The best-kept secret in Central Ohio might be the amazing story of once-glamorous Louis Bromfield and his nationally renowned Malabar Farm. Before getting to Bromfield-who knew Picasso and Hemingway and palled around with golden-age Hollywood stars (who'd visit him in Ohio)-let's talk about the Farm.

The best-kept secret in Central Ohio might be the amazing story of once-glamorous Louis Bromfield and his nationally renowned Malabar Farm. Before getting to Bromfield—who knew Picasso and Hemingway and palled around with golden-age Hollywood stars (who’d visit him in Ohio)—let’s talk about the Farm.

Now an engaging state park with a terrific restaurant (and still a functioning farm), Malabar is only 70 minutes from Columbus, just off Interstate 71, in Lucas. If you know much about Malabar, you’re in the minority. Yet during the 1940s and ’50s, it was referred to as “America’s most famous farm.”

In that era, when corporate farms were becoming the norm, vanguard Malabar was a model for organic, sustainable and conservationist agricultural techniques. But Malabar was also a movie-star hangout and the wedding site of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

This loops us back to Louis Bromfield. The Mansfield native, who studied on a family farm and at Ivy League universities, went on to become a World War I hero, original Time magazine staff writer, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and successful Hollywood screenwriter. A Francophile, polymath and restless idealist, Bromfield left his snazzy life (he’d lived in New York City and France) to return to bucolic Ohio, found Malabar Farm and concentrate on exposing the harmful agricultural practices he saw in post-dust bowl America. Unfortunately, this author of the semi-autobiographical book “The Man Who Had Everything” died prematurely (in 1956, four years after his wife passed) and in dicey financial straits.

Today at Malabar, you can see how Bromfield flourished during happier times. Start your unforgettable day trip at the visitor’s center. It’s equipped with interactive eco-friendly husbandry exhibits and a gift shop that sells snacks, plus Malabar-produced maple syrup and grass-fed beef. It also sells tickets for tours of the sprawling farm and Bromfield’s uncannily preserved, 32-room “Big House” (combo-tour tickets are $5).

During my one-hour guided house tour, I was floored by the intactness of the old domicile. Almost all of its vintage furniture, fanciful wallpaper, old-timey typewriters, period magazines, 4,000 books and eye-catching artworks (like authentic Grandma Moses paintings) were actual Bromfield possessions. This fosters a movie set or “Twilight Zone”-like feel while roaming about—as if the remarkable mansion’s wealthy and worldly owners had just stepped out. Some highlights: Bromfield’s enormous curved wooden desk; Bogie and Bacall’s makeshift “honeymoon suite;” a wood-paneled, swanky New York hotel room facsimile; and a hallway wall of black and white photographs honoring Bromfield’s famous visitors and friends.

When hunger calls, head to Malabar’s charming, local-focused restaurant (it’s like a mini-Worthington Inn). Built from handsome brick around 1820, Malabar Farm Restaurant is beautifully landscaped and sits near both a pond and the produce stand where James Cagney was fond of selling corn for Bromfield. Sporting a lovely patio and surprisingly good wine list, the restaurant also offers killer scratch-made crab cakes, handmade pasta puttanesca, one of the best hamburgers in Central Ohio (it’s beautifully crusted, yet juicy with a homemade bun and homemade mayo), plus a delicious Asian-flavored flank steak with masterful mashers and lively veggies. Both of the latter marvelous dishes star grass-fed, raised-at-Malabar beef. And don’t skip desserts of fluffy tiramisu and an intense macadamia nut brownie sundae. The hayride-like farm tour is also pretty sweet. For about an hour, a “soy biodiesel” tractor glides by in-use fields and barns, the old cemetery where Bromfield lies and the big tree featured in “The Shawshank Redemption,” which was filmed nearby. Like the house tour, it’s conducted by an expert guide full of fascinating information and anecdotes.

Before leaving, drive or walk up Mount Jeez, a hill that overlooks this entire 581-acre landscape—and much more. On that stirring high ground, breathe in the country air and absorb in the stunning scenery that helped persuade Louis Bromfield to give up “everything” for a radically new life on gorgeous Malabar Farm.

Where to Stop at malabar farm

Malabar Farm State Park

4050 Bromfield Rd., Lucas

419-892-2784, malabarfarm.org

Malabar Farm Restaurant

3645 Pleasant Valley Rd., Lucas

419-938-5205, malabarfarmrestaurant.com

Captions:

Hollywood’s biggest stars once flocked to Louis Bromfield’s farm and 32-room house, which has been perfectly preserved.

The farm’s on-property restaurant offers great views and locally-sourced fare including handmade pasta puttanesca and a macadamia nut brownie sundae.

Photos by Jodi Miller