Why the Ohio History Connection and a Golf Course Are Battling Over the Octagon Earthworks
The Octagon Earthworks were all but disregarded for centuries, perhaps the greatest ancient wonder the modern world forgot. The Ohio History Connection hopes to bring global renown to the sacred site.
In 2007, history professor Richard Shiels got a serendipitous call from a tribal headquarters tucked into the nook where the state lines of Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas all meet. It was the office of Glenna Wallace, the chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, and she wanted to attend a lecture at Ohio State. The day after the speech, Shiels took a group to the Octagon Earthworks, then the primary focus of OSU’s Newark Earthworks Center for interdisciplinary research and public education, which he founded. Wallace had never heard of the Octagon.
She was stunned by what she saw. The Octagon Earthworks consist of two massive geometric figures: a 50-acre, eight-sided enclosure, with walls running up to 550 feet long, and the 20-acre Observatory Circle, more than 1,000 feet across. The earthen architecture was constructed sometime between the first and fourth centuries by Native Americans. Wallace swelled with pride. She was also in disbelief. How had she never heard of this place?
Her elation didn’t last, instead dissipating into anger. Moundbuilders Country Club golf course had been laid out across the Octagon site. There was a tournament that day, and she wasn’t allowed on the land her Shawnee ancestors would have treated as sacred before they were removed from Ohio. Wallace swore an oath not to cut her hair until the golf course was removed.
A dozen years later, her hair is still growing.
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On a hot morning in July, Brad Lepper leads a tour of the Octagon. He’s the curator of archaeology for the Ohio History Connection, which owns the Newark Earthworks—the Octagon, the Wright Earthworks and the Great Circle Earthworks. The Newark Earthworks are the largest, best-preserved and most precise geometric earthworks in the world, but they have long been overlooked. That has begun to change, thanks in part to Lepper, Shiels, Wallace and other like-minded advocates. These ancient wonders and a select group of other Native American earthworks appear poised to become Ohio’s first World Heritage sites, placing them on the United Nations’ prestigious list among the likes of Jesus’ birthplace and Independence Hall.
Lepper is looking for a good spot to point out one of the Octagon’s key features: the architecture’s configuration according to a complex lunar cycle. Eight lunar alignments are built into the site, and the most significant occurs once every 18.6 years, when the northernmost moonrise appears directly over a flat-topped mound at an entrance to the octagon. Lepper walks west, toward Moundbuilders’ ninth green, but stops short when he notices a member of the grounds crew spraying herbicide ahead. The upkeep makes sense, he says begrudgingly, “but they shouldn’t do it on a public day.”
It’s the third of four full days during prime golfing season when the earthworks are open for people to explore without intrusion. These open-house days are among the flashpoints between OHC and the private country club, which are engaged in a legal fight for the site’s future. The country club has a long-term lease (read: very, very long), and its board opposes OHC’s recent use of eminent domain to force the course’s removal, especially given Moundbuilders’ role in preservation.
“We recognize that there is historical and cultural importance to the site,” says David Kratoville, president of the club’s board of trustees. “We also want a little bit of credit for keeping that property intact when all around us, with the exception of the Great Circle Mound, all the other sites from the same Hopewell culture were essentially destroyed by the progress of civilization over the last 150 years.”
Preservation by way of recreation isn’t without precedent. In 1853, only a decade after the last Native American tribe was removed from Ohio, the Great Circle Earthworks in Heath were turned into fairgrounds to keep them from being destroyed. After a brief stint as Fort Sherman during the Civil War, the site became an amusement park. It’s now a public park operated by OHC.
The Octagon Earthworks were first preserved as training grounds for the Ohio National Guard in 1892. After the state militia left, Moundbuilders Country Club opened its original nine-hole golf course in June 1911 and the full 18-hole course in 1923. The Great Circle and the Octagon were deeded to the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, now OHC, in 1933.
Shiels became involved in the Newark Earthworks in 1999, when the country club announced plans to replace its clubhouse with one that struck him as “grandiose.” Concerned the construction would damage the Octagon, Shiels, Lepper, Newark pastor Jeff Gill and a few others—eventually called Friends of the Mounds—held public meetings. Shiels says they pushed OHC to produce the existing lease with Moundbuilders and discovered it had been extended quietly in 1997—to 2078.
“I suppose that really was what lit my fire,” says Shiels, now retired. “I’ve been angry about that ever since.”
Executives and board members from that era are no longer with OHC, and CEO Burt Logan says he doesn’t know why such a long-term extension was granted. Amos Loveday, OHC’s state historic preservation officer at the time, says that although he wasn’t involved in the decision, his sense was that the organization wanted to avoid the cost of upkeep because funding was stretched thin. The country club pays OHC about $36,000 annually, as well as footing the bill for landscaping, tree removal and other conservation costs, Kratoville says.
Over time, the inherent conflict of a sacred site used for sport resulted in problems, including one 2002 incident in which 73-year-old Barbara Crandell, a Cherokee woman who had been praying there, was arrested when golfers complained after she refused to leave. The public debate about the clubhouse spurred Shiels and many other community members to work toward increased accessibility and opening the site.
As part of a 2003 historic site management plan, OHC and Moundbuilders agreed to a public access schedule, which includes four open-house days each year, Monday mornings throughout golf season, Mondays during the offseason and any day the course is unplayable. But advocates say the problem hasn’t been resolved. In Licking County court earlier this year, Gill—who has given tours for years and worked with the Newark Earthworks Center to educate the public— testified that he had been chased off the site during the given time frames, and that maintenance activity and spraying of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides often happened near where he led school groups.
OHC eventually realized that the earthworks were never going to be accessible in a way that allows the public to experience the site’s magnificence while golf existed there too, Logan says. “At the end of the day, they’re just totally incompatible.”
The push for inscription on the World Heritage List also began around the time of the 2003 site management plan. Coordinated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, the list recognizes natural and cultural sites of “outstanding universal value” and bestows a reputation that boosts tourism. The Newark Earthworks are part of a serial nomination, named the Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks (Hopewell is the name of a widespread culture, not a specific tribe), which also includes Fort Ancient outside Cincinnati and five sites in the Hopewell National Historic Park in Chillicothe, the epicenter of ancient Hopewell life.
Jen Aultman, OHC’s World Heritage director, says these sites are expected to meet two criteria: They are masterpieces of human creative genius, and they are an exceptional testimony to a culture. Until recently, their story had largely been ignored. One of the causes was bigotry—as white settlers found the earthworks, they were attributed to ancient Europeans or Israelites because Native Americans were considered incapable. Even the term “moundbuilders” is tied to arguments from that era that they weren’t smart enough to build them, says John Hancock, chair of the World Heritage Ohio steering committee. That myth was used to justify Native American removal, Lepper says, because settlers felt they were reclaiming the land. Richard Yerkes, an OSU anthropology professor, says people lost interest in the earthworks once they were definitively linked to Native Americans. Also, archaeologists initially focused on burial mounds, and the Newark Earthworks were mostly built for ceremonial purposes.
All the Eastern Woodlands tribes likely have a connection to Hopewell culture, Lepper says. But it was so long ago that lineages are unclear, made even murkier by the state’s forced removals, which began with the Shawnee in 1831. Ohio now has no federally recognized tribes, and that has made it more difficult to glean whatever ancestral knowledge may remain.
“But we know they were sacred,” says Stacey Halfmoon, OHC’s director of American Indian relations and a member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma. “We know our ancestors protected them.” She says it’s important for organizations to work in collaboration with tribes in a way that wasn’t done in the past.
Too often, Native Americans are still referred to in books and articles as savages who lack intelligence, Wallace says. She has brought about 300 people from her tribe in Oklahoma to view the Newark Earthworks, which belie the antiquated notions about its creators. The Octagon was constructed one basketful of earth at a time, using clamshell hoes and pointed sticks. The people who built them were members of dozens of tribes, and archaeologists have found copper from southern Ontario, mica from the southern Appalachians and obsidian from Yellowstone. Lepper believes the complex geometry and architecture were fine-tuned in Chillicothe and carried out with exacting precision at the Octagon, where the lunar alignments marked it as an important ceremonial site. It was a place of pilgrimage, he says, the spiritual center of prehistoric North America.
The hope is that the World Heritage List will bring long-overdue recognition, and that the Octagon will be turned into an open park like the Great Circle. In May 2018, the Hopewell bid was formally invited by the U.S. Department of the Interior to prepare its nomination. It’s the nation’s only bid moving forward, but government officials made it clear that it’s contingent on removal of the course.
Discussions about relocating Moundbuilders began in earnest in 2013. As is often the case, money became the sticking point. “If you want to be simplistic about it, our answer has been fairly consistent, and that is: ‘We really don’t want to move, but come to us with an offer that would allow us to relocate, and we’ll give it due consideration,’” Kratoville says.
Early on, OHC paid for a study to see how much it would cost to build a new course. The consulting firm’s answer: $26 million. OHC never entertained that number, Logan says, referring to Moundbuilders’ plans for the new amenities as “palatial.” In 2017, club attorney Joe Fraley and OHC attorney John Gleason hashed out the basic framework for a deal that would have paid Moundbuilders about $12 million. Instead, in April 2017, OHC offered $5.1 million. Within days, the club replied by saying the amount would need to be in the range of $16 million.
OHC’s leaders felt the club wasn’t taking negotiations seriously and began the eminent domain process through the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. Because OHC already owned the land, it only needed to acquire the lease. OHC obtained an appraisal for its fair market value and informed the club of its intent in August 2018, making an offer for the full amount: $800,000. The club hired its own appraiser, who came back with a valuation range of $10.4 million to $14 million.
In researching that appraisal, Fraley discovered that OHC had received a second one, for $1.75 million, and hadn’t informed the club. OHC filed its petition in Licking County Common Pleas Court in November, and when the two sides met in court the following March and April, Fraley argued that OHC’s offer wasn’t in good faith. He also argued that OHC, as a private nonprofit organization, didn’t have the right to take the lease from the club by eminent domain.
In a decision issued May 10, Judge David Branstool ruled in favor of OHC. He wrote that although OHC isn’t a state agency, it has been charged with public duties by the legislature and is specifically granted the power of eminent domain by the Ohio Revised Code. As for the appraisals, he ruled that the existence of the second one doesn’t mean OHC’s offer wasn’t in good faith. In his testimony, Logan said he’d misinterpreted the appraisal with the higher value.
Kratoville says the club owes about $1 million—so OHC’s appraisal would leave it with nothing—and the reason members invested money in the grounds is because they thought they had a long-term lease. He maintains the club can’t be relocated for less than $12 million.
Though $800,000 certainly isn’t enough to cover it, $12 million seems to be a stretch. The Longaberger Golf Club in nearby Nashport was sold for $4 million in 2013, and although it isn’t private, it’s widely considered the best public course in Ohio. That sale also included a clubhouse many times larger than Moundbuilders’ and 400 more acres of land. In 2017, the Licking County Auditor’s office reappraised the value of Moundbuilders’ clubhouse, pool, tennis courts and other physical amenities at $1.6 million.
A jury will decide the compensation for the lease if a settlement isn't reached, but the trial has been postponed. On June 4, Fraley filed an appeal, which he estimates will take a year to run its course. In the meantime, OHC will continue to prepare the World Heritage nomination, which Aultman anticipates will require about the same amount of time. The experts have said that the bid can move forward so long as there’s a firm date set when the club will vacate.
In his two decades committed to liberating the Octagon, Shiels has witnessed a dramatic change at OHC. He and Wallace once struggled to get the organization’s leaders to understand the value of the ancient earthworks, or even to return their calls. That’s not the case anymore; Wallace says OHC has done a 180 in its approach to listening to tribal concerns. Logan says that the way the organization fulfills its mission has changed. It was a gradual recognition that preservation is important but so is providing full access to the Octagon, he continues.
Kratoville acknowledges OHC’s evolution but takes umbrage at the idea that it allows the organization to kill the lease in a way most couldn’t. “Progress doesn’t mean, at least to me, in America, that you can just simply then say, ‘Well, you know what, I did that contract before I really understood the importance of this. Now that I understand the importance of it, well, I’ve changed my mind, and I don’t want to be held to that contract.’”
An appeals court panel will decide that matter, but as Shiels points out, it’s not just OHC that has changed dramatically. A national demographic shift is underway—in ethnicity and age—and he says multiculturalism is becoming more prevalent as a result. “My students at OSU understood how outrageous it was that people played golf on what’s considered a sacred American Indian site, but people my age didn’t,” Shiels says. “And that’s a cultural change—that’s a generational change that I think is huge in this country.”
Or, as Branstool wrote in his decision: “Experience teaches. Knowledge accumulates. People learn. Values evolve. Things change.” The world is a very different place than it was in 1910, or 1933 or even 1997, and regardless of the legal outcome, it’s hard to fathom golfers on the Octagon in 2078.
On Feb. 27, as the first court date neared, Wallace was invited to be the keynote speaker at Statehood Day, an annual event co-sponsored by OHC to celebrate Ohio’s birthday. She took the podium at the Statehouse and told the lunchtime crowd about her emotional first visit to the Octagon in 2007. She told them that Native Americans’ spirituality had not been observed, and their presence had been ignored. Finally, it seemed everyone was listening to her words.
“I have grown up in a church, so I have my Indian spirituality, but I have a Christian spirituality, too. And the verse came to me that said: Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do. We shouldn’t be playing golf on top of sacred, spiritual Indian mounds. We should recognize the treasures that we have here in Ohio, and we should realize that the people who built those were not savages. They were people of tremendous intellect—the geometry, the mathematics, the astronomy, the art, the knowledge—that’s not of a savage. I commend you for pursuing World Heritage. We must cross that finish line.”
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