In 1911 Judge Hugh Nichols of Batavia was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Ohio. While Judge Nichols’ tenure as Lieutenant Governor stands as the highest public office ever attained by a Batavia resident, Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes may just go down in history as Batavia’s most important friend in Columbus.
James A. Rhodes served four terms as governor of Ohio. He was born in Coalton, Ohio, which is near Jackson, near the eastern end of the Appalachian Highway.
Jim Rhodes never lived in Batavia. In fact, he probably never visited Batavia before he first ran for governor in 1962. Despite this, he left a legacy for Batavia that any lifelong native would be proud of. First among these is the Appalachian Highway.
Known as the James A. Rhodes Appalachian Highway, its creation was a key element of Rhodes’ first term in office. The highway runs from eastern Cincinnati to Jackson, near Rhodes’ Coalton birthplace.
While Rhodes lobbied for federal funding and campaigned for local support along the Appalachian Highway’s proposed route, the project was criticized for being “the highway to nowhere.” Construction began in the early 1960s and was completed to Jackson in the 1980s. The stretch from Jackson farther east to Belpre, Ohio, was completed in the late 1990s.
In 2000 Richard Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University was quoted in a local newspaper: “It is the most desolate road in Ohio, I think.”
The Appalachian Highway would eventually prove to be an asset to all of the communities it connected, but Batavia has surely been one of the most certain benefactors. Although it bypasses the core of the village, the Appalachian Highway brought much economic growth to the Batavia community, including such major developments as Clermont Mercy Hospital, UC Clermont College, and a Ford Transmission Plant. Each of these projects came to the neighborhood around Batavia not in small part because of the Appalachian Highway.
The highway was not the only thing Rhodes helped bring to Batavia. He knew that the Appalachian Highway would be slow to spark big developments all by itself. In an interview at age 90 Rhodes said, “You can’t just say ‘Lay down a highway, and everybody’s going to come.’ ”
He didn’t. Not only did he get the highway built, he kept coming back to help get development along the highway going. Throughout his tenure as governor, Jim Rhodes lobbied for jobs and economic development. When the Rhodes administration successfully courted the University of Cincinnati to become part of the state university system, one of UC’s first branch campuses was developed along the Appalachian Highway just outside Batavia.
The Army Corp of Engineers came to Clermont County at the urging of the Rhodes Administration to build a flood control and recreational dam project that has become one of the great public assets of the area. Harsha Lake and the surrounding East Fork State Park provide year round recreational opportunities to Batavia residents, as well as reducing the risk of flooding along the East Fork of the Little Miami River. When local doctors campaigned for the development of a full service hospital and trauma center in Clermont County, the Rhodes Administration came to Batavia to help bring Clermont Mercy Hospital into existence.
Rhodes never missed an opportunity to promote manufacturing and jobs. He and his economic development team brought the Ford Motor Company to Batavia to build a $500 million transmission plant just east of town, again along the Appalachian Highway. While it prospered, the Ford plant employed more than 1,200 people. Closed by Ford and its partners in 2006, this million square foot facility has begun a second life as a part of the expanding Clermont College campus and as home to a large multinational manufacturer and distributor of paper products.
Clermont County Airport saw help from the Rhodes Administration, as well. Developed in the late ’60s with help from both the state and federal government, it now hosts a major aviation products business and an industrial park, as well as a growing antique aircraft museum. In 2014, efforts continue to find a way to lengthen the runway to accommodate larger aircraft.
As the Appalachian Highway did before it, a bigger and better Clermont County Airport will help bring economic development to Batavia.
The Village of Batavia has already begun to reap the benefits of all of this economic progress. Recently, Batavia has made some of these and the other developments along the highway an integral part of the community by annexing them into the village proper. The financial benefit of this annexation can be seen in recent projects such as the community sponsored redevelopment of Main Street.
As Batavia writes its future history today, its prospects are certainly brightened by the legacy of the Governor of Batavia.
Batavia is celebrating its bicentennial this year, and The Clermont Sun is publishing a series of historic vignettes. Peter A. Barnes, writer, consultant and a Batavia native, now lives near Milford pursuing his life-long interest in local history.