Nelsonville Open Gateway To Historic Square

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A new feature was erected in Nelsonville Tuesday, clearly marking the way toward the city's historic downtown Public Square.

Piece by piece, the new arch was assembled over Rocky Boots Way, the street that connects Canal Street to the Square. Meant to be a gateway for travelers and residents alike, the structure is built of steel with a strong, rugged look to reflect the history and character of the city.

"I'm excited about it. It looks strong, like the coal mining era, railroad era and the canals … we didn't want just an arch, we wanted a gateway, something that looked really strong and would point to the history of Nelsonville and the Hocking Valley," said Mike Brooks, chairman of the Rocky Brands Board of Directors.

"We wanted to go with the hot riveting technique … It's a lost art. It's how buildings in New York and Chicago and the world were built 100 years ago. It's really a neat process," said Brooks.

Brooks and his brother Stuart worked together with Rocky Brands and the Baird Stuart Foundation to fund the project. Declining to name the exact price, Mike Brooks said it was "not inexpensive but doable."

"This is a big day for Nelsonville and Rocky," he added. "We started this in June of last year as just an idea, a thought."

The idea behind the project was a standout creation that would draw tourists to the Square. In conjunction, anyone who visits the Rocky Brands store or rides the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway will also be invited on a walking tour of 11 historical sites in and around downtown Nelsonville.

Sitting in a local coffee shop, Mike and Stuart Brooks talked with blacksmith Doug Lockhart about the design of the arch. What started out as a sketch on a napkin is now standing proudly over Rocky Boots Way.

"This is a great day," said Lockhart. "To be able to see something that was a dream turn into something real …" Lockhart, owner of The Makers of Hand Forged Iron in Logan, described the challenges of the build. As a blacksmith, he normally works with the freedom to create as he chooses. But this construction had to fit just right.

"In blacksmith work, we don't use a measuring tape very often. I don't have precision numbers I have to meet and this was a precision job," he said. "I have an eighth of an inch to deal with in 36 feet … It's been a challenge. It's really taught me a lot."

Lockhart and his daughter, Danielle, 19, worked for more than seven months creating the steel structure.

"It was really fun," Danielle Lockhart said. "It's really cool to be a part of something that's so historical. I'll be able to look back and say I was a part of that."

"It went great," Doug Lockhart added. "The response is incredible. Everybody's real excited about it and there's a lot of support in town."

The Baird Stuart Foundation was created in the late 1970s by Baird Stuart.

"He left a legacy for this town and gave funds to help this town do projects over the years and this is one of them," said Steve Cox, a trustee of the Baird Stewart Foundation along with Wib Warren Jr. and Jane Harmony. "This is one that we're real proud of. It's going to be a gateway to the downtown area where we have the opera house and a lot of other great things."

Stuart Brooks sees the arch as a perfect marriage of the city's past, present and future.

"For years, we've been bypassed. Even with the old 33, we were always a block away from there. When the new 33 was going to go in, we wanted to reach out and really show there's a downtown in Nelsonville," he said. "I'm really pleased. We came together. We raised the money to put this project together … We wanted it to be big. To me, it's like we're sitting here today just like 100 years ago when they built the fountain on the square … trying to make this community and Athens County better. I feel like this is part of history."

Stuart Brooks said the driving force behind the build is not just about tourism but also about giving back to the community.

"My parents talked about putting back into a community if you want to make it strong and I believe that," he added. "I believe that we have so many great people in this county who put a lot of things back and that's what we're trying to do here."

He stated that the arch is "like nothing else I know of in Ohio" and added that the city is "wide open for … young entrepeneurs to start a business, start living their dream and make their own way in life."

It may only seem to be a large piece of metal but for the city, the arch means much more.

"It's a pride factor," Cox said. "It shows we have a lot of pride in this town. Mike and I were talking and he said that this arch is made of steel, just like this town. We're strongly bonded together."