The River Speaks: An Oral History of the Little Miami River
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be airing stories about the Little Miami River, which has been at the center of life in Southwest Ohio for thousands of years. Long before Europeans arrived, indigenous people flourished along the river at what is now called The Fort Ancient Complex.
In the 1800s, frontiersmen built mills at Clifton Gorge. In the 1960s, the Little Miami became Ohio's first official scenic river, though that didn’t stop the river from becoming more polluted. Today, it’s a place where thousands of people go to hike and canoe and fish. And locals are working to clean and preserve the Little Miami.
One of those people is Hope Taft of the Little Miami Watershed Network. For Hope and her husband, former governor Bob Taft, the river is home.
"When we moved to Greene County we were lucky enough to find a house to buy, it was right on the Little Miami River," Taft recalled. "And the more you looked at that river, the more you knew that it carried a lot of trash down with it. You could see the milk bottles and you could see the Styrofoam and the big items that would go down, particularly at high water. And so we got a bunch of people together, and that was the beginning of the Little Miami Watershed Network. And the more you live there, the more you look at the river and you can see how the river speaks to you."
And cleaning the river is a big commitment.
"Since 2010, when we started taking trash out of the river," Taft said. "We've taken 28 thousand pounds of trash out and over a thousand tires just in the Greene County section of the Little Miami River. So we need to continue to encourage people in all kinds of ways to take care of the river."
On the 50th anniversary of the Little Miami gaining scenic river status, the Watershed Network hatched the idea of collecting oral histories. There were no shortage of people willing to share their stories, and plenty of locals volunteered to collect them, too.
Gary Victor has been part of that team. He says hearing these stories has reinforced why he works to protect the river.
"I think the ones that really resonated for me were Native Americans," Victor said. "And they talk about really the sacredness of the river and what it represents. And I really believe the health of a region is based on the health of the ecosystem, and that really resonated with me."
Victor said there were all kinds of stories, too.
"Some talked about the river freezing and having hockey games on the river, and flooding and canoeing. We had a couple canoeists that talked about their adventures. And all the landmarks," Victor said. "There were mills that were along the river, so history is a big component of this. The recreational value, the aquatic life and how it has changed. There are vignettes of bridges—covered bridges—of a bygone era."
Those histories include some of the Little Miami’s most mature river keepers, like Mike Freemont, who just celebrated his 100th birthday in February.
"I became acquainted with the river before I was born because my parents courted along the Little Miami River," Freemont fondly stated. "And then when my father died, I put his ashes in the river."
And there are really young people working to protect the Little Miami, like Sebastian Panstingel, who tests the quality of river water.
"We get a big tube, it’s clear PVC," Panstingel said. "It has a black dot in it. We fill it with water to a certain point. And we look to see how clearly we can see the dot."
The river is rich with stories, and WYSO will be bringing you some of those river stories this spring and summer. Hope Taft says she’d like to see these histories help people learn about the past and look to the future.
"People have lived here for centuries and they've loved it in their own special way," Taft proudly said. "And it's that this river has really woven people together. It really binds us together and it cuts across all kinds of differences that we might have. We're all one because we all love the river and we all depend on that river and we all need to protect that river."
The River Speaks: An Oral History of the Little Miami River is a collaboration between WYSO and the Little Miami Watershed Network. It is funded by Ohio Humanities and The Nick and Edna Weller Charities.