Warwick | Community Pages | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Last Updated: 07/30/2019 4:15 pm

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.”

Revolutionary Beginnings

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.

Anyone who lives around the Orange County area will remember numerous write-ups about Warwick’s battles against box stores, most famously  against CVS, which replaced a bankrupt Grand Union’s vacant downtown lot. The clash even made the pages of the New York Times.

Today, the concern is over the development of the Route 94 corridor, which is currently home to a couple of orchards and farms, scenic rural vistas, and a strip mall that houses a ShopRite and a RiteAid. The area is positioned for further strip mall development, with plans detailing a Price Chopper and other potential stores that will be erected near the entrance of the village.

“It’s been a priority to get resolution [on the Route 94 project] so that whatever happens there doesn’t become a drain to the vibrancy of the downtown area,” says Village Mayor Michael Newhard. “What’s happened here over time is significant in terms of the development of a business district. It’s not just Main Street, it’s also lateral streets, like Railroad Avenue and Spring Street and South Street. It’s grown in such a way that I’ve described it as a renaissance of small business.”

Still, Newhard says, “there’s a careful balance that has to happen. There are a lot of possibilities on the outskirts of the village, in the town, that may actually destroy the growth pattern in the village.”

It’s a growth pattern to be proud of. Business in Warwick has remained resilient during the down economy, to say the least. The number of shuttered storefronts has been nominal, and in contrast, Michael Johndrow, executive director of the Warwick Valley Chamber of Commerce, estimates that there have been 35 grand openings in the area since the financial slump began. Businesses survive here, even if they feel a bit of an effect. “My money is off but there are people coming in the door,” says Yesterday’s restaurant owner John Christison. “The head count is still the same, but they’re spending different.” He credits the community as a whole for supporting local business in tough times, and specifically collaborations between business owners and the merchant guild and chamber of commerce. “It’s not just one of us doing it,” he says, “we all put ideas in and make it work.”

A Committed Community

Where do these good ideas come from? Warwick seems to have no shortage, not partly due to its abundance of community activism in the form of various organizations, boards, and committees. There’s an architectural and historic review board that makes sure the village is preserving its charm. There’s Community 2000, a nonprofit umbrella organization that puts together cultural events like the annual Warwick Summer Arts Festival. There’s the Think Local First committee, organized by the Warwick Valley Chamber of Commerce, that tries to pump up the local economy by promoting the virtue of the village’s own offerings. And there’s an overwhelmingly popular leadership—Mayor Newhard and town supervisor Michael Sweeton are known for their good rapport with each other and the community, and the superintendent of the school district, Raymond Bryant, is gaining recognition for his efforts to supply the schools with locally sourced goods (like apples, for instance).

The motive is simply to keep Warwick what it is while changing it for the better. While preservation takes a priority, the villagers are quick to acknowledge that they’re not opposed to development, they just want smart development. Take the residential situation, for example. A local hospital has made living in Warwick an attractive option for senior citizens, and there are now five communities that cater to this demographic. Warwick Grove, one of the newest housing options for active adults 55 and older, is often described as the model, the ideal for any type of expansion. Working with the developers, Leyland Alliance, the 130-acre town home, condominium, and single family home project was approved because Leyland was sensitive to the character of the surrounding village and designed the new-build homes with those traditional architectural elements in mind. (The Leyland Alliance also donated two acres for the town’s new $9 million library, which opened in November.) The local government nixed a plan for a commercial aspect to the community, so that existing Warwick businesses wouldn’t suffer. This regulation of building has been the key to maintaining the personality of the place while also allowing it to grow, says Newhard. There’s no lack of interest in developing Warwick land—just strict moderation on what gets approved and how it’s done.

Farming for the Future

Staying true to roots while embracing change is nothing new to Steve and Jill Pennings of Pennings Farm Market, who’ve run the orchard and market there for more than 20 years. Steve says agricultural traditions are a staple of his family heritage, but he’s also combining those ideals with new technology—the Pennings are looking to add solar panels to their marketplace off Route 94.

“We’re keeping a difficult industry, agriculture, prominent, or at least with a face to it here in Warwick,” he says.  Especially in the fall, when hordes of visitors venture to Warwick for apple picking and Applefest (which draws upward of 30,000 people to the village on one day each autumn), the farms and orchards are the main attraction. From there, the tourism dollar trickles down to other businesses around town—retail shops, restaurants, bed and breakfasts.

Kristen Ciliberti, co-owner of the Tuscan Café, a coffeeshop favored by bohemian and young patrons for its off-the-main drag location and live music, says she often becomes an unofficial tour guide, fielding calls about village events, giving directions, and answering questions from curious city-dwelling folk. “I’ve literally had tourists on the street stop me and ask why it smells,” Ciliberti says, referencing Warwick’s active farms.

But Warwick’s smell may be endangered—when the Pennings discuss the new Price Chopper, they do so with a quiet resignation. The supermarket is poised to move in on their turf, offering local products almost literally across the street from their farm market. There’s no way to compete, Steve says, so that means they’ll have to adapt. They’ve already got plans to make their market a little less of a market, and more of a café experience, serving local hard ciders, a hearty meal, and a good helping of local music.

While they’re hoping that the new buildings will drive traffic into the village, many others are keeping their fingers crossed that it won’t be driving it away. “This village is special because it’s surrounded by farms,“ says the mayor. “The minute we start losing our grip on that we start losing our identity.”

Albert Wisner Public Library www.albertwisnerlibrary.org
Bellvale Creamery www.bellvalefarms.com
Frazzleberries www.frazzleberries.com
Newhard’s The Home Source (845) 986-4544
Warwick Historical Society www.warwickhistoricalsociety.org
Tuscan Café www.tuscancafe.net
Pennings Farm Market www.penningsfarmmarket.com
Warwick Chamber of Commerce www.warwickcc.org
Yesterday’s www.yesterdaysnet.com
Village of Warwick www.villageofwarwick.org
Warwick Valley Winery www.wvwinery.com
The Eclectic Eye www.theeclecticeye.com

The 1810 Old School Baptist Meeting House at the corner of High and Church streets in Warwick - ROGER GAVAN
  • Roger Gavan
  • The 1810 Old School Baptist Meeting House at the corner of High and Church streets in Warwick
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