If one thing is certain, it is that there is no one history that can truly define the character of the Rondout Valley. Though steeped in tradition, the valley always seems to make space for new additions to the rich fabric of its culture. Perhaps some insight into what shapes this captivating swath between the Shawangunk Ridge and the foot of the Catskill Mountains can be found in a tale that begins in a New York coffeehouse, almost 200 years ago.
In 1825, entrepreneurial brothers Maurice and William Wurts set what seemed like a fantastical plan in motion—one that would, in fact, help transform a sleepy section of the Hudson Valley into the vibrant community it is today. Seeking to jumpstart their efforts to promote the then miraculously hot-burning anthracite coal, the Wurts brothers staged an impromptu demonstration in a cafe on Manhattan’s Wall Street. Astounded investors backed their enterprise to the tune of an improbable $1 million, allowing them to begin digging 108 miles of canal that would open a trade route between the coalfields in Pennsylvania and the Hudson River in Kingston. Completed in 1828, the Delaware and Hudson (D&H) Canal cut a path along the sparsely populated Rondout Creek basin, giving rise to burgeoning way stations, like Ellenville and High Falls, along its route.
- David Morris Cunningham
- Hattie Nichols, Wally Nichols, Trish Stenger, and Serafine Broome at Kelder’s Farm, Kerhonkson.
The Wurts’s fanciful success story sets a tone of forward-thinking possibility that continues to shape the area’s personality, its heritage perpetually evolving as new arrivals and fresh ideas are assimilated. The result is a singularly unique blend of old-world charm and a spectrum of contemporary appeal, one that distinguishes the area’s character from that of popular nearby destinations like Woodstock, Rhinebeck, and New Paltz. As much as the timeless peaks and trails of Sam’s Point Preserve, Minnewaska State Park, and the Mohonk Preserve describe the nature of the valley, so too does the range of newly minted traditions that, once established, seem like essential parts of the whole.
Telling examples of that diverse growth within the valley span the proverbial spectrum, none more than Kerhonkson’s Soyuzivka, a Ukrainian Heritage Center and resort that, to visitors and residents alike, has become a fixture along the picturesque 44/55 mountain road. Each year, thousands of visitors of Ukrainian descent come to celebrate their rich culture; yearly events and programs, like their annual Cultural Festival and the Roma Pryma Bohachevsky Ukrainian Dance Academy, bring countless others who simply wish to bask in the magic of the heritage. At the other end of that spectrum—and of the valley itself—is Stone Ridge’s SUNY Ulster. “As the college approaches its 50th year, its mission to coalesce opportunities and community is at its highest point,” says Coordinator of Community Relations Ron Marquette. As Marquette points out, the college has become much more than a collection of classrooms—it is an ever-developing center for arts, culture, business, and community outreach.
- David Morris Cunningham
- Douglas Perro at his hot dog stand on Route 52 outside of Ellenville.
Any mention of the Rondout Valley, however, must begin with the extraordinary agriculture that is at the very heart of its makeup. Every new valley settler quickly discovers what the indigenous Lenape Indians knew long ago: The region is blessed with spectacularly rich soil for farming. On either side of Route 209, the main thoroughfare that bisects the valley, the sweep of inviting and fertile fields inform any visitor about the true soul of the region. The myriad farming and growing businesses that line the valley remain the region’s true economic backbone, and a closer look reveals the special blend of tradition and progress that is its hallmark.
“We are unique in that we are located in a concentrated area that has incredibly wonderful soil, which lends itself to abundant potential to create high-quality food,” explains Deborah DeWan, executive director of the Rondout Valley Growers Association (RVGA). About to celebrate its 10th year, the RVGA has grown from a grassroots movement of concerned local farmers to a trend-setting coalition committed to preserving farmland and creating a sustainable food system for the region—an institution in its own right. “What’s special is that at the core of our leadership is a diversity of farmers,” DeWan continues, “those here for generations, combined with new farmers that bring a new way of looking at what ‘back to the land’ means.” New endeavors, like flash-freezing the famous sweet corn of Stone Ridge’s Davenport Farms in an ongoing farm-to-school movement, are indicative of community efforts to effect a more holistic agricultural infrastructure. Not far from Davenport’s, Stone Ridge Orchard Manager Elizabeth Ryan works tirelessly to reinvigorate one of the valley’s few remaining apple orchards. After implementing sustainable farming practices over the last several years, Ryan now looks to expand into the blossoming world of craft cider in order to preserve the precious open space.
- David Morris Cunningham
- Desirie Sherratt at Cohen’s Bakery, Ellenville.
The hamlet of Accord is a perfect place to experience the harmony DeWan references, with long-established valley farming families side-by-side with newcomers that will write the region’s next chapter. Fresh-food enthusiasts can begin at Saunderskill Farms on Route 209, featuring the bounty of the land that has been the pride of the Schoonmaker family for over 300 years. A quick trip up the main road brings you to Kelder’s Farm, another name deeply enmeshed in the area’s farming history—and, each autumn, the site of the local harvest celebration affectionately known as the Jennie Bell Pie Festival. Kelder’s landmark grounds present fields of pick-your-own produce alongside the exceptional work of artist and New York City transplant Maria Reidelbach. Reidelbach’s Home-Grown Mini Golf, the world’s only sustainable, edible miniature golf course, sets beneath the shadow of her now-iconic creation, a 14-foot-tall garden gnome, Chomsky, which was, until recently, the world’s largest. Another quick jaunt up the rim of the valley will bring you to Hollengold Farm, one of the areas newest farms, where cutting-edge sustainable farming practices portend the future success of the region’s agriculture.
The Sights and the Flavors
Equal to the powerful draw of the landscape, the breadth of the valley’s cultural scene is an intrinsic part of its definition. The singular labors of the region’s constantly evolving population of artists and artisans are always in evidence. Though it’s impossible to catalog the range of the valley’s ever-expanding options, it is certainly fitting to say that, now in its 28th year, Ellenville’s Shadowland Theatre has become the bastion of the region’s cultural heritage. Offering first-rate, self-produced theater has made the organization a pillar of visibility in Ellenville and beyond, a role Artistic Director Brendan Burke puts great stock in. “We have become an anchor for culture and entertainment in the valley, and we’re very proud of that,” says Burke, pointing out that the theater continues to grow and expand, and plans include opening a second venue.
- David Morris Cunningham
- Stephanie Tokle, Scott Albright, Tanya Smith and Anne Klein at The Last Bite, High Falls.
More surprising treasures can be found in a trip to the local public library. Its initial collection in 1893 only consisted of about 1,000 books. Now, the library is an informational and cultural center, with both a full gallery featuring revolving works by local artists, and an annex at the Terwilliger House Museum, which presents an extensive collection of local historical artifacts and information. And, before leaving town, consider a table at Marcus Giuliano’s acclaimed Aroma Thyme Bistro, where the chef weaves his culinary magic with a seasonal selection of the finest local ingredients.
A trip up Samsonville Road in Kerhonkson leads to the Bradford Graves Sculpture Park, owner Verna Gillis’s homage to the work of her late husband. This hidden gem can hold its own with the likes of Saugerties’ celebrated Opus 40. Gillis testifies to the unique blend of energies that makes what she lovingly calls “the middle of somewhere” such an ideal place for creative expression. “We are a divergent group of characters all coexisting and complementing each other in unexpected ways, the old-timers and the recent immigrants. I feel blessed to be here,” Gillis proclaims.
- David Morris Cunningham
- Roxanne and Nicholas Cipollone at Barthel’s Farm Market, Ellenville.
A synergy of another sort occurred when Brian and Buffy Gribbon opened their High Falls Café seven years ago. The Gribbons found that their genuine approach and hearty food fit in lock-step with the sensibilities of the local community. Now at their new location at High Falls’ Stone Dock Golf Course, the welcoming embrace continues. “It feels like home here, and that’s a feeling that everybody shares,” explains Buffy Gribbon. “I want people to feel like it’s my living room.” That works, as long as she has plenty of seats in the parlor: the High Falls Cafe has also become a preeminent hotspot for live music, from jazz to old-school funk, and everything in-between. And, when looking for a change of pace, High Falls always accommodates. Restaurants like George Nagle’s Northern Spy and longtime denizen Richard Murphy’s Eggs Nest offer both culinary delights and unique atmospheres, and John Novi, whose historic Depuy Canal House restaurant has been an eminent part of the local pastiche since the late sixties, continues to turn out his unique brand of gastronomic art.
Recently, Novi has contributed in the visual arts realm, as well. Led by the efforts of yet another vibrant new area transplant, Sevan Melikyan, Novi’s charmingly rustic High Falls barn became the birthplace of the area’s newest original art forum, the Wired Gallery. Curator and manager Melikyan is as inspired by the welcoming community energy as he is by the captivating work of the artists on display, like noted local sculptor and ceramicist Kaete Brittin Shaw. Shaw’s studio, only a quick walk down Route 213 in High Falls, will now house the Wired Gallery movement, with its next group show opening there on November 10. “It’s a collective effort, dedicated to sustainability,” says Melikyan. “Truly, the local character is inherent to this business model.” If the valley’s history is any indication, that recipe should prove a success.
Depuy Canal House
Diana Brenes Seiler, LMT
High Falls Café
High Meadow School
Kaete Brittin Shaw
Lounge (845) 687-9463
Marbletown True Value Hardware (845) 687-2098
Namaste Sacred Healing Center
Sun Creek Center
Top Shelf Jewelry (845) 647-4661
World Peace Meditation Retreat
- Bob Christian and Mike Baul at Christian’s Florist, Kerhonkson.