Clifton’s legendary holiday tradition shines on
Perhaps the biggest claim to fame for the village of Clifton is that it is entirely un-famous. With a total population of 152 people, 64 households and 39 families residing in less than a .2 square mile area, the town goes largely unnoticed by many of the inhabitants in neighboring cities, leaving even less to say from those around the state or across the country.
But the little village has caught some big notoriety for its 20-year holiday tradition. The Legendary Lights of Clifton Mill have been featured in Midwest Living and Ohio Magazine as one of the area’s best holiday displays.
The legendary – and ambitious – demonstration features almost 4 million twinkling Christmas lights draped over the 200-year-old mill, the gorge and the surrounding natural areas. A 100-foot waterfall of sparkling lights banks the old wooden structure, flanked by a covered bridge that features an hourly 500,000 synchronized light show.
“It’s pretty neat,” said Jessica Noes, Clifton Mill General Manager. “They all go on with one flip of the switch.”
The switch will flip Friday, Nov. 29, opening night for the legendary lights, which will stay up until the new year.
It’s a tradition that started in 1987, when now-Owner Anthony Satariano was in his twenties.
“The very first year, we started it basically by accident,” Satariano said.
He and his father had recently purchased the old mill. After walking around the property, they decided to decorate it, with 100 strands of lights, just for themselves.
“We bought 100,000 lights, thinking it would last us a lifetime,” Satariano said.
Now, Anthony – 51 years old and referred to around the mill as “boss” – is responsible for 3.8 million twinkling lights that adorn the old mill each holiday season.
For a 20-something who “barely knew how to plug in a set of lights,” Satariano now likely has a much better grasp on issues of amperage than any amateur holiday decorator. With a crew of four other key men, he begins installing the display sometime in December, with the hopes of being done before Turkey Day. In the last few weeks, they’ll put in between 70 and 80 hours of work each week.
“It’s such a big project and it certainly is more for the tradition,” Satariano said. “It was my Father’s idea to start it, and now that the community has taken it in as their tradition, we just feel compelled to do it.”
Satariano’s son, who’s now in college, has even helped with the family tradition – at one time, three generations were installing lights on the historical town fixture. It’s unclear whether the light duty will stay in the family after Satariano retires, but the boss is confident that the community will keep this dazzling tradition alive.
“The general public seems to really have taken hold of it,” he said. “People want to have something fun and universally accepted to do with their friends or their special someone.”
Clifton Mill is the only mill remaining of five built in the early 1800s along the Little Miami River. It was built in its location to benefit from the natural power of the water being funneled into the gorge. Today, Clifton Mill is one of the largest water-powered grist mills still in existence anywhere.
“The natural beauty of the area we sit in with the river and the gorge and the log cabin, you just can’t duplicate that,” Satariano said.
Other attractions at the historic site include a 3,500-strong Santa collection, toys from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and even a miniature village. The village has replicas of things that would have been found in Greene County 50 years ago – a Frisch’s Big Boy, a drag strip, a drive-in, a carnival and a fair. There’s even a miniature replica of the mill’s covered bridge – adorned with between 35 and 40 Christmas lights. While all these preparations are taxing on the mill’s staff, the biggest challenge, according to Satariano, is in continuing to add to it every year.
Concessions – hot dogs, hot chocolate and homemade soups – are available for patrons to warm their hands by as they stand outside to watch the spectacle unfold. The mill also boasts a restaurant, offering up homemade breakfasts and lunches, and dinners on most weekends.
“It’s nice,” Noes said. “You can sit inside in a regular restaurant area and then look at your beautiful view.”
Even with gains in public notoriety, Clifton Mill, like the rest of the town, is still largely unknown – even nearby.
“It’s still a pretty well-kept secret,” Noes said. “So many people in Miami Valley don’t know it even exists.”
And perhaps for some, that’s an attraction all its own.
The Legendary Lights at Clifton Mill open Friday, Nov. 29 and will remain open until Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014. The gates are open every day from 5-9 p.m., except for Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, when the gates close at 8 p.m. Admission is $10 per person over the age of 7. Parking is free. Clifton Mill is located at 75 Water St. For more information, please visit cliftonmill.com.
reach DCP freelance writer Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.