This article was originally posted by Columbus Alive, February 2020
Even though our journey to Alliance, Ohio, started early, leaving Columbus by 8 a.m., we were defeated in finding out the Feline Historical Museum, housed in a magnificent former bank and built like a brutalist granite jewelry box, is closed on Saturdays throughout the winter — a good reminder to always call. Don’t trust the internet.
The closure was a particularly huge disappointment since a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed cat house the museum is displaying recently went viral. But the absence of one highlight in the sparse downtown of Alliance only magnified the star attraction: Sherry Groom’s Troll Hole.
The drive to Alliance is bleak. Once you pull off I-71 and head east, you’ll start to see the forgotten Ohio that is all too familiar in 2020. It’s a long strip of empty factories in Wooster, Akron and Barberton; closed storefronts; abandoned houses, and permanent Trump signs. The final stretch into Alliance is an exaggeration of that script.
The once-bustling “town where Main Street ends” sits virtually empty. An alley boasting huge electric arches that once supported a tram line cuts through the heart of this former railroad town. There’s a grand, three-story theater converted into apartments and the skeleton of Connie’s Charcoal Steak House.
If you squint, you can see in these storied structures an Alliance that once thrived. Despite the desolation, once you discover the nooks and crannies that make it special, you’ll notice patches of color: full-scale murals, homespun sculptures and the entrepreneurial spirit of Sherry Groom, who's trying desperately to turn it all around.
“You can buy one of these historic downtown buildings for the price of a used car,” said Groom, who, along with her husband, purchased a space to house her Guinness World Record-holding collection of trolls six years ago; Groom has amassed 8,130 trolls, adding more by the day. The couple has investments and projects brewing all over Alliance, generating a whimsy you won’t find in most similarly forgotten Ohio civic centers.
But Groom’s life work is the Troll Hole, a labyrinth of 14 troll-themed rooms through which, for a nominal fee, she will guide you. It all culminates in the final few displays that take hoarding (ahem, collecting) to an absurdist extreme.
Lately, her collection of the 1960s-originating plastic troll dolls has been a boon. A long, convoluted history of Troll dolls eventually led to the original rights being sold to Universal Pictures, which has since resurrected the Troll franchise into a lucrative enterprise. It’s something Groom is happy to embrace. Before we walk into the second room, she cues up her iPad to play Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” from the 2016 "Trolls" movie, pulling back a curtain to reveal a space completely covered in the hyper-neon version of today’s Troll obsession. Ever a hustler, Groom hopes to get Timberlake to Alliance as the Troll Hole’s first Hall of Fame visitor.
In Groom’s mind, the dolls are more than cheap tchotchkes. “Trolls possess magic. They’re the universal possessors of magic. They are real-life creatures, so we give them a home here,” she said.
If one were just passing through Alliance, what Groom has amassed might appear as just another quirky tourist trap. But after indulging in the guided tour (a must if you visit), you’ll come to understand how deeply Groom believes. She even has an alter ego, Sigrid, a troll queen who inhabits the museum when the lights go out and the doors of the museum are locked for the night. And besides the ubiquitous troll dolls that dominate the museum, there’s plenty of myth and history to explore.
There’s a room dedicated to Gwildor, not Orko, from the "Masters of the Universe"; a makeshift cabin devoted to the primitive origins of trolls and the Norwegian cult-movie "Troll Hunter" (complete with infant effigies that trolls would exchange for human children); a year-round Christmas display of trolls (elves are trolls, but Santa is not), and a re-creation of the Three Billy Goats Gruff tale. Needless to say, you’ll have a much deeper appreciation for the troll once Groom guides you through all 14 rooms.
What Groom is trying to accomplish in downtown Alliance is anodyne to any kind of politics. She just wants to do right by her place. There’s nothing political in a troll museum (even if the world “troll” has ruined the nomenclature), nor in the other several start-ups Groom is trying to pitch in our morning at the Troll Hole. Within blocks of the space, she has opened Wisecracks, a comedy escape room experience in the town’s original launderette, and she's in the process of launching Mad Dog’s Crazy Cats Cat Cafe (adhering to the Cat Fancy gravitation of Alliance), while also working diligently to open the Camelot Project, a large central building that has since been renovated to look like a castle, complete with an interactive mural adjacent to a downtown park.
“It used to be all Alliance was known for was the railroads. Then we became the Carnation City,” Groom said. “But we have people from all over the world who visit for the trolls. So I’d like for Alliance to become known as a home for trolls and magic.”
There and back
I suspect the Feline Historical Museum is a must-call-for-hours type of place until spring. But the current headquarters of Cat Fancier Inc. and its stunning museum are worthy of a return visit.
Were you to book a voyage via Amtrak, the Alliance station would be the closest station where you could board. To the disdain of Groom and Alliance residents, the only time the Amtrak travels through is at 2 a.m. And, if you’ve looked to travel on a passenger train lately, you’ll know it’s ridiculously expensive.
Alliance is the Carnation City because of politician and botanist Levi L. Lamborn, who was the first to cultivate the flower in Ohio.
Legend says that when Lamborn debated his rival, President William McKinley, he would give him a red carnation for his lapel. When McKinley was assassinated at the Buffalo World’s Fair in 1901, Lamborn proposed the red carnation to be the state flower three years later in the president’s honor. Throughout the city, you’ll see the carnation used as an emblem; Groom commissioned artist Sudipta Dasgupta to create a wondrous downtown mural of Lamborn and McKinley. The city also holds an annual Carnation Days festival in August.
As far as food, Alliance doesn’t bode well for culinary landmarks, but you will pass through Akron — a hamburger mecca — on the way. On this trip we tried Skyway (arch rival of the now-commonplace Swensons) and its signature Sky-Hi, and also the lesser-known Hamburger Station, which has been serving a slider variety in Akron since 1975.