Swiss cheese. A railroad. Hardworking people. A painter. Brick factories and coal mines. All these have a part in Sugarcreek’s history. In 1882, a railroad built in the Sugar Creek valley brought new opportunities. The depot was about a mile east of Shanesville, and a cluster of buildings soon sprang up around it. By 1888, the growing settlement wanted its own post office and a new name. Previously known as “the town east of Shanesville,” the area became “Sugar Creek,” named after a nearby stream. Eventually the two villages grew together, but it wasn’t until 1969 that they officially merged under the name of Sugarcreek.
Years before the new railroad, however, early settlers had moved into the untamed wilderness of Sugar Creek valley. Amish families were some of the first to arrive, along with other German and Swiss families. With hard work and determination, they cut down the heavily forested area and settled on the hills of Sugarcreek. The Swiss immigrants brought with them their cheese making skills and opened small cheese factories. Over time, Sugarcreek became known as the center of the Swiss cheese making industry in Ohio. Today local descendants of the Swiss immigrants continue the cheese making legacy, using milk from local dairy farms.
To promote Swiss cheese and invite visitors to the area, Sugarcreek held its first annual Swiss festival in 1953. The festival, which centered on Swiss cheese and traditional Swiss dress, music, food, and games, was a huge success and became an annual event that drew thousands of visitors every year.
Seeing the interest in Swiss culture, a local Mennonite painter, Tom Miller, encouraged Sugarcreek’s business owners to recreate their storefronts with Swiss architecture and murals of Switzerland. At first the townspeople resisted, so Miller led the way by redoing the front of his own small art studio. As tourism steadily increased, the reluctance of the townspeople disappeared, and from 1955 to 1992, Miller painted the storefronts of 40 businesses in Sugarcreek. The town became known as “ The Little Switzerland of Ohio.”
Besides Swiss cheese, the area’s rich clay and coal deposits played an important role in Sugarcreek’s development. In the early 1900s, a coal mine opened west of town where about 100 miners cleared vast coal deposits over several decades. In 1910, the Finzer brothers started a clay company, manufacturing tile and brick. The plant was sold to the Belden Brick company of Canton, Ohio, in 1946. Later the Belden company bought several other local brick factories and added more plants. Today Sugarcreek is one of the nation’s leading brick centers. Some of the original buildings and kilns are still being used at the plant.
One can take a step back in time at the Alpine Hills Historical Museum on Main Street with its displays that depict the early days of the community, including an Amish kitchen and a 1890s cheese house. Sugarcreek’s German and Swiss roots can still be seen in its Old World charm, industrial scenes, and Amish farm country.