Tom Miller made his name creating scenes in Ohio's Amish country
Published: Sunday, July 9, 2006
FEATURES - ARTS 01D
By Bill Mayr
Visitors to the rolling countryside of Holmes and western Tuscarawas counties snap photos of the Amish and their farms -- and of buildings with Swiss-chalet facades and murals of Alpine scenes.
The murals, which helped put the quaint rural communities of north-central Ohio on the map, were created by self-taught artist Tom Miller.
Although his name might not be known throughout the state, he surely ranks among the most-viewed of Ohio painters.
"He certainly left a legacy," said Leslie A. Kaser, director and curator of the Alpine Hills Historical Museum in Sugarcreek.
His murals occupy an odd but intriguing niche.
They pop up at much-visited sites, such as over the entrance to the Sugarlane IGA store, on the front of a Huntington Bank and along the drive-through lane at a McDonald's restaurant, all in Sugarcreek. They are found, too, inside and outside restaurants and cheese factories.
Some, such as the one at McDonald's, are even three-dimensional and mechanized.
Miller died a decade ago, on July 28, at age 85.
He wasn't Amish but spoke fluent Pennsylvania German. He had been a commercial painter, painting houses, lettering signs and occasionally creating murals for homeowners, Kaser said.
His rise as the region's muralist came as the area sought to promote its history.
Members of the Amish religious sect, with roots in Switzerland, had arrived in the region in the early 1800s. Later that century, Swiss cheese-makers settled in the region, using milk from Amish farms to produce their wares.
In 1953, boosters launched the Ohio Swiss Festival. (The annual event this year is scheduled for Sept. 29-30.)
Some years later, Miller, inspired by a trip to Switzerland, created an Alpine mural on the front of a building he owned in Sugarcreek.
Then, "all the cheese houses wanted him to do the murals," said Mahlon Troyer, a commercial painter and artist and protege of Miller.
He produced a large mural on the exterior of Guggisberg Cheese north of Charm; he painted an illustrated history of cheese-making inside Heini's Cheese Chalet, home to Bunker Hill Cheese, north of Berlin.
His mural-making gathered momentum like a mountain avalanche.
"He never got caught up," said Miller's son, Phil Miller of Wooster. "People were waiting, maybe for years."
Many of the large pieces were painted in the 1970s and '80s, Troyer said.
How many murals and smaller paintings did Miller create?
"I don't have any idea," his son said.
"One fellow went to Indiana and started an Amish restaurant. He took Dad out there to do a bunch of murals. Dad was out there for months."
Phil Miller said his father's talent seemed intuitive.
"He'd see that whole picture in his mind before he even started. He'd start sketching quick strokes. Pretty soon he'd have the sketch done. And then he'd paint the same way -- quick."
Miller's style is reminiscent of Grandma Moses, the self-taught artist who also specialized in pleasant rural scenes.
But while Grandma Moses became internationally famous, Miller's work remained concentrated in Amish Ohio.
His biggest piece fills the upper part of the walls and flows onto the ceiling in the main dining room of Grandma's Alpine Homestead restaurant on Rt. 62 in northeastern Holmes County.
The diorama, roughly 45 feet wide and 20 feet tall, depicts Arosa, a Swiss mountain village.
Miller sometimes created depth in his scenes by making wood cutouts, painting part of his scene on the cutout and installing it on the mural.
Some works are mechanized: a toy passenger train runs through the Arosa diorama, and a herd of Swiss dairy cattle moseys through a mural at Grandma's Alpine Homestead. The cattle and trains are models that Miller built and affixed to belts that run in loops through the scenes.
When Dave Beachy opened Beachy's Country Chalet in 1988, he asked Miller to paint a series of small, oval-shaped scenes on the ends of wooden booths. Covered bridges, dairy farms, mountain brooks and quaint cottages fill the Sugarcreek restaurant.
Miller, Beachy said, was a man of few words. But he didn't mind people watching him work.
"He just loved the interaction with the people. People would love to gawk."
In Walnut Creek, three murals grace the Der Dutchman restaurant a mile south of the small dairy farm where Miller grew up.
John and Joy Maxwell -- along with Mr. Maxwell's mother, Alathea -- recently ate dinner in the restaurant beneath a scene of maple-sugaring.
Maxwell, who formerly operated a clothing store in nearby Millersburg, had shown Miller's paintings in the store windows.
"I loved his paintings," he said. "I never talked to anyone who didn't like his paintings."
Some of the works are weathering, with paint colors and images fading. Beachy said the exterior mural at his restaurant could stand touching up.
Troyer has repainted some scenes and said he's available to work on others that have captured the lifestyle of Ohio's Amish and their link to rural Switzerland.
Phil Miller acknowledges the vision and legacy of his father.
"He followed his dream. Yep."