Shirley Blosser likes to keep track of her ancestors. She’s descended from four families in Meigs Township, Ohio.  

Out of the four, it’s the Spillman clan that can be the most challenging to think about. It’s their land that was dug up for coal, reshaped and planted in grass, and now sits in the center of an endangered species preserve. Who would know that a couple of hardy pioneers once came to settle that earth?

So Shirley wrote a short story to try to make sense of things. In it, she imagined her great, great grandparents, Elizabeth and James Spillman, returning from their heavenly rest to revisit their land. 

Elizabeth went straight to the house “she and her husband worked so hard to build.” It was gone. A lake lapped at its shore where her porch once sat.  

“Elizabeth looked where their barn once stood, and for those beautiful weeping willow trees that were her front yard,” Shirley wrote. “‘It’s all under water,’ she said, ‘even the road that always brought friends and family to visit.’”

James walked up the back hill to the family cemetery. He wanted to visit the graves of his mother and father, but they weren’t there.   

He heard the sound of an animal. “‘That’s not a horse or cow,’ he thought, ‘it’s 12 feet tall.   

‘Elizabeth, Elizabeth. There is a giraffe in our backyard!’”

The Spillman Farm circa 1940

Today, the location of the Spillman farm is part of The Wilds endangered species preserve. In the foreground, Spillman Lake.

Shirley’s story uses time travel to illustrate the dramatic and profound changes that have occurred on the 10,000 acres now occupied by The Wilds.  

The story you are about to experience may itself feel like we are time traveling. Much has happened on this relatively small area of land in this tiny corner of Appalachia, often at great scale.

The map below shows the out-of-the-way location where these events took place.

The Wilds is comprised of almost 10,000 acres of reclaimed strip-mined land. It was donated by AEP and is located in southeastern Ohio, in the foothills of Appalachia.

The Wilds is comprised of almost 10,000 acres of reclaimed strip-mined land. It was donated by AEP and is located in southeastern Ohio, in the foothills of Appalachia.

This is an interactive documentary project. Each story below is like a chapter in a book. It represents a different time period on this land. You can click on the stories in order, or you can skip to the subjects that most interest you.

You will read narratives, see pictures and maps, find short documentary films, and even view shorter clips that bring the history and present day alive. This is not intended to be absorbed in one sitting. Take your time. Come back for more.

You may find yourself most interested in certain subjects, but we hope you get around to looking at all the stories. The real power of this project, for us, is how the stories interrelate.

People formed their identities based on their work and lives on the land. The Adena mound builders likely thought their civilization would last forever. The farming community thought their work and way of life would never change. The coal miners felt their way of living was something they could count on and pass on to their children. But the work, and the land, did change. We are always in transitional moments, even when we’re more comfortable believing we’re not. The story of the land over time forces us to see that change. 

The story, taken as a whole, is humbling.  Ways of life were lost, faster and faster. We remember them and honor them. And try to understand what the changes mean.

Prepare to see amazing things. A search for a Native American burial mound. The life and times of the largest earth-moving dragline ever built. A scimitar-horned oryx giving birth in an Ohio pasture. Ohio-born oryxes returning to Africa. Children waking up amidst rhinos (don’t worry, there were fences).

It's a story worth sitting down for.

This project is of special interest to the folks who are from this region, but we also see a story of general interest here. How humans relate to nature is a universal theme. In this specific story, the events are huge, outsized and compressed, creating a parable about the human relationship with nature writ large. 

We couldn't have created this story without the access and cooperation provided by the folks at The Wilds. We are grateful for their patience and cooperation.

All this work was made possible by the generous financial contributions of the following:

Doug Swift, director and producer, [email protected]

Ashton Mara, executive editor and producer, [email protected]

Sarah Hume, editor, [email protected]

Beth Lossing, copy editor, [email protected]