeit somewhat tacky, lawn ornaments to handmade scented candles to furniture, antiques and trinkets.
After Berlin, the drive becomes a smooth run, winding mile after mile up and down hills, periodically revealing huge dirty-white farmhouses and dilapidated grain silos. The road bisects the county seat of Millersburg, where it's not uncommon to see an Amish buggy tied up outside the enormous gray courthouse in the heart of town. From there, it's on through tiny Nashville, a town where park benches line the narrow curb strips and its houses are perched right along the edge of SR 39. Next comes Loudonville, where the police department is housed in a small corner of a single-screen movie theater and marked by a foot-long wooden sign: POLICE.
This is the portion of the trip where the drive takes center stage. Radio reception surges and fades as you climb and descend hills, so turn the radio off and wind down the window. We again strayed from state Route 39 a bit east of Loudonville on state Route 3, heading four miles south to where the thick forests of Mohican State Park rise along the road. It's a perfect spot to take a rest. Those who want to camp can bring a tent or call ahead to reserve one of the park's cabins.
Though you could head northwest from here and jump on I-71 just outside of Mansfield for a quick trip back to Cleveland, it's difficult to resist the urge to turn around and take another crack at Route 39 as it winds back east through the Ohio hills. Sitting along the side of the road on a sunny afternoon with a canopy of blue sky and linen-white clouds as far as you can see, it's hard to make much of a case for doing anything else.