The Great Black Swamp is gone but it was once the most foreboding, forbidding, impenetrable wilderness in America.
It was right here, stretching in a swath 40 miles wide and 120 miles long from Port Clinton to the Maumee River and beyond to Fort Wayne.
The vast morass was a huge barrier to the westward settlement. Its presence made Northwest Ohio the last part of the state to be tamed. Today’s US 20 between Perrysburg and Fremont was a corduroy road and it could take a week for a team and wagon to travel the 20 miles of muck and mire.
There’s a safe way to look back and get a glimpse of Northwest Ohio 200 years ago. It’s just west of Toledo, in Archbold.
Pioneer life in Northwest Ohio was among the most challenging of any in the young United States. Sunlight barely penetrated the great forest, clearing the giant trees was a monumental task, and, once cleared, the land was still wet for most of the year. The swamp bred hordes of mosquitoes, which spread malaria and challenged even the most dedicated Black Swamp doctor and his natural remedies.
The swamp dictated that human and natural history are forever linked in Northwest Ohio.
Fortunately, things are much more comfortable these days.
The Great Swamp has been drained. Even what we would consider to be a hard life by modern standards bears no comparison to the hardships of the early 1800s.
Technically, Archbold wasn’t within the boundaries of the Great Black Swamp, which skirted just to the south. But one site in Archbold and another just to the north combine to tell the fascinating story.
Goll Woods State Nature Preserve, a National Natural Landmark, is one of the best old-growth woods remaining in Ohio. The great trees grew old in the swamp. Big oaks tower in this forest, a number of them are 4 feet or more in diameter.
The best are along the Goll Woods Nature Trail, which makes a special stop at the giant of the forest, a massive 112-foot tall bur oak that stretches a full 50 feet to the first limb. Stand at the base and try to stretch your arms around it — you can’t, the tree is almost 5 feet in diameter. This specimen and other giants nearby were already big trees when the Pilgrim’s landed at Plymouth Rock.
Visit in the spring when the wildflowers carpet the wet woods — but come prepared with mosquito repellent. It is, after all, a remnant of the nature encountered in the 1800s.
A taste of 1800s life in the Great Black Swamp is as close as Historic Sauder Village.
"We’re a living history museum now celebrating our 30th anniversary," said Sauder director of marketing Kim Krieger. "The Village encompasses over 40 buildings and we authentically recreate daily life in northwest Ohio’s Great Black Swamp from 1803 to 1920. Craftsmen work with traditional materials such as wood, tin, glass and clay."
But the most unusual blast back to the past is in their new Native American Village, which depicts the family lives of many Native American nations that called this area home.
"Natives and Newcomers is complete with wigwams, trading post and gardens," Krieger said. "Come and witness how they lived day by day, with each other and with the European trader. You can experience their lives through special demonstrations, hands-on activities and museum theater pieces."
Natives and Newcomers depicts Native American life from 1803 through 1839, a time of transition as European settlers arrived and began to change the face of Northwest Ohio.
Goll Woods and Sauder Village are a great one-two punch. When you’re feeling knocked out you can pass out in the wonderful hospitality of the Sauder Inn. The food next door at The Barn Restaurant is wonderfully good and hearty.
It’s the way Erie Sauder wanted it in his home town of Archbold.
Just the Facts
Golls Woods State Nature Preserve
Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources, Division of Natural Areas
No entry fee.
Open daily from one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset.
Vehicles, horses and bicycles are prohibited on trails and closed roadways.
No alcoholic beverages, no pets permitted (except assistance animals).
From Toledo: Follow State Route 2 west to SR66, turn north (right) and follow for one mile to Township Rd. F. Turn west (left) on F and follow three miles to TR26. Turn south (left) 1/4 mile to the parking lot.
Historic Sauder Village
22611 St. Rt. 2
Archbold, Ohio 43502