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January 2004
Zanesville, Ohio

    When driving interstate 70 about halfway between Columbus, Ohio and Wheeling, West Virginia, you’ll pass through the city of Zanesville. Most interstate highway routes bypass cities; all you see are a few signs, the outskirts of town and maybe, if you’re lucky, a distant glimpse of a skyline. But I-70 takes you right through the center of Zanesville, offering a nice view of one of Ohio’s oldest cities.

    The original name of this community was Westbourne, but then the postmaster began referring to it as “Zane’s town.” From that, “Zanesville” naturally evolved. It really was Zane’s town too. In partial payment for his services in forging Zane’s Trace—the first trail cut through the central Ohio wilderness—Ebenezer Zane had been given a square mile tract of land where the Trace crossed the Muskingum River just north of its junction with the Licking River. Hence, Zanesville today.

    In the early to mid-1800s,  Zanesville was one of  the key cities in the Midwest. For a time it was Ohio’s third largest city and also served a brief stint as state capital. Its prestige was enhanced in 1826 when the National Road reached Zanesville. A few years later, an official count of traffic going through Zanesville on the National Road recorded the following: 2,357 wagons with three or more horses, 11,613 two-horse carriages and wagons, 14,907 one-horse carriages, and 35,320 riders on horseback, as well as 16,750 horses and mules, 24,410 sheep, 52,845 hogs, and 96,323 cattle. Imagine all that commotion going by your front door.

    In 1829, the Ohio & Erie Canal came through, and Zanesville became a boomtown. Now, products made in Zanesville could be shipped north to Cleveland, then to the Great Lakes ports—even to New York and the east coast, via the Erie Canal. Later, when railroading became the preferred means of transport, Zanesville was still right in there, serving as an important railroad terminus.

    Zanesville’s best-known product is pottery. High-quality clay is available in the region, and the rivers, canals, and railroads provided means for transporting the finished products. By the year 1840, there were already 22 commercial pottery operations in Muskingum County. During the time of industrialization in the late 1800s, factories began producing what had been a hand-made product, and Zanesville staked its claim to be the Pottery Capital of the World. Production facilities were lined along the Muskingum River, turning out such items as dishes, stoneware, ceramics, tiles, mixing bowls, garden ornaments, and "fancy-glazed" art pottery. But after World War II, several factors combined to diminish Zanesville’s pottery business. The production equipment in local factories had become outmoded and expensive to upgrade, there was intense competition from foreign imports, and the tastes of consumers shifted to unbreakable plastic and metal containers.

    Yet, pottery and ceramics are still produced in Zanesville and Muskingum County both by companies that have been here a long time and by potters just entering the business. Meanwhile, old Zanesville pottery is now eagerly sought by collectors. Today, the community hosts museums, educational centers, and galleries dedicated to preserving and celebrating Zanesville’s heritage as Pottery Capital of the World.

    Zanesville is also known for its unusually-shaped bridge. To get the full experience, you have to leave the interstate and drive into town from the east on old US 40. Soon you’ll reach the Muskingum River bridge and start your way across, and everything should seem normal. But then about 2/3 of the way across the river, an odd thing happens: the road divides into a fork—you go right or you go left. The bridge forms the shape of a “Y.”

    Why a Y-shaped bridge?

    Well, the city of Zanesville is divided into three segments. One is to the east of the Muskingum River; one is to the west of the Muskingum and north of the Licking River; and one is to the west of the Muskingum and south of the Licking River. So if you’re building a bridge across the Muskingum, you have a problem on the western side: does the bridge empty out north of the Licking River, thereby leaving the southern community bereft?  Or do you have the bridge end up south of the Licking, leaving the north bereft (and probably voting for somebody else come the next election)?

    Zanesville solved this problem quite neatly: the bridge goes both to the north and the south, forming a Y. Nobody’s bereft—bridge-wise, that is. Zanesville has been quite committed to its bridge in its unique shape. The current one is the fifth Y-bridge on the site.

    One more thing about Zanesville. The town was named for Ebenezer Zane, but the most famous citizen Zanesville has produced was not an explorer and trailblazer but a dentist. Indeed, this most famous citizen of Zanesville is probably also the most famous Zane. Not Ebenezer Zane but Zane Grey, author of 89 books and, some say, the inventor of the modern western.

    Zane Grey was born in Zanesville in 1872 and was originally named Pearl Zane Gray. He was a descendent of Ebenezer Zane, hence his middle name. But what about that Pearl?  The story is that his mother was an admirer of Queen Victoria, whose favorite color was Pearl Grey. So she named her son in the Queen’s honor: Pearl Zane Gray.

    That feminine-sounding name caused all manner of trouble for the young Pearl Gray. He compensated by becoming an unruly youth, a prankster, a rebel against the norms of school and community, a gang leader, an indifferent student—and a superb baseball player. His skills on the baseball field earned him an athletic scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania where, in deference to his father, he studied dentistry. 

    Pearl Zane Gray’s father was a dentist and part-time preacher with no great love for literature. Once he discovered a short story his 15-year-old son had written and whipped him soundly for wasting time on such foolishness. But the ambition to write ran deep in Pearl Zane Grey. After graduating from dental school, he went to New York and set up a practice, while he spent evenings doing his real work: writing stories that nobody wanted to publish. For a pen name, he dropped the accursed Pearl and became, simply, Zane Grey.

    Zane Grey’s first novels were pioneer adventures set in frontier Ohio. Somehow, they didn’t capture the public’s imagination. But a chance meeting with a cowboy who called himself Buffalo Jones brought an invitation to visit his ranch in Arizona. The young writer was entranced by the West: the color, the beauty, its vastness, its grandeur. He had found his subject.

    He had also found a context in which to tell stories of heroism, stories about simple people fighting for good against the forces of evil, stories of men and women redeemed when they lived and honored basic American values. Zane Grey was a romantic; he created an idealized American West as a place of spiritual testing and reward. “Romance,” he once said, “is only another name for idealism; and I contend that life without ideals is not worth living...People live for the dream in their hearts.”

    Zane Grey’s rewards as an author were not simply spiritual. After enduring still more rejections, he finally hit it big with a book called, “Riders of the Purple Sage,” which was an immediate hit and sold over a million copies. He followed up that success by writing ten more westerns in the next nine years, many of which went to the top of the best seller lists. All in all, his books have sold over 31,000,000 copies worldwide. And Hollywood has turned 46 of these books into movies.

    And so we encounter this apparent contradiction: the writer who virtually defined the American western wasn’t from the West. He was from Ohio where we’re not likely to encounter many gunslingers, cowboys or Indians, stampeding cattle, rowdy saloons, or strong silent mysterious heroes who ride white horses. But maybe that’s a secret to his success. Zane Grey took simple American virtues, set them into a western context, and created stories not just about cowboys, but about ordinary people and the dreams that still call us.

   For more about Zanesville and its surrounding communities, see the CD for I-70 West: Wheeling, WV to Columbus, OH or I-70 East: Columbus, OH to Wheeling, WV.

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