The morning sun reflects off the remnants of a hard crust of snow with a luminous quality that makes the towns of Ghent and Chatham, New York, appear suffused by stage lights. It’s been a long winter—about six months’ worth, by most people’s accounts, though they use much more colorful language; like the Inuit and their multiple words for snow, residents of upstate New York have a remarkable array of vivid, sometimes profane, epithets for the season. On this 50-degree day in March, the first hint that winter is finally releasing its skeletal grip on the region, people are emerging from their woodstove-warmed saltboxes and Cape Cods, primed and ready to enjoy the landscape and a sun no longer obscured by clouds heavy with the promise of more white stuff.
Ghent — The “Saudi Arabia” of Hay
Ghent—located about 40 minutes west of Pittsfield—is one of myriad small, largely unspoiled former agricultural towns in upstate New York. Named for the peace treaty that halted the War of 1812, it was established in 1818 from land borrowed from the neighboring towns of Chatham, Claverack, and Kinderhook.
At its height, Ghent was an agricultural community with a grassy claim to fame. “Ghent was like the Saudi Arabia of hay,” says Gregg Berninger, town historian and the author of The Town of Ghent: 1818–2018. Operations—and community hangouts and gossip—were centered at a 15,000-square-foot hay-pressing facility, until it went up in a not-so-glorious blaze in 1894.
The town’s farmers continued to send their goods up and down the state via the Hudson-Berkshire and Harlem railroads, which were integral parts of the town since their mid-nineteenth-century debut. But as cars became more common and railroad companies succumbed to mismanagement and infighting, the rail lines were abandoned by the 1960s, and yanked up from the ground in the 1980s. Only one line, now part of Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited service from Boston to Albany, passes through the northeast corner of town.
Today, says Berninger, the “railroad” in Ghent is broadband. “There are more and more people working at home,” he says. “And there aren’t really any natural gathering facilities, like the hay or cider presses of the past. People have to work a little harder to stay connected.”
Clocking in at 45.4 square miles and about 5,500 residents, Ghent is the type of town most articles, and even many of its residents, label sleepy, polite code for “Not much going on.” But make no mistake: Ghent’s quietude is one of its greatest assets, and there are interesting things to see and do. A drive through the town takes you over rippling hills and across wide swaths of nearly flat land, down seemingly endless winding roads, past dozens of photogenic abandoned barns, standing alee, red paint faded and peeling.
One word comes to mind: expansive. Though small in size, Ghent feels sprawling, open, unconstrained. It’s a place where you can feel your entire body exhale.
Over the past couple of decades, many upstate towns have seen a revival of businesses and especially old buildings, often thanks to enterprising weekenders from New York City. Such is the case with the Bartlett House, once a hotel for railroad travelers, which stands like a blocky brick beacon on iconic Route 66. Built in 1870, the three-story Italianate building fell into disuse after the rail line was abandoned. It briefly gained attention in a series of photographs by the late photojournalist Walker Evans, before being forgotten for nearly half a century.
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In 2016, following a nine-month renovation, new owners Lev Glazman and Alina Roytberg, impresarios of natural skin-care and makeup line Fresh, and Damien Janowicz reopened the Bartlett House as a European-style bistro and bakery. With its ceramic-tiled kitchen walls, dark wide-plank floors, and upscale ambience, plus its approach to fresh, from-scratch, locally based foods, it was an immediate standout.
The restaurant is a favorite among second-home owners from the city, who often descend on the Bartlett House in amiable, head-to-toe-black-clad groups. To enjoy a cozy, leisurely breakfast, get there early. Take the uniformly decadent bakery items, from pain au chocolat to the restaurant’s signature pear and rosewater muffins, home in a to-go box and instead have a sit-down meal—like French toast with dates and nuts or rich shakshuka served with crusty bread—which will keep you fueled up for your wanderings until early afternoon.
Though some residents have mixed feelings about affluent city folks infiltrating their real estate market, Sallie Friedman, a retired schoolteacher whose has lived all but a few years of her life in Ghent, says, “I think it’s terrific. I love to see historic buildings restored.”
Friedman lives not too far from the restaurant and its across-the-street neighbor, the also-bustling Dairy Queen. Like many upstate towns, Ghent finds itself suspended somewhere between past and future, in a hard-to-define, upscale/down-home present.
This doesn’t faze Friedman. Settling onto a stool in her sleek modern kitchen, the island lined with doughnuts, candy, and other sweets, she dons her reading glasses and picks through a stack of notebooks where she’s collected stories from her youth. She reads about hot summer days spent bobbing along the Kline Kill creek, swollen after a thunderstorm, in an inner tube, or attempting to walk the rail trestles without falling. And long afternoons lost in Nancy Drew books, back home on the family farm, where her brother still lives.
Though she remembers these times with affection, Friedman doesn’t grow misty over what was. “Times have changed. They had to, didn’t they?” she says.
Farms, Fine Art & Forests
Despite its diminutive size and changing landscape, Ghent has no shortage of farms and farm stores. Many are open only during the growing season or for limited hours in winter and spring, so check their websites before heading out.
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Some, like Love Apple Farm on Route 9-H, stock their shelves not only with regional produce and house-made pies and cider doughnuts, but also products by well-known New York brands like Beekman 1802 and the Hudson Standard. Love Apple even has an event space that offers occasional yoga classes and creative workshops, and a gallery, open during the warmer months, that features all-local artists.
Head back down 9-H and turn onto Route 22, past the historic cemetery at the Ghent Reformed Church, where many Van Valkenburgs, early settlers of the town, are buried. In a short but pretty 2.5 miles—past at least two more farms—you’ll arrive at Ghent’s most buzzed-about attraction, Art Omi.
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A combination art gallery, café, and space for artist residencies, Art Omi materializes, like a glass-and-stone mothership, out of the woodsy landscape. Its most famous feature is its sculpture park, which takes up a considerable portion of its 120 acres. Pull on your hiking boots and spend an hour strolling through the unusual collection, with its often massive and impressively kooky pieces. The rolling landscape also offers a nice option for cross-country skiing in winter (call first to check on snow and trail conditions).
For a walk on the wild side, travel to Siegel-Kline Kill Conservation Area, about three miles east of Art Omi, or Borden’s Pond Conservation Area, another four miles east, heading into Chatham. Part of the Columbia Land Conservancy’s eleven protected parks, both 50-plus-acre sites contain about 1.5 miles of easy to moderate trails that circle ponds, meadow habitats, and tree-lined floodplains. Lovely and well-maintained, these sites are a quieter, more contemplative experience than the region’s flashier trails. They also offer prime critter-watching opportunities: foxes, turkeys, porcupines, salamanders, pileated woodpeckers, scarlet tanagers, and a variety of small birds are common.
Chatham — Small-Town Downtown
After a morning spent exploring the spread-out attractions of Ghent, take the short drive into the urban-in-miniature Chatham Village. Technically, about half of Chatham Village is in Ghent. It’s a quirk of the two towns’ pasts, inextricably linked by the railroad, and it’s something many Ghentites proudly point out.
The town of Chatham, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, has a population of about 4,000. It’s made up of five towns: North Chatham, Old Chatham, East Chatham, the Village of Chatham, and Chatham Center. The village’s downtown, with its Federal architecture, old-fashioned awnings, and quiet charisma, is the place that draws most visitors.
Like Ghent, the village has fluctuated from prosperous to working-class to economically depressed—after most of the rail lines, the Columbia Boxboard mill, and several textile factories shut down in the 1950s and 1960s—to resurging with the ready cash of middle-aged professionals following the “discovery” of Columbia County as a destination for weekenders in the 1980s. The mix of old places and new money has reinvented Chatham not just for the New York City getaway crowd, but for locals and day trippers, as well.
Start with a look around historic Union Station, now occupied by the National Union Bank of Kinderhook, which has impeccably restored the Victorian building. Back when Chatham was a major railroading center, this station was the hub, with more than a hundred trains arriving and departing daily.
Although the train no longer stops in the village, the rail is still a mainline for freight and for the Lake Shore Limited. If you’re in town around 4:45 p.m., you’ll probably stop to watch it clatter through, diesel horn hooting. This is what distinguishes the tourists from the locals: residents barely glance up from their phones or conversations to notice the engine.
Spend a couple of hours perusing the shops on and just off of Main Street. It’s an eclectic mix, from a bookstore to a fine-linens shop, a yarn store, a high-end cheesemonger, and a pair of clothing and accessories stores. Here in Chatham, where lives often converge like railroad lines, most business owners will gladly chat, refer you to friends’ shops, and play concierge, helping you identify points of interest.
Fahari Wambura opened Fahari Bazaar, a boutique that sells artisanal clothing, décor, and small goods from Tanzania and Kenya, at the western end of Main Street in 2016. Despite the fact that—or perhaps because—her store’s concept represents a more diverse point of view than has traditionally typified Chatham, Wambura attracts a mostly local crowd, which she characterizes as “kind, supportive, generous, and loving.”
Wambura says, “Most people that come to the shop are very encouraging, happy that I am there. . . . It feels like home because most people that shop there are familiar.”
In addition to boutiques, Chatham boasts a variety of services. Want to treat yourself to a soothing facial or body scrub? Here’s just the spot on Park Row. Looking for an active antidote to all that shopping? Try a Pilates class. Rather kick back over a show? Pay a visit to the Crandell Theatre, a 1926 Spanish-style vaudeville house showing first-run Hollywood and independent films; in the fall, it hosts the Chatham Film Club’s nine-day FilmColumbia festival.
Chatham also has many more options for meals than Ghent. Most focus on local foods prepared in limited batches, and are easygoing places to take a load off while enjoying a snack and conversation.
As the sun tilts lower in the sky, finish up your walking tour of the town’s historic architecture. Top picks include the instantly Instagrammable 1872 red-brick pendulum clock at the corner of Main and Park Row (said to be the only one of its kind still in its original condition); the 1811 Inn at Central Square, formerly a favorite hotel and tavern of President Martin Van Buren; the circa-1905 Chatham Public Library on Woodbridge Avenue; and the beautifully restored Chatham House on Main Street, built in 1859, like the Bartlett House, as a railroad hotel.
Before heading home, stop for a pint at Chatham Brewing, founded in 2006. The bar offers 14 beers on tap plus a half-dozen in cans, all made right behind the yawning glass windows of the brewery. It’s a lively spot even on a weekday, with older locals trading stories at the bar, or younger patrons packing the tables for trivia nights. On weekends the scene picks up with live music, and outdoor seating and a food truck in the warmer seasons. On weekends, the tourist crowd chugs through on the Capital District Beverage Trail, or for bachelor and birthday parties.
“We’re a gathering space,” says Tom Crowell, founding partner of the brewery. “Small towns need places that are affordable and family-friendly, where people can hang out. We like being the spot to get together.” And a fitting stop to wrap up your tour of these two inviting upstate New York towns, connected by a shared history of travel, enterprise, and community.
Robin Catalano believes in the power of storytelling to connect communities and cultures. She’s applied her creative approach to writing for magazines, books, blogs, websites, and a wide variety of marketing projects, and has published more than 75 articles and 1,000+ blog posts. As an editor, she has worked on more than 350 books for publishers including Penguin Random House, Workman, and Simon & Schuster. She has also served as a book coach for independent authors, helping them take their ideas from concept to print. An avid traveler and travel writer, Robin lives, reads, and writes voraciously in upstate NY.