Steve Garguillo, a commercial contractor from New Jersey, came to Locust Valley bicentennial farm with his wife and carefully restored the home and buildings on the property in Athens County.

A love story two centuries in the making

By Matt Reese

I was a bit surprised this summer when I called about a Historic Ohio Farm story and the phone was answered by a man with a distinct East Coast accent. I was even more surprised when I learned of the farm’s unique love story.

Steve Garguillo grew up in Newark, New Jersey. His father was a contractor.

“I started working with him when I was 12 years old, mixing cement and working with the guys. When I got out of college I decided I liked construction, so I stayed with that and worked with my Dad for many years. He retired when I was about 28, so I took the business over and ran that for about 25 years. It is tough running a business back East because of the congestion and traffic,” Steve said. “I met Susan in New Jersey in 1982 when she was tending bar in my friend’s club and I got her phone number. She was so demur and so nice. I called her up and she was busy. I called her again and she was busy again. I called her again and she had something else to do. I said, ‘Well that’s that. Three strikes, you’re out.’ It was 7 or 8 months later when I went to Peter’s Pizzeria — they had the best veal parmesan sandwich. I came outside after getting my order and she was standing there. She looked at me and asked if I remembered her. It was dark and I said, ‘Kind of.’ She asked if I had a girlfriend. I asked, ‘Well are you busy now? Tell you what, I just got this sandwich, you want to share it with me?’ We went to my apartment and shared the sandwich and we talked and talked and talked. Then I took her home, a few blocks away. Then we went out the next night, and the next night and that was it. She was like taking a chill pill for a Jersey guy.”

Susan had grown up in Pomeroy, Ohio and moved with her family to New Jersey when she was 12. After that memorable veal parmesan, the Garguillos were married in Pomeroy in 1985. Though they hoped to, the couple was never able to have children.

Susan Garguillo

Very early in their relationship, Steve could see how important visits to southeast Ohio were to his wife, both to see family in Pomeroy and to visit the family farm owned by her father and uncle near Amesville in Athens County. The farm had been in her family since 1817. In the early 1990s, Susan’s parents moved to the Amesville farm and visits became more regular, though the Garguillos still lived back East.

“I semi-retired and my wife came out to the farm to take care of her mom in 2008. Susan took care of her mother for about 2 years before she passed on. Then her Dad had a stroke and she stayed to take care of him,” Steve said. “Whenever we were apart, we spoke every day in the morning and before dinner. Every time I came back, I saw that Susan became more and more acclimated to the area. She was more natural here.” 

After Steve closed his business in 2010, he was able to come to the farm more often. He eventually was able to move there full time. Knowing this was where Susan wanted to be, he focused his years of expertise, and significant capital, on improving the structures on the property. From 2010 to 2015 he focused on the house.

“I just wanted my wife to be able to walk around and look at things and enjoy them and know that it was taken care of. I could not see Susan being happy anywhere else — not New Jersey, or Florida or Pennsylvania,” Steve said. “The first thing I took care of was the house, because Susan was going to live here. I restored the house built in 1895 to get it to a place where it would be easy to maintain as we got older — redid the plumbing, electric, painting, new windows, put a new roof on. The other initial thing I had done was I put a lot of stone down around the grounds. It was very muddy and we were always bringing mud into the house. I did that in tandem with fixing the house. I put down 300 tons of stone in the drive in one year and another 150 tons around house.” 

Once the house was meticulously restored and updated, Steve started looking at the several aging buildings on the farm.

“We did not touch anything else on the property for a long time. It was like looking through a time machine. It was amazing,” he said. “When the house was done, I started going to each barn, saying, ‘Now what should I do?’ The first one was right by the house that I call the garden shed. I slowly removed all of the debris that was inside like the rotted floorboards. I had to prop it up with timbers to keep it from falling over. Some of it was sagging and I would jack it up. To make it a more permanent fix, I started digging foundations and mixing cement. I found big stones all over the property that were remnants from the foundations of the different buildings. I integrated these stones into the foundations of these barns and the house. I would try to save whatever part of the barn I could. There were times there was no choice but to cut away rotted sections and replace them. I tried to keep as much of the original structure as possible and I stabilized it, leveled it, plumbed it. After that we had to put siding on it. I went to the Amish people in the area and they told me the wood that was here originally was yellow pine. They milled it for me and made yellow pine siding. I would put that on one barn at a time to close them in and make them useful. From there, I went to the next building which was the corn crib, then the tractor shed, then the cow barn. For the old horse barn built in 1895 that was built the same time as the house, I did not have to do as much restructuring. It was still plumb and solid. I just had to clean it out. They put a temporary floor in and it was covered in livestock manure bird droppings. I power washed every single building here to get them all cleaned up on ladders and scaffolding get rid of the soot, animal debris, nests and everything to get them cleaned up. The last barn was out in the back and it was the new horse barn. I cleaned it out and took the stables out.”

Throughout the process, the couple would take evening walks around the farm to discuss their plans, the progress and the events of the day. They would stroll up and down the hills of their Locust Valley Farm with the sun on their backs or snow beneath their feet, watching the transformation and modernization of their remarkable family heritage evolve before them. 

“You feel a connection. One, I was doing it for Susan but two, it was amazing to be working on buildings that were erected by people 150 years ago who were in the trade I was in. The third thing was it was to just keep myself busy. It was nice to get up in the morning and go back to work. I could not wait to go outside and dig a hole or jack up a beam. The worst part was going into town to get supplies — I couldn’t wait to get back. I wanted to get done,” he said. “I would start at 6 in the morning and work until 2 or 3:00 in the afternoon. It felt so good. I would stop, go take a shower and get a glass of wine. Then we’d take a walk and look at what had been accomplished. Where are we going next? It was fun. There was no time constraint.”

The massive amount of work over thousands of hours (and with many hundreds of thousands of dollars) was mostly done by Steve.

“I always had to keep in mind that I was working alone. I did not have help. Once in a while I would have someone come by and help me with a beam,” he said. “I eventually hired a guy about 6 years ago to help me clean things up.”  

The result of Steve’s massive personal effort removing, preserving and restoring 200+ years of family farm accumulation is nothing short of spectacular. The level of attention to detail, meticulous restoration and preservation of such long family history in one place is rare. No power less than true love could produce such an effort. 

After caring for both her parents and enjoying years on her family’s farm with her husband, Susan passed away the day after Christmas in 2020. Steve continues to live with and care for his father-in-law and the Locust Valley Farm his wife loved so deeply. 

“Susan was a very special person. As long as I am here maintaining this place and keeping it nice, she is alive to me. She is present, she is here and she is part of the world. It really is the truth,” Steve said. “And when people come here and see this farm they say, ‘Now there is a guy who loved his wife.’”

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One comment

  1. Matt,
    Another great story about Steve Garguillo’s restoration of the family farm. Stressed out farmers need to read about the realreasons for counrty living, and this one filled the bill.
    Thanks for another good article in Ohio’s Country Journal. I read it cover to cover.
    Steve Hughes

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