Columbia County’s Chatham: Victorian village atmosphere meets up-to-the-minute culture
By Richard Buttlar
There’s a Twilight Zone episode about a 1960s commuter who starts to think his train makes nightly stops at a village stuck in the late 1800s. Through the window, he gazes longingly at the crinoline-clad women and their handlebar-mustached companions sauntering down the main street. The calliope on the town carousel plays old-time tunes. Everyone is smiling; everything is wholesome and good.
I get the same longing each time I drive through the village of Chatham — but unlike the character in the TV show, I get to alight and enjoy the place. This Columbia County jewel boasts a 19th-century ambiance, but it’s loaded with 21st-century amenities (read: cappuccino, Birkenstocks, and artisanal bread). It even echoes with the sounds of the past — the hourly peal of a bell in the looming clock tower, the hoot of a freight train rumbling through the middle of town, the friendly conversations going on all along Main Street’s sidewalk. Replace the cars with horses and the baseball caps with straw boaters, and you’d (almost) swear you were an extra in Rod Serling’s screenplay.
Part of the fun of going to Chatham is getting there. It’s the kind of jaunt that convertibles were made for. If you’re stuck with a hard-top, like I am, just roll down the windows and pretend. Either way, zoom up the Taconic Parkway, passing through glorious rolling farmland studded with cows, admiring wow-inducing vistas of the Catskills’ green spikes across the river. The air is fresh, and if you’re lucky the breeze will carry the scent of new-mown hay.
I’d suggest you make your arrival in a roundabout way, so you get a feel for the lay of the land. There are actually five Chathams â€“ North Chatham, East Chatham, Old Chatham, Chatham Center, and plain old Chatham. (Once, things were a tad less confusing: Chatham used to be called Groat’s Corners, while Old Chatham was known as Federal Stores.) Drive a circle, heading east off the highway into East Chatham, then follow signs to Old Chatham and Chatham Center. The road tunnels beneath the overarching limbs of old trees, winding and dipping as it passes well-tended farms. Each hamlet has a surfeit of meticulously restored 18th- and 19th-century homes. Both East Chatham and Old Chatham also feature general stores worth a stop. The homemade salsa and carrot cake at the Old Chatham Country Store are by themselves worth a long drive.
Another must-see is the Shaker Museum & Library, located between Old Chatham and Chatham Center. Housed in a series of rustic barns, the museum features the nation’s largest collection of furniture and tools manufactured by the religious sect whose name derived from the contortions they displayed during worship. They lived in huge complexes, two of which were located in nearby Watervliet (from 1787-1938) and New Lebanon (from 1787-1947; soon, the museum will be shoving off to a restored barn at the New Lebanon site). Today highly prized, Shaker-made furniture was crafted with an eye toward simplicity, the reason for its modern look and timeless appeal.
From Chatham Center, the village of Chatham is a short jog south down Route 66. The market town for all of the “lesser” Chathams, it has numerous charms. One is that its shops, while enticing for the tourist, cater primarily to locals, who are greeted by name when they enter a store. Another is the architecture. The village has done a superb job of preserving its 19th-century brick storefronts along Main Street. Make sure you look up: The buildings’ cornices, each of a unique design, are works of art. And don’t miss the old Union Station, constructed in 1887 and now lovingly restored as a branch of the National Bank of Kinderhook. The Richardsonian Romanesque edifice, one of the greatest examples of adaptive reuse in the valley, illustrates Chatham’s erstwhile importance as a railroad center. At one time, 100 trains arrived or departed from here each day.
As you stroll down Main Street, have your credit card handy. You’ll likely find plenty worth your hard-earned money. There are several art galleries: When I was there, Park Row was displaying marvelous watercolors depicting local landscapes, while the Joyce Goldstein Gallery featured fascinating abstracts. Not far away, Native Clay offers American Indian pottery and other crafts. Avid readers will be thrilled by Berkshire Books, selling rare and used volumes, and the Chatham Bookstore, which deals in the new and noteworthy.
R.H. Van Alstyne Fine Jewelry lived up to its name. Its windows were filled with spectacular necklaces crafted from quartz, amethyst, and pearls. On the cheaper end were lovely pewter cuff bracelets engraved with a “flower of the month.” They’d look great with one of the “casual recycled” dresses available at ReWraps, whose sales fund PS/21, an initiative to bring professional dance and music to Chatham. You could top off your outfit with a funky hat from the Dakota, which also features snazzy leather handbags.
More down-to-earth attire is available at Browns (where you can get your Birkenstocks) and Banner Clothing House, the place for jeans and overalls. At the Warm Ewe, you can buy colorful knitted sweaters or the yarn to create your own.
Attractive home furnishings can be found at the Handcrafters, which sells everything from Tanzanian baskets to French ceramics and hand-blown glass from Massachusetts. Multicolored rag rugs and throw pillows are a steal at groovi; if you’d like a piece with a past, the Welcome Home Antiques Center has an enticing mishmash — a 19th-century country cupboard, yellow ware bowls, an iron bed… And don’t miss browsing the aisles at American Pie, a nifty small-town department store whose wares range from straw cowboy hats to Le Creuset cookware.
At the Main Street Grainery, you can pick up hard-to-find foodstuffs like raw goji berries and sunflower oil, as well as a host of organic goodies. Chatham Makes Scents crafts aromatic soaps, scrubs, and shampoos. And at Multi Kids, you can treat your own children to the same toys that once delighted you, such as wooden blocks or a xylophone guaranteed to start them on the road to becoming the next Lionel Hampton. (Check American Pie for earplugs.)
Most of Chatham’s restaurants are on the casual side. Ralph’s Pretty Good CafÃ© offers sandwiches and wraps — as well as the cappuccino. At Our Daily Bread, also known for its inventive sandwiches, don’t be surprised if you head home with a bag full of home-baked crusty bread and several desserts. (Its apple pie has a top crust that resembles a mini-mountain range.) More substantial fare is available at Lippera’s Restaurant and Tavern. Housed in the beautifully restored 1859 Chatham House hotel — which once catered to railroad clientele — this eatery was named one of the Valley’s best new restaurants in these pages last February. Peint o Gwrw (Welsh for “pint of ale”) offers traditional pub fare such as fish and chips and more inventive grub like wild salmon burgers. You can wet your whistle there on pale ale and porter made by Chatham Brewing, located down a small alley off Main Street. To pick up a keg right from the source, just follow the enticing smell of the fermenting grains. More take-home treats are available at the Chocolate Moose, where you can create your own high-calorie goodies courtesy of a chocolate fountain.
Before leaving, check out the spectacular Tiffany window, dubbed “The Instructor,” in the public library on Woodbridge Avenue. Or take in a film at Crandell Theatre, which has been showing first-run movies since it opened on Christmas Day, 1926. If these don’t strike your fancy, I bet you find some other excuse to stay put. Chatham is so delightful it’s hard to work up the gumption to go home.