The Clermont County Fair
The Clermont County Fair is a big attraction for both local residents and visitors. Visitors to the Clermont County Fair can see displays of the diverse agricultural accomplishments throughout the cattle, poultry, and vegetable competitions, as well as special community events like the Cake and Pie Auctions. July 2006 marked the 157th year of the Clermont County Fair, which takes place annually at the Clermont County Fairgrounds in Owensville. The fair used to focus primarily on men’s competitions, but according to Richard Crawford, a Clermont County historian, with so may men fighting overseas during World War I, the focus of the 1917 fair was able to open up to women's competitions. The cake and pie baking contests as well as the accompanying auctions today, though open to both men and women, have their roots in this time period.
In 2006, the cake auction took place on the third evening of the Clermont County Fair at 6 PM in the Multipurpose Room of the fairgrounds. The cakes were entered in the morning, judged in the afternoon, and sold in the evening. There were about 120-150 people in the audience when it started, sitting in chairs facing the stage at the front. All fifty five of the cakes (with award ribbons attached if applicable) were on table on the right side of the room if you faced the stage. The featured cake was carrot cake (with 18 entries), but there was a variety of cakes (chocolate, apple, blackberry jam, peanut butter cup cheesecake, caramel apple, pineapple, angel food, rhubarb, lemon nut, double chocolate prailine fudge, coconut, and white sheet cake). The peanut butter cake was the highest selling cake, going for $250, though by the end of the auction, the cakes were selling for more affordable prices around $20.
The auction began selling the best of show (this year a blueberry cream cheese pound cake which sold for $180), then the first, second, and third place in the carrot cake contest, then the first place cakes, then the second place cakes, then the third place cakes, then those that did not place. Most of the higher bids were made by politicians and local businesses, though the highest bid of $250 for the peanut butter cake went to a group of friends who pulled their money together.
The auction serves as a fundraiser, with a quarter of the money going to the baker and the rest going to the Fair Board. In 2006, there were nine professional auctioneers (one woman and eight men, some "veteran" auctioneers and some apprentices), all from Clermont County. In years past, there has been only one auctioneer, but this is the second year in which all county auctioneers are able to participate. As one auctioneer called out on stage, the others would try to entice people to buy. One person would carry the cake around, showing it to people and, as the bidding got higher, would occasionally let people “smell” the cake. The auctioneers seemed to know the bidders, so sometimes they would be aggressive to get individuals to bid. People watching would laugh when the auctioneer would single out bidders.
The Pie Auction, held on the fifth day of the fair at 6 PM, was run in a similar fashion to the Cake Auction. The same auctioneers were present, and many of the same bidders and bakers were there. There were 60 pie entries, including blackberry, peach (the featured pie, with 21 entries), apple, pecan, coconut, custard, strawberry rhubarb cobbler, cherry, strawberry, blueberry peach cobbler, lemon meringue, oatmeal, chess pie, pear caramel, peanut butter, and banana cream. About 100 people attended the auction, and the highest bid went for the first place peach pie for $400.
Alice Pringle from Owensville has been entering the competitions for four years, and both the cakes she submitted placed this year. Her chocolate cake won first place in the chocolate cake category (later selling for $180), and her decorated white cake won second place (later selling for $155). She also entered into the pie competition a peach pie (placing third and selling for $100) and a coconut cream pie (placing first and selling for $100). When asked why she decided to enter her cakes and pies into the competitions, she said that she saw other people do it and she figured that her pies would be just as good. Her chocolate cake was a three layer cake, extra moist and heavy because she made it the day before and let it sit overnight. She knew she had a good chance of winning because whenever there are events and dinners at her church, all the children and young women ask her to bring her chocolate cake.
Another participant in 2006 was Cyra Jones from Bethel, the twelve year old granddaughter of the auction’s organizer.. This was her first year entering the cake competition, although for the last two years she has entered the pie competition. In 2006, she entered an angel food cake (which won 2nd place) and a carrot cake. Her angel food cake sold for $120 and her carrot cake sold for $75. Cyra loves to cook, and she learned how to cook from her mom and grandma, though she made the competition cakes by herself. This year, she made her angel food cake from a Betty Crocker cookbook and her carrot cake from a family recipe. She also entered a rhubarb pie (which won second place and sold for $100), a peach pie (the featured pie of the contest), and a strawberry rhubarb cobbler (which placed first and sold for $110) in the pie contest.
The historic Clermont Inn is located on Main Street in Batavia in a building erected in 1825. The menu advertises, "Home style cooking made with love!" and "Good friends! Good food! Good fun!" Open for lunch and dinner, the restaurant serves appetizers ranging from steak fries to quesadillas deli sandwiches that are made to order, salads including taco and grilled chicken, and special sandwiches, such as the pulled pork sandwich and the Batavia Blaze Burger. The Batavia Blaze Burger is a hamburger that the restaurant created in order to support the movement to get a minor league baseball team in Batavia (the Batavia Blaze). Although the team has yet to make it to Batavia, the sandwich remains. The dinner menu includes such entrees as liver and onions, grilled salmon, half fried chicken, and chili spaghetti. In addition to the menu, the restaurant also includes an extensive salad bar with two soups and dinner entrees. The restaurant also sells Jerry's Cheesecakes. Jerry's Cheesecakes are made in Milford and are sold at many Cincinnati and Clermont County restaurants.
Susanne Thomas, one of the owners, makes all of the food herself "from scratch," as she puts it. She grows many of the spices used in her cooking on the restaurant's patio. She explains that she determines which soups to make based upon which fresh ingredients are available and what she feels like making. These soups include squash, asparagus, tomato florentine, Oriental, ham and beans, chicken noodle, cream of potato with leeks, corn chowder, clam chowder, and lobster bisque, among others. Susanne and her husband, Tony, live above the restaurant, and a "living area," complete with couch and television, sits across from the buffet, giving the restaurant a unique atmosphere. Before owning the Clermont Inn, they owned a deli for three years; this deli was also in Batavia. In addition to this experience, Susanne managed a Frisch's Big Boy for 16 years.
Tony and Susanne opened the restaurant because it was a goal of theirs to own their own family restaurant. When they purchased the inn, it was a bar with no food available. Their website explains that their goal was "to turn it around and make it a family style restaurant that everyone would feel welcome in, while still having spirits available for those that wanted it." One of the current events the restaurant hosts is an interactive murder mystery dinner theater. These dinners are held on weekends several times during the year. These two-hour events include two intermissions for the meal. Interestingly, the actors and actresses eat with the audience members while still in full-costume.
Harmony Hills Vineyards
Harmony Hills Vineyards is the only winery in Clermont County and the newest estate winery in southwest Ohio. Bill (who also works as an ER nurse) and Patti Skvarla started planting their vineyards in 2001, which became bonded as an estate winery October 2003. They have been making wine as amateurs for years, but before 2001, they produced herbs commercially. As herbs came under increasing government regulations, they decided to switch over to wine. They still grow herbs, but only for themselves. They are self-taught winemakers, learning a lot from “a lot of research, a lot of mistakes.”
A lot of fine European grapes do not grow well in the Ohio River Valley (because the summers are too hot and winters are too cold) but Harmony Hills grows several types of grapes, including American varieties such as Concord and Catawba; fine European varieties such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc; and French-American hybrids such as Chambourcin. Being a new winemaker, Bill enjoys the flexibility of experimenting with different types of grapes, which gives him the freedom to do interesting things with the wines. He is particularly proud of their Concerto (which is 100 percent Vidal Blanc, a straight varietal) and their Serenade, a dry red blend of two French-American hybrid grapes, Chambourcin and Marechal Foch. Another key benefit of owning an estate winery (where all grapes are grown on the farm) is that the winemaker has control over the whole process. When it comes time for the grapes to be harvested, he is out in the fields several times a day tasting the grapes to see if they are ready to pick. Bill and Patti do everything by hand, from picking the grapes to bottling, corking, and labeling the wines.
One main focus of the winery is teaching the public about the significant wine history in the Ohio River Valley, which was once the #1 producer of wine in the country. He notes that Nicholas Longworth, who planted grapes in Ohio in the 1800s, is known as the father of the American wine industry. He also points out that one reason Ohio wines have been overlooked is that Ohio has always been considered Concord or Catawba country, so that people associate Ohio wine with Welch’s grape juice. As more winemakers are bringing in European grapes and French-American hybrids, Ohio is producing more and more world-class wines. At the same time, many people living in Clermont County prefer sweet wines and come in requesting them, so it has been a challenge getting customers to transfer over to dryer wines.
Until the summer of 2005, Harmony Hills was strictly a production winery, and the wines were available in twenty-one stores in Cincinnati and Dayton. That summer, Bill and Patti opened winery to the general public. Now they have stopped selling at nineteen of those stores, because they are able to sell so much at the winery themselves. It is open Saturdays noon-6 pm Memorial Day through Labor Day. Bill says that his customers come from all over Ohio, not just from Clermont County. For example, one couple from Dayton comes every other weekend. Bill and Patti’s goal is to make the winery both family-friendly and pet-friendly. People are able to bring their kids and their pets and have a picnic lunch on the large lawn out front with a bottle of wine, sit at the café (which does not serve food), walk along the trails in the back, or play with the miniature donkeys the Skvarlas raise.
The land on which Harmony Hills sits has also been certified as a National Wildlife Habitat. The vineyard itself is made up of 3500 vines on three acres of land, producing 500-600 cases a year. They own 70 acres of total farmland, renting out some of the farm for growing soybeans and raising black angus cows. Much of the land is a quail habitat and turkey habitat.
One long-established local farm in the area is Shaw Farms. The business of Shaw Farms was established about thirty years ago by Jerry and Jean Shaw, though the land that Shaw Farms sits on has been in the Shaw family for nearly 200 years. The Shaw family has been farming the land for many of those 200 years. Shaw Farms began with Jerry Shaw selling produce under the trees in front of the location where the retail area currently sits. At lunch time, he would sit in his truck and sell corn out of the back of the truck and on cardboard tables. He would also sell corn at the farmers’ market near the local airport.
When one of the present owners, Pam, joined the family (her husband, Jeff, is the son of Jerry and Jean), she was dissatisfied with her job and offered to sell corn and tomatoes full-time under the trees. When this was a success, her mother-in-law suggested that they begin selling larger quantities and a wider selection, so they began selling okra and beans. The business really took off from there, partly because the area was growing and partly because of the produce. According to Pam, fresh produce sells itself. The retail area on Shaw Farms was built eighteen years ago. This retail area is unique because it combines elements of a farmer's market building with elements of a freestanding farmer's market or roadside stand. In other words, although the retail area is in a building, the building has open areas that allow fresh air inside during the hours the business is open. During produce season (July - September), Shaw Farms is open from 9 AM to 6 PM. During the fall (late September - October 31), they are open from 9 AM to 7 PM. Additionally, they have satellite stands near Batavia, Blanchester, Morrow, and South Lebanon, which are usually run by family members as well.
Today, Shaw Farms sells corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes, potatoes, onions, beans, peaches, plums, and melons. Most of the produce is grown on Shaw Farms, although some of it is shipped in. For example, the season’s first tomatoes are from Tennessee, where the tomatoes ripen faster than in Ohio. When the tomatoes at Shaw Farms are ripe, the Tennessee tomatoes are no longer sold. Shaw Farms has about 9,000 plants that provide the tomatoes sold at the store and at roadside stands that family members run. Shaw Farms is best known for its corn, though. They have 60-70 acres of corn growing. They also have around six varieties of bicolor and white sweet corn for sale for $3.50 per dozen. In addition to produce, Shaw Farms sells Amish Wedding brand products (canned goods in jars, ranging from salsa to pickled okra to peaches), candles, old-fashioned candy (jellybeans, licorice, orange slices, etc.), honey, and Amish ham and bacon. All of these products are from Ohio-based companies or individuals.
Most of the Shaw Farms customers are from Clermont County, although some come from Brown County and Cincinnati. Shaw Farms extends over 1800 acres, and only 165 of them are on the retail area location. In addition to this location, the Shaws also grow in Brown and Clinton counties. Customers of Shaw Farms often buy only what they need and then return when they need more. This is the advantage of a farmers’ market; customers can buy and eat fresher produce than they would get at the grocery store. Pam is quick to point out that grocery stores are incredibly useful and convenient, but this convenience prevents them from being able to sell the freshest produce.
The farm is still a family business; Pam’s children, nieces, and nephews are the third generation to work at Shaw Farms. The farm has been in the family since 1807, and the Shaws have no intention of selling it or quitting farming. All of the employees are family members; there are typically around 15 family members working on a given day. Of Jerry and Jean's four children, two are farmers; four of their grandchildren are also involved in the business. Altogether, the family owns five farms.
In addition to being a family tradition, Shaw Farms has also become a community tradition through its Fall Festival. In 2006, the Fall Festival ran on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from September 23 through October 31. The festival is family-oriented and includes a corn maze, hayrides, live music, farm animals on display with factual information for children, and over 30 displays and playhouses of story book characters. The festival has been growing each year since it began around the same time as Shaw Farms.
Vista Grande Ranch and Bistro Joe’s
Cynthia Cassell and David Uible are relatively new to farming in Clermont County. Before coming to Clermont County, they lived in the Cincinnati suburbs. When they grew tired of the city, they looked into purchasing a farm. Dave had a publishing business and Cynthia was a nutritionist; since a family member had some knowledge of raising bison and because raising bison would fit in with their goals, they decided to raise bison on the farm, which they names Vista Grand Ranch. Originally, the buffalo were not raised as a food source, but merely as animals. The 110 year old farm they bought required a lot of restoration and came with 117 acres, much more land than they had intended to buy originally.
The ranch has between 50 and 60 buffalo, each weighing between 2,000 and 2,600 pounds. As a nutritionist, Cindy appreciates how bison meat is known for being low in calories, fat, and cholesterol. The meat is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, has a higher protein content than beef, and does not "shrink" as much as beef when cooked. Additionally, the meat comes from hormone and anti-biotic free animals that are free-range, meaning that they are allowed to graze rather than given feed.
Customers can buy Vista Grand Ranch meat at local grocery stores and meat markets. The ranch also sells to several private clubs and local restaurants. Because of people's interest, the ranch has what it calls "Ranch Days" once or twice a year. These events allow customers to come directly onto the ranch to buy meat and see what the ranch is like. For those who cannot get to one of the ranch's retailers or the ranch itself, the website offers free shipping on orders. Ground buffalo can be purchased for $5.99 per pound; a 10 oz. ribeye is offered for $10.95. For those wanting to experiment with different cuts of buffalo meats, two package deals are offered that allow the customer to try a wider variety of the meat. The business's website, http://www.vistagrandranch.com/, states, "Sustainable agriculture through the preservation and promotion of the American Buffalo," which emphasizes many of the ranch's goals: promoting buffalo meat as healthy, engaging in sustainable agricultural practices, and preserving an animal that was once nearly driven to extinction in this country.
Cindy and David also own the restaurant Bistro Joe’s. Bistro Joe's in New Richmond is located on the main street overlooking the Ohio River. The building was formerly Joe's Place, a bar that served some food, including buffalo burgers and white bean chili. It was frequented by some locals and was known for its live music on Saturday nights. The bar bought its buffalo meat from nearby Vista Grand Ranch, which has an office above the bar. When Joe's Place went out of business, Cindy and David decided to remodel the space that was Joe's Place and to open up a restaurant that served more of their buffalo meat. The result is Bistro Joe's, and as evidenced by the name change, the goal is to draw in a new clientele that might not have eaten at Joe's Place. The restaurant opened in August 2006. The menu features many dishes that include buffalo meat, from buffalo burgers to buffalo steaks to salads and sandwiches with buffalo meat. Since Cindy is a nutritionist, she wants to provide the community with healthy alternatives to what they may order at other local restaurants or drive-thrus.
“Taste of Clermont”
Since the National Trust for Historic Preservation established Batavia as a Main Street Community in 2000, the Village Association of Batavia has worked hard to foster economic development and historic preservation in the village. One event stemming from this effort is the “Taste of Clermont,” which takes place in Batavia's Main Street Business District. This annual event, now drawing in crowds close to 25,000, began in 2004. In addition to live music and art displays, the event features local restaurants in and around Batavia.