By Whitney Vickers
CLIFTON — Clifton Mill is known for its light display around the holiday season. However, it didn’t always include more than three million bulbs that hang around the property, or the gift shop and restaurant with a reputation for its breakfast food. The mill, built in 1802, originally provided electricity to the townspeople who made up Clifton.
“The mill has been here before Ohio was even a state,” owner Anthony Satariano of Clifton Mill said. “It has seen the War of 1812, the Civil War, all the great wars.”
The current family members are the sixth owners of the mill. They bought it in 1987 after Satariano and his father stopped working for a men’s and women’s fragrance company that was sold out and became larger than they preferred.
His father always liked mills, and came close to purchasing in Virginia and Pennsylvania before deciding on the one in Clifton. His father retired and Satariano was tired of living on the road, and they looked forward to running the already-existent gift and snack shop out of the mill.
The same year they purchased the property, they began to display the Christmas lights. Starting with 100,000 bulbs, it has expanded, either subtly or in a large manner, each year since.
“Christmas started from my father. He was always big into holidays, but Christmas in particular,” Satariano said. “We bought the mill, we were here one night and my father said, ‘Let’s put some Christmas lights on this. We own this beautiful piece of property, let’s decorate it.’
“He went out and bought 100,000 Christmas lights thinking we’d never have to buy another light again. We knew absolutely nothing about electricity, but we got them up and people started pulling in.
“It was one of those ‘aha’ moments. We did it strictly for ourselves, but people started saying, ‘This is beautiful, thank you for sharing this with us.’ It just grew from there.”
Satariano, along with three to four regular individuals and 10 to 12 part-time helpers, hang the lights beginning in September. He said on a good year, the lights are completed by November; he feels that he has it down to a science at this point.
When he starts weed-eating the gorge, the mill-people feel it’s getting down to business.
The tear-down process is quicker and depends on the weather. It takes place after the first of the year when the display is no longer offered for the season. Mother Nature prevents them from leaving the lights up all year long.
“I’ve been doing it forever, and what I enjoy is now getting young families who walk up and say, ‘When I was a kid, my mom and dad brought me, now we’re bringing our children.’ I’m seeing second and third generations. That’s how long I’ve been doing this,” Satariano said. “It reinforces in my mind that somewhere out there, I’m in someone’s family scrapbook. I am their holiday tradition.”
When the mill isn’t displaying its Christmas lights, which begins the day after Thanksgiving and runs until Jan. 1, it offers the restaurant and gift shop, along with tours throughout the spring and summer months. However, mill tours end when Satariano begins getting involved outside in preparation of the Christmas lights.
“What we have on the competition (is) there’s no big parking lot here, you’re not sitting in a neighborhood. You’re sitting out in nature and history here,” he said. “We have a lock on that, and we appreciate that.”
The restaurant took off in 1988, and offers breakfast food all day long, including 12-inch pancakes that can cover a dinner plate. It serves lunch until 3 p.m. and dinner every Friday and Saturday from Feb. 27 until the weekend before Thanksgiving.
It offers concession-style food, including soup, hot dogs and cocoa, while the lights are displayed. The recipes are family-owned, or came with the mill itself.
“Now that we’re into it and enjoy it and are good at it, I guess you’d say we constantly look forward to how to tweak it,” he said. “We’ve decided to take this name, image, whatever, and [brand it]. … Christmas will probably always be here until I can’t do it anymore, then I don’t know what would happen, but we’ll keep adding. We’re adding this year.”
For 28 years, Clifton Mill has celebrated the holiday season with its light display.
The flip of one switch turns all the lights on at once which includes a miniature village, a Santa Claus museum, a 100-foot waterfall of twinkling lights, a toy collection and a spectacular synchronized lights and music show that features the old covered bridge.
Every night until the night before Christmas Eve, peek into Santa’s Workshop to see a live Santa at work and then, every 15 minutes or so, watch him check his list and go up the chimney to load his sleigh.
The old covered bridge is an addition to the legendary lights of Clifton Mill. The bridge, its windows, roof, sides and bottom are covered in lights of various colors as are pseudo trees which flank the bridge.
Every hour, on the hour, all lights at Clifton Mill go out leaving guests in total darkness.
The miniature village has recreations of many of Clifton’s historic buildings, plus a 1950s diner, a light parade going down the main street and two trains that go around the village and across a covered bridge on the mill race stream.
On the outskirts of the village there is a drive-in movie theater and a country fair with moving bumper cars and Ferris wheel.
The Santa Claus museum houses the private collection of the Satariano family which has taken nearly 40 years to amass. There are more than 3,000 examples of Santa Claus on display dating from as far back as 1850.
Clifton is about eight miles northeast of Xenia, three miles east of Yellow Springs, three miles north of Cedarville in Greene County.
Strollers are not allowed inside the building for safety. The mill is wheelchair accessible. Parking is free. For more information, visit www.cliftonmill.com.
Whitney writes for the Greene County Newsgroup, but mostly the Fairborn Daily Herald. She shoots photos on film, and prefers tunes that were considered new when her grandparents were still young. She can be reached at [email protected] or 937-502-4532.