What happened to Sugarcreek?

Last month when commenting on a favorite Amish restaurant, reader Cherie wondered:

A couple of decades ago, Sugarcreek was the major shopping and dining area in Amish Country. Not so much anymore. The Amish tour train no longer operates. The ice cream shop is no more. I don’t understand why Sugarcreek is losing favor with tourists when it is so close to I-77. Perhaps someone else can explain.

I just read a book which addressed this very question.  Selling the Amish: The Tourism of Nostalgia by Susan Trollinger investigates the phenomenon of Amish tourism by examining 3 tourist towns in the Holmes County OH settlement.

In line with Cherie’s observation, the author finds that while tourism is flourishing in the nearby towns of Walnut Creek and Berlin, it has deteriorated in Sugarcreek.

Three Flags Sugarcreek
US, Ohio, and Swiss flags are displayed throughout Sugarcreek

Beyond the closing of the popular train line, Trollinger sees more primal causes for the decline of tourism in the town.  We might not be conscious of them, but there are deeper forces drawing us to Amish Country tourism, and Berlin and Walnut Creek in particular.

The argument is more intricate than I can do justice to here, but generally speaking she finds that the towns of Berlin and Walnut Creek present a more positive, forward-looking vision for visitors. More specifically, Walnut Creek with its “Victorian” theme, and Berlin with its “frontier” theme

encourag[e] visitors to “remember” the past in romanticized ways and then to imagine a better future that is based on that romanticized past. They inspire tourists to experience nostalgia not so much for the past but on behalf of a future that takes its shape from that highly selective and idealized past (Selling the Amish, p. 134).

In contrast, she writes, “While a visitor may experience nostalgia in Sugarcreek, the longing that it inspires is for a past that is forever gone” (p. 135).  It is an interesting argument and I don’t want to give away too much here, but if you want to learn more about the phenomenon of Amish tourism I’d recommend the book.

Swiss kitsch and sweet names

I do like Sugarcreek.  With the ever-present Swiss motif there is an element of kitsch about the place, but I am partial to kitsch in doses (for the record I don’t see “kitsch” as a necessarily bad thing).

Alpine Hills Museum Sugarcreek
A typical facade of buildings in Sugarcreek’s Swiss Village

On a more superficial level, my perception of a place is also influenced by its name.  “Mudtown” or “Migraine Heights” sound a lot less inviting than places called “Sugarcreek” or “Mount Hope”.  The name of Sugarcreek has always had a romantic appeal in my mind.

Beyond the arguments presented in Selling the Amish I also wonder about a more basic reason for the town’s tourist struggles.  When I visit a new place my instinct is to go right to the heart of the action, whether that’s a new city, museum or Amish community.

Sugarcreek Cuckoo Clock
The “world’s largest cuckoo clock” came to Sugarcreek in 2010

While it’s true that it lies near Interstate-77, Sugarcreek appears on the edge of most “Amish Country” maps acquired by tourists, given that it lies at the eastern end of the settlement.

Also, traveling through town on Route 39, to reach the Swiss Village area you have to detour off the main road. These are probably not the main forces behind Sugarcreek’s tourism struggles, but perhaps contributing factors.

Have you visited Sugarcreek?  What were your impressions?  Why do you think some tourist destinations are more popular than others?

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    37 Comments

    1. Sugarcreek

      You make some good points, but the problems with Sugarcreek go deeper than what Trollinger has to say, or what you have quoted from her book. Your point of having to go off SR 39 to reach downtown is one. Another is that there is really nothing downtown to attract people. Once the cheese house and the train left, it was only a matter of time since the local town leaders basically sat on their hands. Maintaining the status quo was a self-inflicted problem for Sugarcreek. It is unfortunate, but a stark reality.

      1. Trainloads of tourists

        One thing I did gather from Selling the Amish was the importance of the train. You probably know all this firsthand Bruce, but apparently visits to Sugarcreek basically plummeted after it shut down in 1998 over “unresolved issues regarding parking and public restrooms.” (p. 119)

        It returned in 2001, and 65,000 tourists were riding it annually. Then it closed again in 2004 due to “significant increases in passenger liability insurance premiums combined with insufficient ridership”, according to an announcement cited in the book (p. 120).

        I also wonder how this affected Baltic, since I understand that was the other terminus of the train. Smaller place, and also a little sleepy. I am fond of it though, always try to drop by “downtown” when in the area.

      2. Jackie

        Cheese factory

        Why did the cheese factory leave?

    2. Stephanie Rollins

      Nothing much there

      I have been there twice in the past year. Other than the unique architecture and a bulk food store (a really good one), there is just not much there.

    3. Marcus Yoder

      I always go to Surgarcreek when i go to the Holmes county area. There are several reasons,as my Great Grandfather came to this area around 1870.His father in law was John S. Yoder,whose home was one of the first Amish houses in what is now Sugarcreek.This house was moved behind Beachys resturant, and can be toured. To me Berlin and Walnut Creek are to busy with tourist traps.I always go to the Mennonite Heritage center to see if there are any new genealogy books.I have visited a lot of Amish ancestors graves from Farmerstown to Sugarcreek,and from Baltic to Mt Hope.I try to get what i do in Berlin and Walnut Creek done early in the day.
      Marcus Yoder

      1. To Marcus:

        Is the Erb name still in existence around Sugarcreek? In our Erb Family History book of 1961 there is a section about the Holmes Co., Ohio branch of the family. Descendants of David Erb, born about 1811 who married Susan Yoder and located on a farm near Farmerstown.

        1. naomi

          The Erbs do still live here in the Sugarcreek, Farmerstown and surrounding area. I have 2 aunts that are married to Erbs one on each side of the family, but not sure from which descendants they come from.

      2. Maybe paradoxically part of Sugarcreek’s appeal now is fewer tourists than those places Marcus. It must be interesting tracking your history through the area, I wonder how easy these graves are to find/access.

        1. Marcus Yoder

          Erik i have an Amish cemetery book by Leroy Beachy. It is still hard to find some cemeteries as some are back off of the road.I always ask permission to go back a private lane. I Have a few more to find in Holmes county area,then i would like to make trip to Pennsylvania.
          Marcus Yoder

          1. findagrave dot com has a lot of information. I even found an old overgrown cemetery here in Lancaster that is surrounded by a cornfield and a creek. Finding family history can be quite interesting. I recently found that my wife’s Martin relatives that came from Europe settled and are buried about 2 miles from where we now live. I drove past the places many times not knowing they were the homesteads of the first Mennonite Martins that came to America.

            1. OldKat

              Interesting post

              I find it interesting when people do family research and discover that they are living very close to where their ancestors once lived; yet the younger generation never knew their roots were so close by.

              I have heard of several cases of this, including that of one of my former bosses who had fairly recently (last ten years) moved to the county where I live. While doing some genealogical research he discovered that his grandfather was born less than 2 miles from where he now lives. He had no idea that his family had ever lived in our county or even our part of the state prior to his moving there, but it turns out that they settled there after immigrating from Poland in the late 1800’s.

              There is even a commercial for one of the genealogical websites where a lady says that she was always curious about her grandmother that she never knew. When she did research she discovered that she lived just blocks away from the building where her grandmother had once lived.

    4. The old, decrepit-looking brick factory as you enter town from the east certainly adds no Amish feel to Sugarcreek. Brick factories are not generally thought of as Amish, even though a large percentage of the employees are Amish. The auction barn is about as Amish as you get, on horse auction days. 🙂

    5. stephanie

      It is not the train. The place is run down. The “swiss” buildings are more like a bad (really bad) theme park and most of those have chipped paint and are falling apart. There are no good restaurants. The only place there is a place to play mini golf and volley ball that my daughter and many Amish and Mennonite youth visit but that is nothing a tourist would want to go to. That is just a local thing and it is even a bit run down

      1. Marcus Yoder

        I thought Beachys Country Chalet, and Dutch Valley were pretty good.

        1. Linda

          Beachy's Country Chalet

          Beachy’s Country Chalet in Sugarcreek is featured in an article titled, “Beachy’s features blend of Amish, Swiss cuisines.”
          “The restaurant serves Amish-style food along with Swiss dishes.”
          “Each morning, Beachy picks up his Amish employees and brings them to the restaurant and takes them home in the evening.”

          http://www.timesreporter.com/article/20140702/ENTERTAINMENTLIFE/140709813/10686/SPECIAL

          http://www.timesreporter.com/article/20140702/ENTERTAINMENTLIFE/140709813/10686/SPECIAL?template=printart

    6. Jackie Miller

      What happened to Sugarcreek

      Sugarcreek was a wonderful place from the 60’s thru the 90’s. My father-in-law was the local artist Tom Miller who purchased a building in downtown Sugarcreek in the 60’s and put the first Swiss front on it. Soon after he convinced the other owners that this would be a good tourist attraction and they named Sugarcreek “Little Switzerland.” Tom Miller designed all of the buildings and combined paintings with mechanics to create store fronts with moving parts, such as trains thru tunnels, skiers down mountains, etc. He painted many murals at the local restaurants as well as thousands of paintings.His largest and most complicated work was at Alpine Alpha near Wilmot(now closed). Also, another large mural was done at Heini’s. He kept the interest alive as long as he lived. When he passed away in 1996 everything changed.

      1. Becky A

        What Happened to Sugarcreek

        I go to Sugarcreek at least once a month to the bulk food store. They seemed to try to draw some tourists with adding a “strip” of eateries on the Eastern end of 39, but I agree that most people just drive on by, many not realizing what’s off the beaten path. I miss the murals and the mechanics to them. Bless your father-in-law, Jackie, for having the vision. Too bad no one carried it on. I also greatly miss the train through there. Seems as if those two combined have led to the demise of the town. I don’t appreciate Berlin and Walnut Creek’s tourist trap. If I go, I try to do it during the weekday. Having grown up in PA, it saddens me to see it go the way of Lancaster.

      2. marie b

        Jackie, your father-in-law was a wonderful artist. We enjoy seeing his work all over Holmes county, when we visit. We saw him in one of the amish videos, that we have many years ago. I alway loved the picture of the little log cabin in the snow hanging on his wall in his shop. I went to Sugarcreek, many years ago, to find him, but sadly I was told he had passed away. I was hoping to find that picture. Whenever we watch the video of him painting Jesus walking on water, its just so beautiful. I remember the first time I saw the mural at Alpine Alpha, it was amazing. God blessed him a with an amazing talent. Its true, I don’t visit Sugarcreek every time I visit Holmes county, (about 2 times/year) because its off the main drag, and I think the town has an “oldness” about it, sad but true. Marie Booze, Windsor Ontario Canada

      3. Andi

        Jackie,

        Is this Cukoo Clock the one that used to be at Alpine Alpa? Alpine Alpa was one of the fist places my husband took me when I moved to Wayne County in the 90s

        1. twelvesilkroses

          Cuckoo Clock

          The Cuckoo Clock is there, in the middle of town. We love to see it when we visit. It is about the only attraction there now.

    7. Valerie

      Sugarcreek is great

      It doesn’t have alot to draw you but the architecture makes all the difference. I love your father-in-laws work Jackie including the murals that were/are so beautiful. Too bad no one carried the torch. The train did seem a big draw and it’s a shame that nothing could be resolved, there’s other tourist trains within an hour or less radius that keep doing well.

      Beverly Lewis play ran there until last weekend-wonder how that did, I can’t believe I never made it to see it!

      One thing they’ve done is made that particular area like “wine country” as thee are two winderies close to Sugarcreek and Heini’s is trying to be a draw with their wine & cheese thing-but not sure the Amish want to be known for wine country.

      But hey-the Budget comes from Sugarcreek, can’t ever die with that.

    8. Sharon

      I’ve always wanted to visit Sugarcreek as it seemed like such an interesting little town. Sure hate to hear all that’s happening or I guess not happening in Sugarcreek.

      1. Sugarcreek still sweet to visit

        I’d say it still is quite an interesting little town Sharon and worth visiting. When I lived in this area for a summer, it was the first town I drove through as I went to work in the Amish community.

        Amish live all around it and do business there, and I really like the Swiss heritage element. I know Mike notes the brickyard is not what people connect with Amish but I have always liked this throwback industry that seems to still be plugging on today, and with many Amish employees visible going about their business as you pass through. And this is also home of the Budget as Valerie points out.

        With the growth of the Amish I think inevitably more visitors will land here even if the train or something similar doesn’t kick-start things, though perhaps not to the same levels without some concerted effort behind it. Susan Trollinger notes in her book that in the 90s in Walnut Creek and Berlin “entrepreneurs were embarking upon ambitious construction and renovation projects designed to attract more Amish Country tourists” (p. 119). With numerous “rival” towns in the area (we haven’t mentioned Mount Hope with its auction and food or Kidron with Lehman’s) you probably do need a fairly aggressive plan to compete in the area of Amish Country tourism.

        There is also the annual Ohio Swiss festival in Sugarcreek but that is just one weekend.

        http://www.villageofsugarcreek.com/ohioswissfest/

    9. Sharon

      Thanks,Erik! Sounds like I still need to go there. There are SO many Amish communities that I would love to see and get my own personal memories of them. I wanted to go to Honeyville(?)IN and visit that general store that had so many quilts, but I heard it is no longer there. It is just a small community and the general store had fabric and other supplies besides the quilts. Do you know anything about Honeyville?

      1. Honeyville General Store, Honeyville, IN

        The Honeyville General Store closed some years ago Sharon, and last time I was in the area and drove by it seemed to still be closed. I haven’t heard about plans to reopen but perhaps someone local knows more. The building is still there as is the General Store sign. Off the beaten path, but had to be a nice place to visit when it was in operation.

        The father of one of the owners of Weaver Furniture (Ida Weaver) ran this store: http://www.weaverfurnituresales.com/about-us.aspx

    10. Christina C.

      Poor Sugarcreek :(

      I moved to Sugarcreek in 2005–I fell instantly in love with the town, and when I found my house I knew it was meant to be. At the time there were a lot of cute shops to visit, and I enjoyed bringing out-of-town guests “downtown”.

      Unfortunately, most of the shops have closed. There is nothing for tourists to do downtown; no ice cream, no souvenirs. There is the beautiful large cuckoo clock now, but it isn’t worth more than a drive-by at this point. Sure, get out and take pictures–but then what? The museum is nice, but is it enough of a draw?

      Sugarcreek is a wonderful little town, with several photo-opportunities…and not much else. I wish I had some ideas on how to revitalize this place, because I love it here and want other people to see it the way I do.

      1. OldKat

        We had that issue, too.

        I live in a town that many people from the nearby city find “charming” and therefore we have some degree of “tourist draw”. We don’t have any Amish in our area, wish we did.

        In the nearly 30 years that we have lived there our town has experienced several cycles of touristy growth and then it reverts back to what it was. About 15 or 20 years ago we formed an EDC (Economic Development Council), but nothing permanent ever emerged from it. Then 5 years ago we had a civic minded young preacher / businessman assume the chair of the council and everything changed.

        They brought in consultants from one of the state’s land grant universities to study the issue. Too lengthy to detail here, but in a nutshell they stated that we needed a champion with vision, much as Sugar Creek had in the late Mr. Miller and we need to focus on things that will make the community more attractive to residents and in turn it will become more attractive (long term) to tourists.

        We are not there yet, but things are starting to change. Ours has been a great town in which to live and raise our kids; it just no longer meets our needs. My wife and I will be moving to another part of the state or even another state fairly soon, when we retire, but it will be interesting to see where this goes from here. Good luck to Sugar Creek.

    11. Alice Mary

      Sorry I'm late...

      …late to this discussion, but I think OldKat brought up an excellent point concerning how to “revive” interest in a town like Sugarcreek (or his own town). You need a visionary, and frankly, marketing. I personally have always loved to learn about the history of wherever I’ve lived or vacationed—I thoroughly enjoy learning of its past. For example, I used to live in Will
      county, IL, where the Blackhawk Indians once lived (and fought) with white settlers. I was always fascinated to know that the “Indian Boundary Line” (which was meant to keep the two cultures separate—peacefully) was within maybe a couple of blocks of my house, through the middle of the cornfield just two doors down. Does Sugarcreek have anything in its past that would be a “draw”, other than the Budget hailing from there? Even something less than stellar might get the ball rolling!

      I truly hate to see such little towns “fall off” the map like this.

      Alice Mary

    12. kerry

      I’m a little late to the postings here, but…

      When the train left, that pretty much did the town in. But that is not the only problem. For one, it really has never truly been promoted as AMISH, per se, but been known for the “Swiss” aspect (and as Jackie indicated, after Mr. Miller passed away things just went downhill). So as tourists to the area who wanted what they perceived as “Amish” increased, they also began bypassing it because it wasn’t quite so “Amish”. A majority of the downtown businesses have moved out although there are a few left but nothing to draw people.

      Also, the town tends to have a reputation for “strife” within the local government, leaders, community, etc. which constantly causes needed decisions about infrastructure, community and tourist needs, and so on, to be continually delayed. There is a lot of fighting within and I don’t understand why they can’t see how much it’s hurt the regrowth of the area. Some can’t see that the downtown needs to change. Very troubling. Even the famed Swiss Festival doesn’t draw the same crowds anymore.

      That being said, the EDGES of town are coming along. On one end there is Park St Pizza which has gained a terrific reputation among locals and travelers alike, and on the other there are some new businesses like a dollar store – which sounds weird, but it was much needed and generated other small businesses including Wallhouse Coffee, a very popular coffee shop and cafe which also has a great reputation. Until the town fathers can pull themselves together and agree on something, the downtown will continue to be doomed.

      FYI, the brickyard may not be the prettiest space, but in this area it’s basically considered historical, especially the beehive kilns. There would be an outcry from locals if those disappeared.

      Also, Baltic pretty much faded out for tourists when the train left as well. There is one restaurant that doesn’t seem to get much business anymore and Steiner Cheese went bankrupt last year. Even the nice grocery store closed. The feed mill is the only action in town and obviously that doesn’t draw tourists.

      Maybe someday these areas will come back to life. I hope so.

    13. keith schie

      Sugarcreek was originally known for the Swiss heritage then the train came to town and we became known for the train. That drew a lot of tourists to town, but they basically spent their money to ride the train and then left. The cheesehouse closed, when the cheesemaker retired. When the train no longer ran the tourists no longer came to Sugarcreek. I’ve lived here my entire life and would be thrilled to see Sugarcreek become a thriving tourist destination again

    14. clara young (nee miller)

      sugarcreek

      My uncle Emanuel Miller had a farm near Sugarcreek. Some of my fondest memories are visiting him and his family. He would always go to Sugarcreek and buy ice cream in a big container wrapped in canvas. A big treat. I visit Ohio (Middlefield) yearly and a trip to Sugarcreek, Berlin etc. Love the rolling hills and views. Coming from Phoenix area where all is brown. So visiting the area always brings back fond memories.

    15. Sugarcreek is back on the map

      Hi all! This is the new marketing administrator for the Village of Sugarcreek. This article was brought to my attention recently, and I wanted to contribute on behalf of the Village.

      Sugarcreek definitely had some rough times in the past. As many have said, when our train left, so did many businesses and tourists, but I am happy to announce that things are really picking up in Sugarcreek. The original Tom Miller storefronts and murals (with fully-functional moving parts) are all still in tact and available to view. We actually started a grant program for anyone wishing to apply for money to maintain or restore their storefronts/murals. There is also a plaque for Tom located on our downtown square, and the owner of Beachy’s Country Chalet purchased and displayed some of Tom’s work that was previously in Alpine Alpa.

      We recently won the Eastern Ohio Development Alliance’s Excellence in Tourism award for all of our efforts the past few years. In addition to hiring a marketing administrator (me) and implementing the grant program, we have been collaborating to bring more attractions and events for our visitors.

      Downtown, we have the full-functional World’s Largest Cuckoo Clock, a horse-drawn trolley, the Alpine Hills Museum, and the John S Yoder Home. We are also now home to a beautiful series of sculpted brick panels that tell the history of our area. We have some new shops downtown that filled some of the empty storefronts: we now have a bakery, a vintage shop (which just installed a window for serving ice cream), a home decor shop and a flower and gift shop.

      David Warther Carvings just opened up on the west side of town and shows the works of Ernest Mooney Warther’s grandson. As another poster mentioned, we are also home to two musicals at the Carlisle Inn: Beverly Lewis’s “The Confession” and Wanda Brunstetter’s “Half Stitched.” On the recreation side, we have a golf course and two mini-golf courses that also feature a driving range, sand volleyball court, and batting cages.

      And yes, as another mentioned, we are home to some new restaurants (like Park Street Pizza and Wallhouse Coffee) that gives us a good balance with the tried-and-true places (Dutch Valley, Beachys, etc).

      In addition, the made-for-TV movie based on Serena Miller’s “Love Finds You in Sugarcreek, Ohio” was filmed on location here this past fall. The movie starred Kelly McGillis, Tom Everett Scott, and Sarah Lancaster and is premiering on UP TV this Sunday. This opportunity gave us the chance to show off the Village in a positive light. Plus, we are having an outdoor drive-in-style movie showing during the Fabulous 50s Fling.

      I believe we truly have something for everyone here and that things are picking up. We have a lot of ideas and some big plans we are working on to continue improving the Village for residents and visitors alike. Please contact me or visit our website at http://www.visitsugarcreek.com for more information.

      1. Love (and tourists?) Find You in Sugarcreek

        Thanks for sharing what’s been happening in Sugarcreek lately Rachel. Sounds like there have been a lot of strong efforts to promote the town.

        I also just saw the news on the new movie you mention, “Love Finds you in Sugarcreek”. Wikipedia tells me that the UP network is available in over 60 million US households.

        While this film might not have as great an affect on Amish tourism as the first Amish movie Kelly McGillis starred in, I have a feeling it’s going to have a big impact on the area.

        Actually, as I alluded above, I simply think your town’s name may be one of its biggest assets. I doubt a book would have been set in the town, (and thus no movie) if it was named something more mundane or less cheery (for instance, Loudonville or Dalton) 🙂 Of course that’s not to take away from the promotional work that’s been happening.

        Anyway, wishing Sugarcreek the best.

        1. Haha! I am sure you are right! You’re welcome for the information, and I hope you get a chance to visit us soon.

      2. After an absence of about 5 years we moved back to this area. I must say the image of the village has improved. I am the one who commented about the decrepit looking brick factory above. Definitely improvement in that area as well. Downtown has a better appeal too.

    16. Nancy Allen

      What happen to Sugarcreek Ohio(Oct 2014)

      My husband and I just visited Sugarcreek was very disappointed that there is no Amish stores there any more. We have not been there for a few years. Was very sadden to see it so modernized. I got my mother there and we rode the train the last day it ran. I loved the train.

    17. Anonymous

      Try Walnut Creek

      It really is disappointing to see what happened in Sugarcreek. Walnut Creek is great, though most of the stores are not Amish owned. Mt. Hope is our favorite. It’s more authentic in the sense there are less tourists and more local folks going about their daily business with quite a few Amish-owned stores nearby. Mrs. Yoder’s Kitchen is my absolute favorite restaurant in Ohio Amish Country. Stop in at The Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center on CR 77 south of Mt. Hope. The staff there marked a scenic route for us to drive, highlighting 10 family owned Amish businesses. It really made our last trip to Ohio a memorable experience.