Anthony Satariano used to wear suits and ties for work and travel the country for his professional career. But with a dramatic career change he traded the suits and ties for jeans and sweatshirts and a much brighter future — quite literally to the tune of about 3.9 million Christmas lights.
With Anthony’s father ready to retire in 1985, the father-son duo bought the beautiful, historic Clifton Mill in Greene County that is now well known around Ohio and the country for it’s jaw-dropping Christmas light display.
“Next year will be our 30th year and we are up to around 3.9 million lights,” Satariano said. “I wish we could leave the lights up all year but Mother Nature would literally tear them all apart. We start putting things out at the end of August and start putting lights up in mid-September. It takes a month to take it all down but it takes forever to put it all up. We start turning on the lights the day after Thanksgiving and stop Dec. 31. Then I hibernate and come back out in the spring and take it all down and fix it and put it back up.”
That adds up to plenty of work, even when wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. The purchase of the mill was about more than a new wardrobe through, for Satariano. It allowed for more time with his family and less time in planes and hotels. The focus on family that drove the initial decision is apparent in the resulting business today, especially around the holidays.
“The fun part is getting to share it with everybody and see the multiple generations of families that have made this their family tradition now,” he said. “People who have been coming for years bring their children and grandchildren. All you see all night long is picture flashes going off. Everyone is always in a good mood at Christmas time.”
Year-round the mill’s restaurant and gift shop specialize in local offerings and products made with plenty of flour.
“The mill was fine when we bought it. They had a small gift shop and the rest grew out of necessity. It grew on its own,” Satariano said. “We just listened to people about what they wanted. We focused on grains and pancakes and big breakfast. It was a natural fit for the mill. Pancakes are very much a big thing for us with our connection with milling. We use the mill for show and we can mill as much as we want, but with regulations the way they are we only do it for show.”
They try to work closely with the local community when possible.
“We use a local hog farmer for our sausage, for example,” he said. “We’d rather go local if we can. I like the idea of saying, ‘This came from the farm down the road,’ and customers like that too.”
Satariano really values his role in preserving the unique history of the mill and sharing it with others, but maintaining a facility originally built in the early 1800s as a modern business is not without challenges.
“It has its own unique set of problems. Being very old, the maintenance is very hands-on and we are always fixing all kinds of stuff,” Satariano said. “Keeping up to code and controlling costs is a challenge and it is tough sometimes, but we want to be caretakers of a little bit of history. We love to show people the history and how the mill works.”
As the nights get darker and longer when Christmas draws near, the mill takes on a brilliant glow unimaginable to those who built it so long ago. The dazzling lights, paired with the incredible setting of
the mill perched on the side of a gorge on the Little Miami River, offer a unique and stunning experience for holiday visitors. Restaurant hours are shortened and the staff nearly doubles from 16 to 25 or 30 during Christmas light season.
The tradition of the Christmas lights stems from the Satariano tradition of decorating their family home each year while Anthony was growing up. After buying the mill, it only seemed natural to continue the tradition on a bigger scale.
“We bought 100,000 lights thinking that would be enough. We learned a lot. People would pull in and say, ‘Wow this is really neat.’ We just did more of it after that to share with people,” Satariano said. “We started charging after the first year. We started charging a dollar. We thought if we’d raise the price it would help with the crowd. Then we bumped it up to $7 until several years ago when it went to $10 for adults and kids are free and parking is free.
“We can get several thousand visitors on a good night. If you are planning on coming, try not to come on a Friday or Saturday. There are so many people it is harder to enjoy it.”
Inclement weather does little to deter visitors.
“People out this way are tough. It has to be a Level 3 Snow Emergency or something for people to not come out,” he said. “With a dusting of snow it is gorgeous — too much snow and I have to start brushing it off. The lights will shine up through two feet of snow, though.”
As the light show grew through the years, so did the other holiday attractions on site. The mill also now
has an antique toy collection, a huge Santa Claus collection with one from every generation, an animated miniature village with handcrafted buildings, and a spectacular covered bridge light show synchronized to music. Visitors can also visit Santa’s shop and take a peek at his reindeer getting ready for the season.
“The older people tend to gravitate toward the miniature village and the younger people seem to like the synchronized bridge show. Everybody likes the Santa Clause collection,” he said. “I got the idea for the covered bridge from a beer commercial. The lights are synchronized to music. I have 30 controllers each with 16 channels. The lights are set to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s ‘Carol of the Bells’ and my wife won’t let me change it.”
Thus far, the potential for the display has been limited only by the imagination, but there are physical limits moving forward.
“The biggest challenge for me is that I am running out of room electrically,” he said. “I love to keep it changing and add new things, but I am about maxed out.”
The meticulous and time-consuming set-up has evolved into a science over the years to get things looking just right as efficiently as possible.
“I have a core group of about five guys who have been with me for a long time that help set up. Each of us has our own specialty we do,” Satariano said. “We test things as we go and we usually replace 3,000 to 5,000 strands each year. We set it up so one switch turns them all on.”
With the flip of the switch each evening this time of year, jaws drop and visitors gasp — things that continue to make Satariano’s mid-80s career change worthwhile and enjoyable despite the long hours and hard work.
“To share Christmas with so many rather than just my family is special. People can’t wait to tell you about how what we are doing fits into their traditions. I invite Children’s Hospital to send me a couple of kids and I find out what they want from their parents and give it to them. Getting to share this with all of these people is really fun,” Satariano said. “One of the guys said the other day while we were setting up the lights, ‘Wow this is still cool after all these years.’ When we have time to enjoy it, it is still pretty neat.”