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Pictured above are only some of the 4.2 million holiday lights currently on display at the Historic Clifton Mill. For the third year in a row, the 200-year-old mill was in the running for best holiday lights display in a nationwide competition by USA Today. Out of frame is an equally adorned covered bridge, a “light waterfall,” a sprawling miniature toy town, Santa’s workshop and other holiday delights. (Photo by Kathleen Galarza)

The Legendary Lights at Clifton Mill get second place in national contest

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Strand upon strand of twinkling lights seem to adorn nearly every square inch of the two-centuries-old grist mill at the historic Clifton Mill.

They wind around almost every tree on site and shimmer along the walkways. They coat the covered bridge, and underneath, a carpet of red lights blanket the banks of the Little Miami River. Nearby, a miniature toy village twinkles and whirrs with life. Illuminated reindeer stamp their hooves atop a log cabin. Everywhere you look: lights.

In total, Clifton Mill boasts over 4.2 million of these lights. To be sure, it’s a sight to behold.

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It’s this impressive display that landed Clifton Mill in a national “10Best” contest by USA Today for best public lights in the holiday display category. The Legendary Lights at Clifton Mill won second place.

Clifton Mill beat out other festive contenders such as “Lights of the Ozarks” display, in Fayetteville, Ark.; “Christmas Town USA,” in McAdenville, N.C.; the “Trail of Lights,” in Austin, Texas; and a number of other impressive light displays across the country. The “Natchitoches Christmas Festival,” in Natchitoches, La., came in first place.

“We’re always proud to be in these holiday competitions,” said longtime general manager of the mill, Jessica Noes, in a recent interview with the News. “We work hard to make the lights look better and better each Christmas season, so it feels good to get some big-time recognition.”

This isn’t Clifton Mill’s first brush with national fame. It’s the third year in a row the family-owned business has been considered for best holiday lights display in the “10Best” competition. The mill’s lights display came in third place in 2019 and second in 2018. Also in 2018, Clifton Mill won the grand prize of $50,000 in ABC’s “The Great Christmas Light Fight” competition.

“A lot of the places we were up against are entire villages, towns and even a zoo,” said Jessical Noes. “These kinds of competitions are a David versus Goliath scenario. With us being a small business with a small staff, the odds always seem stacked against us.”

Just the same, she has confidence in the dazzling quality of the mill’s current set-up.

“It should be a no-brainer,” said Noes. “I may be a little biased, but our lights really are the best.”

While the annual holiday display is the pride of Clifton Mill, Noes said the historical charm of the business is what really attracts people to the mill year after year. Built along the shores of the Little Miami River, the seven-story mill still does what it was designed to do: grind grain into flour. This milling process is powered by a water turbine that rotates from the current of the channel. Flour from the mill is used to make the restaurant’s famous pancakes.

“It’s a year-round destination,” said Noes. “But especially during Christmastime.”

The annual lighting of the mill began not long after the Satariano family purchased the mill in 1987. Being a particularly “festive family,” as Noes put it, the Satarianos would always go all-out each Christmas season with their decorations. Getting the mill meant the Satarianos had the opportunity of a lifetime to really go all-out. By 1988, the family had strung over 100,000 Christmas lights all around the historic structures. Year after year, their ambitions grew.

The rest is history. Nowadays, with the flip of a switch each night at 6 p.m., millions of LED lights transform Clifton Mill from historical survivor into holiday spectacle, and the sleepy, 150-person village of Clifton morphs into a tourist destination.

Brent Noes, Jessica’s husband, has been working for the mill for the last 29 years — including each holiday season — and he says he’s proud of how far the business has come.

“We put a lot of hours into setting these lights up,” he said. “But it’s always worth it.”

Clifton Mill’s decorated water turbine is still used to power the milling process of turning grain into flour. In the distance is the historic covered bridge that guests walk through to enter the festive site each night. Every 30 minutes during the nightly display of lights, the bridge erupts into an impressive synchronized light and music show. (Photo by Kathleen Galarza)

Brent Noes is among the team of eight mill employees who help Anthony Satariano, whose father purchased the mill 33 years ago and who is now the current owner, string up the lights each year. The grand set up always begins in the late summer days of early September.

“The most difficult part is always laying the lights down the gorge,” Brent Noes said, referring to the sizable cliff face that drops to the Little Miami River from the Mill.

This process requires rappelling and involves a great deal of time and energy, he elaborated. Additionally, a small fleet of bucket trucks are used for decorating the highest reaches of the mill and surrounding trees.

“That’s around when our electricity bill starts going up,” said Jessica Noes. According to her husband, Dayton Power & Light is “a big fan” of their work at the mill.

Brent Noes said he feels a palpable sense of pride whenever their lights display gets national attention or is nominated for contests like USA Today’s “10Best.”

“It really shows the notoriety we’re beginning to get — not just from this area, but from across the whole country,” he said. “We’re seeing people come here from well beyond the Midwest. I’ve talked to guests from the East Coast and from the Deep South who’ve said they saw us on TV and wanted to see it for themselves.”

What he appreciates the most, however, isn’t just that attendance numbers have gone up with each passing year. It’s that he sees some families return season after season, carrying on a holiday tradition that he believes can span generations.

“I’ve seen people who used to come here as kids, who now bring their children,” he said. “That’s exactly the kind of family atmosphere that we strive for here. We want people to see us as a part of their holiday traditions — to keep coming back.”

Holidays during a pandemic

Whereas Clifton Mill typically sees “tens of thousands” of customers over the course of a regular holiday season, this year, of course, has been a little different. According to Jessica Noes, the COVID-19 pandemic has really put a damper on business.

“Our numbers are down by a lot,” she said. “We’re seeing crowds at about a third of their usual size.”

Not only has this pandemic-related decrease in business affected the revenue typically generated by the holiday lights display, but the restaurant business at Clifton Mill as well.

“People gathering to have their Christmas parties in our dining room is always a big part of our holiday business, and that’s just not happening this year,” said Jessica Noes. “They’re just not coming.”

The restaurant, which typically consists of 23 tables throughout its multiple dining rooms, has been reduced to 16 tables with added distance between them.

For the restaurant’s servers who depend on a reliable flow of tourism around this time of year, such as Sara Williams, the dip in business has become a significant financial burden.

“This has been the most challenging year since I began working here,” said Williams, who has waited tables at the mill for nearly 15 years. “I tend to count on the money that comes from the usual holiday parties that dine in, but that’s just not happening this Christmas season.”

Williams, like a number of other mill employees, undergoes a change in roles by the time customers start arriving for the lights show. She and most of the restaurant staff move outdoors to help with the flow of holiday light-seers. This includes working the concession stand, selling the mill’s signature soft pretzels, hot dogs, popcorn, hot chocolate and cider; tending the gates and taking tickets; coordinating parking; or simply making sure the lights go on without a hitch.

This year, however, all employees have some added jobs each night of the lights display: enforcing Ohio’s statewide 10 p.m. curfew, and ensuring that all guests are wearing their masks and are keeping physical distance from one another. 

“Ultimately, we try to minimize the number of people that can congregate on the property at any given time each night,” said Brent Noes. “So, we only let a certain number of people through the gates at a time.”

This, he said, leads to longer wait times outside of the Mill’s property. On busy weekends, guests can spend up to an hour and a half just waiting to get inside the gates.

“That’s a big reason we encourage people to come throughout the week, when there are smaller crowds,” said Jessica Noes.

To Jessica Noes, keeping guests safe is the mill’s number one priority, especially as the pandemic continues to ravage Ohio.

“We’re just doing the best we can with the situation we’ve been given,” said Jessica Noes.

Despite the pandemic, there have still been thousands this month who have made the pilgrimage to Clifton Mill, and for both the Noeses, it’s this enthusiasm for their lights that has kept their spirits high in this difficult year.

“We’re trying to do everything in our ability to keep our customers safe, while still giving them something to look forward to and a way to carry on their family traditions that they look forward to all year,” said Jessica Noes. “But above all, I think we’re just ready to move past this season and this pandemic. I won’t sugarcoat that one.”

The Mill’s lights are on display seven nights a week from 6–9 p.m., and general admission costs $10 (children 3 and under are free). The gates open nightly at 5 p.m. The final night of the season is Dec. 30. Hours of operation on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are 6–8 p.m.

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