Thursday, July 7, 2011

What's in Sharon Springs these days?

When my friend, Maggie, said that our outing this summer would be to the town of Sharon Springs, she added, "Bring your camera. This will be perfect for your blog!"

I was a bit skeptical. Bill and I had explored Sharon Springs ten or fifteen years ago when it was on an upswing, featured in the local and national newspapers. Since then, I'd heard nothing of it. And also, as a Saratoga native, I knew that this town had always been Saratoga's second cousin.

As I climbed in Maggie's car, joining her teenage granddaughter, Jorian, Maggie's first words to me were, "Did you do your homework?" Uh-oh, I hastily changed the subject!

I didn't have to worry because our first stop for the day was My Sisters' Place Cafe in the "upstreet" area of Sharon Springs. Tucked away, it presented a comfortable setting that would make anyone feel at home. Margi, the owner, offered us the day's selections. I chose a highly-recommended omelet made with goat cheese and pesto. Although, truth be told, I could have chosen anything she mentioned--the food here is fresh and local, just what I like. The omelet came with side salad of mixed greens.

Maggie, Jorian, and I had pleasant conversation and then we headed outdoors. "Be sure to walk the labyrinth," Margi told us, describing how neighbors had built it for her, and that Amish carpenters who lived nearby had built the Tea House.

I have been to labyrinths--circles where the path goes in ever smaller rounds--at Kripalu in Lenox, and in Jackson's Garden at Union College in Schenectady. I had tried to understand their meditative aspect and I had diligently walked them both, but walking in circles just didn't do it for me. This serpentine labyrinth was just my style. Large and meandering with the tea house at the far end, it wandered across the lawn. I could imagine getting lost in thought on this narrow gravel path. Already, I was starting to see the charm of Sharon Springs in the 21st century.

Sharon Springs is a town of 517 residents (2009), but in its heyday it boasted a summer crowd of 10,000 sharing its population of rich and famous with Saratoga Springs, just to the north. By the mid-20th century, Sharon Springs, always known as a particular favorite of New York City's Jewish population, attracted holocaust survivors who could take the therapeutic spa treatments as part of a medical reparations package.

Maggie insisted that I try the Eye Water Spring, noted to improve vision and focus. Jorian agreed and hurried over for her own treatment. Having Jorian along added credibility. Okay, Maggie is a friend of nearly 25 years, but I knew you couldn't get anything past a 14 year old. I rubbed some of the water into my eyes and tasted it, clean, sweet, and not sulphury. Below is my picture of the spring today, along with a historic photo from the mid-1900s. Note the women rubbing their eyes.

Unfortunately, the bathhouse, below, has fallen into extreme disrepair. I was surprised when Maggie told me that it had been a working therapeutic center just five years ago. Since then, a Korean-American company bought many of the old properties in 2004, but have been absentee owners. Much speculation revolves around their plans as local folks despair while the spa and several very large old famous hotels crumble.

Past the Bath House, we walked on Main Street, the "downstreet" area of town, where many charming businesses looked welcoming on this summer day.

The historical society had restored an old schoolhouse, while businesses, new just in the last decade, gave the street charm and vitality. And the most famous restoration project, the American Hotel, made a good case for staying overnight here.

(Historic plaques line both sides of the street. This town is justifiably proud of its past.)

(Restored shop buildings and even some "bottle" art reflect glory days as an internationally known Spa.)

(We were full from our lunch at My Sisters' Place, or we might have considered this pretty cafe.)

(This lovely home is now a massage therapy business.)

(The American Hotel, true to its name, sports the red, white, and blue.)

Still, there remain signs of long-ago prosperity and modern neglect. Besides the old hotels, boarded up with tall ever-encroaching weeds, homes and guest houses on the side streets are desperate for repair. I was particularly taken with this one, where columns go nowhere. How long would they continue to stand? Yet, this same building had gorgeous detail, such as the stained glass above every window.

I wondered what would happen to these buildings. They looked ripe for arsonists, the final note to other buildings in this town and such as happens in so many places. And, despite the rural beauty of the surrounding rolling hills and farmland, who would come here in this day and age when few people touted the benefits of mineral waters?

(Stone steps once led to a grand Victorian home entry and a lion-bracketed bench faces a former garden area.)

The residents of Sharon Springs hope to encourage artists and artisans, billing the town as a place off the beaten path for the post-911 crowd of city dwellers seeking the restorative quiet of an artist's community. As such, some homes have been lovingly brought back to life.

For now, go to the cafes, check out the shops, have a massage, and walk the paths of history. Oh, and if you're adventurous, trundle down a path next to the bath house and try clarifying your vision. I didn't notice a difference, but that was before I saw the photo of those ladies from the 1930s. Maybe I need to get a nice white handkerchief and dab gently at my eyes. Splashing the water camping-style didn't do the trick. Still, Jorian swears by it. Well, Maggie does too, but I'm sticking with the opinion of a history-loving, grandmother-accompanying, high schooler.


  1. Great post. I really enjoy your blogging style. You have a very distinct writing voice Virginia.

  2. Thanks for the tour of Sharon Springs, Virginia. I love how you attend to both the beauties and the could-be-beauties. It's all fascinating.