Just outside Mansfield, Ohio, in aptly named Pleasant Valley, lies one of Ohio tourism's best-kept secrets, Malabar Farm.
The story of the farm is layered like the rock in the rolling hills that surround it.
In the 1800s, travelers on the Sandusky-Marietta stagecoach route stopped for refreshment at the cold spring on Pleasant Valley Road, now part of Malabar Farm State Park in Lucas. Next door to the spring is the Malabar Inn, circa 1820, now Malabar Farm Restaurant serving French-inspired cuisine prepared by Chef Dan Bailey. A history written on the menu states it took 40 hours by stagecoach to reach Wheeling from there. Today, it's about a three-hour drive.
Photo by Betsy Bethel
Malabar Farm Restaurant, the former Malabar Inn, circa 1820, stands along Pleasant Valley Road in Lucas, Ohio, part of the Malabar Farm State Park. Chef Dan Bailey uses fresh produce, meat and poultry from the nearby farm to create his menus. Next door is a farm market open in summer months, where produce is kept cool by the spring that flows on site.
Bailey enjoys a synergistic relationship with the sprawling farm across the road. It provides him fresh meat and produce, and he gives farm visitors meals they won't soon forget.
Malabar Farm is the only state park in Ohio that also is a working farm. Its focal point is a 32-room white farmhouse mansion built in 1939 by Pulitzer-Prize winning author and Mansfield native Louis Bromfield, a cosmopolitan conservationist. The farm, open for wagon tours May through October, produces beef, pork, chickens, turkeys, eggs, dairy, fruits and vegetables and maple syrup. The farm also features terraced flower gardens, a petting barn, a 19-bed hostel, a smoke house, sawmill and pioneer graveyard.
The annual maple syrup festival, held the first two weekends in March, draws thousands to the park to sample the sticky goodness that is made from the sap of 700 to 1,000 trees on the farm. But visitors at other times of the year can purchase farm-produced syrup in the gift shop, which also sells the farm's eggs, pork, beef and poultry.
The farmhouse also is open for tours. It has been kept as close to its original state as possible, when, during the 1940s and 1950s, Bromfield, his wife, Mary, and three daughters entertained friends that included Hollywood celebrities he befriended as a play critic and screenplay writer. In fact, on May 21, 1945, his old friend Humphrey Bogart brought Lauren Bacall to Malabar Farm to tie the knot. They were married in the front hallway and spent their honeymoon in a guest room upstairs.
Bromfield was a would-be farmer who dropped out of ag school and instead became a writer. He wrote 33 books and won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel "Early Autumn" in 1927. He wrote the script for Walt Disney's version of "Ferdinand the Bull." He adapted two of his books into screenplays which were made into movies: "The Rains Came" and "Mrs. Parkington." The former starred Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy and won an Academy Award for special effects in 1939, beating out "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz."
That year, Bromfield brought his family back to his native Richland County, where they and several beloved pet boxers lived for 16 years.
According to tour guide Sybil Burskey, Bromfield's farming dream came true at Malabar Farm. He loved getting his hands dirty and experimenting with farming and conservation techniques. Known as the Father of Conservation in Ohio, he promoted no-till farming, contour farming and strip farming, all of which were unheard of during that time period, she said. He wrote about his experiences in the book "Pleasant Valley."
Bromfield's legacy continues as the farm today uses wind energy to power the new visitor's center and songbird aviary. The visitor's center, built in 2007 in part with money raised by the Louis Bromfield Society, is a "green" building, using wind and solar energy, natural lighting, occupancy sensors and double-paned windows. It houses the gift shop and educational exhibits on sustainable farming.
An erosion plot near the farmhouse shows visitors the effects of the different plowing techniques. A sawmill on the property produces farm-grown rough-sawn timber for use on the farm. Grass-fed cattle graze in paddocks - "a low-impact and highly profitable form of sustainable agriculture," according to park literature. The tractors run on bio-diesel fuel produced from soybeans. Stormwater runoff is captured in rain barrels and used to water the native landscape plants.
Malabar Farm State Park also is home to Pugh Cabin, the exterior of which was featured in the opening scene of the 1994 film "The Shawshank Redemption" starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. Down the lane, a 1919 mail-order catalog house, where the Bromfields lived while the big house was being built, is now a place for hostelers to stay.
Tours of the farmhouse, available year-round, give visitors a glimpse at what life was like in the 1940s and 1950s. Porcelain dolls and Mickey Mouse figurines stand sentinel in curio cabinets; a lush red carpet runner descends a Jeffersonian double staircase in the front hallway; a bar of Lifebuoy soap rests near the kitchen sink. An original KitchenAid mixer, circa 1927, sits atop the original black linoleum countertop next to a six-burner Magic Chef stove. Bromfield's yellow Willys Jeep is parked in the garage.