Sunday, March 16, 2008

And it's All Thanks to Alexander Hamilton's Sister-in-Law

The Southern Tier is officially defined (by Wikipedia) as counties in New York State that border Pennsylvania, west of the Catskills. I have been there so infrequently that I have to admit it took some hard thinking before I could remember how to get on 390 going south. I already live half an hour south of the Thruway, which is essentially half an hour south of civilization; why would I want to go FARTHER that direction? I'll tell you why: pancakes.

Man, I love pancakes. So when I heard there was a family of maple producers in the Southern Tier who open a restaurant for three months in the spring in order to serve all-you-can-eat buckwheat pancakes to fellow maple syrup enthusiasts, I immediately enlisted the company of my trusty friend Sheilah, and away we went into the wilds of New York.

This family describes their restaurant as having a "somewhat out of the way" location. They are correct. They are a solid hour and a half away from just Rochester, and Rochester is about two and a half light years away from the rest of the world. So these are people for whom being nine hours from New York City wasn't good enough. They didn't even want to be near the Erie Canal. They don't even have a Finger Lake. They do have Keaney Swamp State Forest, but it is (a) a swamp, and (b) a swamp so unremarkable I can't even verify its name on the internet because, amazingly, there is no website detailing the state-protected swamps in Allegany County, so I can't imagine that it is any kind of natural wonder.

This isn't to say that the Southern Tier, in spite of obviously suffering from some longstanding economic woes, has no draws. It has a kind of lonely, dramatic landscape that is a cross between the mountains of Vermont and the hills of Prince Edward Island. If it hadn't been the epitome of a dull, colorless, depressing March day, I can see it being the subject of a National Geographic article, featuring pictures of neglected homes, abandoned homes, cat-eyed barns that are waiting for a good gust of wind or a lightning strike to finish them off, rusted schoolbuses that must date back to 1965 at least, and, naturally, peculiar local businesses. Such as maple farmers.

I say peculiar because this is not a maple farm from Tasha Tudor's New England. This isn't to impugn their maple syrup, which was marvelous. And perhaps I have become too focused on marketing. But I must say, there is great potential for a place like that to be really, really cool, and they missed almost every opportunity to educate people on how maple syrup is made, as well as to commercialize on their own cuteness, because there was not much cuteness.

In the basement of the building there is a display, I guess, of old equipment, I think, and a kind of reproduction, as far as I could tell, of the maple-sugaring life about a hundred years ago. I am unsure because normally in such a situation there would be some kind of placard telling you what you are looking at. Not so here:

Sheilah: What does it do?
Me: I have no idea.
Sheilah: It looks like you could cremate a body in it.
Me: Sheilah!
Sheilah: Is it not the perfect size and shape? IS IT NOT?
Me: I have to admit . . . it IS.

A nice placard could have spared us that exchange.

Also, I have something to say about this:

Someone saw me taking a picture of this and asked why I was taking a picture. What I said was, "Why not?" but what I thought was, "Are you kidding? This is the funniest thing I've seen in three months except for the RON PAUL RLOVEUTION sign that we passed as we drove down here, and that was mostly scary."

And in the back, where by all rights there ought to have been a nice path through the maple trees down which you could take a guided tour and learn the history of sapping, there was only this:

I won't hold the mud and snow against them because they can't control the horribleness of March, but the rotting logs, the rusted frame, and whatever that yellow thing is that looks like it might have contained as explosive gas of some kind? That could be somewhere else. When I go to a place like this, I want to be fooled into thinking these people lead wholesome, rustic lives, grow all their own food, take good care of their grandmothers, and play the fiddle for entertainment. And a horse or two in a nearby pasture wouldn't go amiss. Even just a horse statue! I can be flexible.

While we were adventuring in the area, Sheilah and I thought we might as well stop by Angelica, which Sheilah's mom said was cute and had some shops. Sheilah's mom was right. It was cute, and it did have some shops. And we were possibly the only people there. We were actually recognized by the owner of one shop because she had just spent half an hour talking to the owner of the shop we'd just been to. However, here's an interesting fact: the village I live in has a population of about 2,500, while Angelica has a population of 903 (that's 95 people fewer than in 1830), and yet Angelica can support a number of antiques stores, a sweet shop, a hotel AND an inn, and three restaurants, whereas my village can barely keep a single coffee shop in business.

Something is wrong with the place I live.

Side note on Angelica: The village of Angelica is named after Angelica Schuyler Church, daughter of General Philip John Schuyler and Catherine van Rensselaer (from Albany. Surprise!). The General was a member of the Continental Congress. Angelica corresponded with not only the Marquis de Lafayette and the Marquis de Talleyrand, but also Thomas Jefferson. She was painted by John Trumbull, and eloped in 1777 with an Englishman who fled to American after a duel. He may possibly have been using an assumed name at the time, and appears to have been something of a gambler. THe Englishman, Church, duelled with Aaron Burr (both survived) and when Aaron Burr later duelled with Alexander Hamilton, who was married to Angelica's sister, they used Church's pistols. Who named the village Angelica and why is a mystery to me, but I would just like to say on an unrelated note that it is a strange period in history when the thing to do is to settle arguments according to who has better aim. That is barely one step up from drowning suspected witches. Come on. Lame.

Whether or not Angelica Church married a gambling addict or Thomas Jefferson wanted to have an affair with her or she wanted to have an affair with Alexander Hamilton, the place that was named after her sure is darn cute. It might be kind of hard to tell from this picture, because unfortunately it was still March by the time we got there, but Main Street is a wide, tree-lined avenue with some lovely architecture, nicely-restored houses, and colorful shops.

More importantly than this, they knew just how to fool me into thinking they lead wholesome and rustic lives. It's not a horse. It's even better. It's a cow statue!


At the end of Main Street, there is a nice traffic circle with a pretty big park in the center of it. There are no less than four churches around this circle, one of which is pictured here:

And this is the extremely charming town hall. I am a sucker for red-white-and-blue hangings on official buildings in small northeastern towns.

And, just in case you were in doubt, this is Angelica, New York:

A Town Where History Lives Except In March When History Moves To Her Condo In Florida And Takes The Entire Population With Her.

As a day-trip destination, I give the Southern Tier three out of five stars, but if you are thinking of visiting, please bear in mind that I awarded one of those stars solely because Angelica Schuyler Church seems like she was pretty awesome. And I awarded the second one on the strength of the orange truffle I got from Angelica's sweet shop. And the third one was for the doll peeking out of the basket in the basement of the maple place. My definitions of "interesting" and "a good time" might not match up with everyone else's; in fact, at this very moment I'm considering bumping it up to four stars because I just remembered that the directions MapQuest gave us for the route home included a dirt road -- a dirt road that in any other place on earth probably would have been closed at this time of year, considering that it was not so much dirt as mud. I guess the MapQuest people thought, "If they're in the Southern Tier, 99 to 1 they're in a truck, so go ahead and put that dirt road in there as a valid route."

Yes. Definitely four stars.


Ivan said...

why do I keep scrolling back to the doll picture...

Simon said...

because you can't decide whether it's funny or scary?

Ivan said...

yeah... can it be hilarious and grotesque at the same time?

Maeve said...


Simon said...