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Sarah Ashton

Photo: Kathryn Geurin

The Cambridge Express

A community initiative to preserve the historic freight yard in the heart of Cambridge Village creates the future on the foundation of the past

Story and Photos By Kathryn Geurin

Like many rural towns in the Northeast, Cambridge, N.Y. blossomed with the arrival of the railroad in the 1850s. The village’s Rice Seed Company became the second largest seed company in the country, shipping crates of colorful seed packets to farmers far and wide. Lovejoy plows, invented and manufactured in Cambridge, became a household name across the country, recognized as “the plow that plowed the West.” The dairy markets opened, and once a day a 10-car milk train rolled through the valley, collecting empty bottles and making fresh deliveries. The train yard emerged as the center of rural life, and in Cambridge, the freight yard of the Delaware & Hudson line unfurled in the heart of town. Cars packed with potatoes, hay, grain, seeds and plows chugged from the station, coal poured in from Pennsylvania. Traveling theater troupes and influential speakers—most famously Susan B. Anthony and Mark Twain—alighted at the passenger depot to perform or lecture at Hubbard Hall Opera House. Children hopped the train to school. Families gathered around the freight yard’s telegraph station to hear the baseball scores.

Then came cars and trucks and planes; the railroad slowed, and chugged to a stop. The small town’s train-driven heyday faded, and the bustling train yards fell silent—left to decay or demolition.

The last D&H train ran in the late 1970s and the tracks, largely abandoned, were conveyed to the New York State Urban Development Corporation. Freight trains continue to run through Cambridge to this day, but the freight yard was sold off and used as rental storage space. The buildings began to crumble from age and neglect, and the town, which hit economic bottom in the ’70s, withered around its forsaken core.

Three decades later, a new generation was coming into its own in the 2,000 person village, and Cambridge began to evaluate ways to revitalize the community. Restoring and repurposing the freight yard became their priority.

“The northeast used to be dotted with these freight yards, but most of them have been demolished to make way for new development. Here we had an intact freight yard, which is of great historic significance, and totally unique in New York State,” says Sarah Ashton, board president of the Cambridge Valley Community Development and Preservation Partnership, the nonprofit organization formed to manage the freight yard restoration.

“At the same time, we were looking at two acres of property in the heart of the town that were decaying and unused. This whole project is really about protecting our assets and strengthening the village center to prevent sprawl,” she says. “We had two acres of property in the center of Cambridge which was rich with historic and economic potential, but it was just decaying. This was a village-wide effort to preserve and protect this significant landmark, to celebrate our history and revitalize the heart of town.”

Ashton believes the survival of the buildings is due in part to the same challenging times that threatened them in the first place. “The village suffered a significant downturn in the 1970s, it was a very bleak time for Cambridge. The people who owned the buildings retained them, even the ones in disrepair, largely because it was too expensive to take them down,” she says. But as the properties are being sold to the next generation, the new owners are determined to restore them to their former glory.

“There is just a great deal of pride in the community,” she says. When the Cambridge Hotel, a beautiful 19th-century building known as “the train hotel” in the village, was threatened with demolition in the late ’90s, the community rallied and saved it. The new owners invested over a million dollars to bring it back to its original glory.

The village established the Cambridge Valley Community Development and Preservation Partnership, Inc. in 2001 to coordinate and implement the community vision for the freight yard property. The organization is entirely volunteer-driven, forgoing a paid staff for a highly active 13-member board of directors drawn from the nonprofit, business and local government sectors. “The Community Partnership was founded to help people do better what they do best, to facilitate a partnership between the village, the private sector, and nonprofits,” says Ashton.

The mission of the project, driven by community input and a comprehensive plan completed by the village in 2004, strives to preserve the historic structures, to expand the offerings and opportunities in the village, and to promote local business activity and agricultural heritage.

To date, the Community Partnership has purchased two acres of property, including seven historic buildings, and has largely implemented the new vision for the old freight yard. The project has been an approximately $2 million investment. According to Ashton, three quarters of the funding has been through grants from organizations such as the New York Department of Transportation, NYSERDA, the Department of Agriculture, the New York Main Street Program and the Empire State Development Corporation. About $500,000 has come from cash donations. “That doesn’t count thousands and thousands of in-kind donations,” she adds.

“It’s just that kind of place,” says Ashton. “We have a volunteer fire department, a volunteer ambulance, and they’re wonderful. This is a community where people breathe volunteerism. The freight yard project has really been made possible by the countless people who have contributed their time and resources.”

Two of the historic buildings, located on the village’s charming Main Street, were sold to private developers who rehabilitated the structures for retail space. One of those buildings is now home to a bookstore, office space for the Berkshire Eagle newspaper and a legal firm. The other is awaiting the finishing touches of restoration, and the owner intends to have the new shops open for business “before snow flies.” The importance of historic preservation permeates the project, and every effort has been made to preserve as many original details as possible. In a space that used to store mountains of potatoes and dry goods, the volumes at Battenkill Books are nestled into the crooks of original plank walls and beams. The heavy wooden pocket doors still slide across the entryways.

The Beacon Feed Freight House, a long building which served as the transfer point for seeds, grains and feed, has been transformed into studio space for Hubbard Hall Projects, the community arts center housed in the historic Opera House. When purchased by the Community Partnership, the dilapidated freight house was uninsulated and without electricity. Today, the space is a bright mix of old and new, and serves as an arts education center, with a board room, a visual arts studio and a dance studio, complete with wall-mirrors and a sprung floor. Cardboard dragons line the rafters, original woodwork eases into freshly painted sheetrock.

The new facility has expanded Hubbard Hall’s programming to the point that a staff position was created to make the most of the new space. According to Gina Deibel, the new program director at Hubbard Hall, the arts center has moved their dance programs from a make-shift rental space to the Beacon Feed studio, and they now offer a full array of classes, participatory dance events and eclectic performances. “The visual arts studio has allowed us to expand that programming as well, for kids and adults alike,” she says. “We’ve held classes there in everything from figure drawing to potato stamping.” The board room even doubles as a music studio for small classes.

The Freight Depot, which Ashton describes as having been essentially “the UPS of train life” is now an intimate black-box theater, which complements Hubbard Hall’s larger venue. The depot opened in late spring with a performance of Edward Albee’s Seascape and is already frequently in use for rehearsals, lectures and other community events.

“It’s a great thing for Hubbard Hall and for the whole community,” says Richard Bump, chairman of Hubbard Hall Project’s board.

“We’ve added a whole ’nother series because of the [Freight Depot theater],” adds Bump. “We’re able to do more experimental stuff—smaller plays with smaller audiences. It also gives us a great gallery space, a place for chamber music events, community discussions, the whole package. We just had a board meeting the other day. We now have every single weekend, for the next year, booked with events.”

The newest acquisition, still in the process of restoration, is the Passenger Depot Pavilion, the most architecturally significant and romantic building of the project. Ashton swings open the heavy doors, flaking with paint, to reveal a vintage carousel. Also in the process of restoration, each of the horses is being painted by community artists to represent the history of the Battenkill Valley—a side project which Cambridge resident and experienced carousel restorer, Gerry Holzman is spearheading, boxes of paints and colorful banners scattered around the pavilion’s dingy floor advertise the community’s enthusiasm (especially the children’s) for the project.

A seventh building—the old blacksmith’s shop—was demolished after it was determined to be structurally unsound, but plans are already in the works to recreate the original building as another retail venue.

In addition to the new arts and retail spaces, the Lovejoy Foundry Freight Barn, a two-story post and beam structure, which originally stored the famous steel plows and other farm equipment, was insulated and wired from the outside, which allowed for the preservation of the entire interior. The worn wooden walls and soaring beams serve as the perfect backdrop for the building’s new mission of promoting the area’s agrarian legacy. The Lovejoy currently houses an exhibit of local agricultural and rail history—including a school child’s rail pass, potato sacks, decorative seed packets and trading cars, and original Lovejoy plows. In the fall and winter, the building will provide a year-round home for the Cambridge farmer’s market, which was bustling with vendors and patrons this past summer Sunday on the freight yard’s now-parklike lawns.

Once no more than a muddy lot, the Freight Yard Park is now a grassy expanse, dotted with perennial plantings and a wide yellow-brick path, which harkens back to train days, when the village was lined with similar cobbles. At the edge of the park, a new parking area awaits paving. “We had no real public-parking area in the commercial center,” says Ashton. “One of the main goals of the project was to simultaneously preserve this historically important area and address the issues that were holding the village back from economic progress, lack of parking was one, and septic was another.”

Hidden under the park and the parking area is a innovative septic system, which the Community Partnership is demonstrating for New York state, in hopes the plan will prove viable for other rural areas. The village has no centralized septic system and creating a town-wide sewage system was not a viable option. The Community Partnership’s solution: install a decentralized septic system to serve the high-need commercial center of the town. The new septic system serves eight commercial buildings on Main Street, including a high-traffic diner and ice cream shop. Business expansions are already in the works thanks to the septic service.

The Community Partnership has managed every detail of the freight yard project, “from coordinating with architects and engineers, writing grants, administering grants, bidding out construction work, monitoring construction, and coordinating volunteers to paint, plant and develop interpretive exhibits,” says Ashton. A Cambridge native, Ashton and her husband returned to the small town to start a family after a stint in New York City. An independent consultant with experience in international and community development, philanthropy, education and recruitment, Ashton was the ideal candidate to spearhead the project and was elected as Board President at the project’s outset—a volunteer position she has held throughout the venture. “The project has been a real team effort,” she says, “a fun team effort. We are all inspired to preserve and celebrate Cambridge’s unique community assets and strong sense of place.”

“There are always administrative issues that come up,” she concedes, “and those issues can slow things down, but we’ve never given up. . . . You start to feel like you’re losing steam, but then key things would happen—we’d get another grant or someone would pop by to donate a plow—and it fuels you on. It may be taking longer than we expected,” she adds, chuckling at the understatement. “I have a six-year-old, and I thought the project would be done before she was born. But the project just keeps growing. We originally thought we would just rehabilitate the buildings for seasonal use, then we got additional funding, so we expanded the project.”

“The freight yard project was a very conscious and carefully planned project,” she says, “but other projects have evolved around it in unexpected ways.”

An artisan from the Canadian province of Quebec teamed with local residents to build an outdoor, wood-fired community bread oven outside the freight depot in celebration of Quebec’s quadricentennial. Clay for the traditional Quebecois oven was mixed by village children, and today neighbors hold pizza cookouts and artisan bread cooking classes, often in conjunction with events at the theater. Around the corner, a two-acre community garden—the historic site of the Rice Seed Company’s test garden—is now brimming with flowers and vegetables. A sign painter, looking for something to do while her daughter took acting classes at Hubbard Hall, recreated the lettering on the side of the Lovejoy building with historic precision.

“This is all extremely exciting, and it’s inspiring other people in the community,” says Bump, stepping away from his Hubbard Hall duties to enjoy the farmers market. He indicates construction-in-progress on the nearby Main Street shops. “The renovation of those buildings is being done with the idea that there is now a community park behind their business, and that these are valuable historic properties.”

According to Christine Hoffer, who serves on the board of the Community Partnership and heads the Towns and Villages of the Battenkill Valley Association, a tourism agency that spun out of the community partnership, “There hasn’t been a marked boom in tourism yet, but we expect we’ll begin to see a rise once we finish the project and begin to really promote it as a cultural history treasure. There is a niche market of people who are interested in agro-tourism or train history, and the arts link with Hubbard Hall will allow us to cater to a larger arts market.”

Hoffer acknowledges that finishing the project is only the beginning. Getting the word out about it will be a new challenge. The association recently became its own nonprofit entity, charged with promoting the project, along with other treasures of the region. “The cultural heritage traveler is someone who wants an education, who wants to learn something while they travel, this area offers so much in that respect. And in this economy, as people limit their travel expenses, this is a place to get away without really going far from home.”

Hubbard Hall’s expanded programming is drawing people to the village from around the region. “We have a membership of about 750,” says Bump, “higher than it’s ever been. About half of that is Cambridge residents, but we’re pulling in from Bennington, Manchester, Williamstown, Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls, Troy and Albany, and now we really have a town to be proud of.”

“We’re to the fun part,” says Ashton. “We had been so focused on the capital improvements to the freight yard, we’re finally getting to explore the details and tell the story. We finally have a place to put things, and donations are springing out of the woodwork. We went to a Cambridge school alumni event recently and said, “we need stories,” and now the stories are starting to pour out. It’s really exciting.”

Even the fun part is not without challenges in today’s tough economic climate, but the Community Partnership’s dedication to the project hasn’t waned. “Sometimes things get done in a different way than we expected,” says Ashton. “We didn’t buy the plants for the park right away; we waited until the end of the season and they were donated. We haven’t gotten the trees in yet . . . but we will.

“Is there funding for trees?” asks Bump.

“No,” laughs Ashton. “We have a plan for the trees—pears and apples and maples. We had a landscape architect donate his time and design a plan. We have to worry about the septic system, what trees are going to drop things on cars . . . everything takes more planning than you’d think.”

“Yes, but that’s a very specific thing. We can fund that!” exclaims Bump. “Name your tree. That’s it!” And the project rolls on.

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