Seasonal Affect

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That’s it. Fall is here. Mrs. Violet Wiggins, anxious but loyal doggy companion, accompanied me on a walk to town on a gray, not-too-cold day and there is no denying it.

There were a handful of deep red Empire apples left on a tree in the yard of a home that will have a new owner by this weekend. No leaves, just apples. Other apple trees, wilder, less tended ones, are nothing but bare branches now.

We live on a hilltop town in the western Catskills. Winter is no joke here.  The wind is a near-constant presence. This is a town where, according to a history book I just read, the town’s entire industry of nationally-renowned long-hair sheep was wiped out in a vicious wind storm sometime in the last century. I cannot even imagine. But the locals switched to cows after that. Presumably they’re a bit more likely to stay on the ground in a heavy gale.

Yes, reader, I do want to know more.

Last year, even the locals were stunned when we had a twenty degree below zero night in November. The forecast for next week actually includes snow.

Mountain farming people are a self-sufficient bunch, but they also clearly know the value of social connections. When winter comes, the Farmer’s Market is over. But the artists meet every week at the local restaurant. The market crowd meets there once a week, too. There are social organizations, community organizations. Even the garden club meets all year. Winter meetings are about seeing friends and dreaming of flowers in the spring.

It’s also smart to have winter projects; things you enjoy that keep you occupied when the weather is so fierce that going outdoors unnecessarily is just plain stupid.

This year I’m going to find out about my house.

It’s a puzzle, this place, an architectural puzzle and an historical one. It’s known in town by the name of the people who most recently lived here longest – the Hillises. The people who bought it from them are already forgotten, it seems. They were only here five years.

But I want to know about Ernest and Flora Hunt. According to my deed, this was their home from the 1920s to the 1960s. My neighbor remembers Mr. Hunt as a gentleman farmer, someone with a small place, a few cows.

“He was a nice fellow,” he recalled. “Always there to help when his neighbors needed a hand.”

From what little history I’ve found so far, Mr. Hunt was a photographer. He owned a studio in a town that is about 30 miles away. That is quite far for those days. I wonder if it was the same person, or perhaps father and son.

I’d like to see pictures of the Hunts, and if I can find pictures of this house it would be amazing. The Hillis family modernized it and removed all the original woodwork and details. I’m sure it seemed like a wonderful thing at the time.

I’m hoping, in time, to restore this old farmhouse to the one Ernest and Flora would recognize. Until we’ve been here long enough to be remembered as the people who belong here, I think, for me, this is Flora’s house – the old Hunt place.

 

 

 

 

Franklin – Small Town Considers Its Future

IMG_2307Village Mayor Tom Briggs holds up a tent during the annual Franklin Blueberry Festival as a deluge of rain begins.

 

All Politics Is Local (or – The Key To Getting Along Is To Avoid Being A Jerk)

 

This is a story about the town and the village of Franklin in Delaware County, two related communities with very different political views. They co-exist peacefully most of the time.

A very smart editor I know has told me that a vital local political scene is a healthy thing for American politics. The “habits of the heart” that French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville observed here, he says, – family life, local politics, religious affiliation – helped a young country maintain free institutions while nurturing the rugged individualism that is so characteristically American. Collective action at the local level was essential for creating and retaining healthy communities, de Tocqueville argued. My friend the editor believes this, at least, has not changed.

How that’s working in today’s world? This was the question he asked me to explore, here in a very small corner of the far western Catskills.

Delaware County encompasses over 1400 square miles. It’s the fifth biggest county in area in New York. But Delaware is also small, According to the last national census, just 45,000 people live here. According to voting records, there are fewer than 30,000 registered voters in the entire county, which is Republican by a three-to-two margin. The number of Democrats is the same countywide as it was a decade ago, but there’s been a decrease of about 1000 registered Republicans.

By comparison, Ulster County, about 300 square miles smaller, has a population of more than 180,000 people.  More than 50,000 of its registered voters are now Democrats, up from 41,500 a decade ago. Meanwhile, Ulster County Republicans have decreased in number from 32,000 to barely 30,000.

Kathleen Hayek, a Brooklyn weekender who moved to the county full- time in 2015, is finishing up her first term as head of the Delaware County Democratic Party. She’s been learning how to navigate local politics on the job. She’s learning what it would take to make the party competitive in local elections.

It’s not so much party, locally,” Hayek said. “People don’t care on the local level. What gets you elected is name recognition, whether you’re liked, and what you’ve done for the party.”

It’s the unaffiliated voters of Delaware County who make the difference, she says. She thinks the way in with these folks is to help explain why Democratic values are a better match with rural life.

We don’t tell our story,” Hayek said. “Labor unions, values, value of farm crops, caring for your neighbor, those are Democratic values. The GOP philosophy is, ‘I got mine, everybody help yourself.’ But the rural voters’ perception is that the Democrats have abandoned them. We need to be the people-first party again. We always have been, but we need to say so.”

Delaware County’s sparse population means its local governments are, for most communities, quite different from the full-time-job career positions found in more populous areas. In the town of Franklin, where I live, the town clerk has office hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with a healthy break for lunch, and reopens for a couple of hours on Saturday. Everyone knows everyone else, and if you really need something quickly (and you’re not a jerk about it), you can generally get whatever you need. Or you might have to slow down and be patient.

The key to getting along in a rural community, from what I’ve seen, is just that simple: don’t be a jerk. Online rants and letters to the editor may be cathartic, but they don’t accomplish anything except make your neighbors wonder if you’re a hothead. I speak from experience.

The town of Franklin is very Republican. The town clerk is a Democrat, but every seat on the town board is held by a Republican man. The town board is pro-farm, pro-business, and very leery of too much regulation. 

That has sometimes put it at loggerheads with the village of Franklin, which has elected a Democratic mayor and some residents who have created a very active, very effective environmental lobby.

Compressor Free Franklin became a legend in state government and activist circles, effectively lobbying to stop what seemed, at first, an unstoppable gas pipeline and compressor station aimed straight at Franklin. Such issues create unlikely alliances. Even the town’s Republican supervisor said he was “still not sold” on the compressor station.

The issue is on hold for now. The state Department of Environmental Conservation rejected one proposed gas line that would have used the station. The other was put on hold by its parent company three years ago.

Franklin village mayor Tom Briggs, a Democrat, brings a studied even-handedness to his job. He grew up in a small town in southern Delaware County. He says he understands the issues. After five years as mayor, he sees economic concerns as the key issues in Franklin.

Granville Hicks was a socialist and a communist who moved to a small town and explored politics back in the Forties,” he noted. “It’s probably still the seminal work on rural life. I don’t think some things have changed all that much.”

In his book “Small Town,” Hicks concluded that rural communities practiced democracy in its purest form. Rural people, mayor Briggs said, stand up for what’s right, regardless of politics. And he sees, as Hicks did, a divide between locals and outsiders/newcomers. Hicks found the divide wasn’t about money. It was about education. The well-educated, Hicks found in his studies, were intimidating to rural people. They were seen as pretentious.

There are indications that the newcomers are affecting the political balance between the major parties in Franklin a little more rapidly than they are in Delaware County as a whole. In April 2009, when Franklin had 1603 potential voters, 737 of them were registered as Republicans, 409 as Democrats, and the rest otherwise. Of the 1675 people on the election rolls this February, almost a decade later, 716 were Republicans and 557 were Democrats. At this rate of change, the number of Democrats will catch up with the number of Republicans in about another decade. Change is happening.

Jeff Taggart grew up in Franklin. He is a Republican and has been town supervisor for three terms. He’s running for a fourth. Before that, he was deputy supervisor and a town-board member. He sees the philosophical divide as one of conservatives versus liberals, not one of party affiliation.

The great thing about politics in a small town is that it’s people-oriented, not party-oriented,” he said. “I don’t see a lot of difference between Republicans and Democrats here. The difference is between liberals and conservatives in both parties. So the important thing is to keep open ears. People want you to hear them. Bottom line, I want to I feel like I’m doing the right thing, even if not everyone agrees with me.”

Taggart describes himself as “old school.” No computer, no cell phone.

I know things are changing. Society is changing,” he says. “But even though we’ve got two entities here, the town and village, we converse. We’ve worked together on some things.”

Carla Nordstrom is one of Franklin’s more visible activists. The co-founder of Seeds of Democracy lives in a farmhouse just outside of town and is head of the Friends of the Franklin Library. She’s a registered Democrat, but she found that running candidates on what is now The Franklin Party has been a more effective way to chip away at the Republican-Conservative establishment.

The first year, our candidates lost by a couple of hundred votes,” she said. The last election, our candidate lost by only nine votes. What we’ve done is forced the Republicans to at least come out and run. We’ve insisted they hold forums when we challenge them. And once we learned that most of their organizing was done in the churches, we started organizing at the Franklin farmers’ market on Sundays. There’s a lot of Sunday organizing that occurs in this town.”

Nordstrom and her husband have worked to bring campaigning in Franklin into modern times. They’ve shot videos for candidates and made Facebook pages. This year, due to changes in state election laws that caught Delaware County unprepared, there are no Democratic candidates for local office in Franklin.


Two issues will, however, be mobilizing voters. The first is a referendum on whether to change the current law prohibiting the sale of wine and beer at local restaurants. Franklin’s been partially dry for years – you can buy a six-pack of beer at the gas station, but you can’t drink one at the local pizza place. And there’s a fine dining experience to be had at The Tulip and The Rose, but no wine.

I think it’s going to pass this time,” Nordstrom said. “A lot of the people who were against it are gone. And a lot of newcomers want it.”

There’s probably another cross-party alliance in the making. The owner of the local pizza place, who is very much in favor of changing the law, is a Taggart.

The other issue likely to create new alliances is the possibility of a Dollar General in an open field just outside the village. The first planning board meeting on the proposal, even before any proposal has been made, involved the real estate developer for the corporation and a standing room only crowd that filled the town garage and spilled out into the parking lot to listen and to be heard.

It’s less than six miles to another Dollar General in Otego. Oneonta, with multiple box stores and groceries, is just a 15-minute drive away. And Franklin this year has been enjoying a big influx of downstate visitors, drawn to its well-preserved architecture, carefully tended gardens, and small-town charm. Real estate values have been rising.

On the flip side, there’s an aging population in Franklin. The local gas station and convenience store has limited offerings. There is no other market in town.

And no jobs. It was jobs that made the compressor station and a gas pipeline look appealing, Mayor Briggs said.

I guess I’m neutral on the Dollar General,” he said. “It will be just outside the village, so it’s not going to impact us directly. But I’d certainly ask how the building is going to be made to fit the look of this community. That’s a question that ought to be asked. People here are desperate for jobs, so desperate that they’re willing to risk some compromise to be able to stay and raise families here.”

Taggart said he isn’t taking a position yet, either.

The main employers in the area are two SUNY schools and the local hospitals, all at least 15 minutes away. In town, there’s the public school, a bank, a gas station and a few small businesses. Farming is still a major industry here, and trucking is another steady employer. That’s about where the local job market ends.

The past year has seen an influx of a few young families who work remotely. Franklin has not only high-speed cable Internet, but new fiber optic lines being run by Delhi Telephone. There are empty buildings that might be perfect offices for Internet based businesses, but they come with historic and environmental complications.

The opposition to the pipeline and the compressor station has well-taken points, Briggs said, but some of their warnings were seen by the pro-compressor population as hyperbole. Briggs references the Soft Revolution – trying to find common ground, understanding that anger and hate can’t lead to a conversation.

I wrote a piece asking if the compressor station isn’t the answer, what can we bring here that will mean jobs and wealth for this area?” Briggs said. “There’s no forum for politics at the local level. Our job is to bring stakeholders together, improve things where you can, and hope that the result is that you make others respect your political position. Save Our School, the group that organized to keep the Franklin school open – that’s good stuff. That’s something we can all agree on.”

Local-level collective action is apparently still the best antidote to corrosive individualism. Healthy local politics makes for healthy communities. If you don’t find a place for yourself where you are, it may not be you. Your community is out there. It just may be smaller than you expected.

Diana Hall -Mother Nature’s Child

Diana Hall has lived in the Delaware County village of Franklin for thirty two years. That makes her a newcomer, by some standards. But she has built a community, and a life, that helps to bind this small town together; one she hopes will welcome the influx of newcomers who have arrived in the past couple of years.

Hall is the owner of a small shop called Botanical Treasures. She is the founder of the Franklin Garden Club. She is an artist. Tucked into an old garage behind her historic home is a magical, tranquil space full of wonders. Hall has a collection of unusual, interesting and beautiful objects created by herself and other artists, all designed to either be displayed in a garden, or to bring the beauty of nature indoors.

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Trained in gold and silversmithing at SUNY New Paltz, the Westchester County native put art aside for years and worked in an office full time to, as she describes it, “survive.” When she and her husband discovered their current home in the village of Franklin it was, she says, “a ruin.” There had been a fire. But it had clearly once been lovely. When she found an old house with the symmetry and detail she loved, with a price tag of forty thousand dollars, a little charred lumber wasn’t going to put her off.

“We were very poor. And my husband is a contractor.” And she is a self-confessed old house fanatic.

The in-town property had some lilacs, mature maples, and a euonymous. It had been vacant. There were no gardens. Hall, working full time with people recovering from addiction to drugs and alcohol, discovered gardening was good therapy after a day at work.

“I wanted to be out in nature. I missed it. I love people, but my dream would be to work outside.”

There was no plan, no map for the new gardens.

“I bought plants and started sticking them places. For me, it’s all about movement in my artwork. I wanted movement in the garden borders. It just got bigger as I added more plants and kept obsessively reading about gardens.”

Today, Hall’s home boasts two stunning bordered gardens, each a mixture of formality and cottage English garden flamboyance. Overgrown asparagus create lovely, spindly height, while poppies, iris, hellebores, roses and other garden staples mingle with wildflowers and groundcover.

One garden is all straight lines and right angles, while the other swoops and turns, revealing surprises and color that cannot all be seen from one vantage point.

“My mother was an artist, and everything was about composition, even the way our dinner table was set. I’ve got that, too,” Hall admits. “I like things not too cluttered. Aesthetics are important But I find myself moving more toward a meadow-y feel, one that’s better for the earth.”

She smiles. “Nature is not about minimalism. If you plant something, it’s going to grow and spread.”

More than ten years ago, Hall and a few friends decided that they’d like to find other neighbors who were as interested in gardening as they were. The Franklin Garden Club became a community building exercise, growing and contracting as the town’s population changed, but taking on more responsibilities for making the village a place to be proud of. The club persuaded stone artist Robert Johnson, who lives in the village, and local mason Jack Simon to help create the outlines of a village park from the ruins of an old boarding house on Main Street. The garden club did the planting and maintains the park. The members also plant flowers in barrels along Main Street each year and hold an annual plant sale. This year there is a Blueberry Festival planned for August, an event Hall hopes will help connect the village with the wider town.

After twenty seven years working in an office job, Hall’s life took a sharp right turn.

“I had a heart attack,” she explains. “After that, I knew, clearly, that I wanted to pursue art. I wanted to get out of sitting in a a chair all day. So I quit my job.”

She had no Plan B at that point. She admits it was scary at the time. But she never looked back. “It was the best decision I ever made. You know how it is, you get on the treadmill….I have probably would have tried to stay there until retirement.”

Instead, she started studying sculpture at The Smithy in nearby Cooperstown.

“I loved working with clay there. It’s a very supportive atmosphere, not competitive. And I am still completely learning.”

She started throwing pots, then adding details. Then she began making flowers. She’s only been doing the human form, she says, for about a year. But in that year she has created beautiful, haunting elementals, magical creatures who incorporate nature into their form. Each has a personality, each feels incredibly alive.

“You can fall in love with a flower as you make it,” Hall said, “but as I make the people it feels like they have a soul. And clay feels a lot like working in the garden. It’s life. It’s nature.”

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She’s getting commissions for her work and people are responding positively.

“It’s so important to feel like your work is connecting to other people. It must be very hard to do experimental art, only to hear that no one ‘gets’ it. The battle of being human. I always say confidence is an illusion. It can be shattered in a moment.”

That gentle touch, that kindness, permeates the Franklin Garden Club. They meet monthly, sharing a potluck dinner and garden ideas.

“The thing is community,” Hall says. “Enjoying a shared love of something. We want to make people feel welcome.”

Her goal for the club’s future is to create even more connections in the community.

“It’s such a beautiful town, an architectural era captured in time that hasn’t changed. That’s what makes it a gem. I’m hoping the businesses thrive on Main Street, building energy for even more preservation.”

Her goal for her art is equally sunny.

“I just want to keep doing what I’m doing. I’m so happy. I have no idea what I might do next. My brain could go anywhere.”

Botanical Treasures

11 Maple St Franklin NY 13775

607-434-3076

https://www.botanical-treasures.com

https://www.instagram.com/botanicaltreasures01/ Instagram is her preferred site.

Want to find out more about Franklin and surrounding communities? Visit my real estate website, https://upstatecountryrealty.com