Little-known shrine gives peaceful memorial scene for Ohioans lost in war

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COLUMBUS – Tucked away in a peaceful corner of Mohican-Memorial State Forest in Ashland County is a little-known place where families, friends and ordinary citizens can pause to reflect on Ohioans killed in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War.

The Memorial Forest Shrine is the state’s official monument to her nearly 20,000 sons and daughters who died in those conflicts.

Rediscovery. This Veterans Day, as the United States again faces military action in a distant land, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources invites all Ohioans to rediscover the Memorial Forest Shrine and remember fellow citizens who sacrificed their lives for the nation’s freedom.

A joint initiative of ODNR and the Ohio Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Memorial Forest Shrine is maintained by the ODNR Division of Forestry, which also oversees the surrounding 270-acre Memorial Park and 4,525-acre state forest. Over the years, state foresters have planted more than 310,000 trees in the area – living memorials to the war dead honored within the shrine.

The shrine is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, except the week between Christmas and New Years; Martin Luther King Day and Presidents’ Day.

Built at war’s end. The Ohio General Assembly authorized construction of the 32-foot by 24-foot sandstone chapel-like structure in 1945 as World War II drew to a close. The shrine’s location, just off Route 97 and close to Route 3 (the old “3-C Highway”), was carefully selected for its easy access from all parts of the state and because of its proximity to Mohican State Forest, which was already under ODNR management.

More than 60,000 Women’s Club members from all over the state worked for two years to raise the construction funds.

Ohio only. Legislation required that all materials and companies involved in the construction be native to Ohio. Roof timbers were hewn from state forest trees. The native Ohio sandstone blocks came from a nearby quarry. Roof tiles were manufactured in New Lexington and floor tiles in Zanesville. A Columbus art glass studio created the shrine’s six stained-glass windows, which depict peace doves with olive branches, as well as red cardinals (the state bird) and buckeye trees (the state tree).

Two massive wood-bound books containing the hand-lettered names of 20,000 Ohio war dead are preserved in a glass case within the shrine’s grotto. These “great books” are the centerpieces of the shrine, drawing an average of 3,000 to 5,000 people to the grounds each year, according to Greg Smith, Mohican-Memorial State Forest manager.

More people came in the years following World War II, before construction of Interstate 71 and the accelerated pace of modern life took a toll on the number of annual visitors, he added.

Living history. “Most folks just happen by and come in because they are curious. A few have heard of the shrine and come to see the names of friends and family members that are listed in the ‘great books,'” Smith said.

A set of eight binders located in the center of the room duplicate the listings by county and by war for the convenience of visitors seeking particular names.

Two thousand people made their way to southern Ashland County for the shrine’s formal dedication April 27, 1947. Honored guests that day included some of Ohio’s most decorated war heroes.

As part of the ceremony, women’s club leaders turned over the keys to ODNR, symbolizing the state’s permanent guardianship of the facility. Every day since then, state forest staffers have raised the shrine’s flags and tended the shrine’s grounds, keeping in mind the sacred nature of their trust.

“People are humbled by the structure and surroundings,” Smith said. “There’s an aura of peace and tranquility about the shrine that has a profound effect on visitors.”

Pleasure and pride. Women’s Clubs help maintain the shrine and keep its roll of honored dead updated. OFWC President Nancy Lombardo said members donate about $1,200 per year toward the effort.

“Our board of trustees takes great pleasure and pride in maintaining the great books,” Lombardo said. “Periodically, we receive letters from family members of someone inscribed in the books, commenting about the beauty of the shrine.”

A NatureWorks grant provided needed repairs and updates in 1997 when the OFWC held a 50th anniversary rededication and ribbon cutting. Wheelchair ramps were added in 1991.

Annual events. The Memorial Forest Shrine hosts two formal events each year. The Ohio Chapter of American Gold Star Mothers, an organization of women who have lost children in war, holds a pilgrimage to the shrine on the last Sunday each September. The local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars also conducts an annual Memorial Day service.

Dorothy Lind of Columbus is the president of Ohio Gold Star Mothers. Her son, Ralph Richard Lind Jr., is listed among the honored dead from the Vietnam War.

“It’s very comforting to the Gold Star Mothers to know there is one place in the state dedicated to these fallen heroes,” she said.

Donations to aid with the shrine’s upkeep may be made in care of The Ohio Federation of Women’s Clubs, Mohican-Memorial State Forest, 3060 County Road 939, Perrysville, OH 44846.

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