A renewal story from the coal ashes

September 27, 2022

In December 2021, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) awarded Tecumseh Theater in Shawnee, Ohio, a four million dollar grant to bring the highest building in Southern Perry County to its former glory. Through the Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization Program (AMLER), ODNR will contribute to restoring the three-story building, which will increase tourism in the area and preserve a local historical landmark.

The town of Shawnee was established in 1872 to host miners working in the prolific 14-foot Great Vein of coal in the area. At the time, the town hosted around 3,000 people that were somehow related to the cold industry. People from England and central Europe immigrated to the U.S. and brought their families to the area. This rapid population growth brought major economic and cultural development, and the Tecumseh Theater represents the thriving social scene during the early 1900s. By the beginning of the 1930s, the Great Depression and stricter regulation for coal extraction brought Shawnee’s golden era to an end.

Amy Mackey holds a precipitated iron plastered created from Acid Mining Drainage (AMD) in the Carbondale Mine, Waterloo township in Athens County, Ohio.

Little Cities of Black Diamonds Council (LCBDC) was formed in 1990 to preserve the historical traditions of the region and help the area thrive culturally and environmentally moving forward. Founding member of the Council John Winnenberg believes that the importance of this restoration project is to bring more visitors and nature enthusiasts to the area. Shawnee also hosts a portion of the Buckeye Trail, a 1,444 miles trail that loops around the state of Ohio. Over time, the first floor of the theater has hosted different businesses, from a cinema to a barbershop to a restaurant. With the Tecumseh Theater’s restoration, the goal is to bring visitors from the trail to spend more time in the area. Winnenberg also mentions the importance of keeping a balance between becoming a sustainable service that can contribute to the development of the region without transforming the area into a massive touristic attraction that will jeopardize the quality of life for the residents as well as the environment. The rapid development of the industry around Columbus concerns the people of the Shawnee area because it could lead to gentrification in an area that has already suffered significant economic turmoil—first because of the boom and bust of coal mining, then the same with a brick factory, and finally the closure of a fiberglass company.

This grant-funded restoration project is also happening at a crucial moment for LCBDC because the founding members are passing down leadership roles and responsibilities of the organization to new and younger members of the Council. In addition, the LCBDC has worked with other nonprofits in the area to establish Shawnee Trail Town, an initiative meant to promote sustainable development in the area around the Buckeye Trail in the Shawnee area. Scott Kreps, the Trail Town Coordinator works with the young people to participate in preservation of the area. During the summer, he oversaw the Summer YouthShops!, which in part took place at the Tecumseh Theater. From there, the rest of the activities were distributed to other areas around Shawnee. The curriculum of this free program encouraged kids from age 6 to 14 years old from the region to familiarize themselves with the local history and to nurture an appreciation for the natural resources. Hopefully, one day these kids can take the lead as Winnenberg and the other member of the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Council have done and can continue to preserve the living history of Shawnee.