Riverdog: A Rural Retreat in Ohio

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

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.


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.


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.

Entry filed under: About the Midwest, Neither Here nor There.... Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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