Nora Swango Stanger: What I didn’t know about the place I call home

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 27, 2022

Though I have not lived in Lawrence County since I was a young adult, I still call it home.

It seems the statement “absence makes the heart grow fonder” applies to me. When I was a teenager, I wanted to get away from everything I knew and start my own life with all new experiences and new people.

Don’t ask me why I felt this so strongly, but it is true. Now, when I visit home, I’m touched by the visceral reactions the sights of the area pull out of me.

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I love memories of Halloween activities in the old Highway 74 tunnel that juts out from the hill at the entrance to Ironton off State Route 93. Every time we drove to town from Aarons Creek, we’d pass the Etna iron furnace and when we had picnics at Vesuvius Lake, we’d climb the sides of the iron furnace there.

I marveled at the old iron masters’ mansions in town. As a child, I remember going into the John Campbell house, though I only knew it as the Community Action Organization building. Our family qualified for some of their resources, such as summer jobs as teens.

I loved the huge mansion and would try to imagine what it looked like in its original days, before its rooms were divided into offices. I remember the grand staircase and the multiple storied structure.

When I was 15 years old, I decided that I wanted to eventually become a therapist. My dream was to purchase the Campbell house and turn it into a shelter for troubled teens. In my heart-vision, the bottom floor would be offices and activity rooms, the second floor would house young men and the third floor is where the young women rooms would be.

I was to live in the attic, never marry, but have cats as my companions. My life would be devoted to seeing the teens through crisis times of their lives.

Though I had heard some snippets of stories of the house once being a part of the Underground Railroad, I had little knowledge of its history. There was something about this old house that drew me to it for service, for healing deep wounds and for helping lives be redeemed from the darkness of the world.

This beautiful, life dream carried me through many years of university study but did not come to fruition.

Though I have spent my life in people – helping careers, including helping troubled people overcome hardships, I never purchased the CAO building and I’ve never owned a cat.

Instead, I married, had children and several dogs. However, the allure of the mansion still lingers.

It seems the older I get the more I want to know about the people who came before me. I’ve recently been amazed by the amount of history within Lawrence County that I’m just now learning. In the past several years, I have become close friends with another native of Lawrence County who lives in Dayton. From her, I’m discovering fascinating facts about courage, danger and the fervor with which men and women in Lawrence County helped runaway slaves reach freedom.

I am tracing the path of men, women and children as they sought the perilous pathways to safety through horrific situations, all simply to be able to live as fellow human beings in this country.

To this end, my friend Omope Carter-Daboiku, IHS Class of 1970, and I, Symmes Valley HS Class of 1976, will be bringing a group of Sinclair Community College students to tour the historic areas of Lawrence County.

If you too are interested in learning more about our rich history, we would love for you to join us in a presentation from 7 p.m. – 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 8, at the Bowman Auditorium on Ohio University’s campus in Ironton. Dr. David Lucas will share his presentation of “The Mystery of Lawrence County’s Underground Railroad History.”

If you have questions, please contact me at I hope to see you there.

Nora Swango Stanger, a Lawrence County native and Appalachian outreach coordinator for Sinclair Community College, can be reached at