For those of us living in the Sugarcreek area and the eastern part of Holmes County, it’s that time of year again – Swiss Festival time! It’s always scheduled to start the last week in September. Most of the natives have Swiss ancestry so it’s a celebration of the Swiss culture of the area that made Sugarcreek the “Little Switzerland of Ohio. It’s also the unofficial kick-off to the the fall season in Ohio’s Amish Country.
Our Swiss background
When western Tuscarawas county was first settled in the early 1800’s, many of those first settlers were of German and Swiss descent. Most of those immigrants were expert farmers bringing their knowledge to the American frontier. As the forests were tamed by those farmers, the lush pasture lands and deep rich soils of the Ohio valley produced excellent fodder for dairy cattle.
Thus evolved the Swiss cheese houses that have made the area famous. In the early days, there was an abundance of milk, but little way to sell those products. Roads at that time were little more than two rough (or muddy) wagon ruts through pristine forest. Soon the skilled cheesemaking families began to emmigrate from Switzerland to the Sugarcreek area because of the ample supply of milk. Small cheesehouses popped up everywhere – close enough for local farmers to haul their filled milk cans by wagon to the local cheesemaker.
Dairying has come a long way since those days (although there are still Amish farmers who still sell their milk in old-fashioned cans), and the cheesehouses have consolidated into efficient cheese factories producing tons of cheese every year. Each has their own special recipe, and the Swiss names like Guggisberg, Steiner, and Dauwalder still dominate the local cheese industry.
The Swiss Village and Tom Miller
Inspired by the houses on a trip to Switzerland, local sign painter, house painter and self-taught artist, Tom Miller painted a Swiss mural on a building he owned in Sugarcreek. After that, many businesses came to his door step with requests for similar murals.
The local families took considerable pride in their heritage and eventually businesses in Sugarcreek began an effort to model their downtown after the Swiss villages in the “Old Country”. Swiss architecture became commonplace with it’s chalet-style construction and decoration. With the addition of Tom’s murals, the movers and shakers of the early 1950’s began a push for a celebration of everything Swiss. The Swiss Festival was born in 1953, one of the longest running festivals in the state of Ohio.
By the way, if you plan to go “mural hunting”, you can still see many of Tom’s works at the businesses of Sugarcreek and Holmes county. They are still visible at the Sugarlane IGA, Huntington Bank, Dutch Valley Restaurant, Beachy’s Chalet, McDonalds (one inside, one by the drive-through) Sugarcreek Lumber and the former Goshen Dairy building. In Holmes County, you can see three murals at Der Dutchman Restaurant.
Food at the Swiss Festival
First on the list to do is eat the FOOD! Of course, you have to take home a few pounds of the nation’s finest Swiss cheese. From fried Swiss cheese to wine-tasting, there really is something for everyone here. In the spirit of the community, a host of local churches and organizations have fundraisers and spend hours of time preparing their signature meals – Trail bologna sandwiches (topped with Swiss cheese, of course), creamed chicken, soups, barbequed chicken, a fish fry, etc.
One of the premier dishes at the Swiss Festival are the apple fritters from the First Mennonite Church. Every year, they sell thousands of warm, freshly-fried apple fritters, generously topped with powdered sugar. Volunteers work day and night coring and peeling 15 to 20 bushels of Macintosh apples. Their fluffy homemade batter is a tightly-held secret recipe, and with good reason. The results are absolutely heavenly. Be patient, the lines can be long, but it is well worth the wait!
Steinstossen – “Stein” = Stone, “Tossen” = throwing
The Festival holds the record as the longest running competition for Swiss “stone throwing”. Contestants in the Men’s division of the Steinstossen hurl a huge stone weighing 138 pounds during two-hour periods beginning at 3:00 on Saturday and Sunday. The Women’s stone weighs 75 lbs. Contestants begin on a 20-foot runway, hurling the rock into a 4-inch-deep (100 mm) sand pit. The winners at each session win prizes.
Music and Parades
Learn to Polka! Grammy-nominated acts like Del Sinchak and other popular polka bands like Hank Haller are perennial acts. Contemporary groups usually play on Saturday evenings. Opportunities to try yodeling (it’s harder than you think) may arise. Look for a traditional Swiss alphorn or two.
The Kiddie Parade is on Friday afternoon and might be the cutest parade you can imagine. Parents and grandparents go all out to creatively dress their Little Swiss Misses and Misters in the traditional red, white and black Swiss colors. Bragging rights are on the line since prizes are awarded! On carefully decorated mini floats and wagons, they march down Main Street, often with equally costumed pets. The pets may be less than pleased, but everyone else loves it.
The big attraction on Saturday afternoon is the Grande Parade, featuring antique cars, local bands, horse hitches, floats. The Swiss Festival Queen and Court lead the way, as well as royalty from festivals all over the state. On occasion, there may be a celebrity or two in the parade. Main Street and the famous brink-lined Maple Street fill up quickly – locals will claim their viewing spots the night before.