“Tuscarawas” is an extraordinary word.
It is apparently derived from a Native American word meaning “Open Mouth.” A few friends from H2O have been telling me stories about growing up in Tuscarawas County (Ohio) this semester, and honestly: these stories about the music and food and culture of the Tuscarawans were so extraordinary that they would cause my mouth to hang open… So when a special holiday event came up this weekend, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go on a field trip to Tuscarawas County, hosted by my Tuscarawan friends.
I was eager to see signs of early German settlements (Tuscarawas County was founded by some of the first European settlers west of the Appalachian Mountains)… Guatemalan grocery stores… people and places featured in the “So T-County” ear-worm music video… the “Quality Sew & Vac” store… highly-celebrated steel-drum bands and choral music… and whatever else our adventure might bring.
We started our tour in downtown New Philadelphia, with three Quakers (graduates of New Philadelphia High School) showing us the sights and sounds of their city. A sign overlooking the central intersection of the town said, “Welcome to Our City.” A grand old courthouse was tastefully illuminated with red and green lights. Just down High Avenue, the marquis for an old-fashioned movie house called the Quaker leaned out over the sidewalk. The scene reminded me a bit of the fictional towns of Bedford Falls, New York (from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life) or Stars Hollow, Connecticut (from Amy Sherman Palladino’s Gilmore Girls).
There were a few more modern touches, particularly with large, abstract murals on the back-alley brick walls, but downtown New Philadelphia felt mostly like a step back in time.
I loved it.
We got coffee at a place called The Daily Grind — a Tuscarawas County institution, according to my friends — and wandered around to soak in the scenery and take pictures. Chase, Rachel, and Brooke were fantastic hosts who clearly loved their city and helped us to appreciate it, too.
It felt vaguely “Christmassy” downtown, but the real Christmas festivities were happening a bit further to the north, in a place called Tuscora Park. Our Tuscarawan friends chose this weekend for our field trip because it coincided with an annual event called “Christmas in the Park.” And while this event had been talked up quite a bit by our Tuscarawan friends, the experience itself exceeded my expectations.
After parking at the home of Chase’s family, we crested a hill and saw hundreds (if not thousands) of people crammed into a space that was an extraordinary Tuscarawan combination of a city park, a sports complex, and a carnival midway.
Our friend Dylan joined us for this part of the adventure. He’s a Crimson Tornado (graduate of Dover High School, cross-river rival to New Philadelphia), and he has generally avoided “Christmas in the Park” ever since he got sick at the event, maybe ten years ago.
But I’d like to think our visit reset his baseline for “Christmas in the Park.” We drank (free) hot cocoa… We took a (free) ride on the carousel…
We watched sculptors chisel blocks of ice into statues of a snowman and a Christmas wreath, polished by a flaming torch… We took in a live nativity scene including goats, a camel, and a donkey… Tommy and Kairie’s dog, Mante, made friends with a couple of real, live reindeer… and — perhaps most special of all — we got to hear a live performance of New Philadelphia High School’s Steel Drum Band!
I wasn’t sure it was going to work out to see this particular quirk of Tuscarawas County… But when I heard it, I got very, very, very excited.
It was all my Tuscarawas County dreams come true.
I’ve never known another place — outside of the Caribbean — to so highly regard steel drum music (though all my T-County friends were very surprised when they first learned that this is not a normal thing for all Ohio high school students!). I have to hand it to them, though. The steel drum Christmas carols sounded good. They were mellow and almost-mystical. And the kids in the Steel Drum Band seemed to be genuinely skilled.
I told my friends how impressed I was with the Quakers’ Steel Drum Band, but Dylan-the-Crimson-Tornado quipped, “Just imagine how good it would have sounded if you could have heard Dover’s Steel Drum Band!”
Before finishing our time at Tuscora Park, we took a walk down Storybook Lane. This was another thing that the Tuscarawans raved about as a totally-beloved holiday tradition, but as a non-Tuscarawan I didn’t quite understand the appeal.
I thought it was going to be Christmas lights in the shapes of Christmas-ified Fairy Tale characters or something. Instead, it was painted, wooden cut-outs illuminated by floodlights and (sometimes) animated by mechanical elements. Each scene represented a nursery rhyme. And while the nursery rhymes themselves are actually pretty frightful, if you think about them — a farmer’s wife cutting off the tails of three blind mice, or a baby’s cradle falling from the boughs of a tree — it was even more frightful to see them illustrated and animated.
Not especially evocative of the Christmas Spirit, if you ask me. But the Tuscarawans seemed oblivious. On this count, I’d have to say that Tuscarawas County reminded me more of Pawnee, Indiana (from Amy Poehler’s Parks & Recreation) than Bedford Falls or Stars Hollow! Awkward and embarrassing, but still strangely endearing.
After Storybook Lane, we decided to grab a bite for dinner at Lee’s Chicken. It’s a franchise, not a local joint — but the New Philadelphians claimed it was the place to eat if we were in a hurry (which we kind of were). So we finished our time in T-County with a greasy chicken dinner in a greasy diner featuring wallpaper of photo-realistic chickens.
It was fantastic.
We got a lot of tasty food for not a lot of money. And then, it was time to hit the road for our return to Kent.
I wish we could have stayed longer and seen more, but it really was a lovely experience to take in some of the quirks of Tuscarawas County with some native Tuscarawans. Tourism is always more fun when you can do it like a local, with a local (or more than one local).
I don’t know when I’ll get my next opportunity to visit T-County… but I will look forward to that return whenever it may be.