EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final part in a series of articles on economic development and growth in Madison County.
When you enter the village of Mount Sterling southbound on State Route 56, one of the first things you will see is the classic neon sign of the Dairy Freeze.
The old-school burger and ice cream stand harkens back to old school restaurants from the 1950s during the birth of rock ‘n’ roll music.
“It’s like something out of [George Lucas’ 1973 film] American Graffiti,” said Steve Cooper, owner of the establishment. “While it’s certainly changed, it’s still that same place in my heart.”
It was founded in 1957, 60 years ago in July, by Cooper’s parents who helped run the place up until recently. The majority of it was salvaged from an old restaurant in Columbus, particularly the iconic sign.
It’s been the first job for many people from the area but most of all a center point for the community since its inception.
“We have rules and standards, we are a business,” said Cooper. “We’re a family too. We care for our own.”
Cooper pointed out where a stage used to be where small rock groups played, surrounded by a line of cars of teenagers leaving school and adults hanging out after work.
It’s been there for everything from innocent childhood memories to more dark moments in the village’s history.
These dark moments have never deterred Cooper or his wife Rebecca Burns, who currently sits on the village council.
“This is home to me. I love it here,” he said. “Everything has some sort of charm, even the crabbiest neighbor. I could go somewhere else but I want to stay here.”
Curse of the highway
Cooper said he remembered during his childhood there were many different kinds of stores in the village, despite its size.
“If you could believe it we even had a small department store,” he said. “Bars, restaurants, you name it.”
But things changed in the small-yet bustling place. Interstate 71 was finished and diverted a lot of traffic from the town to elsewhere.
“You know Radiator Spring from Cars? The Disney movie?” said Cooper. “That’s Mount Sterling.”
The high school was moved to its current location near State Route 38 in order to consolidate the large district. Cooper said that decreased crowds from football games or just kids leaving school going to local businesses as the new school is closer to London.
Years later, the grocery store closed, the police station shut its doors and things slowed down economically.
Around the same time though, Deer Creek State Park opened up making Mount Sterling a potential tourist destination.
“One of the first things that was finished were the campgrounds so people began heading into town,” said Cooper.
Years later the Japanese company Showa Aluminum, today a branch of Keihin Thermal, opened up a facility in town, bringing hundreds of jobs.
The company does more than just provide jobs.
“Keihin is such a great partner to have in the village,” said Burns. “The level of involvement with the community is amazing.”
Employees go out of their way to frequent the several restaurants in the village during lunch.
“You always see those white coats head out around noon,” said Burns. “It’s highly appreciated.”
This year the company aided the village, which has been financially beleaguered due to thefts by the former village administrator, Joe Johnson.
In July, Keihin Thermal donated $2,500 needed to fund the James Cotton Football Camp for children at the village’s community days festival. They also provided water and Gatorade for the kids participating, during the hot July morning. They’ve even agreed to fund the camp for the foreseeable future.
“It may have not happened without Keihin,” added Burns. “We wondered how we were going to do it. But Keihin stepped up in a way that’s just amazing.”
Most recently, some of the plant workers did volunteer work for the village to clean up local parks.
It’s not just Keihin that works together in a form of unprecedented corporate partnership, the local businesses work together too.
“We’re not here to compete, that’s counterproductive for the town,” said Cooper. “We try to help each other out. The other day, someone from Deer Creek came asking us for a grilled cheese. We don’t serve those here, but I told the guy ‘you know who has a really good one is up the road at the Thirsty Goat.’ … We try to make sure we all succeed here, because we want to keep providing things for the town because we love this place.”
The businesses work together within their own local Mount Sterling Chamber of Commerce and also try to sponsor events.
The Dairy Freeze regularly holds car shows in a classic 1950s style, where the employees enthusiastically dress up in classic fashion from the era. Their next one is on Aug. 26, starting at 10 a.m.
Upcoming in the village is a free scavenger hunt where people can go around to the local businesses and other parts of town for prizes. It’s currently scheduled for Aug. 26.
Some of these events are the brainchild of one local entrepreneur who is making strides in the town.
Becky Martin runs the Little Shop on London as well as a café called The Mad Hatter where she and her business partner Sarah Thompson serve fresh new foods each day.
With another associate of hers, Tamra Hall, she helped organize street markets and craft shows in the village, in an attempt to revitalize the downtown. It seems to be working.
As part of a consortium of artisanal craft shops called “the market crew” she’s had two home goods stores open up since 2016, Village Homestead and Bittersweet. While the former moved to Washington Court House it isn’t deterring her mission.
“Sarah and I both try to be super involved to make this quaint town the best it can be, because it’s been a blessing to us,” she said. “We need people to have a reason to hit up Mount Sterling and better yet have something we can all be proud of.”
A bright future
More is coming to the village soon. Taking over the former spot of Village Homestead will be another home good store called Urban Pineapple, opened up by a couple who were partners with the former store. They’ll be selling furniture and wood art.
Things are also brewing at the former Versa building in town as well as the former grocery store building.
Martin said she’s working hard with the chamber to bring more new things to the village.
“We’re very hard at work to see if we can get a new grocery store,” she said. “Another thing we’re doing in tandem with this expansion is trying to put together a brochure to attract people to Mount Sterling, you know get them to spend a day here when they hit up Deer Creek.”
She also has been working around central Ohio to speak up for the town at various events, selling wares with a big banner that tells people to come to Mount Sterling.
“We just need to give people a reason to explore here,” she said. “That’s what we need. Sara and I have big goals; we want to fill every storefront. I think we can do it.”
Maximilian Kwiatkowski can be reached at 740-852-1616, ext. 1617, or on Twitter @msfkwiat.