We sit in an empty dining room, waiting for our pizza. A rotary banner is leaning against one wall. Each of the dozen or so tables has a small American flag stuck in a cup of gold and red sparkly streamers. Paper placemats advertise local businesses. The rooms looks much like it probably did when it first opened for business, almost 100 years ago.
We're in the village of Sharon Springs. A place full of good childhood memories for my occasional traveling companion, Ed.
(On the approach:)
His great grandparents picked this location (some 200 miles north of NYC) to build a summer residence. They were part of the wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe who must have been used to the custom there of taking curative sulphur baths. Sharon Springs has such baths -- once so fashionable for the vacationing community, now closed up. The habit never really caught on here (even as in Poland, people still travel to resorts that boast curative waters).
You could say that Sharon Springs rocked, for about 100 years (say 1870, until maybe 1970). Hotels sprung up. Musical events took place in (quaint to my eye) gazebos. The Sulphur Springs created vapors for inhaling, waters for bathing, mud for spa treatments. Saratoga Springs, the competing New York destination for those inclined toward sulphur spring treatments flourished as well, but Saratoga Springs discriminated against Jews (and eventually against communists – Polish nationals were not permitted to visit during my childhood years in New York) and so the immigrants and their families settled in Sharon Springs. With rail access to New York City (back then), it was a magnificent vacation spa village!
the Roxboro: now closed, except for the dining room
the American Hotel: closed for a while, trying to capture now the b&b market
Inside the American: remembering the glory of the Springs
Ed’s family residence here is vast. Several rambling houses, each more than 100 years old, with wrap around porches on some and more rooms than I could keep track of. On summer week-ends here, the rooms were full of cousins, aunts, uncles.
But eventually, the fortunes of this vacation village declined. Sharon Springs still drew Holocaust survivors here after World War II, but in time, the hotels faced a dwindling tourist base. And, too, the custom of building large family vacation homes for all those sons, daughters, cousins diminished in popularity, as cousins, sons and daughters and their children and grandchildren embraced a new freedom of movement, choosing instead to vary their travels: to warm climates, overseas, anywhere. Sadly, the old homes of grandparents and great grandparents stand mostly empty now.
One of the family buildings here, however, is still used by Ed’s cousins and the caretaker opens it up for us as we pull in late in the evening.
A shame the other houses are so neglected, the caretaker mutters. They were once so beautiful. But, no one wants to come to Sharon Springs. Not much to do here. It’s no Cooperstown (!). No work here, either. People drive to Albany (fifty miles away) to find jobs.
The waitress at the restaurant where we wait for our pizza is young.
You like it here in Sharon Springs?
It’s my mother’s restaurant. I’m just helping her out. But all my friends have moved away. Just today I found out that my best friend is moving to Texas! Texas! I cried for two hours!
So you think you’ll stay here, with your mom?
Uh-uh. I’m finishing up some school work. I’m thinking of moving to Florida. My brother’s there.
Earlier in the day, Ed and I work through eighteen crates of family belongings, stuck in storage in Brewster, just outside NYC. Neither he nor I are big keepers of stuff and to sort and segregate family belongings is enough to make you want to run home and throw the last of your own junk away.
The supervisor at the moving and storage company is patient with us. Occasionally I go to his office room to warm up. I lean against the door for a few minutes and study the numerous commemorative army photos from Vietnam and Iraq. The man also likes guns and I am half tempted to look through some of the gun magazines piled on top of his cabinet. On the wall he has a poster announcing his strong feelings for Jane Fonda (kill the bitch) and for Woodstock (the only Woodstock that I recognize is my rifle). He goes in and out of the office, giving orders on which crates to bring from where and we go through another, and another (looking for boxes with tiny green stickers on them). My hands are dark with the dust from another life.
In one crate, I find several boxes of family photos and I spend some time looking through these. Ed doesn’t have photos at home and the people I’ve heard about in the years that I have known him have been faceless for me for a long, long time. Don’t you want to take some home? They’re not mine. He answers briefly and continues methodically opening boxes, and packing them up again.
It’s cold now up here, in Sharon Springs. (Our work in Brewster is done and we’re here for several days to take stock of the place.) I think the growing season is close to that in Madison. Maybe even a week behind. A far cry from the Carolinas, or even DC. The caretaker shows us where to turn on the heat. I wander through the rooms – twin beds in most of them, as if a family with a dozen kids once lived here.
Tomorrow, I say to Ed. We’ll explore the other, more neglected houses tomorrow.
I used to walk down to the general store and buy a paper. He tells me as we spread out our sleeping bags. I remember plates of corn on the cob and fresh string beans from the garden...