Past in Present: Middletown, Goshen, Montgomery | Middletown | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
Past in Present: Middletown, Goshen, Montgomery
Roy Gumpel
Morrison Hall at OCCC in Middletown.

Sarah Wells was 18 when her employers sent her sailing up the Hudson with two carpenters, three native guides, some livestock, and a pile of supplies in 1712. As far as anyone can tell, there were no other European women anywhere in what would become Orange County.

An orphan and indentured servant, Wells had been promised 100 acres of the rich black-dirt land, and she hung in there and prevailed. Two marriages and 12 kids later, she passed away at 102. The area Girl Scouts Council bears her name, and over 6,000 souls bear her DNA—several hundred of whom still gather in Orange County for family reunions.

Direct descendants still live in the stone houses built by Wells's first husband, John Bull; there is a Bullville, and a fine county park named for another family member, Thomas. Twentieth-century descendant Amy Bull Crist would become the county's first female superintendent of schools, one of many achievements that led to the handle "First Lady of Orange County" being applied to this descendent of the first European woman.

And central Orange County is still a place where people of all descriptions grow up or show up with a gleam in their eyes and build empires of all sorts. Take musician Howard Garrett, who happened to drive through Montgomery 26 years ago with his wife Judith. "I stopped to make a phone call—this was 1986, and the pay phone only cost five cents," Garrett says. "I went into the Corner Deli and spoke to the owner, and he told me there was only one cop in town. And then driving on Route 416, it was just so beautiful in all directions."

In Massapequa, on Long Island, "things could have been run by a king, for all I knew." But in Montgomery, living in their beloved Victorian "painted lady," Garrett found it was easy to befriend the people running things—and the resulting collaboration gave birth to a top-quality series of free concerts.

"It's a well-run village with a lot of harmony," says Garrett, who was also instrumental in starting General Montgomery Day, which brings around 30,000 visitors to the village each autumn. "I think people enjoy living here. There are always things to do. In a couple of blocks you've got at least a half-dozen great restaurants, antique shops, gift shops. We love the Charles Street Café, the Wildfire, Copperfield's, the Italian at Vic's, the Ward's Bridge Inn—that building goes back to the 18th century. There are cool little museums—there's one devoted to fireman and another devoted to farming history. There's actually more to do here than on Long Island, oddly enough."

Over the years, Garrett has seen the fine arts blossom in his village: Shawn Del Joyce runs the nonprofit Wallkill River School of Art and Gallery, which represents 40 artists, offers lessons for all ages, and advocates for preservation of the local open spaces. Montgomery is also where Mikey Teutel, recovering reality television star and arguably the most (some might say only) likeable character on "Orange County Choppers," has established his own artistic outpost—the Wolfgang Gallery, where he shows his own whimsical abstract paintings and assorted work by other artists, including well-received works by military artists both active and veteran.

County Seat
As cultural affairs director of SUNY Orange and a member of the Orange County Arts Council, Dorothy Szefc both enjoys and helps create the bubbling creative gumbo. "Just this week, we have so much stuff going on at the Middletown campus that it almost scared me to think of it—a string quartet, two female jazz greats on different evenings, a presentation on gardens and carbon footprint, a festival of Orange County short films, an opening for the Northeast Watercolor Society Show, a new play, a clinical neurologist from Yale," says Szefc. "We take the mission of community college very seriously—all our events are for everyone, there's an affordable admission for performances, and the other things are free."

When Szefc finishes her workday on campus, she heads home to Goshen, an achingly pretty village of towering church spires surrounded by rolling hills about 10 miles south of Montgomery. Goshen, the county seat, is where Noah Webster taught the children of signers of the Declaration of Independence at a schoolhouse that's now the town hall. It's where Willy "The Lion" Smith was born and schooled others in the Harlem stride school of jazz piano he helped to found.

Past in Present: Middletown, Goshen, Montgomery
Roy Gumpel
Goshen Historic Track

And it's where you'll find the cradle of American harness racing: The town's historic track, built in 1838, hosts the Harness Racing Museum and Hall of Fame. There are Grand Circuit races in July, and harness racers train there year round. Across the street from the track you can dine on fine Northern Italian and international fare at Limoncello's at the Orange Inn, a 1790 landmark, or the casually upscale Catherine's, named after the chef's grandmother and still serving many of her recipes. Other local favorites are the cozy Tuscany tastiness of Il Tesoro, the deli and bakery treats from the Goshen Gourmet Café, and the Mexican specialties at the Hacienda, where you can dine to mariachi music every Friday evening.

Goshen is not overloaded with retail, but the stores they've got are the kind that can't be found just anywhere and are well worth the trip. Linda's Office Supplies, for example, mixes up unique "productivity items" like safari-print tape dispensers with a good selection of office basics and business forms, wild wearables, and unique toys and gifts. Prolifix Skateboards and Apparel is a dream come true for its young owners, who promise old-fashioned customer service. If you're fond of marksmanship, Davis Shooting Sports offers a wide selection, safety training, and a shooting range.

Retail Therapy
But when central Orange residents need serious retail therapy, Middletown is just a few minutes away. A city of just under 30,000, Middletown grew up as a railroad town bustling with industry, populated largely by Irish and Italian immigrants. The end of the downtown railroad station and the development of a hyperkinetic Miracle Mile of retail on Route 211 brought the town nearly to its knees, but for some time now, it's been standing back up. Szefc and her SUNY Orange co-conspirators have a light month in March, given that it includes spring break, but they're finding time for a lecture on women in psychology, a lecture on the feasibility of solar electric, and still another on Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court decision on the right to legal counsel—not to mention jazz, symphony, and music from South China.

"The Times-Herald Record recently used the word 'vibrant' about our downtown—I'll take it," says lifelong resident and retired teacher John Degnan, executive director of Middletown's Business Improvement District. Degnan's office is in the Paramount Theatre, which will host the Hoboken International Film Festival from May 31 through June 6, screening 90 films chosen from 1,500 submissions. The theater itself is a refurbished architectural gem from the 1930s with a genuine Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ that anchors the dining and entertainment district. "Diversity has exploded and we've only got four vacancies out of 135 habitable commercial spaces. We pushed to make it mixed-use, and allowing apartments above the retail does a lot. People move in, shop, eat out, come to the free Friday night concerts in summer. We have a great Interactive Museum downtown for kids too."

"The guys who run the hookah bar, they're on our board. Sounds Asylum [an Internet café/gallery/arcade/music venue], they're right over next to the Grace Episcopal Church, and the pastor tells me that the one time he had to ask them to keep it down a little, they were great about it. I taught the mayor [Joseph DeStefano] in school—now his wife runs the Olde Erie Restaurant. Truly amazing food."

Middletown's a mecca of sorts for foodies seeking ingredients—Garcia's for Latin American, Aaojee for Indian delicacies, the Great Tang Supermarket for Chinese and still more Latino. Out on Route 211, one can shop Asian Groceries and Halal Meats (pheasant, anyone?) or the Famous Deli-Licious Italian Pork Store. Bargain hunters can prowl a good sized flea market or several consignment shops—Lovely Ladies, which gets about 500 new items on an average day from more than 2,000 consignors, or others run by churches and nonprofits.

Washington, Take Note
Irrepressible Middletown is also where Orange County holds its fair every summer. Stock cars roar at the Speedway, the oldest continually operating dirt track in the US. "It's easy for the Route 211 area to be vibrant," remarks Degnan, and indeed, it can't seem to help itself—through decades of reinvention it's remained a useful and pleasingly varied sprawl, ever since the days when Orange County boy Ed Lloyd pioneered one-stop shopping in the 1960s.

Sarah Wells, one suspects, would be gratified to know that her descendants open some of her husband's fine stone houses to the public. And Goshen's Great American Weekend has a well-deserved reputation as the Hudson Valley's signature Independence Day bash. The county legislators who toil in postmodern brutalist offices in Goshen collaborate with and take pride in the burgeoning art scene and support the farmers' markets.

"It's funny," says Szefc. "Howard [Garrett] was the driving force behind General Montgomery Day, and he's a complete liberal. Steve [Brescia], the mayor, he's a staunch Republican. They've been working together on cultural and civic things for years and it hasn't mattered—Washington should take lessons."

Ethan Allen (845) 565-6000
Goshen Gourmet
Happy Buddha Yoga
Mike’s Auto Care (845) 294-8284
Pleasant Stone Farm
Reginella Bridal
Wallkill Valley Federal
Wildfire Grill

About The Author

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment
  • or