Formally A Country Girl
By Rocco Satullo, your Tour Guide to Fun!
She sells you dreams. Or at least the one and only dress for a fairy tale evening. And the enchanting setting for a princess’ ball.
“I never imagined that such a beautiful place would be out in the middle of nowhere,” have been the words rolling out of dropped jaws for years by women visiting Hilltop Event Center.
By word of mouth, mostly, Southern Ohio girls whisper about where they got their gown for homecoming, prom, and their wedding. But never too loudly because you know, it’s a secret you only tell your closest friend.
“Something small can lead to something very large, like a prom dress to a wedding,” smiled Jo Hall, owner of Hilltop Event Center in Winchester, Ohio just east of Cincinnati. “In the blink of an eye, it seems, my prom girls are back to rent the ballroom for their wedding.
What makes Jo’s story unique, is she’s a country girl at heart competing in a formal world. But she never lost her roots.
Years ago, out on Grace’s Run Road in rural Seaman, Ohio where Amish buggies trot along the scenic meandering road, Jo decided to pursue her own road rather than that of the farming life of her parents. So began a series of small business ventures. Each one taught her lessons to get her where she is today.
In the late 1980’s she started a flower shop in town.
“It truly was a 24/7 commitment that was quite demanding,” Jo remembered. “In the back of my mind, I kept hearing the voice of my UPS guy, Bob, always saying I should sell tuxes.”
On Bob’s route, he made many tuxedo deliveries but knew there was no competition in Jo’s area.
A couple of years later, Jo decided to switch gears so she sold the shop to try her hand at renting tuxedos to the high school boys from nearby towns. Her grown daughters had her entrepreneurial spirit and had started two businesses under one roof. One was a beautician and the other ran tanning beds. When Jo joined them in their space, she had a 10 foot by 10 foot area for her tuxes. That’s when she started to dabble in offering some consignment formal dresses for various occasions. Albeit, they were relegated to a seven foot stretch of wall. Before Jo knew it, demand meant more than 64 tuxedos strewn all over the shop.
She had to move to grow.
Jo hung a sign at her home out on Grace’s Run Road and invited her loyal customers into her …garage! Granted she remodeled it with a crafty woman’s touch to turn the space into a cute store and worked out of it for about a year.
“It wasn’t just the garage, bedrooms inside the house served as dressing rooms for the boys,” Jo laughed at the memories. “I even had this big cat that lounged around. I suppose it added to the homey feel for everyone.”
Jo’s personable approach to her small town and country clientele left her with no time or space to concentrate on the consignment dresses she had earlier offered. Soon, she felt the need to grow her business again. This time, she had a quaint two-story building built next to her house. It was a mere 1,000 square feet but it allowed her the flexibility to sell brand new dresses along with her tuxedo offering.
One of the subtle touches Jo added without really thinking about it was offering the boys a sucker. This, along with petting the goats outside, kept them occupied while their girlfriends elongated their shopping experience – as girls tend to do while planning their special occasion.
“It’s funny how easily you can distract boys,” Jo winked.
Jo also integrated her creative flair to the business. She began to design personalized garters, prom flowers, boutonnieres and corsages. At the time, her business was called “Hilltop Designs.”
“That rocketed business!” Jo said. “These kids all love something with their name on it!”
Customers became friends due to their repeat business for formal occasions that string along during formidable years spanning homecoming – prom – and weddings. Word of mouth started reaching the outskirts of big cities like Cincinnati and Columbus as well as throughout Northern Kentucky. Somewhere along the way, Jo heard people refer to her as the “Queen of the Hill” because her place sat on a hilltop nestled back in the woods near a creek. And she was turning girls into princesses.
Jo, always attentive to everyone, built a water fountain and invested in landscaping to beautify her country destination for formal wear.
“The rustic feel back in the Grace’s Run Road days really helped relax excited dates, moms and brides because of the casual country charm,” Jo fondly recalled.
People started coming from everywhere and Jo began working at all hours again just like in her early flower shop days. This time, she was at home doing what she loved. In less than two years of building her two story shop she was already having visions of a reception hall and an even larger formal wear collection. Almost subconsciously, she purchased a round table here, a centerpiece there, and other odds and ends that she stored in hopes of making a leap to the big-time.
In the meantime, she added more parking along the winding driveway up the hill to her house and business. It was when she had to add parking a second time to absorb the flow of business that she realized she was outgrowing this enchanted setting.
“Girls loved coming out there and feeling so special,” Jo said.
But all that changed at the drop of a dime. Her future was put on fast-forward.
“My dad called me at 9am on April Fools Day and said, ‘Jo – did you know you are in the Cincinnati Enquirer?’” Jo laughed. “By 10am people were piling into my shop. Cars were lined down Graces Run Road.”
Sure enough, the front page of the business section featured a huge photo and story, titled, “Formalwear For Sale in Unlikely Location.”
The hilltop was abuzz with women from all over Southwest Ohio and beyond.
“In no-time I sold out of everything,” Jo said. “They bought up everything I had including inventory I’ve had forever.”
They kept coming, article clipping in hand, for weeks even years after that fateful April Fools’ Day in 2005. But this was no time for fooling around. Jo had to act quickly!
It was time to go big. Jo asked her carpenter to build onto what she had there but he steered her toward a 19-acre plot of land with three buildings on it along the well-traveled Appalachian Highway, State Route 32 in nearby Winchester, Ohio. Jo set up shop in the biggest building which had 8,400 square feet and rented out the others to her sons to run businesses they had started on a shoestring, following their mom’s entrepreneurial footsteps as their sisters had also done.
Jo and friends spent tireless hours trying to convert the old space into something special. She wanted to recapture that down home feel for her formal business. The new Hilltop Event Center became a personal project. It was a labor of love. It embodied everything Jo had aspired for her business to become. Out came her hidden treasures she had pieced together and stored in hopes this day would arrive. Elegant streamers hung as inverted waves across the vast ballroom. But with each personal touch, it became evermore cozy yet remaining formal.
The country girl was now out to compete with her big city counterparts not just in offering formal wear but also making available a formal event center. But this wasn’t her first dance with the bright lights.
“Once upon a time, I was a lost country girl in the heart of Cincinnati,” Jo smiled.
She explained that years ago, the Barnum and Bailey Circus was in town and Jo attended the show as a chaperone to her daughter’s school field trip. When they got off the bus and looked around, Jo felt so small. Fortunately, a man named Jim was there, too, with his daughter. He guided the four of them around. They sat together, ate pizza afterward together and when they got back to their country origin, Jim asked Jo out on a date. They were both single parents but that changed seven weeks later!
“It was love at first sight,” Jo said.
And so was her new event center that could accommodate up to 450 people along-side the Appalachian Highway east of Cincinnati.
Competition intensified as Jo focused on renting space for just about anything. She has since booked wedding receptions, school proms, corporate conferences, fashion shows, expos, galas, benefits, festivals, workshops and a variety of parties. She has even hosted auctions and court depositions for as little as an hour.
“My most unusual request to use the event center was to have a wrestling event,” Jo said. “But they wanted to strip the place of all its elegant decor so I simply said, no.”
Jo has created her own special events over the years, hosting them at Hilltop Event Center. One in particular has become a mainstay in the festivals calendar drawing folks from near and far. It is the Appalachian Mountain Christmas. Consider it a physical meeting place for the fans of the wildly popular website, Etsy.com.
Over 35 artists and creative crafting entrepreneurs offer demonstrations along with a variety of one-of-a-kind gifts you may find ideal for that special someone around the holidays. It promises a warm festive atmosphere every holiday season along with live entertainment, delicious food and even a Princess Tea Party and Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick for the little ones. And it’s all under one big roof.
“Come hungry for the world’s best cinnamon rolls,” Jo recommends.
No matter what sort of function you are looking to hold at Hilltop Event Center, Jo can save the trouble of decorating it, catering it and booking a disc jockey. She even provides an ATM machine for folks who realize they need cash to participate in 50/50 raffles and other activities, which also comes in handy for tux rentals, dresses and our personalized, homemade garters, prom flowers, boutonnieres and corsages.
“Remarkably, a place in California routinely orders shipments of our custom-made garters, boutonnieres and corsages,” said Jo.
Jo has several people who pitch in to help her these days, including two of her granddaughters. Since losing Jim several years ago, she’d love to meet a soulmate who can work alongside her.
“Jim had Parkinson’s disease and my mom had Alzheimer’s,” Jo explained. “Over the years, I’ve raised over $25,000 for the two organizations and have hosted charity auctions here.
Outside of work and church, Jo finds time for the other things she loves like decorating, gardening, antique shopping and family get-togethers.
“I have me-time everyday where I sit with a cup of hot tea and make a diary entry,” Jo said. “It actually helps with my business because sometimes I rely on my diary to reference when certain things happened.”
If you think Jo is showing signs of slowing down, think again. She’s always tinkering with new ideas to further build her unique brand as that elegant country combination of comfort and formal coexisting if only for one special night. So, next on her to-do list is to build a gorgeous porch setting a la Cracker Barrel so no matter the function inside the event center, there’s a place to duck out and enjoy the night air and starlit canopy on the edge of Appalachia.
Jo confesses that her favorite moments in running her business over the years is making girls cry. That’s right, tears of joy when they set their eyes on that one and only dress they must have after driving all over Timbuktu for days on end. Or mothers sobbing when a daughter comes out of one of the six dressing rooms at Hilltop Event Center in a wedding gown for the first time.
“Every day is an adventure,” Jo smiled. “And the biggest reward is simply pleasing people.”
By Rocco Satullo, your Tour Guide to Fun!
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