Thursday, July 15, 2010

July 13, 2010
Bennington, Vermont to Rochester, New York
We started across New York on Route 20, but after just two great stops, we realized that at this rate we would not arrive in Rochester before midnight. So, we suspended our “no expressways” rule, and hopped on the New York State Thruway for expedited travel, with no temptations to stop.

Our first stop was in Troy, New York, where Troy’s citizen became America’s uncle—Uncle Sam, that is. This statue in a riverfront park honors Sam Wilson, a local meat packer who donated crates of meat to soldiers quartered here during the war of 1812. The soldiers came to call the donations Uncle Sam’s meat, and eventually the name and the character (who looks very much like Sam Wilson) were adopted across the nation.

We continued on Route 20, which is Western Avenue in Albany. I searched fruitlessly for a little neighborhood grocery across from a firehouse on Western Avenue, because I lived in an apartment above that grocery while I was in graduate school. My memory of the geography was shaky, my sense of direction shakier, and it is even possible that the grocery store is no longer there, since it was pretty rickety when I was there over thirty years ago. Whatever the reason, my little attempt to acquaint Dick with this part of my ancient history failed totally.

Further west we stopped in Sharon Springs (pop.540), which was once a therapeutic spa resort town that served the Eastern European Jews who were not welcome at Saratoga Springs. Back in the early 1900s there were 100 hotels here, and up to 70,000 people bathing, drinking, and inhaling the vapors of the sulfurous waters served up at the bath houses and spas throughout town. The grandest hotel in town had a front porch so big that there was room to drive a carriage across it, and turn the horse and carriage around at the end to drive back. Now, only one small hotel is open, and the rest have burned down, been razed, or stand boarded up and crumbling.

Curious, we stepped into the American Hotel, where the hotel manager, Heidi, was happy to tell us about the history of this town that she is confident is on its way up. Her grandparents grew up here. When they were teens, her grandmother took care of a Hassidic family’s children and sold tickets at the movie theater, while her grandfather was the theater projectionist.

Heidi told us that Sharon Springs thrived after the Second World War, when as reparation to Jews who survived concentration camps, Germany paid to send them to spas like this one to recover. The longer their imprisonment and the worse their treatment, the longer they would stay here. Hasidic Jews would return year after year, but as they aged and their children had more opportunities available to them, their visitation waned. The New York State Thruway, completed in 1954, did not pass close enough, and modern medicine debunked some beliefs about the healing powers of mineral water treatments. The town headed into a death spiral.

Heidi thinks 1994 was a turning point in the life of the town. A shop across the street from the hotel opened then. Two men invested in the American Hotel that year, and spent five years renovating it. There are now a couple restaurants, a half dozen shops (half of them not open) and the hotel along Main Street. Real estate is dirt cheap, and Sharon Springs is an easy and pretty three hour drive from Manhattan. More investment is bound to follow now that they have established a critical mass here, Heidi thinks.

If you are interested in a serious fixer-upper in a town with some (not sure how much) potential, this might be the just the place for you, as long as you don’t mind hanging out in a sort of depressing little ghost town with a lot of overgrown and boarded up real estate until the rest of the world catches on.

When we realized it was almost lunchtime and we were only about a quarter of the way to our destination, we headed north to the Thruway and zipped over to Rochester distraction-free.

It was good to put in some time on the Thruway. It reminded us how much more interesting and full of character our back road choices are. At the same time, we find ourselves thinking that getting to our destination quickly is more important than optimizing the journey. We are eager to get home—more expressways are in our future, we fear. The remainder of our journey will be filled with travel trade-offs.

But first, a relaxing little visit with our family in Rochester.

Happy Birthday, Marcia!

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