Back to old Chagrin Falls, where pumpkins roll and time stands still

The Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop is an iconic landmark which dates to 1875. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)
The Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop is an iconic landmark which dates to 1875. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)
The larger of the two waterfalls in Chagrin Falls is a popular spot for tourists and day-trippers in Northeast Ohio. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)
The larger of the two waterfalls in Chagrin Falls is a popular spot for tourists and day-trippers in Northeast Ohio. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)

By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com

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The notion of time travel has always intrigued me, from the 1960s TV series Time Tunnel to Back to the Future and more recently Outlander.

If only one could go back for even a day, to revisit a time in the past, whether to relive a personal highlight or perhaps to alter an experience that didn’t turn out well.

It would be the ultimate trip, the most compelling travel story. (There are DeLorean time machines offered for sale and rent on the Internet if you want to suspend disbelief and give it a try.)

And yet we do time travel, in a sense, when we visit places from our past. Though it can be a disappointing journey if a return to a meaningful place reveals it drastically altered.

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Thus it was a relief when I passed through my hometown of Chagrin Falls in northeast Ohio for the first time in more than a decade (and 40 years after I moved away) and found it had retained the essential small-town charm of my youth.

Chagrin Falls, a picturesque setting 20 miles southeast of Cleveland, is known for the two waterfalls on the Chagrin River that bracket Main Street. The falls are an attraction for day-trippers who converge on weekends to stroll through Riverside Park and get ice cream or popcorn at the renowned Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop, built in 1875, that overlooks the natural falls.

Retaining quaint charm

The town has the quaint look of New England, which is why it was used in filming The Gathering, a 1977 Christmas movie set in New England.

The past half-century has taken a toll on much of small-town American, particularly since the Great Recession. But here it felt like stepping out of a time warp when I rolled into town with a couple hours to spare during a working trip.

Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods looked much as I remembered. The trees were just much bigger. I missed the entrance to my former street because the overgrown foliage obscured it.

It was a Saturday morning in autumn, and a junior varsity football game was being played at the Chagrin Falls High School stadium where the concrete grandstand is a local landmark. It was built in 1913 on what was then the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds.

There is now artificial turf on the football field and the track is no longer the cinder surface I ran on in high school. Otherwise, the morning felt like it could have been 1970.

That was underscored when a school bus pulled up by the gymnasium (named for the beloved coach Ralph Quesinberry) with the cross country team returning from a morning meet. One of the runners remained on the curb waiting for his ride, and I felt as if I were looking at myself through the portal of time — even the same build and hair color.

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Name doesn’t fit Chagrin

Growing up in Chagrin Falls, we never gave thought to the connotation of the name, which is a misnomer.

One theory is that Chagrin was the corruption of the last name of the French trader, Francois Seguin, who established a post on the river in the 1700s. Another suggests it was derived from an Indian word meaning “clear.”

The local newspaper got Chagrin Falls residents riled up in 1971 with an April's Day suggesting that a parking lot was being built above the waterfalls along with commercial development in Riverside Park.
The local newspaper got Chagrin Falls residents riled up in 1971 with an April’s Day hoax edition suggesting that a parking lot was being built above the waterfalls along with commercial development in Riverside Park.

The river was never particularly clear, but neither was there any reason to feel chagrined while growing up there.

There was a flash of anger and rage, though, when the weekly newspaper Herald Sun published a front-page story on April 1, 1971 with the news that Riverside Park was being leased for a 150,000-square-foot discount store. The accompanying photo showed a crane on a platform above the upper falls that was said to be constructing a parking lot on top of the river.

It was easy to overlook the small print at the bottom of the page explaining that every front-page story was part of an April Fools’ Day hoax.

The pre-Photoshop work on the composite photo showing the crane on the river was so convincing that my father was ready to lead a citizens’ revolt against the project.

Beginning in the late ‘60s, there was very real annoyance and pique among farmers in the area when their pumpkins began disappearing each autumn.

Dozens of pumpkins were pilfered by a band of high school students who then rolled them en masse down the steep hill at the edge of town in a late-night escapade.

What started as a prank was eventually co-opted into a reluctantly sanctioned event — the pumpkin roll, now in its 50th year, was the subject of a 2017 documentary film, “Grove Hill: A True Story” — that remains as much of a Chagrin Falls hallmark as The Blossom Time Festival on Memorial Day weekend.

Each year a large crowd gathers to watch the orbs descend on Grove Hill where they break apart into a gloppy mess, which makes a slick surface to slide on makeshift sleds. Students hold a fundraiser to pay for the clean-up.

Small-town tourist attraction

It is an odd sensation to find oneself a stranger in their hometown. The brief tour of places from my past wasn’t enough to get a true sense of the community now, though the vibe was more high-end than it used to be.

I didn’t see any connection, though, to the sardonic lyrics of the Canadian rock band Tragically Hip’s “Chagrin Falls” with the refrain, “Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where the unknown won’t even go.”

I suspect the song is meant to reflect more of a state of mind than the place, which is hardly avoided. To the contrary, our once-sleepy village is now a tourist attraction.

Nothing stays the same, but it was comforting to see Chagrin Hardware still in business on Main Street, since 1857.

Though a stranger now in Chagrin Falls, I look forward to returning again for a longer trip back in time.

Visiting Chagrin Falls

Where to eat: Dink’s Colonial Restaurant, a Chagrin Falls institution for 50 years, is gone, but the space at 16 N. Main St. is now occupied by a farm-to-table American-style bistro called Aurelia. Reviewers on TripAdvisor rate it 4.5 stars for food and atmosphere. Will give it a try next time.

What to do: Chagrin Falls has always had an artistic bent. The Glass Asylum (22 W. Orange St.) offers the chance to learn and try one’s hand at glassblowing.

Blossom Time Festival

The biggest annual event in Chagrin Falls is the four-day festival over Memorial Day Weekend, a celebration of the spring-summer growing season that began with the town’s centennial celebration in 1933.

The carnival with midway rides jammed along the river is the centerpiece. Festivities include two parades, crowning of a queen and various contests, a 5.25-mile road race, balloon launch, food and music.

It is an event that has varied little for decades, an occasion to count on for marking the onset of summer fun. Blossom Time has been, for many, the setting for introduction to the youth dating experience, and presumably still is.

Yes, it is a tradition very much locked in time.

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Bebop, the Craigslegz travel alien visited Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Visit our Alien page to see where else he's been. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)
Bebop, the Craigslegz travel alien visited Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Visit our Alien page to see where else he’s been. (Craig Davis/Craigslegztravels.com)
About craigslegz 57 Articles
Travel is about discovery, and I learn most about a place when I explore it on foot. Craigslegz Travels is about favorite places and people, and advice to aid fellow travelers. My emphasis is on venturing off well-worn paths. - Craig Davis