Weekend Wanderlust: Dickens Victorian Village in Cambridge, Ohio
I’m not much for holiday tourism.
I’ve been to Santa Claus, Indiana (not really worth it), and there’s a Clark Griswold-worthy suburban home lit to the hilt in Piqua, Ohio, that creates traffic jams of swarming witnesses. But I’ve never ventured to the Christmas Story house in Cleveland, or even Wildlights at the Columbus Zoo. I’m no humbug, I just don’t go out of my way for the sparkle December travel is obliged to provide. Most small Ohio communities have the same wreathed downtowns, complete with decorated storefronts and a notable tree at its center. Though this is also true of Cambridge, Ohio — where downtown is adorned in the usual tinsel — even passing through you quickly sense this isn’t the same old Christmas celebration.
The National Road, Route 40, Zane’s Trace, runs directly through Cambridge as Wheeling Avenue. It was the first major highway in the country. The town wouldn’t be there without it. As such, the county seat of Guernsey (pop. 12,000) has had a long, ordinary history in the state.
My trusty 1940 copy of The Ohio Guide mentions Cambridge briefly in a tour along 40. In it, the author writes that in Cambridge “few modern storefronts are seen, and many of the business structures are drab, stern creations of the 1870s and 1880s.” It’s much the same today, save Kennedy’s Bakery (operating since 1925), a few family restaurants and an overabundance of banks, hair salons and empty spaces.
Except, since 2006, Wheeling Avenue, from the last Sunday in October until the first of the New Year, has been home to Cambridge’s annual Dickens Victorian Village and 92 distinctly odd statues — made of Styrofoam, paper-mache and wood — depicting Charles Dickens’ characters and highlights of Victorian life. Early on an overcast Saturday, Wheeling was already starting to fill with people interacting with the statues, taking selfies alongside them while those statues stood motionless, going about their anachronisms in a kind of endearing yet surreal calm.
Tiny Tim stands beside a monument to Cambridge’s Civil War veterans; Scrooge and Marley outside of the Dollar General; a knitter on a bench complete with needles and yarn; a bartender manning a pub outside the real pub; the apple lady’s cart a highlight of the tour. About every few yards there’s a scene, and each is maintained with elaborate detail. The seemingly endless display starts to feel as if you’re in a Frank Capra production directed by David Lynch.
“They thought downtown was deteriorating, which it was,” Steve Lasure said, greeting us at the official Dickens Victorian Village Visitors Center. There you can grab a map or buy some souvenirs, an ornament or a $5 top hat, which made Lasure a foot taller. Lasure was talking about how the event originated after local artist Bob Ley and his Dickens-loving, English-teaching wife, Sue, returned from a trip to England.
“Bob created some sketches of posters he thought would look good in the windows of the businesses of Wheeling Avenue,” Lesure continued, “but later decided to craft dimensional figures to put outside.”
The first statue sits inside of the visitor’s center: Dickens at his desk, untouched by the elements. Now in its 13th year, the Victorian Village is maintained by a trust of 200 residents, who, during the rest of the year, create new heads, build the frames in the local armory and repair those that can’t survive the average three-to-five year lifespan. They also “dress” them every Tuesday during the season.
“Several years ago, we had a mice problem,” said Pat Graven, who, dressed in Victorian cosplay, preferred to be called Tilly Dumbershire. “I discovered that if you coat them in cedar oil, the mice tend to not like that.”
A partial list of additional oils mice don't like to be coated in: peanut, olive, canola and coconut. Sign up for our daily newsletter
According to Graven, the closer it gets to Christmas the livelier Wheeling Avenue becomes. She encouraged us to come back because later in the season there are carriage rides, proper English tea services, a multi-media light show at the courthouse and, in some years, even a visit from Dickens’ great-great-grandson, who is well-known for his rendition of A Christmas Carol, in which he plays all of the roles.
Unfortunately, there’s no proper inn in Cambridge to make it a weekend.
There and Back: Cambridge is approximately a 90 minute drive East from Columbus, should you travel primarily on I-70. If you have time for a full day trip, I recommend taking the National Road to Cambridge, starting in Zanesville.
Along the way there are several points of interest. In Zanesville there is the curious (and slightly dangerous) Y-Bridge that crosses the Licking and Muskingum Rivers. You can also visit Weasel Boy Brewing and Tom’s Ice Cream Bowl, a back-in-time, under-the-interstate institution (since 1948) that ladles giant sundaes of old-fashioned flavors (White House, Butter Ripple) topped with house-roasted nuts and glutinous toppings (hot melted marshmallow and pineapple sauce) for pennies.
In New Concord you can visit Muskingum University (since 1837) and the childhood home of astronaut John Glenn, which has now been converted into a museum and a national historic site. Another highlight of Route 40, aside from the photographic allure of the occasional 1940s roadside motel or abandoned diner, is the only four remaining S-Bridges on the highway. When the National Road was constructed in 1928, the curving S-Bridges were needed to cross the winding creeks of Guernsey County. Those that remain have been restored and sit as vivid reminders of the past, alive and well.
For more information and event dates and times visit the official site for Dickens Victorian Village.