The little hamlet that could
Tucked in at the crossroads of Routes 22 and 23 just a few miles west of the Massachusetts border, the hamlet of Hillsdale, New York, has at times seemed a small town that time forgot, a place you might hardly notice on your way to the Berkshires. But that is changing fast. If you haven’t seen Hillsdale in awhile, you might want to plan a visit.
Established in 1788, the hamlet is now a National Register Historic District, a designation that allows significant tax breaks for restoration of both residential and commercial buildings, and it is beginning to show. Anchored by longtime stores Herrington’s, IGA and Taconic Valley Lawn and Garden, which are all family owned, new businesses are finding niches along Route 23 and down Anthony St.
The heart of hamlet change at present is in the semicircle of buildings known as Village Square Plaza, around the Soldiers and Sailors Monument island where the year-round Christmas tree also stands at the corner of Anthony Street and Route 23.
In 2009 Ken Davis and Kevin Draves opened their “lifestyle boutique,” Passiflora, where you can find everything from Lampes Bergers and reclaimed furniture to an adorable baby shower gift or birthday card, including cards with Ken’s photographs from around the globe. Last year Ken and Kevin expanded, opening the popular Village Scoop next door, serving Jane’s ice cream, Sweet Sam’s baked goods, coffee, tea and a wonderful affogato. At the eastern end of the Plaza, in what was Dimmick’s from the mid-19th century to the 1930s, hamlet visionary Matthew White of White Webb Interior Design opened the Hillsdale General Store in 2011. Beautifully renovated by master builder Adam Flaum, it was the first historic commercial building to be opened in the newly designated district. A general store of the 21st century, it offers “everything you need for a country home—beautiful and useful things for country life,” as Matthew describes it. Local products, including seeds from the Hudson Valley Seed Library, excellent brooms from the Justamere Tree Farm across the border and a pantry of syrup, jams and pickles sit side by side with vintage and antique items, handsome Indonesian wood radios, and classic games for a rainy day.
Matthew came to the hamlet through a property he and his partner fell in love with and purchased in Hillsdale. He joined the Hamlet Committee and soon recognized the exceptional level of passion and commitment on the part of volunteers—there are multiple committees supporting change, including the Green Committee, Affordable Housing and Historic Hillsdale, among others—that he describes as extraordinary for a hamlet of about 2,000 inhabitants. He was drawn in.
“It’s kind of an insane passion of mine, this town.”
Initially that was not necessarily the plan. But an article he saw about a local veterans’ group designing a small memorial park in the hamlet led him to step in and offer help. Matthew designed a memorial based on what the veterans described as their hopes for it, and he tells of an emotional moment at the design presentation where it was clear that he had truly heard them. Though the cost was daunting, greater than what they originally foresaw, the reaction was simply “We have to build the monument.” With Herrington’s generously offering the stone, they set to work raising remaining funds, which could have taken years. But within a few months serendipity stepped in with a Hillsdale resident, himself a veteran, writing a check for the total remaining amount.
“It is a perfect storm,” Matthew says of the circumstances of the past few years leading to so much positive change, with residents, whether weekend or full time, coming together, all wanting what’s good for the hamlet. Somehow, it seems everybody’s ready for positive change—and naturally, “everybody wants a good place to have lunch!”
That particular desire helped bring the farm-to-table CrossRoads to the space next door in the General Store Building. Even before Matthew bought the building, he was talking to his friend and chef David Wurth about opening a restaurant there. David has been cooking most of his life; he came to Hillsdale via a path that included a film degree from NYU, time at the White Dog Café in Philadelphia,—a farm-to-table restaurant before the term was widely known—as well as at the Savoy in New York, and eventually the brand-new Local 111 in Philmont. He was drawn to the Hudson Valley for its tone, values and landscape that all recalled his childhood summers on Martha’s Vineyard, where as a high schooler he had worked his way up from dishwasher to waiter at Chez Pierre. He was bitten young by the restaurant bug.
David quickly developed a following at Local 111, where he was chef and baker from 2006 to 2009. He was developing relationships with local farmers and felt connected to the area. But the fit at 111 wasn’t right, and he left to cook for his friend Bjorn Somlo at Nudel in Lenox. He sees influences in his cooking from Bjorn, including a greater propensity to purée ingredients and a stronger desire to play textures off of one another.
Matthew White’s design gives a feel of modern farmhouse, with beadboard and clean lines. The original vision was of a bustling, casual floor-through space from the General Store to the restaurant, hence the name Food Shop. But the vagaries of liquor licensing demanded a wall and locked door between the two, and this major design change has caused a shift from the envisioned informality of a serve-yourself order counter to something more like a full-service restaurant. “The unconventional setup has proven to be unexpectedly challenging to embrace,” David says, “but it’s evolving.”
His goal remains a friendly, unpretentious place of community where people can come—with mud on their boots or fresh up from the city—and enjoy the space without it being challenging or complicated. With the best egg sandwich around, his own baked goods like olive oil cake and babka (as well as gluten-free goods from Chatham’s Our Daily Bread), and straight-from-the-farm meats and vegetables that become dishes like ramp fritters with bacon sour cream and leg of lamb with farro, parsnips and mustard greens, it is a spot for repeat visits. David is creating a small bar menu for summer so that people can stop in for a glass of wine and a small plate at the bar or communal table.
Down the stairs from CrossRoads, out the door to the left you’ll find lovely Boxwood Linens, owned by Toronto native Franca Fusco. A relocation to Bucks County led Franca to shift from a career in fashion to creating her own linen designs, beginning with laundry bags and sachets. Originally wholesale only, about five years ago she expanded with a website; Boxwood is her first storefront, as so much of her work is custom ordered.
From her handmade table linens to her exquisite quilts and cool, crisp Libeco sheets to flowing curtains filtering sunlight, Franca will easily convince you that linen should be in every room of your home—especially your country home—as it is a perfectly chic, environmentally friendly (it is much more efficiently produced than cotton or other fabrics) and classically elegant, timeless fabric. With the help of a Mennonite seamstress in Lancaster County, Franca handcuts all her work. She wants to stay small, keeping the quality high but prices reasonable. She also has select French and Portuguese soaps and washes.
Back up to the Plaza and past the monument, turn left on Anthony Street to Neumann Fine Art at the corner of Coldwater Street. What began as Jeffrey Neumann’s personal studio is now also a gallery showing high-quality art, local and beyond. Jeff is a native of New Mexico whose evocative paintings convey the Southwest and an Edward Hopper eye. Lately he has taken up John Baeder’s diner penchant and has been painting local diners—he was at work on the Canaan Diner when I visited. He considers his work an homage to the mom-and-pop businesses of post-World War II America, to auto travel (in the far back, kids!) and the rapidly vanishing commercial landscape of the 20th century. Here, you may want to head back to the General Store to ruminate with a stick of Turkish Taffy.
Across the street from the monument you can stop in for a bottle to go with dinner from the nice selection at B&G Wine, owned by Kathleen and Tony Avenia in a building Tony designed to replace the old B&G Wine & Liquor run by Tony’s parents, Betty and George, since the 1970s. George had his barbershop on one side with a window to the liquor store; when customers came in, he’d put down his scissors and run over. He still barbers part time at Trudy’s on Anthony Street.
The beautiful house on the corner of Routes 22 and 23 that most recently was Aubergine is now set to open as Carrie Herrington’s new home design store, tentatively called Carrie Herrington Design, using the rooms of Aubergine to showcase furniture and design vignettes. Carrie hopes it will be a destination for people to finish their homes, with lighting, flooring, wallpaper, fabric, furniture and other options, as well as a workspace for customers. “The store will be my personal aesthetic, an eclectic mix of antique and contemporary furnishings— a wide range of aesthetics but in harmony with the building.” The opening of Carrie’s store, planned for Memorial Day weekend, together with Passiflora, the General Store and Boxwood Linens, not to mention Herrington’s and Taconic Valley Lawn and Garden, point to the emergence of the hamlet as a home improvement, decoration and design destination.
For overnight stays in Hillsdale, two sylvan possibilities stand out. The retro gem Silvanus Lodge is a short walk north on Route 22 from town. Innkeeper Steele Andrews hails from New Orleans and he is as colorfully charming as the Lodge is whimsically eclectic. He has owned the ’50s-era property for just over 10 years, having planned initially for a two-year career break.
“I like to say we are the nicest of the least expensive,” he says. “But we don’t pretend to be anything we’re not.” Rooms are small but spotless and furnished with hand-painted (by Steele) headboards, tables and happily unmatched lamps. Flat screen TVs, neo-angle glass-doored showers, mattresses from the Ritz-Carlton’s supplier and artwork by Michael Sowa complete the vibe. The property is set on four and a half lush acres with an outdoor pool; guests appreciate the occasional after the bugs, under the stars midnight swim. Steele claims 80% repeat customers, with another 10% who don’t return because … they purchase property in the area.
Seven and a half miles north up Route 22 is the aptly described “casually elegant” and assuredly romantic Inn at Green River. Innkeeper Deborah Bowen has owned the property since 1987; the deal closed that October, nine days before the market crash. Her plans to renovate and sell turned into trying her hand at running an inn. She began with three rooms; there are now seven, painted in elegant and soothing shades and many with gas fireplaces, two-person showers or tubs, antiques and one-of-a-kind artwork.
The Federal-style house was home to a bordello in the 1930s and ’40s, run by woman known as Ma Thorsden. The largest, most romantic room is named for her. Ma also had two other bordellos between Green River, which is a Hillsdale address but its own tiny hamlet, and Austerlitz to the north. Present day guests at the Inn will see no remnants of that usage of the building, nor of the stills that sat up on the ridges of the state line just to the east during Prohibition, for that matter. But they will enjoy a truly pastoral setting and breakfasts prepared with local bacon, sausage, and eggs from Araucana chickens, and perhaps a fruit course like broiled pineapple with lime sauce and pistachios, and a malted flour pear pancake.
Before you head home, stop by White Oak Farm, just north up Route 22 from the hamlet. In fact you can stop there anytime, Sally and Fred Laing are 24/7 with an honor system. Known for their sweet bi-color corn and blueberries (beginning in July), the Laings also bring in produce from farther out in the county as a convenience to their local customers. They have an aquaculture business, too, supplying fish such as trout, grass carp, koi, an large-mouth bass for stocking ponds.
Within the region, the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, which runs north from Wassaic through Millerton and on to Copake Falls, is now being extended to Hillsdale, with many sections to be walkable this summer; eventually the trail is planned to run all the way to Chatham.
The Trail led to a renaissance some years back for Millerton, with businesses sprouting in response to increased traffic, and the same is expected for Hillsdale. Coinciding with the extension of the Trail, a bike shop is planned a few doors down from the General Store.
Matthew White says he’s come to see the entire Roe Jan region as being the draw, not the hamlet alone. The Hillsdale Farmers’ Market is moving from the Town Park, known as difficult to find in its current location, to the barn at the very pleasant Roe Jan Park (and dog run) on the east side of Route 22 one mile south of town, across from the new library. Formerly bi-weekly, it will now be weekly, so the datechallenged among us need worry no longer. The Copake Market may join Hillsdale next year, and potentially other smaller markets could join as well.
The Roe Jan library itself, with its Leon Smith big green chair sculpture, is its own destination. A certified LEED building, it is a work of functioning art and provides space for an array of community activities like yoga class early Monday morning, Toddler Wiggle Time on Thursday and concerts by renowned artists on the weekends. The region is home to many artists of renown, including Smith; the first Hillsdale Arts Fest is being organized for September 21–22, www.ArtsColumbia.org.
“Look at this amazing, culturally rich, physically beautiful region,” Matthew opines. “It’s like stringing beads together.”
Once you begin to count all the wonderful things in the area, so many longtime, completely unique places and people—string together the individual beauties of the hamlet and environs and you have a necklace of real jewels.
Brigid Dorsey is a freelance writer and editor living in Columbia County. Along with teaching, consulting, corporate and not-for-profit stints, she briefly ran a (very) small food business. She holds a PhD in French from Princeton.
VILLAGE PLAZA: Hillsdale General Store Building Hillsdale General Store: Th–M 10am–6pm; 518-325-3310; www.HillsdaleGeneralStore.com
CROSSROADS FOOD SHOP: breakfast W–Su 9am–2:30pm, lunch W–Su noon–2:30pm, dinner Th–Sa 5:30–9:30pm, Su 5:30–9pm; 518-325-1461; www.CrossRoadsFoodShop.com
BOXWOOD LINENS: F–Su 10am–5:30pm; 518-392-3918
PASSIFLORA: Th–Sa and M 11am–7pm, Su 11am–5pm; 518-325-6559, www.PassifloraHome.com
VILLAGE SCOOP: please call for hours; 518-325-6455; www.VillageScoop.com
NEUMANN FINE ART: 65 Coldwater St.; Th–Su 11am–4pm; 413-246-5776: www.NeumannFineArt.com
B&G WINE: 2633 Rte. 23; M–W noon–6pm, Th noon–7pm, F 10am–7:30pm, Sa 9am–7pm, Su noon–5pm; 518-325-4882
WHITE OAK FARM: 65 Whippoorwill Rd. farm stand open 24/7; 518-325-3384; www.WhiteOakFarmNY.com
ROE JAN LIBRARY: 9091 Rte. 22; M–W and F 10am–5pm, Th 10am–8pm, Sa 10am–4pm, Su 1–4pm; 518-325-4101; www.RoeJanLibrary.org
CARRIE HERRINGTON DESIGN: Rtes. 22 and 23; check facebook for opening information
THE INN AT GREEN RIVER: 9 Nobletown Rd.; 518-325-7248; www.IAGR.com
SILVANUS LODGE: 9350 Rte. 22; 518-325-3000; www.SilvanusLodge.com
Brigid Dorsey writes and cooks in Columbia County. She honed her knowledge of food, life and driving in Paris. Read more of her work, and see her locally sourced jelly and preserves, les collines, at thelifeipicked.com