Would it surprise you to learn a trip to Richland County in the heart of Ohio can put your family in the orbit of Hollywood stars on only one tank of gas?
It did me.
I never knew until last year that the 1994 epic prison film, "The Shawshank Redemption" starring Tim Robbins as Andy and Morgan Freeman as Red, was filmed in Richland County. Many of the prison scenes were shot at the site of the massive former Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, less than three hours from Wheeling. An old warehouse downtown was transformed into cell blocks for interior shots. There's the grocery store where Red bagged groceries after being released, and the lone sprawling oak tree on a knoll where he found the "treasure" Andy left for him.
My husband and I decided to follow the "Shawshank Trail" because the film is one of our favorites, and we were stoked to learn it was filmed so close to home. The tourism bureau heavily promoted the trail during the 15th anniversary year of the movie's release, but it remains a popular destination as word has spread of this unique tour in Ohio's heartland.
The trail has 14 stops, starting with the Ohio State Reformatory. Much like the former West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville, the Ohio prison is used for ghost tours and special events year-round. The former Ohio prison, however, has the distinction of being one of the top five largest castle-like structures in the United States and is home to the world's tallest free-standing steel cell block, featuring six tiers and 600 cells.
Our guide, Susan Nirode, took us into the maximum-security cell block area on a chilly spring day. It was freezing and in great disrepair from water damage. She said it's very humid in the cell block, and always 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the outside temperature. Tours start in mid-May when the weather (usually) starts to warm up.
The cells face out from the block on the two longest sides - 50 to a side, 100 to a tier. Nirode took us to the top and showed us the narrow corridor in the center of the block that prisoners secretly used to whisper messages and pass notes and contraband.
The 250,000-square-foot prison was built in stages starting in 1886 and completed in 1910. It housed wardens, their families, chaplains and prisoners. The wardens moved out in the 1950s; the chaplains in the '60s. It closed as a working prison in 1990.
"The state was going to demolish this whole thing right after 'Shawshank' was filmed," Nirode said. "When they wrapped (the production), the bulldozers were waiting outside the walls. They already had torn down the power plant, the dining hall and all of the outbuildings."
The Ohio Reformatory Preservation Society was formed and saved the main prison building from destruction, however.
Through its efforts, the nonprofit society - which receives no state or federal money - has preserved the warden's rooms and has turned the large, marble-pillared central guard room into a venue for special events. Local proms have been held there; a tattoo expo called "Ink in the Clink" took place; and there was the "Glamour in the Slammer" benefit. Nirode hosted her own 40th birthday party there.
Dozens of weddings take place on the grounds every year, as well, and the refurbished parole board room is used as the bride's dressing area, Nirode said.
In addition to "Shawshank," "Tango & Cash" and "Air Force One" filmed scenes at the prison. It also has been the set for numerous commercials and music videos, including Li'l Wayne and Godsmack videos.
Back to "Shawshank," however. Nirode showed us the warden's office that features the large wooden desk, red telephone and window that overlooks the central drive where Shawshank's Warden Norton saw the authorities coming for him. We saw the picture of Rita Hayworth that was used to cover the hole Andy dug to freedom. The "Shawshank" library that Andy worked so diligently to establish is the former barber shop of the Ohio prison. The central guard room served as "Shawshank"'s dining hall. There's a wooden beam where the character Brooks wrote "Brooks was here" and Red scrawled "Red was too," although Nirode said it is not the same one used in the film. She figures it got toted back to Hollywood.
We saw the main staircase Andy often ascended and descended, and the rooftop where he and "the boys" enjoyed a cold beer one afternoon after a hard day working with hot tar.
From that rooftop today, you can see two other operational prisons nearby, a maximum security and a medium security one.
Nirode said the Ohio Reformatory attracts thousand of visitors every year, most of whom come as part of the "Shawshank" tour.
"There's a lot of 'Shawshank' fans out there, more than I ever imagined. For a movie they say didn't do very well at the box office, it's surprising," she said. Indeed, although nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in 1995, it received not one. It wasn't until its release on DVD and video that "Shawshank" drew huge audiences and acclaim. Critic Gene Siskel named it to his top 100 movies list in 1999.
The ghost tours, Nirode said, also draw large numbers. Two tours a month take place, and they usually are sold out well in advance. Last year, for instance, the tours were sold out through August by the end of March. Asked if she'd seen any ghosts, Nirode replied: "Well, we haven't bagged one yet!" But, she admitted, she has heard voices when no one was there, a co-worker had her hair pulled, and she has seen some "interesting" pictures and "interesting" videos from the tours.
Working in a former penitentiary, Nirode said people often ask her if she gets scared.
"I say, 'No, it's the people outside the gates that scare me.'"
Beyond the prison, the Shawshank Trail heads into downtown Mansfield, where you can see the exterior of the former Mansfield Warehousing building at 240 Fourth St., where the interior prison shots were filmed because it was cheaper to build the set there than renovate the Ohio Reformatory cell block. The Bissman Building at 193 N. Main is where Brooks and, later, Red lived upon their release.
Stop 4 is the Carrousel District of downtown Mansfield, with its quaint storefronts, including an authentic Coney Island hot dog shop and an old-fashioned newsstand.
The district is home to many of Mansfield's specialty shops and eateries. Of note is The Twisted Fig Tea Room, where I had a tasty curried chicken salad sandwich and the freshest and most flavorful tea I ever tasted. The unique blend is called Citrus Splash and was named the best herbal iced tea at the World Tea Convention. At the Eatmor Bundt Co., we savored miniature Bundts in flavors like Ghiradelli Chocolate Chip, German Chocolate and Twisted Buckeye.
The district also features the Richland Carrousel Park, an indoor carousel featuring 52 hand-carved animals; Carousel Magic, where craftsmen carve wooden horses before your eyes, and the Squirrel's Den chocolate and candy shop, where they make their own chocolates and specialty popcorn on the premises.
Stop 5 is the Mansfield central park, featuring a large white gazebo and the bench where Brooks sat and fed the pigeons in the film. The Renaissance Theatre, stop 6, is at 138 Park Ave. and is the site of the film's premier in 1993. It is home to the Miss Ohio Scholarship Program, the Mansfield Symphony Orchestra, Renaissance Broadway Series, and many other events year-round.
At 359 W. Fourth St., you'll find stop 7, the E&B Market, now closed, where Red bagged groceries in the movie.
Heading out of town, it's time to rub elbows with some more Hollywood celebrities as you visit the Malabar Farm State Park in Lucas. The park is the wedding site of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. A tour of the farmhouse will allow you to ascend the very staircase Bacall descended on her wedding day and view the famous couple's honeymoon room. The sustainable farm belonging to author Louis Bromfield was a haven for many Hollywood celebrities. Pick up some homemade fudge and farm-produced maple syrup while there, and watch a five-minute promotional video of "The Shawshank Redemption." (For more on Malabar Farm, see the Wednesday, May 19, Home & Garden page in The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register.)
The opening scene of "Shawshank," which shows Andy leaving a modest home in the woods, is Malabar Farm's own Pugh Cabin, which is trail stop 9.
Stop 10: Not far from the farm, down a private country road called Pleasant Valley, stands the large oak tree, to which Red walked through a hayfield to retrieve Andy's money from the rock wall nearby. It is on private property, so visitors are asked not to stop to take pictures; it can be viewed, however, from the Malabar Farm property.
Stop 11 is Huntington National Bank in nearby Ashland, where Andy enters and closes his accounts. Stop 12 is the Greyhound Bus Station in Ashland, where Red bought a ticket to Texas. The site is now the Revivals 2 Thrift Store.
The final two stops on The Shawshank Trail are located in Upper Sandusky, Wyandot County. The county courthouse is where the scene of Andy's conviction and sentencing was shot, and the Stephan Lumber Co. is home to all the scenes in the movie in which the inmates are shown in the prison workshop. The most famous is the scene showing the workers pausing in their labor as they listen to the aria from "Marriage of Figaro" waft through the prison, courtesy of Andy.
On your way home from the Mansfield area, you might be enticed by the many Amish woodcrafts lining U.S. 30. If a playhouse or swing set is not in your budget, you might want to put blinders on your children or be sure their heads are buried in books, DSes or DVD players as you pass by.
A final recommendation: Stop at one of the many Troyer's Dutch Heritage restaurants during your visit. It is budget- and family-friendly and known for its chicken, which is locally raised and cooked Amish style, broasted, giving it a thin, crispy skin. Delicious. My husband had the pulled pork sandwich on a pretzel bun as recommended by our young host, Kenny, who said he would eat it every day "if the girls" (his motherly co-workers) would let him. And the butterscotch pie topped with real whipped cream two inches deep - suffice to say, even if we did nothing else on our trip, this pie made it worthwhile.
To request a Mansfield/Richland County Visitor's Guide, visit MansfieldTourism.com or call 800-642-8282. More information about the Shawshank Trail, including a downloadable brochure and drive-it-yourself map, is available at www.ShawshankTrail.com or by calling 300-642-8282.