LANCASTER, Ohio — The Knobs stand out, in more ways than one.
The lumpy, flat-topped formations southwest of Lancaster mark the edge of the Appalachian Plateau. They rise 250 feet above the surrounding farmland and offer views to the Hocking Hills to the south and to the lowland plain of central Ohio to the north.
The dome-shaped formations are what biologists call islands in the sky, with the vegetation at the tops that is significantly different from that at the base.
In the West, they would be called buttes. But the tree-covered formations were called the Knobs by early settlers: Beck's Knob, Allen's Knob, Claypool Knob and Ruble Knob.
The Shallenberger State Nature Preserve encompasses Allen Knob and Ruble Knob. Both are topped by erosion-resistant sandstone and feature steep sides and rocky outcroppings.
The 87.5-acre preserve lies west of Lancaster in Fairfield County's Hocking Township. It is off Beck's Knob Road near the intersection of U.S. 22 and U.S. 33.
Trails lead from the parking lot through the heavily forested tract at the base of the knobs. The trails wind upward around the 80-foot-high walls of cap rock to the tree-covered tops.
The forest at the bottom is a rich and robust mix of oaks, maples, beech, cherry, walnut, hickory, ash and elm. Blueberries and ferns thrive on the forest floor. Spring wildflowers are abundant.
The last mile-thick glacier pushed into the knobs 12,000 years ago, but never topped them. It brought rich topsoil where the mixed forest now thrives at the bottom of the knobs.
At the top, the trees appear smaller, scraggly and poor because the soil is thin and dry. The dominant tree atop the knobs is the chestnut oak. Some have two or three trunks, all growing from a single stem.
Only a few of the tree species found at the bottom are found atop the knobs, and they are generally saplings. A few ferns grow at the top but the forest floor is largely empty.
The Blackhand sandstone creates a thin, well-drained, dry and acidic soil where only plants especially adapted to these harsh conditions can survive. The unglaciated knob tops offer sanctuary for the dry oak forest of the South, a bit of Appalachian habitat that developed there.
Mountain laurel also thrives atop the knobs, especially on their southern and western slopes. They are at their colorful best from late May to mid-July.
The rock gets its orange tint from the iron oxide that cemented the sand 325 million years ago when the sediments formed at the bottom of a shallow inland sea.
The land uplifted and the tough sandstone formed rocky knobs, gorges, cascades, caves, rock bridges and outcroppings across southern Ohio. Hocking Hills State Park near Logan is one example.
Allen Knob towers 240 feet above the countryside. Adjoining Ruble Knob is lower. A small stream flows north into Hunter's Run, and separates the two knobs.
The trail is shaped like a figure 8, with the tops of the two knobs being accessible via side trails. It is a modest uphill hike with some steep spots. The best viewing, of course, is when the leaves are off the trees from late fall through early spring.
The preserve is close to U.S. 33 that bypasses Lancaster, and the noise of traffic never leaves â?" even when you're atop Allen Knob with its sheer cliffs.
The property was owned by Jay M. Shallenberger. After his death in 1971, the property went to the Fairfield County commissioners. In 1973, it was transferred to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and became a state nature preserve, because of its "exceptional value in illustrating the natural history of Ohio," says a marker.
Remnants of an old orchard are tucked in the northwest corner of the preserve.
Hours are sunrise to sunset daily. Rock climbing is prohibited because of the danger and the damage to fragile plants growing on the cliffs.
To get to the Shallenberger State Nature Preserve, take Interstate 76 west to Interstate 71 and then go east on Interstate 270. Exit at U.S. 33 and head south to Lancaster. Exit at U.S. 22. Turn left. Turn left almost immediately at Beck's Knob Road. Head north for a quarter mile. The preserve will be on the right. It is a 2.5-hour drive from Akron.
For information, contact the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, 614-265-6453, http://www.ohiodnr.com.
You can also get a dose of Ohio history in downtown Lancaster. That's where you will find the Sherman House, owned and managed by the grass-roots Fairfield Heritage Association in Lancaster's National Register of Historic Places district.
The house at 137 E. Main St. (U.S. 22) is Ohio's only memorial to Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman was born and spent his childhood there, and it is a registered National Historic Landmark.
The original portion of the frame house was built in 1811 and expanded in 1816 by Charles Sherman, a lawyer who moved to Lancaster from Connecticut. The Sherman family occupied the house until 1844.
William Tecumseh was born in 1820; his brother, John, three years later. John became a U.S. congressman and senator, U.S. secretary of the Treasury and secretary of state.
Charles Sherman, an Ohio Supreme Court judge, died in 1829. He left his widow, Mary, and 11 children.
William Tecumseh — a red-haired youngster known as Cump — was taken in by the Thomas Ewing family, although the family never officially adopted him. Ewing became a U.S. senator, secretary of the Treasury and secretary of the Interior.
Sherman entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 1836. He gained fame during the Civil War for leading his Union Army through Georgia on the March to the Sea through the heart of the Confederacy. He died in New York in 1891. He is remembered by some for his comment, "War is hell."
The original 1811 section of the house includes the restored dining room, master bedroom and children's bedroom. The 1816 section contains Judge Charles Sherman's study and the family parlor.
The second floor is filled with Civil War items linked to William Tecumseh, and Sherman family memorabilia.
The Sherman House is open from 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays from April through mid-December. It is open by appointment in January, February and March.
Admission is $6 for adults and $2 for students under 18. For information, call 740-687-5891 or 740-654-9923 or check out http://www.shermanhouse.org/index.htm.
Lancaster has four separate historic districts that are on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places. The largest is known as Square 13. It covers 24 blocks and 1,240 acres, containing 89 historic buildings.
It runs along Broad and High streets between Mulberry and Chestnut. It is considered one of the best collections of 19th-century houses in a concentrated area, with New England, Southern and Philadelphia styles.
For information about Lancaster walking tours, check out http://www.historiclancaster.com/tours.html. You can also check with the Fairfield Heritage Association at http://www.fairfieldheritage.org.
For Lancaster tourist information, contact the Fairfield County Visitors and Convention Bureau, 740-654-5929 or 800-626-1296 or http://www.visitfairfieldcountyoh.org.
Fairfield County also has more original covered bridges than any other Ohio county. The wooden bridges, 18 in all, were mostly built from 1871 to 1906. The oldest still standing was built in 1849.
Bob Downing: email@example.com