Buena Vista and the Shawnee Wilderness Area

By Andrew Lee Feight, Ph.D.

Explore the history of the Buena Vista Freestone quarries and tales of wine, whiskey, and murder in what became Ohio’s first state-owned Wilderness Area.

Learn about the history of the Shawnee Wilderness Area, created in 1972, in the wake of the emergence of the modern environmental movement. The hollows and ridges of the area are rich in history, resembling the layers of freestone that were once quarried from its hill sides. Over the last forty years, the state of Ohio, by stopping logging management practices in the Wilderness Area, has allowed the forest to regrow itself, turning a former industrial site into a mysterious place whose ruins capture the all-too-common American story of boom and bust.

In the mid-nineteenth century German immigrants and the descendants of Virginian pioneers lived and worked in these hollows, cutting massive sandstone blocks of “City Ledge” and transporting them via a narrow gauge tram road to the saw mill at Buena Vista on the banks of the Ohio River. These hills and people helped build Cincinnati; its cut stone formed the pillars of Roebling's Suspension Bridge, helping span the Beautiful Ohio in the 1860s. Its famous freestone, thanks to the marketing efforts of John Mueller, was sold in New York City in the 1870s and 1880s.

Explore the site of Twin Creek Fire Tower, built in 1922, and hike or ride the length of Buckhorn Ridge Bridal Trail, which runs along a now-abandoned forest road, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. At the Point of Buckhorn Ridge, experience one of the region’s most dramatic Ohio River overlooks and consider what traces mark the spot where William Flagg, a New York City businessman-turned novel writer, once sought refuge and enlightenment in a large log cabin.

Flagg had married Eliza Longworth, the daughter of Nicholas Longworth, one of Cincinnati's first millionaires, who is considered by some to be the “Father of American Grape Culture.” Flagg helped manage Longworth's wine business, including vineyards on Buckhorn and nearby ridges. Together, Flagg and Longworth did their share in promoting the Ohio Valley as "the Rhineland of America." Study the Longworth-Flagg Wine Cellar (built c. 1859), which Flagg situated at the foot of Dog Hollow on Lower Twin Creek. Visit the former offices of the Buena Vista Freestone Company and the location of the saw mill that cut the famous “City Ledge” into building blocks.

By the dawn on the twentieth century, a blight had destroyed the valley's wine business and the cement block industry had put an end to the sandstone quarrying business up Vastine Hollow and in the Village of Buena Vista.

In 1922, the State of Ohio began an active program in conservation with the purchase of lands in the region, eventually acquiring from the Flagg family much of what is now encompassed by the Shawnee Wilderness Area. The same Conservation Movement that led to the creation of our National Parks and Forests, also saw success at the state level.

The creation of Ohio’s first State Parks and Forests overlapped in time with the Progressive Era's Prohibition Movement and the history of this region and the lives of those who called it home would be forever changed. Now, with state authorities interested in protecting the forest timber and its game, and with local efforts at enforcing new laws prohibiting the manufacture of whiskey, it should not be too surprising that the Twin Creek region became the scene of many dramatic episodes of local legend.

By the mid-1920s, the Twin Creek area of the forest, with its abandoned stone quarries, had became known far and wide for its high quality whiskey and for the violence on what some now referred to as “Bloody Twin.” The longstanding hill tradition of making moonshine in small batches became big business as local demand rose and a national illegal trade in liquor emerged.

Explore sites associated with one of the Shawnee Wilderness Area’s most memorable tales, the killing of Jonas “Am” Cooper at his whiskey still high up in Vastine Hollow, back in December 1930. Walk the cemetery grounds where Cooper and other notable “Twin Crickers” lay buried in the shadows of McKendree Chapel, situated on US-52, near the mouth of Upper Twin Creek. Imagine the Prohibition Era, when Buena Vista (or, as locals call it, "Bue-nee") offered access to a black market for whiskey, when Kress’ Funeral Home served as the secret warehouse for the Cooper’s moonshine, as it awaited shipment to Chicago.

Locations for Tour

1. McKendree Chapel & the Grave of Jonas "Am" Cooper

At the McKendree Methodist Chapel, near the mouth of Upper Twin Creek, one finds the graves of key players in the Shawnee Wilderness Area's history of moonshine and murder. Of particular note is the grave of Jonas Cooper. After being shot to…

2. Twin Creek Fire Tower

The Twin Creek Fire Tower no longer stands, but the history of the Shawnee State Forest is still marked here. In 1922, after purchasing the first lands for the creation of the Forest, the State of Ohio constructed three fire towers in the region to…

3. Buckhorn Ridge & William Flagg

Hike or ride along historic Buckhorn Ridge Bridal Trail, which runs through the heart of the Shawnee Wilderness Area, dividing the waters of Upper and Lower Twin Creeks. In the 1850s, William Flagg, a New York City businessman-turned novel…

4. Longworth-Flagg Stone Wine Cellar

Coming Soon! In 1859, William Flagg oversaw the construction of a stone wine cellar for the vinting and storage of Catawba wine, produced from grapes, grown on nearby ridges. Flagg had married Eliza Longworth, the daughter of Nicholas Longworth,…

5. Vastine Hollow Freestone Quarries

During the second-half of the nineteenth century, Vastine and other hollows of Lower Twin Creek were the center of a major stone quarry industry. Here workers for various firms, including John Mueller's Buena Vista Freestone Company, quarried…

6. Sandy Springs Cemetery & the Grave of George Rivers

Coming Soon! The story of George Rivers and his trial for the murder of Jonas "Am" Cooper. Back in the winter of 1930, when Prohibition had made big business out of moonshining, George Rivers wore two hats, one as a special deputy for…

7. Buena Vista Freestone Company Store

Coming Soon! The story of the Buena Vista Freestone Company and John M. Mueller, its sole proprietor. Learn about Mueller's operation, which included quarries up nearby Vastine Hollow, a saw mill and stone office building on the banks of…