A few hundred people, a few million lights

Clifton Mill’s small-town charm and big-time lights

By Tim Smith

Photo: The miniature village at Clifton Mill, open every evening at 5 p.m. now until Dec. 31

If it’s December, it must be time to visit historic Clifton Mill to marvel at the holiday light display. A trip to the Mill has become an annual tradition for many in the Miami Valley. Small wonder, since it began as a family affair.

“The whole idea was my father’s,” says Tony Satariano, owner. “He said that everyday was a holiday and we originally decorated the Mill for our family. We began with a hundred-thousand lights, then people starting pulling in to look at it.”

That was 27 years ago, and the display is going stronger than ever. “It’s neat to know that somewhere out there, we’re a part of family traditions. You see photos being taken and you know it’s going to wind up in someone’s scrapbook. That just makes it worthwhile. We’ve become a tradition in the Miami Valley. We’ve filled a niche.”

The display contains familiar favorites, but there are new surprises each year to keep things interesting.

“Every year, we’re constantly adding something,” says Jessica Noes, the Mill’s General Manager. “This year we added a huge part to the Christmas Bridge Show. I would say it’s one of the biggest attractions.”

Over a half-million lights are used on the covered bridge alone. She won’t share what the new attraction is, but predicts that visitors will be impressed.

Clifton Mill was originally built in 1802 and is one of the largest water-powered grist mills still in existence. The Satariano family has owned it since 1982. It takes six men over three months to put up the more than 3.5 million lights that illuminate the mill, gorge, riverbanks, trees, bridges and a hundred-foot “waterfall” of twinkling lights.

Last year turned out to be a banner year for the Mill. It was voted one of the “Top Ten Best Christmas Light Displays in the United States” by USA Today. It was also featured on the Yahoo homepage in a story about “Best Christmas Light Displays off the Beaten Path.” The USA Today honor was the result of a Reader’s Choice survey.

Noes attributes both honors to the influence of social media. Visitors to the Mill displayed photos and videos of their experience on Facebook and YouTube. “I do think that through social media, people are finding us.”

“We’re still tickled about it,” adds Satariano. “From a town of 155 people, we made the national news. It was absolutely a pleasant surprise that someone submitted us to USA Today.

A little known fact about Clifton Mill is that during the War of 1812, it was used to provide cornmeal for the Federal troops. At one time it also housed a distillery operated by Isaac Funk, of Funk and Wagnall’s Dictionary fame. “We don’t tell a lot of people about the distillery,” Noes cautions. For the record, it is no longer in operation.

Promptly at 6 p.m. each evening, the place officially comes alive with the turning on of the lights, which has become ceremonial. “I’ll just pick someone out of the crowd, often through conversation,” Satariano says. “A flip of the switch and boom!—3.8 million lights come on.”

The Mill also works with Dayton Children’s Medical Center to provide “VIP Guests” to do the honors. This year’s first lighting on Nov. 27 was performed by personalities from Mix 107.7 FM in Dayton.

Other popular features include a miniature village, Santa Claus museum, toy collection and Santa’s workshop. The jolly old man will be on hand each night, making toys while checking his naughty-or-nice list.

“The Santa collection was part of our family tradition, adding a new Santa each year,” Satariano says. “It began the display, but people have donated Santas over the years. We have ones that have a personal connection with the families that have donated them.

“One of the hardest parts of our schedule is finding someone to play Santa in the workshop, someone with the right personality and stamina. They have to climb that chimney every fifteen minutes and still wave to the children. They can’t be a ‘Bah, humbug!’ type of person.”

Noes cites the miniature village as her favorite. Many components depict historic buildings from Greene County’s past, including a 1950’s diner, a light parade, two trains and a replica of a drive-in movie theater showing an actual film. “You can look at the village every year and pick out something you didn’t notice before,” she says.

They’ve made efforts to go green but according to Satariano, it hasn’t been easy. “We’ve added more energy-efficient LED lights and solar lights this year. It’s difficult to find more efficient ways to keep the lights on.”

The Mill hosts special nights throughout the season, such as Heroes Night for military personnel and first responders. They also have four to six engagements and weddings that spontaneously happen each year. The snack bar serves homemade goodies and light refreshments. Check the Mill’s website for a calendar of special events.

For Tony Satariano, the effort is clearly worth the time invested each year. “Someone will shake my hand and say ‘Thank you for doing this and making it a part of our family tradition.’ That’s part of the payoff, the labor of love.”

The Lights at Historic Clifton Mill opens every evening at 5 p.m. from Nov. 27 through Dec. 31 at 75 Water St. in Clifton. The lights officially go on at 6 p.m. Parking is free, but the cost of admission is $10 per person age 7 and older. Children 6 and under are admitted free. For more information and a schedule of events, call 937.767.5501 or visit cliftonmill.com.   

Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at TimSmith@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Tim Smith
Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at TimSmith@DaytonCityPaper.com

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