Like most places, the history of this area is partly tied to its water resources.
When someone asks you where Denison is, you probably say “east of Columbus,” or possibly, to people who know the state a bit, “in Granville.” What you probably don’t say is “Licking County.”
C’mon. Admit it, you snicker every time you hear the name. How did this place get tagged with such an odd label? It turns out the answer is right here, in Granville, just across Raccoon Creek from College Hill.
Back in 1751, one of the earliest accounts of the region noted “salt licks” (areas of natural mineral deposits that are attractive to deer and other wildlife), located six miles up from where the forks of the river came together, at present-day Newark, Ohio. So some say that’s why it was named the Licking River, flowing east to the Muskingum, draining through the North Fork, South Fork, and Raccoon Creek forks, through pretty much the whole area of what’s now called, simply, Licking County.
If you walk a few miles up the Raccoon Creek fork, you’ll find Salt Run, the stream that runs through Spring Valley Nature Preserve. There, 2,000-year-old mounds sidle up next to some 1820 earthen walls, which were built to try to evaporate salt out of the creek, back when buying salt was a major imported expense.
Fast-forward to the 20th century, when Spring Valley became a popular getaway. A dam and a retaining wall created a semi-natural pool that was used by students and townspeople alike, as picnickers and sweethearts strolled along the free-flowing watercourse and adjoining bluffs.
By the end of 2000, the commercial activity was coming to an end, and after 2007, folks began to make plans for the still largely natural area as a possible nature preserve.
The Licking Land Trust, which works to protect central Ohio green spaces, has had input from Denison faculty and staff from its very beginning, and the Spring Valley project was no different. Professors Mike Mickelson, Tod Frolking and Doug Spieles have been part of an effort to not only preserve Spring Valley and the historic Salt Run watershed, but also to restore the natural flow of the streambed.
To do that, they’re removing the remnants of the lowhead dam and retaining wall.
Why is that important?
“It means that the stream formerly lined with concrete will be able to develop shifting riffles, runs, and pools that are appropriate habitat for native stream organisms,” says Spieles.
When combined with replanting the shoreline with native plant species of trees and shrubs, you’ll start to see a restored riverbank habitat, with the return of plants and animals species that had lived here for thousands of years.
The project team is not ready to promise what species might return to Spring Valley (we hear bird lovers are hoping for Great Blue Heron sightings), but the team can tell you what they’re planting alongside the newly “unimpeded flow” of Salt Run: shrubs, like Buttonbush, Winterberry, and Black Chokecherry; and trees from the ancient forests of Ohio, such as Swamp White Oak, Sycamore, or the maturely majestic “redwood of the Midwest,” the Tulip Poplar.
If you say the Latin botanical name of that last one, it sounds like a wizard’s spell from Harry Potter: “Liriodendron tulipifera.” Say it out loud, and you might just be magically transported to Spring Valley, the ever-evolving banks of Salt Run, and the home of a peculiar but ultimately evocative name for where we live: Licking County.