If everything looks perfect from far away, the Warwick Valley is no exception. From the overlook at Bellvale Creamery, an ice cream parlor perched on Route 17A near Mt. Peter, the area couldn’t appear more inviting, nestled cozily between the mountains. But if you continue to follow the road west and turn down Oakland Avenue, you’ll find a place just as idyllic close up as it was when viewed from above—a historic, picturesque village cushioned by orchards and working farmland.
Head down Main Street and pop into one of the many boutique shops that call Warwick home, like Frazzleberries, a country store selling furniture made of reclaimed barn wood and a variety of crafts, or Newhard’s, an eclectic home store owned by the village mayor and his sisters. Just around the corner the antique wares of the Eclectic Eye spill tantalizingly out over Railroad Avenue’s sidewalk, and local hipsters sip fair trade coffee from the Tuscan Café while they stroll on South Street. The store facades, often brick or adorned with 19th century architectural details, give a warm, fuzzy, old-fashioned feeling to the streets, says Michael Bertonlini, who moved to Warwick from Chicago more than 30 years ago. Today, he’s curator of the Historical Society of the Town of Warwick, which cares for thousands of artifacts and 10 museum properties in the village, including the Azariah Ketchum House, a Federal-style home built in 1810 where Bertonlini currently lives.
“These outsiders come in and they see a village, and it isn’t Disney—it’s a working village that’s very much aware of its roots,” Bertonlini says. “And they all leave with this wonderful feeling, a quality of America that’s fast going with the malls and the destruction of so many communities. Here, we have people that have been bright enough to be able to understand the value of where they live and their heritage.”
According to town historian Richard Hull, author of History of Warwick, New York: Three Centuries of a Community 1696-1996, Native Americans occupied the area for about 12,000 years prior to colonization. By 1764, the village of Warwick had been founded and the area (including Florida and Greenwood Lake, which help form the encompassing town of Warwick) anchored its economy on agriculture and iron. Local iron manufacturer Sterling Works forged bullets for George Washington’s army and made the links of chain that blocked British ships from moving along the Hudson River during the Revolutionary War.
Many of the village’s most significant structures were built during this time. Baird’s Tavern, for one, was built of limestone in 1766 and served as an outpost for Washington and his men and a one-stop shop for townspeople—owner Francis Baird furnished medical supplies, farm equipment, candles, and other necessities. Another, the Old School Baptist Meeting House, was built in 1819 and features a number of striking elements, including a wine-glass pulpit and a barrel ceiling. Both are under the charge of the local historic society, and the Baptist Meeting House is still packed today when reserved for weddings; Baird’s Tavern can be used for a number of events, from tea parties to private dinners.
It was the advent of the Warwick Valley Railroad in 1862 that changed the face of the village. An influx of wealthy city residents built lavish weekend homes in Victorian style and made local farmers more than financially secure with a way to transport crops for sale in the city. The height of this era would pass with the Great Depression, but the stage was set for a quick recovery as local roadways were built and the Black Dirt Region of neighboring Pine Island was drained, becoming one of the most fertile farming regions in the country. Today, Warwick thrives on tourism (its apple orchards, fall festivals, farmers market, and wineries are all equal draws), which accounts for almost 25 percent of the economic activity in the area. From Warwick Valley Winery’s hard apple cider to the gingerbread trim on pristinely preserved Victorian homes, the village is as desirable a daytrip destination as it is a place to call home.
Keeping Up Appearances
It’s not by chance that Warwick is so well preserved, it’s on purpose—and if there’s any turbulence in the village, it’s usually impassioned opinions about development, conservation, and efforts to pass more protective zoning restrictions, like the ones that have prohibited vinyl siding in the historic district and restricted exterior alterations on buildings more than 75 years old.