By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler, Your Tour Guide to Fun
Traveling alone is a different sort of tourism, usually amid a business trip.
Motoring through Northeast Ohio’s beloved Amish Country, the sun hit the rolling grassy hillscapes in such a way it looked like… A sound invaded my head. It was a high-pitched elation straight out of Teletubbyland. WHY? My kids are in their twenties! But that’s the vibrant colors that danced across my windshield from the outside landscape.
WHOA! I reminded myself to be mindful of horses and buggies on the other side of these state route hills.
I decided that Sugarcreek, Ohio’s “Little Switzerland,” was where I’d lay my head for the night. That way, I could film the World’s Largest Cuckoo Clock before grabbing a bite and retiring to my room. Stopped at the main crossroad in town, I casually gazed to my left, and there it was – the 1977 cover of the Guinness Book of World Records. I was tired, but experience told me to pull over and capture it on film while it basked in the “golden hour.” But I lied to myself and said it’ll hold while I checked in and walked back.
The Sugarcreek Village Inn was down a side street tucked against tall leafy shade trees dotting the curb. Its sprawling front porch made me wish I could just grab a rocker and order delivery. The place was a homey labyrinth of halls and stairs. I almost missed my room because its door was halfway down a twisty set of stairs. And inside, I walked downstairs from the other side of the door to my bed and bathroom. I liked it! Out back were old train cars. It turns out they are guest rooms inside. Pretty cool!
I grabbed my camera and tripod and walked back to the clock. Grrr… The golden hour was replaced by harsh shadows: part golden hour, part you-dummy! The artist in me said it framed it nicely, though. The clock puts on its show every half-hour from 9am – 9pm April through November. Of course, I had a bit of a wait. My headspace drifted to a time some 35 years ago. I was stationed in Europe and was deciding which Cuckoo Clock to mail to my parents as a Christmas gift. At 19 years old, I was paid a pauper’s wage as a Private. I almost splurged for the more expensive one. Too bad I didn’t. Especially since it now hangs in my house after my parents downsized.
A couple my age started chatting with me at the curb, waiting. I love meeting people while I’m out and about. I shared a few laughs with Brian and Cheryl as a group of ladies on a girlfriends’ trip to Amish Country also gathered. The Cuckoo bird popped out of the top of the clock making its cuckoo noise. [You would think that noise would be called Cuckooing. It is not! Cuckooing is a police term used to describe a criminal takeover of a property to use for illegal means. But it does take this name from cuckoo birds, known for taking over the nests of other birds by laying their eggs with the eggs already there. The other bird hatches them, and the baby cuckoos shove the remaining eggs out.] Next, the Oompah-pah band files out, takes their positions, and plays their music. Then, a Swiss couple dances up a circular storm, all to the delight of the spectators who gathered.
Next to the clock is a peculiar place in its own right – Kuckoo’s Nest Gift Shop. Outside, it had a vintage telephone booth, an antique Coca-Cola vending machine, and an array of colorful signage from Yesteryear. As I snapped some photos, a young pedestrian (I think it was a local) walking his dog stopped to say, “Hey, you ever meet Big Mike?” He nodded toward the front door. “If you want a new best friend who knows his way around novelty items and pop culture memorabilia, he’s your guy!” And off the smiley stranger went. Then, over his shoulder, he hollered, “It’s like walking into a little ‘Boomer’ museum – you’ll love it.” The gentleman intended to use the term “Boomer” in a positive light, but its actual slang use today is meant as more of an insult to folks older than the name-caller and not necessarily old enough to be in the Baby-Boomer generation. It is usually delivered in a mocking tone accompanied by an eye-roll.
It was well past my suppertime, so I walked back to the inn to dump my gear and get a quick change for dinner. On the way, as darkness crept into the streets, a man on what I can only describe as an Amish rickshaw passed me one way, then another, on one street, and then the opposite two ways up and down another. He was either looking for a fare, or I was going to have the most embarrassing mugging story ever.
Having passed Bags Sports Pub twice, I was sold just by the mix of deliciousness I could smell from the stoop. As a solo act in a crowded joint, the friendly waitress asked if the bar would do (meaning, it’s that way or the highway). As I ponied up to my stool, a three-way smile took hold – Brian and Cheryl (from the clock) were seated beside me. We shared a beer and a meal. Both were delicious. I forget the name of the beer served at Brian’s (it might have been Cheryl’s) recommendation. But my dinner, I do remember. It was the “smothered chicken” with flame-roasted onions, peppers, mushrooms, and topped with provolone cheese and smothered in alfredo sauce. On the side were red-skinned mashed potatoes. Yum! The three of us chatted up a storm ranging from an old fishing place we both knew in Northern Ontario to our roots and present.
I was still smiling when I walked back to the inn, albeit looking over my shoulder for the rickshaw man. There, down the steps from the outside door and before the half flight of steps to my room, was a wide common area in between. Coffee and snacks were laid out, and off in the corner was a community iron and ironing board. I made like home and brewed a cup-o-decaf to sip as I ironed my clothes for the next day’s business meetings.
At first light, I was up and at ‘em … having another cup-o-joe (this time caffeinated) on that inviting porch up front. Then, I walked to the main drag in town again. This time, I wanted to get some treats for the clients and prospects I’d be visiting later. So, I made a beeline to Esther’s Home Bakery & Café – “Made from scratch with TLC.” Believe that! Just by the looks of the building façade, I knew it was a great pick. It featured two second-story balconies, a wood porch with iron railing, a park bench, and two huge front windows backlit, with Esther working away to prepare for the day.
Esther tried to help me with my decision-making for each assorted box of goodies: homemade donuts, fry pies, cinnamon rolls, brownies, cookies, you name it. Then, she turned and said, how about adding these? She pointed to unglazed donuts and then to the fresh hot glaze she said would just be a minute for her to add. She was a sweet lady (a little bit of a pun intended), and her baked goods were perfecto! I wished I would be back there around lunch to try that menu.
Across the empty morning street, not yet alive as the sun warmed, I was drawn to a brick and redwood building with ivy splashing against it. It was an old-school auto service station with a cherry red antique truck glimmering through the bay windows. The sign overhead read: Moomaw Automotive …Since 1912.
Instantly I was seven years old, sitting shotgun with my grandpa in his old jalopy cruising around town. Back in the day, he owned his own auto shop like Moomaw’s. Grandpa always seemed to own huge cars – Chryslers. That’s why the lyrics of a B-52s song always made me smile, “Hop in my Chrysler, it’s as big as a whale, and it’s about to set sail!” I could barely see over the dashboard, my legs stretched straight out on the front seat, and I had no seatbelt (it was the early 1970s).
Anyway, in retirement, Grandpa retreaded tires from his home garage. We stopped at several service stations, each with wasted tires the owners saved for Grandpa. The guys at these places all loved him.
“The car hasn’t been running like her old self, so…”
Some young guy at an old filling station opened grandpa’s door and helped him out.
I stood in the parking lot, skipping stones across the cement, trying to reach the vacant lot on the other side. Several minutes later, Grandpa appeared with an air filter and other odds and ends. He taught me to pop the hood of the whale (with his secret help). He sat me on the front grill so I could see what he was doing.
“Now, watch carefully because this is going to be like magic!” grandpa smiled at me as he spun off a wing nut. Out came the dirty filter, and in went the clean one.
“Tighten the wing nut.”
“Which way, grandpa?”
“Righty tighty, lefty loosey.”
Driving away, he asked, “Feel the difference?”
“No, not really,” I admitted.
“Oh, we’re just getting started,” he said as he turned down an empty road.
He stood on one leg, and his butt rose from the seat. My body was instantly sucked deep into the back of the whale. I felt like the seat was swallowing me. When I looked out of the side window, it was a blur.
“How about now?” grandpa howled.
I took a step back from Moomaw’s reflective glass. I guess it was my version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Turning to take in downtown Sugarcreek, I thought, what a postcard moment. The Swiss influence and Amish life intersected at Main and Broadway with the morning sun. I walked around window shopping at places like the Secret Garden and all its fairy-world offerings, Carlisle Fabric & Gifts (thinking, thank goodness my wife isn’t here right now), the Gospel Shop, Kaleidoscope Creative Goods, Mad Dog (vinyl) Records, and Swiss Tees Clothing (creative). But the most distinct Swiss architecture downtown belongs to the Alpine Hills Historical Museum (Open April – October), which also serves as Sugarcreek’s Information Center.
Sugarcreek, “The Little Switzerland of Ohio,” is also said to be the “Gateway to Amish Country.” And if it’s the gateway, consider the Alpine Hills Historical Museum as the ticket booth.
Again, traveling alone is a different sort of tourism, and it’s usually amid a business trip. But when you’re sweet on a place, you’ll be back … with company.
By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler, Your Tour Guide to Fun!