CAMBRIDGE — In many ways, Cambridge is one of the healthiest and most vibrant villages in northeast New York.
Unlike nearby downtowns like Salem, Granville and Whitehall, Cambridge’s business health is reflected by businesses such as Battenkill Books, one of the few independent, new bookstores in the region.
Round Hill Bakery restaurant and coffeehouse, which opened last year, and the Cambridge Food Co-op, which recently voted to buy its building at 1 W. Main St. are thriving and Country Gals’ Cafe is still the quintessential small-town diner. Downtown Cambridge also features a supermarket, something missing in many other village centers.
Hubbard Hall Center for the Arts has a new director, only the second in its 37 years, and he is reaching out to the schools with new programs and planning a new direction.
Cambridge Balloon Festival and the Tour of the Battenkill bicycle race bring tourists to the area. The Sunday Cambridge Farmers Market is one of the most well-established in the area and the region around Cambridge is becoming known as a hub for artists and writers.
It is the kind of place where people choose to live and run their businesses.
It is the kind of place where people know members of the fire department, police department or rescue squad — or are volunteers themselves. The police chief, fire chief and head of the rescue squad are all Cambridge Central School graduates.
Mayor Valerie Reagan said she could have lived anywhere in a 45-minute radius around Albany, and she chose Cambridge. Christine and Geoff Hoffer came here to raise their children, and the Rev. Kate Kotfila of First United Presbyterian Church came here to retire. When David Snider interviewed for the position of executive director of Hubbard Hall Center for the Arts, he said he stepped out of his car and immediately knew this was where he wanted to live and work.
The Hoffers and their two sons live in the mansion built by Jerome Rice, who once ran the nation’s largest seed company directly across Main Street. When Cambridge Central School students get to fourth grade, they study state history and pay the Hoffers a visit to talk about who Jerome Rice was, how the seed company grew and why it is no longer there.
The connection to history is strong here. The railroad tracks that brought so much to the village still run across Main Street, but they are much quieter than a century ago, and part of the freight yard is a part of the Hubbard Hall campus.
Not all shining
Still, while the empty storefronts in other villages are much more obvious, Chrintine Hoffer, director of tourism for Washington County, looks out her front window and waves a hand, pointing out there is 100,000 square feet of commercial space still available downtown.
Hoffer also looks across the street from her building and notes the water lines on the south side of Main Street, which prevent businesses on that side of the street from being able to expand because expansion requires sprinkler systems, which require larger mains.
The Cambridge Hotel remains closed, and while it is expected to re-open, it will be used as senior housing rather than as a hotel that hosts major events. Varak Industrial Park, at the site of the former Rice Seed Co. — once the nation’s largest — is up for sale, as is the former Mary McClellan Hospital, which has sat vacant on a hill above the village for more than a decade.
At the top of the village, where Route 22 parallels the Vermont border through Washington County, things are getting busier and busier at Cambridge United Presbyterian Church’s Brieman Building, which hosts the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry, highlighting the issue of rural hunger.
“The issue of rural hunger is different from the issue in the bigger towns and cities,” said Kotfila, the pastor of the church and one of the organizers of EnRich, a campaign to end rural hunger in southern Washington and northern Rensselaer counties. “And people down here need better access to county services. It’s a long way to Fort Edward,” she added, referring to the county complex, where the Social Services office is.”
A certain vibrancy
Snider, who lived in Washington, D.C., before moving to Cambridge, was quickly captivated by the appeal of Cambridge.
“I just felt like a lot of the things my wife and I were dreaming about were manifest in the community,” Snyder said. “There are a lot of smart, savvy people here, and it’s a nice mix. There are some who have been here for generations, but there are some who just got here. There’s an openness to this community and a warmth to it that are amazing.”
Snider tells of one of the first experiences he and his wife had in the village.
“We were here in January, and there was a Chili Cook-off,” he said. “She brought a chili and won most unique because it had no meat. It was warm and welcoming.”
Paul Baker-Porazinski, a member of the Board of Education, came while the hospital was still open because his wife got a job there. Even though it closed and she now works for Glens Falls Hospital, he is glad things worked out the way they did.
“I am glad I landed here,” said Baker-Porazinski, who runs a woodworking business. “We looked at small towns in the Adirondacks, but now I realize the people and the culture are different here. Those places are really much smaller.”
There is also that sense of community giving. Baker-Porazinski points out that resident Larry Sconzo holds a musical cabaret at his property for more than 300 people.
Elizabeth Nichols-Ross, who runs the funeral home with her husband, talks at length about people coming together to raise money for those in need. “People here care for others,” she said.
Kotfila saw it in action in July 2013 when 20,000 gallons of water poured from a broken fixture into the food pantry in the basement of one of the church’s buildings.
“It happened on a Saturday morning, and the next thing you knew, the firefighters, EMTs and police officers were here, pulling stuff out for us,” she said. “There’s a willingness to help here. One on one, people see the differences they can make.”
Mark Spiezio, a former mayor and the director of the EMS squad, puts it simply:
“As soon as something happens in this community, the three agencies are there to help in a nanosecond. The strength of this community is the people,” he said.
Kotfila also talks about Cambridge’s connection to the land.
“The potential is there for people to get back to the Earth and feel the soul,” she said.
Past and present
“Our great advantage is that our tax base is stable, but at the same time, our great disadvantage is that our tax base is stable,” Reagan said. “We have to answer the question of how to bring more people in. We are fortunate in that our population is stable here, but it’s hard to get more money out of the same people.”
Beyond the retail businesses downtown, Reagan said the community benefitted from the decision by new Morcon owner Joseph Raccuia to keep the 85 employees of the company working in Cambridge after he purchased it. “Having them stay was a big deal.”
“In many ways, Cambridge holds onto its past very tightly. This in many ways is a great thing. We have great architecture, our village retains a quaint feeling, and the attitude of the people who live here is one that has been handed down from generation to generation,” said Cory McMillan, a native who like many, left and came back. He is the manager of Cambridge Food Co-op, which lasted almost four decades.
“The people here are friendly, gracious helpful — qualities not found everywhere in today’s society. Cambridge faces many challenges — aging buildings, employment opportunities — but viewed through the right lens they are all just room for improvement,” McMillan added. “We have a great grouping of local businesses and restaurants, as well as theater and music from Hubbard Hall, which attract a lot of people here. If all the businesses as well as the public entities continue to work together, we can keep Cambridge successful for years to come.”
Benjie White is a link in the chain between the past, present and future. His father worked at Rice Seed Co. and later established his own business. White lived and taught in New York City, then returned in the late 1970s to renovate and rebuild Hubbard Hall.
“Hudson Hall is a very, very, very important part of the community. It’s still a draw, and it brings in people from a lot of places,” Nichols-Ross said.
Nearly everyone who was asked about the community over the past couple of weeks talked about the importance of the former operas house as a heart of the community and something that drives its economy.
“Hubbard Hall didn’t start to be a development engine. It started because I was crazy,” said White, who is now working “part time” at Hubbard Hall, running the physical plant while Snyder runs the theater and arts component.
“If Cambridge has become an artists’ community, it has more to do with agriculture than Hubbard Hall,” White said when asked about the high number of well-known artists and writers who have settled in the area. “The farmers kept the vista open, and artists are drawn to pastoral scenes.”
There’s an important scene outside White’s office window, though part of the view is obstructed.
“If you look there, you can see the corner of the community garden,” White said. “That’s where the seed company kept its experimental plots.”
The land went fallow, White said, but it was purchased by two residents who didn’t want it to wind up in private hands. It became a community garden, and recently it was deeded to Hubbard Hall.
Part of the garden will be used to produce food for the food pantry at Kotfila’s church.
That’s how the wheel of history turns in Cambridge.