Tour guides bring history of Statehouse, Ohio to life

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The walls of the Ohio Statehouse can talk, and a dedicated crew of volunteer interpreters translates their messages for visitors.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Caitlin Gatewood Edwards stood amid her tour group of 15 and gestured at the stones lining the structure's ground floor.

Convicts imprisoned in the Ohio Penitentiary, she said, built the limestone structure between 1839 and 1861, scribbling self-portraits and mini-memoirs that remain visible on the unfinished walls of various utility closets.

"I've always loved the Statehouse," said Edwards, 24. "I used to go every single summer with my grandmother."

In 2011, during her freshman year at Ohio State University, she worked as a Statehouse page and constituent aide.

She also signed up to lead the tours.

Luke Stedke, the Statehouse deputy director of communications and marketing, gave her a packet of random facts about the building to memorize. Six years later, Edwards, a consultant with the accounting firm Ernst & Young, leads the 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. slots every other Sunday. (She trades weekends with her younger brother.)

Edwards has to be prepared for anyone to show up — on a recent tour, the group included a family with children, a man exploring the building for his upcoming wedding and two friends from northern Ohio — and for the unexpected to happen.

"One time I was in the rotunda with this large family, and they all decided to lay on the floor," Edwards said, recalling one of her most memorable tours. "I wasn't sure how to proceed, so I just stood there and gave the rest of my spiel."

Before free Statehouse tours were introduced in the summer of 1997, visitors wanting to wander the halls had to contact the office of their state representative or find a security guard to show them around.

Mike Weddle is one of about a half-dozen original guides still educating others about the Statehouse.

Twenty years ago, Weddle had recently retired after a 29-year teaching career at Edison Elementary (now Edison Intermediate) in Grandview Heights when he stopped by the school principal's home to visit. She showed him a Dispatch advertisement seeking Statehouse tour guides.

"I followed up with it," he said, "and the rest is history."

Ohio history, that is, which Weddle learned during an intense training period.

He has since logged 843 shifts, the most among the 43 volunteers. When he started, he gave tours every morning and afternoon while his wife worked. Nowadays, he sticks to Wednesday mornings — which means he often finds himself instructing energetic schoolchildren on civic responsibility.

Imparting knowledge, Weddle said, is one way to keep the teacher hat on his head.

"When you become a retired teacher, you have to reinvent yourself," he said. "A retired doctor is still a doctor; a retired lawyer is still a lawyer. You have to decide who you are. This is one way I can keep doing that."

On March 1 — Ohio's 214th birthday — 10 adolescents from Brookwood Academy in Reynoldsburg filed into the lobby.

Weddle, 72, tucked his notes under his arm and asked the students to point out their county on the enormous Ohio map beneath their feet. Teachers and administrators snapped photos of plaques and statues while Weddle led his crew to the rotunda.

Columbus became the state capital in 1816 — after Franklinton, then a town of 2,000 people, offered to donate wolf-infested land across the river for a new city, Weddle explained.

The group wound through the chambers of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and a school administrator asked the students to imagine themselves at those desks someday.

Weddle said he tailors each tour to the audience, which can range from the occasional preschool class to a group with a wide mix of ages and backgrounds.

Last year, the Statehouse drew 212,932 visitors, including 63,657 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Tour guides, Stedke said, aren't given canned speeches to recite because he wants each to bring his or her own passion to the work they're doing. "The more educated citizenry we have, the better our democracy works," he said of the value of free tours.

And there's no better place to learn about Ohio history than from the seat of state government.

Said Stedke: "It's a living, breathing timeline."