Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Yellow Springs, Ohio: A Local's Perspective
Sometimes it seems like I’ve spent my entire life running. Away from mistakes, toward the hope of something better. Always that persistent ache in my heart for something just out of reach.
I can remember driving through Kentucky when I was in my twenties and Zac Brown Band’s Colder Weather began playing on the radio.
I’ve got a gypsy soul to blame and I was born for leavin’.
I cried when I heard those words, knowing that the song was meant for me. Later I got “gypsy soul” tattooed on my forearm. As if I needed a reminder of who I am.
I continued running until three years ago, when a a change in my personal life brought me home. “Grave prognosis, not much we can do” the oncologist murmured under his breath, avoiding eye contact. Placing someone's entire life into a neatly wrapped package of bad news, then moving on to his next appointment. It turns out my dad needed me. I had just finished a grueling veterinary internship and I had no attachments or places I needed to be.
So I decided it was time to stop running for awhile.
I packed my bags and headed north, a scenic 6 hour drive from Chattanooga, Tennessee to Yellow Springs, Ohio. I pulled off the interstate onto a two lane highway nestled between endless rows of corn and soybean. I passed an old barn with “Jesus Loves You” painted on the side, writing worn from countless midwestern winters, the message still the same.
I drove into town, passed the laundry mat with its finicky quarter machines, the Corner Cone where I ate my weight in ice cream one summer, the local watering hole where I drank my first beer so many years ago. A scattering of people now stood outside, kicking cigarette dust under the streetlight. I rolled my window down and the car filled with the rich, damp smell of earth, the voices of a thousand crickets and cicadas converging into a deafening choir. Nostalgia wafted through the humid air like the smell of a familiar home-cooked meal.
Welcome home, the crickets and cicadas sang.
That night I slept like a child.
The following morning I drove downtown for a coffee. It was an unusually perfect day-cloudless sky, low humidity. More like what you’d expect from California than the Midwest. When I reached the main street with its two stoplights, I couldn’t find a parking space anywhere. The sidewalks were teeming with unfamiliar people, their meandering steps and wide eyes a dead giveaway. These were Tourists. I passed a few locals who eyed me as if trying to put a face to a name, but I was somewhat relieved when no one recognized me. I stepped into Dino’s Coffee Shop, a place where I used to sit on lazy summer afternoons, sipping Caramel Snowstorms and playing cards as the hours crept by in the unhurried fashion time tends to possess when we are young.
As I now waited in a long line for my cup of joe, I listened to the murmuring of the crowd around me.
Have you seen the clothing boutiques? Soooo adorable.
I heard Sunrise Cafe has the best breakfast.
Oh my God…is that Dave CHAPPELLE?
Only then did I recognize the local celebrity who stood in front of me in line. A starstruck kid behind me pulled out his phone and snapped a photo of the back of Dave’s head, instantly sharing it on his social media.
This is place is so cool! His girlfriend purred.
This place has changed, I thought.
I can remember a place where I’d take my shoes off in June and run barefoot through the woods until September. A quiet town where I’d collect wild berries, sell lemonade from a stand, ride my bike downtown to get ice cream. When I was about eight I climbed to the top of my favorite maple tree and jumped, my little heart filled with the need to fly, to know what the birds knew. I landed in the dirt and cried, not so much from my injuries but from the realization that I would never be like the birds.
Christmas time, and we’d all pack into the high school gymnasium for the annual Alumni Basketball Tournament. Every year the older folks would battle the fresh graduates, everyone else sitting in the the bleachers and catching up on local gossip. A week later, New Year’s Eve, and we’d all bundle up against the Ohio winter, head downtown, and watch a man climb a ladder and drop a ball from a string.
We’d shout, raising our glasses of cider in a toast to another year, the ball somehow always getting snagged, always a few seconds off from Times Square.
I remember a place where you didn’t lock your front door at night. Where everyone knew your name and all your secrets. Where people might talk but they’d always give you the shirt off their back if you needed it. Where you grew up slow and unpolluted.
I remember a town with a rich history and a sense of community that in all my wandering, I've never really experienced anywhere else.
Yellow Springs was founded in 1825 by approximately 100 families who came to the midwest to create their version of a utopian community, following in the footsteps of well-known social reformer Robert Owens. Ironically the original families dispersed due to disagreements, but the utopian vibe remains today.
Throughout the years the town has continued to serve as an example of community gathering and progressive thinking. If you visit some of the older homes in and around town, you will likely encounter sites of the Underground Railroad. I can remember exploring one of these homes as a young child. When my father told me that this was part of the Railroad, I spent half the day looking for a buried train. I never found a train, but I remember feeling the ghosts in the air.
If you head to Yellow Springs on the Fourth of July to enjoy our fireworks show, you will sit on a hill overlooking Gaunt Park, a place named for a former slave who purchased his own freedom in 1845 and came to town with aspirations for a better life. Wheeling Gaunt, one of the first black men to purchase land in Yellow Springs, created the “Christmas Flour Tradition,” where he used rent from his land to provide flour for widows in the community, regardless of ethnicity. This tradition holds strong today.
This town has always been a Mecca for the downtrodden, for those looking for a better, safer place to call home. In 1862, Reverend Moncure Daniel Conway arrived in town with a group of freed slaves, believing that this was the ideal place for the newly free people to live a safe and prosperous life. The “Conway Colony” as they were dubbed, did well. By the end of the 1800’s there was a modest but thriving black population in town. By 1950, despite nationwide segregation, approximately 1/5 of the town population was non-white.
If you’re in town you may walk through the Antioch College campus, the school Coretta Scott King attended. Her husband, Martin Luther King, gave a speech at the school’s commencement in 1965 in the midst of local and nationwide battles against segregation. It was around this time that a local black man was refused service at a local barbershop. Over 600 people in town came together for a protest march led by former Antioch president Arthur Morgan. Newspapers from around the country covered the event. My father was just a child at the time, but he remembers the event well. He tells me that his picture was in the paper that day. A little tow-headed white boy perched on the shoulders of a tall black man, part of a crowd of peaceful protesters, fighting against hate.
Of course no trip to Yellow Springs is complete without a visit to our namesake. If you hike through the Glen Helen Nature Preserve, you will cross the ghostly remnants of a dam on your way up the hill to a fresh spring, flowing directly from an underground aquifer, water tinted yellow by the high iron content. If you drink from the waters, you’ll be taking a little sip of our history. The Tecumseh tribe once inhabited the surrounding land and claimed that these springs had special healing powers.
In 1826 a man named Elisha Mills built a “water cure” spa here, people flocking to the area to experience the healing nature of the Yellow Spring for themselves. The spa is long gone, though remnants of the building and dam can still be seen beneath the overgrowth, nature now taking claim over the land once again.
Yellow Springs just had its bi-annual Street Fair. An event that used to mean a small gathering of local vendors and artists downtown but over the years has transformed into A Major Ohio Attraction. This June over 40,000 people flocked to my little town to shop, eat, and hear live music. It was overwhelming for a small-town girl like me. But I saw locals reaping the benefits. Friends and family selling their art, performing, making a living. I saw a town that's doing just fine, thanks to a steady stream of supportive visitors.
Sometimes its hard for me to reconcile this bustling, crowded place with the quiet little community I grew up in.
But I have realized that under the surface it’s still there.
My father was hospitalized recently and the town came together to host a benefit concert for him. The timing was less than ideal, in the middle of a horrendous winter storm. As the snow piled up and the roads disappeared under a sheet of ice, I despaired that no one would show up that night.
I was wrong.
The local bar was quickly brimming with people battling the weather to come show their support. Those who couldn’t find their cars under the snow chose to walk. Those who couldn’t make it donated or brought food directly to my father’s house the next day. My dad, frail from his recent ordeal, rallied and played an entire set with the band.
The town danced and celebrated life that night, under the blanket of a Midwest snowstorm.
What an adorable town! The tourists will say, sipping local beer and shopping for handmade jewelry. Bloggers write about us, influencers tag us on Instagram. One travel site just labeled us one of America’s “Coolest Towns.”
But Yellow Springs, Ohio isn’t just a cool place to visit on a sunny afternoon.
It’s a way of life.
There is a reason so many visitors flock here from neighboring areas, and it’s not just because of the quaint shops and “hippie” vibe. This place has a deep, rich history that flows through to the present. Yellow Springs provides sense of community, a slower pace, a kind smile in a world that seems to get crazier every day.
So please, I encourage you to come visit us. Eat our organic food, shop at our local boutiques. Ride down the bike path, stop by for an afternoon drink at Peaches Grill. Enjoy live music at the Emporium on a Friday night. Walk through the Glen Helen nature preserve and sip from the Springs. Be respectful. Be kind. Talk to the locals, get a feel for what its like living in a place like this. And at the end of your visit, take some of our “vibe” back with you. Share it with your friends and family. Spread the word. Because the world today needs more places like Yellow Springs, Ohio.
As for this gypsy soul, I think I'll be sticking around for awhile.