Columbia County keeps rural charm of New York Shaker influence remains a strong part of region's legacy

August 20, 1998|By John Pareles | John Pareles,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HUDSON, N.Y. - "Nature has been very lavish here in the gifts of her beauty," the landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church wrote to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from Hudson, N.Y.

Church was boasting about Olana, the Persian-style mansion he had built on his hillside overlooking the Hudson River. A century later, Church's assessment still holds true, not only for Olana itself but for all of Columbia County.

Columbia County stretches from the Massachusetts border to the Hudson River. About a three-hour drive from New York City, Columbia County has a full-time population of 63,200 people, along with plenty of cows and sheep.

Although bagels and cappuccino can be tracked down in towns like Hudson, weekenders from New York City haven't brought too many pretensions to Columbia County. It's still farm country, where most of the tallest structures are silos and it's hard to find a road that's not breathtakingly scenic.

There is open, rolling farmland on the western side of the county, the legacy of huge tracts claimed by Dutch and British landholders in the 17th century. To the east, where New Englanders pushed into New York state, the land furrows and rises toward the Taconic Mountains and the Berkshires.

History on the hillsides

Along with the cows, there's history built on the hillsides, from opulent river estates like Olana and Clermont (the Livingston family mansion in Germantown, N.Y.) to the idealistic austerity of a former Shaker village in the hills of New Lebanon.

A stretch of Route 10 has a sign announcing it was the "National Beauty Award Highway 1969," but in Columbia County it's just an average street; there are equally bucolic stretches on Route 203, on Route 31, on Route 23 and even on parts of Route 9.

Bed-and-breakfast inns dot the county from end to end. The Inn at Green River, in Hillsdale, was built in 1830 and was once a parsonage for the Lutheran church next door. It's tucked into the Berkshires foothills at the Massachusetts border, and the rooms look out on a meadow.

Hillsdale is an unprepossessing town, but it has a showplace restaurant, Aubergine, in a handsome old Federal house. Hillsdale also has the Rodgers Book Barn, well stocked and far more extensive than it appears, although it's 3] miles from any main road.

In southeastern Columbia County is an oddity - the Inn at Blue Stores, in Livingston. It's a Spanish-Mission-influenced building

built in 1908, with a stucco exterior and a terra-cotta-tiled roof, in a working farm on Route 9.

Inside, the inn is a Victorian apparition, with dark wood paneling, leaded-glass windows and old brass light fixtures. The rooms, which have televisions, are filled with mirrors, figurines, a butterfly in a glass box, embroidered flowers and lace everywhere, from the lampshades to the shower curtain. There were Dutch apple pancakes for breakfast.

Across the street is a pair of rusting gas pumps that Edward Hopper might have depicted. And up Route 9 in Claverack is a true country flea market, open on weekends in a former apple-processing barn at Bryant Farms.

With three dozen dealers, it's a place to find silver dollars, sleds, books, fishing rods, shotgun ammunition, old door hinges and all sorts of other things on the border between antiques and junk, such as a nice selection of stag heads, along with a stuffed bear.

The Shaker way

In the north toward Chatham is a bastion of New England-style and Shaker architecture.

Chatham (population 1,920) was a thriving whistle-stop at the end of the 19th century, with four railroad stations. Railroad crossings still stop traffic in the center of town, which holds an 1811 inn, a movie theater, an antiques center and a jaunty old clocktower.

In nearby New Concord and Old Chatham, white clapboard farmhouses loom among the pastures.

The Shaker Village in New Lebanon, where more than 30 Shaker buildings still stand, must have seemed like a hamlet of skyscrapers when it was built, from the end of the 18th century to just before the Civil War.

Its three- and four-story buildings have an image of straight-backed rectitude, with long windows that are narrow as if to point heavenward; originally, many of them were painted ocher yellow, while the meetinghouse, with its arching roof, was white. Earthly and spiritual wisdom is still being sought on the site, which is now divided between main owners.

One is the Darrow School, which allows visits to some of the buildings. Just over a hill is the Abode of the Message, a Sufi Muslim order that presents courses, lectures and retreats.

At the Shaker Museum in Old Chatham, the exhibits delineated the sober, diligent lives behind the inspired design sense.

The Shaker way of life required confession, celibacy, communal living and withdrawal from the world. Celibacy was enforced with detailed regulations, which are on display; a sister, for example, was forbidden to sew on a brother's button while he wore the garment. Meals were eaten in silence, and lasted about 15 minutes; then, it was back to work.

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