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Kathy Witt’s ‘Secret Cincinnati’: A regional scavenger hunt for the ‘weird, wonderful and obscure’

By Vicki Prichard
NKyTribune reporter

If there are secret treasures and places in the region, odds are that author and travel writer Kathy Witt already knows about them. So, it’s no surprise that when the editors at Reedy Press wanted a writer for their “Secret” cities series, they went to Witt and asked her to flesh out the “weird, wonderful, and obscure” in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

Secret Cincinnati offers 89 opportunities to get out and be surprised and reminded anew about how amazing the region really is. (Photo provided)

Secret Cincinnati: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure, shares a lot of secrets, identifying 89 opportunities to get out and be surprised or reminded about the fascinating things in the region. Witt will discuss and sign the book at Joseph-Beth Booksellers at Rookwood Commons, 2692 Madison Avenue in Cincinnati, on February 28, at 7 p.m.

A traveler abroad and in her own backyard

Northern Kentuckians are likely no stranger to Witt, whose byline accompanied feature stories for The Kentucky Post for many years, giving word to stories about some of the more interesting people, places, and things in the area. Now, in her new book, she’s providing readers with a veritable map to visit some of the more intriguing places in their own backyard.

“I got an email from an acquisitions editor at Reedy Press in spring of 2017, asking me if I’d like to write a book for them,” says Witt. “She sent information to me about several series Reedy publishes, including the “Secret” series. It sounded irresistible and I said yes right away. As a writer, when a book publisher contacts you out of the blue, you don’t say no!”

Whittling down the sizeable secrets

Witt, author of several books, including the historical novel, The Secret of the Belles; Atlanta, Georgia: A Photographic Portrait; and Contemporary American Doll Artists and their Dolls, is also a travel and lifestyle writer whose work appears regularly in Kentucky Living, Tribune News Service, and Travel Goods Showcase. She’s the recipient of numerous writing awards, including multiple Mark Twain Travel Writing Awards. Choosing the 89 secrets highlighted in the Secret Cincinnati was a balancing act for her.

Witt began with a list of more than 130 secrets and had to whittle it down to 89, with an eye toward covering numerous categories – outdoors, quirky, historic, free – that span communities throughout the region, from Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park & Museum in Hamilton to Big Bone State Historic Park in Union.

Let your scavenger hunt for the fascinating begin

Secret Cincinnati is designed like a scavenger hunt for all ages, and of the more than 50 locales in the book, which include museums, monuments, gardens, galleries, trails, tours, parks, most are free-admission and no cost attractions.

Why is there a litter of 2000 Japanese lucky cats in a Cincinnati art gallery? Read Secret Cincinnati to find out.

As Witt began her research, she discovered some interesting surprises along the way. Learning about the occult connection at Baker Hunt Arts & Cultural Center was among them, with its connections to Harry Houdini, Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and a famous Cincinnati medium.

Margaretta Baker Hunt, the woman who gifted the home that is now a hub for learning, art, and cultural enrichment, established the Baker Hunt Foundation in 1922, its mission to promote the education, art, science, psychic research, and religion in the vicinity of Covington. At the time, Cincinnati medium Laura C. Cooper Pruden conducted séances and slate-writing in Margaretta’s deceased daughter’s bedroom. Pruden, widely known in the spiritualism communities of the 1920s and 1930s, was once called out by escape artist Harry Houdini, who had no patience for what he considered charlatans, and maintained that his magic was founded on skill and strength. Pruden’s son, Albert Carter, it turns out, filed the patent for the soothsayer ball, Syco-Seer, or, what has long been called the Magic 8-Ball.

Witt discovered other ‘spirited’ surprises in northern Kentucky.

“Another surprise was learning about the Party Source Spirits Library where you can sample unusual and very high-end spirits for free,” says Witt.

As Witt points out in the book, it’s a library where visitors “can check out an eighty-proof liquor.”

And she had some personal favorite ‘secrets.’

“A couple favorite “secrets” include Hail Dark Aesthetics in MainStrasse (such a fabulous collection of oddities here, including mummified cats, very creepy medical implements, preserved animal body parts floating in jars) and Haven Gillespie, the Covington native who wrote “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” says Witt.

Witt says she knew from the beginning of her research that she wanted Gillespie included in Secret Cincinnati.

“I love that the guy who gave the world one of its most popular and beloved Christmas classics was from the area,” says Witt. “At one point Haven had a historical marker at Goebel Park along with other notables from the area – but it was removed in 2014 due to damage and no one noticed!”

John Witt provided the photographs fro Secret Cincinnati.

Fascinating ‘firsts,’ and that spaceship in the neighborhood

The book also points to some interesting ‘firsts’ in the region. For instance, Cincinnati was the first American city to establish a weather bureau, have a municipal fire department, own a major railroad, and home to the development of the first polio vaccine. And in 1834, the Lane Seminary in Cincinnati held an 18-day debate on slavery, recognized as the first public debate on the topic.

Secret Cincinnati addresses all range of questions about interesting places, people, and events.

For instance, ever wonder why Jane’s Saddlebag, a 21-acre family playground in Union is named after horse tack? As it turns out, it’s not. Instead, “saddlebag” refers to a rural style of home whose two rooms share a chimney, and not the pouches that drape from a saddle across a horse’s back – the sort of place that might exude a down home, mom’s kitchen feel, like the little restaurant at Jane’s Saddlebag.

Or if you’ve ever wondered when driving on I-75 from Cincinnati to Northern Kentucky how a spaceship landed on a hillside in a residential neighborhood, Witt explains that the Futuro House in Covington, which bears a striking resemblance to a B movie spacecraft, was designed by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen in 1968, when the world was in the midst of the Space Race, and the U.S. was a year from landing a man on the moon. Suuronen intended the home to serve as a portable ski chalet or holiday home. Less than one hundred Futuro Houses were made, and only a handful exist around the world. In 1976, Robert Wetzel purchased the house and installed it on Covington’s Wright Street in the mid-1980s.

Where celebrities sip and sunflowers soar

Across the river, Witt’s Secret Cincinnati reveals what’s behind the doors at the University of Cincinnati’s Preservation Lab, and where Beethoven, bourbon, and barramundi combine. She points readers to where they can watch the American Woodcock performs his sunset courting display flight, identify the speakeasy bar where the shadow of film director Quentin Tarantino lurks, and screen and stage stars such as Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy, Mall Rats), and an entire Broadway Cast have slipped into for sip a tasty libation.

And, Witt tells readers where they can find a “gazillion” sunflowers growing in Evendale fields, on that warm, sunny day that will surely be here soon.

Witt lives in Boone County with her husband John, whose photography is featured in Secret Cincinnati. Her website features her work, and she has created a Facebook page for Secret Cincinnati to follow events and news about the book and the places it covers.

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