Riverdog: A Rural Retreat in Ohio

Through an unforeseen set of circumstances, early this summer I found myself staying, along with some of my family, in the restored nineteenth-century “Settlers’ House” at Riverdog, a rural retreat center in northern Ohio, about an hour south of Cleveland, and a few miles west of Oberlin. The proprietor/hosts of Riverdog, artists Deborah Banyas and Terry Speer, have created an extraordinarily beautiful environment, both inside and out, a place that serves not only as a delightful place for travelers to stay, but a center of artistic and cultural activity for the surrounding community. For example in the weeks we were at Riverdog, there was an outdoor solstice celebration, a fundraiser, and a concert performed by local musicians in the barn. I asked Deborah and Terry–who are very kind, interesting, and gracious hosts–if they would be willing to answer a few questions about Riverdog for me, and they agreed to do so. Here is my interview with Terry, conducted via e-mail.

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Terry Speer and Deborah Banyas, proprietor/hosts at Riverdog. Photo by Tanya Rosen-Jones.

Janet Hulstrand: First, can you tell my readers in a few words what Riverdog is, and how it came to be? What made you think of creating such a place, how long did it take, and what are some of the adventures you had along the way?

Terry Speer: Riverdog grew organically. We had studios at our home in Oberlin and downtown in an old creamery, but we never had enough room, and we longed to have studio space in the country. In 1998 we were heading to the Schoepfle Gardens just north of here, but the bridge was out and we decided to take the back way, which passed by what is now Riverdog. There happened to be a “For Sale: Open House” sign posted that day, and we stopped because we were intrigued by the lush river valley setting. (The houses and buildings were a mess.) The property had a long, rambling building on it that we felt would be an ideal studio. We went home and made some sketches of what we thought we could do here, and two days later we bought the place. It took about five years to turn the main building from a leaky pole barn with no functioning utilities into a studio/gallery. The first summer we planted hundreds of trees and shrubs. Since we were self-employed artists, we didn’t have a lot of money to work with so we did most of the construction ourselves. I even built a lot of the furniture. I then turned to restoring the century-old house on the property, which I thought would eventually become our retirement home. Despite all the work, our art business was thriving until the Great Recession. At that point things collapsed, and we realized that we had to find another way to survive and figured out a way to convert Riverdog into a four-unit inn.

Janet: Did you grow up in Ohio, and if not, where did you grow up, and what brought you here?

Terry: Deborah grew up in a Cleveland suburb and I grew up in a small town west of Chicago. I moved to Ohio in the mid-70’s to teach studio art, and met Deborah at Baldwin-Wallace University.

Janet: Where do your guests come from? Are they mostly local? Mostly from other parts of the country? Do you ever have visitors from other parts of the world?

Terry: We have five types of guests: parents of Oberlin College students;  couples looking for a “getaway”; reunions of one sort or another; musicians who perform at our music barn or gallery; and occasionally we will have a long term guest.

Janet: What is your favorite thing about running a place like Riverdog? And are there any downsides? 

Terry: Hands down the best part is meeting the diverse array of folks that show up. Almost all have been extremely nice, and respectful of the property.  As you can imagine, the least attractive part involves cleaning and maintenance. There is just not enough profit in the business to hire a staff so we do it all. Most bed and breakfast inns last about five years because of that aspect of the business. We are a couple of years past that because we have learned to cope with it.

Janet: You host “roots music” concerts in your barn, and sometimes in the gallery where you also show your artwork. Can you tell my readers a little bit about those concerts? What is your definition of “roots music”? And do you host other kinds of events at Riverdog as well?

Terry: The term “roots music” is a bit like “folk art.” It can be hard to pin down an exact meaning, and it means different things to different people. For us, it means featuring music that has a linear connection with honest indigenous music of the American past: early blues, country, folk, rhythm and blues, jazz, bluegrass, and rock. However, we do look for artists that are not just playing “old time music,” but who use the styles as starting points and go off on their own peculiar direction. We look for creative artists rather than “cover” artists whenever possible. We don’t do any events for money (the concerts are not for profit) but we have had some great parties out here, and some weddings for friends.

Janet: The term “fly-over country” has always kind of bothered me because it implies there’s a whole vast section of this country that isn’t worth seeing. And that is so untrue! So. Can you tell any readers who may not know anything about northern Ohio, what are some of the most interesting, and perhaps some of the least-known, things to see and do at Riverdog and in the surrounding area?

Terry: We have never been disturbed by that term “fly-over country.” Maybe it has kept the region from being artificially trendy and growing too quickly. That has happened to some of our favorite places like Miami, Atlanta, Austin, and Denver. We loved them years ago, but they have turned into traffic-choked monsters that you can’t afford to stay in. There are incredible treasures around here: great colleges, universities, museums, world-class music and health care. There are plenty of things for sports enthusiasts and for “foodies.” The landscape, while not spectacular, is pleasant enough, and everything is easily accessible and affordable.

Janet: What is your favorite thing about living in this part of the country? What do you think it would be good for people to know about northern Ohio that they may not know?

Terry: The people of Northern Ohio are tough, and they have had to put up with the death of the heavy industrial economy that once drove the region to prosperity. The fact that it has managed to stay vital when it became a part of the “Rust Belt,” and is now becoming even a bit fashionable is almost a miracle. Deborah and I were always in our little bubble…first in academia, then as artists who could take our work to whatever markets were strong. So we never had to suffer like so many did around here. We were certainly aware of it, though, and are amazed that things are progressing pretty nicely for the region right now.

Janet: One more question: how did you come up with great name “Riverdog”?

Terry: We wanted a name that would be easy for people to remember: Riverdog is situated on a river (the Vermilion); and we have dogs.

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Three of Four Wonderful Dogs Who Live at Riverdog

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She leads book groups at the American Library in Paris, writing workshops in Essoyes, a village in the Champagne region, and teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” each summer, in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY.

June 28, 2017 at 6:25 pm Leave a comment

Interview with Karen Schur-Narula, Author

An interview with the author of “Fatherland,” an exquisitely written, deeply compelling novel set in Germany under the Third Reich…

Continue Reading June 9, 2017 at 4:04 pm Leave a comment

Et voila! La Maison #Renoir is open to the public!

La Maison Renoir, a corner of the living room

Some things are just so momentous that it’s hard to believe that they ever really will happen. Christmas morning is like this for many children (at least it was for me). And yesterday in Essoyes I again felt some of that feeling of Christmas-morning wonder-and- joy that I haven’t felt in quite the same way many times since I was a child.

Because yesterday, the Renoir family home, which has been under an intense process of renovation for the past year, was at last ready for visitors–and right on schedule!

You have to realize how amazing this is, first of all. This is how the house looked a few short months ago when I visited there with Mayor Alain Cintrat.

Honestly, when I first heard, last year around this time, that the house was going to be totally renovated, with climate control, an elevator, and other major improvements made, and that it would be totally furnished with period furnishings that would have to be gathered  from various places, all inside of year, I didn’t say anything negative of course, but I thought, “No way. How are they going to do that?”

I even asked someone at the Office de Tourism, sometime during the month of July, what the reopening dates were scheduled to be, just to be sure, and when she told me, I said. “Hmmm. So I guess they’ll have to start the work right away, right?”

Wrong. “Mais non,” she said, smiling. “It’s almost August, you know.”

So. You know how everyone makes fun of the French for taking so much time off? Long, and many, vacations? Long lunches?

Well. They did it. And they did it beautifully and wonderfully well. And they did without giving up those vacations and long lunches that make life so much more pleasant to live.

So, think about that now, Brits and Americans, okay? 🙂  They did it.

Yesterday was the day it was finally ready for viewing. And it is so beautiful. Take a look at this!


Yesterday the honored guests were the residents of Essoyes. The mayor was there all day long, cordially greeting everyone as they arrived. A friendly, cheerful, efficient team of village employees and volunteers were there to greet people, and show them how to use their audiotour kits, which offer commentary in French, English, and several other languages. (I wasn’t able to listen to the whole thing yesterday, but I listened to enough of it to know that it too is very nicely done: it tells the story of the Renoir family, how they came to be in Essoyes in the first place, how and why they loved it so. You can read some of that story here also, if you like.)

And, as of today, the house is open to the general public.

Great pains have been taken to decorate the rooms in the way they might have been, or– to some degree, by relying on photographs, bits of old wallpaper discovered in the renovation, and so on–even how they actually were in 1905, when the Renoirs were living there. The impression given is that the members of the family have just stepped out for a walk and will be back anytime. Some of the original furniture is there, on loan from Sophie Renoir–the great-granddaughter of Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his wife, Aline–who was the last one to live in the house. Period artifacts gathered from other sources give a wonderfully detailed feeling of what a real home of the period, and in this case what the Renoir home, in this period, would have been like. It is a wonderful experience to see it.

For the summer months three original works of Renoir on loan from museums in France: a landscape painted in nearby Loches; a bust of Madame Renoir; and a painting, Jeune femme au mirror, are on display as well.

During the weekend of July 22-23, all of Essoyes will invite visitors to come and, along with them, enter into the spirit of 1905, as they celebrate Essoyes a la belle époque. You can find out more about that, and many other special events planned for the summer, including a Renoir exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Troyes, here.

You’re going to want to come for a visit this summer, aren’t you?

I thought so! 🙂

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She leads book groups at the American Library in Paris, writing workshops in Essoyes, a village in the Champagne region, and teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” each summer, in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY.

June 3, 2017 at 2:02 pm Leave a comment

A very special spring in Essoyes

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Fields of wheat and rapeseed, springtime in Champagne.

Springtime is always a busy time in agricultural communities, and this year is no different in southern Champagne, as local farmers tend to their crops–primarily wheat, rapeseed, and of course grapes for champagne. It was once again a rough start to the year for grape-growers, with exceptionally warm weather followed by a couple of weeks of early-morning frosts. Not good for the grapes! We’re holding our collective breath that the result will not be too disastrous for too many vignerons. Last year was hard enough! 😦

Meanwhile, in Essoyes, excitement is mounting as the time for a plethora of department-wide celebrations planned for this, the Year of Renoir, draws near. The excitement begins on June 3, when the Renoir family home in Essoyes will open to the public, and will continue on June 23, with the official inauguration.

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La Maison Renoir, under renovation. It opens to the public June 3!

This has been a massive project for a village of only 750 citizens to take on. It is happening thanks to extensive help from various arms of the French government, plus numerous generous donations of time, money, and in-kind donations given by individuals, contractors, and other entities. It has required courage, imagination, foresight, a lot of hard work, and phenomenal amounts of determined persistence and patience from the mayor,  the members of the conseil municipal, and many others I’m sure.

But it’s happening. Yay, Essoyes! 🙂

The excitement continues when, during the weekend of July 22-23, Essoyes will turn itself into a 1900 version of itself in Essoyes a la Belle EpoqueThere will be a circa 1900 carousel, a circa 1900 wedding, a circa 1900 school exam given in a circa 1900 classroom. There will be women washing clothes in the village lavoir, and a great many people dressed in period costume. It’s going to be fun! If you can come, do!

There are lots of other special events planned over the course of the summer as well, including Un Autre Renoiran exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Troyes, showcasing more than 50 works of art on loan from museums around France;  and a weekend of cinéma en plein aire in Essoyes July 28-29, thanks to the cooperation of the Maison Pour Tous in neighboring Landreville, which has moved its regular summertime festival of outdoor film to Essoyes for that weekend, in honor of the Year of Renoir. (You can find out more about many of the Year of Renoir events that are being planned here.)

A couple of weeks ago an open community meeting was held at the mairie, at which a handful of people who have volunteered to be in charge of various aspects of planning for Essoyes a la Belle Epoque reported on their activities and progress to date, and let those attending know how they can help. I was once again impressed with “my” little village: how organized, how dedicated, how ambitious, really, people can be, and are. There are a lot of details to attend to! This is going to be a lot of work! But here everyone was, planning, pitching in, organizing, thinking ahead. Wow! What a great town!

I think it’s all going to be a lot of fun, and though I am always telling people what a great place Essoyes is to visit (because it is!) I think that is going to be even more true this year. 🙂

Meanwhile, aside from all of that, there are the usual spring events to keep people busy. For example, last weekend it was the Foire aux Vins, a local celebration of viticulture. I wasn’t able to go this year, but here’s a picture I got last year. (No. I was not drinking champagne before I took this. It is out of focus simply because I’m not a very good photographer. But you get the idea. Banners. Costumes. Herald trumpets. Champagne!)

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Then there are the “flowers of spring.” Essoyes is a three-flower village (if you don’t know what that means, well, you really just have to come to France and see if you can figure it out, or ask someone about it).

And though wildflowers don’t count for the three-flower designation, they certainly are very pretty. I wrote about them here last year. This year I will simply say that the last couple of weeks have seen a lot of whites and yellows. And this week there were some pinks and purples coming onto the scene, pinks and purples of such intense hues that spotting them almost inevitably makes me smile–smile at the beautiful audacity of nature.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature who divides her time between the U.S. and France. She leads book groups at the American Library in Paris, writing workshops in Essoyes, a village in the Champagne region, and teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” each summer, in Paris, for Queens College, CUNY.

May 24, 2017 at 4:05 pm Leave a comment

France Has a New President

…It’s a big job this very young man (only 39 years old) has before him. But I think he has the brains, heart, strength, courage, and conviction to do a good job….

Continue Reading May 9, 2017 at 9:11 am Leave a comment

Back in Essoyes again…

First of all, how nice to be welcomed back after long weeks away! The Facebook message from my friend Desirée expressed enthusiasm that I was back in France again, and added, “…at 6:30 pm there is a short film in the community hall that the Maison Pour Tous and the kids put together. You are welcome to join us…”

Continue Reading April 25, 2017 at 11:05 am Leave a comment

The Women’s March: A Rare (and Wonderful!) Display of Unity Around the World

…I want to say how grateful I am to the many French women, Frenchmen (and other men), and children who joined us in marching through the streets of Paris to express our solidarity
with those who have already felt slighted, threatened, or otherwise badly treated by the new president of the United States…

Continue Reading January 23, 2017 at 5:29 pm 2 comments

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