By Patricia Beech –
All roads leading to West Union climb to an elevated plain one-half mile south of the frontier trail blazed by Ebenezer Zane more than two centuries ago. Brimming with history, Midwest charm, and picturesque scenery, it is a quintessential, small American town whose roots date back to 1803 when pioneers established it as Adams County’s seat of government.
“We are the county seat and we have access to just about anything a person could want,” says the town’s Mayor, Ted Grooms. “Anyone conducting official business in Adams County is going to find it necessary to come to our village, and we try to oblige them by having a friendly, welcoming atmosphere.”
The streets of the town proper are populated by a mixture of quaint and grand historical homes and commercial buildings built during the 19th and early 20th centuries, including the Olde Wayside Inn, which has been in continuous operation, under various owners and names, since 1804.
Like many of America’s Midwestern towns, West Union has experienced both periods of prosperity and decline, but Grooms says the people have always managed to hold onto their small-town values.
“We’re a community where people still sit on their porches, we know our neighbors, and we can depend on our neighbors – we have a better quality of life here,” he says. “West Union is colorful, but it’s also quiet and quaint, and it offers anything you want, but it doesn’t overpower you the way city life can.”
The town’s historic downtown area, dubbed Courthouse Square by locals, consists of four square blocks that surround the county’s towering neo-classical brick courthouse.
According to Elaine Lafferty, every Saturday night for generations young people would walk around the square with their watchful parents parked nearby.
“The girls would walk in one direction, and the boys would walk in the other,” said Lafferty. “There were mom-and-pop businesses all around the square in those days, and we would all hang out at Pop’s Restaurant after school and on Saturday afternoons.”
While many of the mom-and-pop businesses that once prospered on the square have been replaced by corporate development on the southern edge of the town, one business that has defied the trend of outward expansion is Blake’s Pharmacy, located on the corner of Cross and Main Streets.
Operated by the Blake family for nearly five decades, the store is a remarkable representation of days gone by. Unique apothecary jars line its walls, and customers sit on bright red and silver stools at the store’s soda fountain – which is one of only three remaining in the state of Ohio.
“I’ve been working in the store since I could walk, but I’ve only been on the payroll since 1969,” jokes Bob Blake Jr. “We’ve enjoyed running the business here on the qquare, a lot of great people live in West Union, and they’ve been very good to us.”
Another iconic business that has survived the influx of larger corporate stores is Prather’s IGA. Located one block south of Blake’s on Walnut Street, Prather’s is one of the last family-owned grocery stores in the county.
Sitting in their tiny, cubby-hole office, store managers Connie Phelps and Angie Nichols talk about why they believe the store has survived where others have failed.
“We can’t compete with the big box stores so we strive for excellent customer service,” says Phelps. “Prather’s has a reputation for being friendly and welcoming, and I think that’s why the store has been her for 60 years.” “I love this store, and I love the Prathers, the whole family is wonderful,” says Nichols. “We have a lot of dedicated customers, and there’s a whole new generation, but younger people are always in a hurry, so we do what we can to keep them coming back.”
Gary McClellan, who has owned and operated Mosier Furniture and Appliance on West Street for 34 of its 89 years, agrees that the village’s small businesses need to draw in younger people.
“I keep saying we need to ‘young-up’ in our businesses so that we can appeal to a younger crowd and let them know we’re interested in their business,” McClellan says. “Most of the mom-and-pop type stores are gone, so it’s a real blessing that our loyal customers from West Union and the surrounding area have been so good to us and allowed us to survive all these years when others haven’t been able to.”
Jason Buda, President of the West Union Village Council, says he would like to see the town grow its small business community.
“We want the mom-and-pop businesses to stay here as much as they possibly can, and we do everything we can to help them,” Buda says. “Everyone knows everyone in West Union, this is a close-knit community, and that can help small businesses to prosper – that’s one thing that makes this town so special.”
Shawn Vogler, owner of The Adams County Florist on Main Street, says she believes having a giving attitude is essential to running a successful small business in a small town. Her long, narrow shop, that once housed the village’s Strand Theater, overflows with her creative designs and whimsical creations.
“I have many consistent customers, but I also have many new customers who come in, and they have become my friends and family – I depend on them, and they depend on me,” she says. “Whatever the community asks me to do I try to accommodate them because I love it here – small town people are the best kind of people, they’re just down-home friendly.”
The success of small business enterprises is unquestionably an integral driver of community cohesiveness, especially in small towns. However, it is not the only player on the field, according to Scott McFarland, who believes that sports can generate community enthusiasm and community spirit.
“If you drive around the state of Ohio in the fall you’ll see the windows of small towns businesses painted in support of their local teams, they hold homecoming parades and all sorts of activities – I think that’s what all athletics can do – rally the community and bring everyone together for a common cause, and that’s really exciting to see.”
McFarland, who has worked tirelessly the past seven years to develop a football program in the village, says that the sport is making a positive impact on the lives of the young people who are participating.
“Teachers tell me it has allowed them to reach a group of kids who felt like they weren’t a necessary part of the school or the community, but now that we have football, that same group of kids are showing up at school wearing their Dragon jerseys, and they’re so proud of themselves – they feel like they’re a part of something, and it’s made a difference in their behavior in the classroom.”
According to McFarland, many of the players are the same kids who have participated in Sheriff Kimmy Rogers’ summer boot camps.
“Football has become a connection point between what are local law enforcement is doing, what are community is doing, and what are schools are doing,” he says. “Now that we have a youth organization it’s like the old saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ – we are all working together as a community to raise these kids up to be productive Adams County citizens in the future.”
He says teaching kids to believe they can have a bright future is what motivates him.
“I see the life beyond the sport,” he says. “It’s a great sport, I love the sport, and I love being a coach, but being involved with these young people, getting to mentor them and teach them about life, and letting them know that someone out there cares about them is what’s really important to me.”
While teachers and community members are generous in their praise of McFarland’s dogged determination to empower young people, his character-building efforts are not lost on his players, or on his own son, Carson, who plays center for the Dragons.
“My Dad has always taught me to make sure you leave a legacy, and I’m pretty sure he’s done that by making this football program happen,” says the WUHS Junior. “I don’t think his goal was to start football in Adams County, I think his real goal was to better the youth. Football has kept a lot of kids out of trouble, they’ve kept their grades up in school so they can play. Some of the kids on the football team were kids I would never have seen myself hanging out with, but now it’s like we’re family.”
Carson says he plans to go to college and have career in business.
“I think I want to donate to a lot of charities, and maybe even try to start a football program myself, if I move away – whatever I do, I think I will be a socially conscious person.”
Senior Payton Stephenson says, “Mr. McFarland and Mr. Darby (Steve) have taught me a lot, not only on the field, but as a person, and also Scott Adams, who is a big role model to me.”
After graduating Payton says he plans to attend a technical college to become a welder.
“I think if I can raise a good family, and hold them together, and teach my kids what’s right, and have them grow up and become well-rounded people – that sounds pretty good to me.”
“I think a lot of students are beginning to take real pride in the team,” says sophomore Dakota Jarvis, the Dragons’ tight-end and long-snapper, “Football is keeping a lot of kids out of trouble, and it also gives our community something to do on Friday nights when there’s not much going on.”
After graduating, Dakota plans to attend college to become a doctor. He says he will open his practice in Adams County.
“We would just like to thank all the coaches and parents who helped football get started,” says Carson. “My Dad, Brian Miley, and the Jarvis family who are there every weekend from sunrise to sunset, and thanks to the whole community for all they’ve done for us.”
While West Union is a town that is tethered to the past, steeped in history, and defined by tradition and heritage, the imagination and drive of its community members assures it will pave a path to a brighter future for generations to come.
“West Union will survive and continue to grow because Adams County has been discovered,” adds Lafferty. “There will be more and more people, perhaps not right in town, but they will be out in the areas around our town because it is a beautiful county, and I think West Union, itself, because it is the county seat, will always have a major role to play.”