Shirley LaForest considers herself lucky to have lived in many places over her 74 years — North Carolina, Georgia, even the tiny atolls of Micronesia. But none of those could she call home. For LaForest, home was, and remains, a quaint lakeside hamlet where neighbors know each other’s business, for better or worse, and the idea of a “strong sense of community” is not just a feel-good bromide. It may be hard to believe such a place exists in today’s era of epidemic individualism, cynicism and general wariness, but LaForest’s hometown is by no means an invented Brigadoon. It lies right across Lake Champlain from us, in Essex, N.Y.
If you’ve ever traveled to the Adirondacks via the Charlotte ferry, you’ve visited LaForest’s ancestral land, if only briefly. Most ferry passengers don’t stay long in Essex, especially in the off-season when the village center is all but shut down. But if you did hang around, chances are you’d find the community enviable in nearly every respect, except for the fact that the closest gas station and grocery store are at least 5 miles away.
Fewer than 700 people make their permanent home in Essex, according to the 2008 U.S. Census estimates, yet despite its size, the village is a hive of activity. Over the years, residents have started a first-run film society, an arts association, a community theater and a summer concert series that attracts nationally known classical musicians. The town also supports three churches — one Methodist, one Episcopal and one Catholic — that are venues for plenty of community events, from potlucks to organ recitals.
The town’s early identity as a principal maritime port may help explain how Essex became the tight-knit community it is today. Essex was settled in 1765 by a wealthy landowner, William Gilliland, and officially gained town status in 1805 when it separated from neighboring Willsboro. Over the first half of the 19th century, the town had an essential role in the growth of North Atlantic cities, serving as a gateway to the natural resources of the Adirondacks. Forest products, iron, leather and stone from the surrounding area helped put the harbor town on the map.
In addition, Essex became a major center for ship building, producing hundreds of shallow-draft, flat-bottomed cargo boats at its two shipyards. The prosperous town developed a population of more than 2300 people, who were primarily lured by the bountiful opportunities in the shipping industry.
Then, in 1849, the railroad came to the Champlain Valley. The growing prosperity that Essex enjoyed due to its central port location ground to an unceremonious halt. Because of the trains, which provided faster, cheaper transportation, Essex’s economy collapsed. The population shrank rapidly as people sought work elsewhere; 150 years after the railroad arrived, Essex numbered only 880 people.
The town was so small that Shirley LaForest went to elementary school in a one-room building that lacked electricity and running water. Her freshman class in high school consisted of her and one other student. But, she says, Essex was a “wonderful place to grow up.” Until she was 10 years old, LaForest, who now serves as the town historian, lived on a farm just outside the village. When her oldest brother took over the farm, she and her parents moved to the leafy hamlet, which looks much as it did when the railroad arrived. Because the population immediately began to decline, new construction nearly stopped, and the town was frozen in time. It now boasts one of largest collections of pre-Civil War architecture in the state of New York.
The imposing stone structures that line the town’s main drag make up a veritable textbook of architectural styles. Prim, geometric Federal-style houses sit next to ornate, pilastered Greek Revival homes. The steep gables and gingerbreading of the Carpenter Gothic structures look quite at home abutting the broad eaves of the Italianate buildings. The village’s tree-lined boulevard, while bereft of many businesses, is perfect for summer strolling.
Though LaForest moved off the family farm, her connections with her community remained strong. “There was a lot of family nearby, and neighbors, and you just knew you could count on everyone being there for you,” she says. “I think most folks would tell you that.” LaForest reckons that even today she is related to at least half the native population of Essex.
Gayle Perry is another long-time Essex resident — though, because she was born in neighboring Elizabethtown and spent part of her youth there, she jokes that she’s not truly a local. The 50-year-old says she feels similar to LaForest about Essex’s sense of community, though she can’t quite put her finger on why. Perhaps that’s the way it’s always been, she posits. Everybody pitches in and helps their neighbors — perhaps the only way to live happily in such isolation. “Essex is one of those true North Country towns, where everybody knows you and the people are so wonderful,” Perry says.
Despite her relative youth — for Essex — Perry is somewhat of an anachronism. She met her husband, Bob, at a softball game just after her junior prom. He’s the only man she ever dated, and they’ve been married for 32 years. The pair runs Cedar Hedge Farms, a huge organic crop operation that grows hay, wheat, soybeans and corn. One of their two sons, Adam, is a fourth-generation farmer who is being groomed to take over the operation when his parents retire. Perry and her family are the picture of a bucolic life, and she likes it that way. “With farming, you either love it or hate it,” she says.
Perry and LaForest represent a dwindling native population, one that’s gradually being squeezed out of the town by transplants and summer residents who choose to retire there. But there’s little, if any, animosity between the groups, the women say. Old and new residents come together to produce plays, host concerts, run film nights and organize community potlucks.
Perry grumbles that transplants from metropolitan areas have driven up housing costs, since they’re willing to pay far more than locals can afford. That is perhaps the biggest issue in Essex, but it doesn’t seem to prevent people from getting along. Most transplants acknowledge that their presence has contributed to the escalation in property values.
Jim Van Hoven is one transplant who’s witnessed the town’s “gentrification.” He and his wife, Colleen, worked in the New York City area for years as educators; when they were ready to purchase a second home, they looked no farther than Essex. Van Hoven, 69, went to summer camp in the area as a child and fell in love with the town over the years. His wife was easily convinced. “We liked Essex because we love the water, we love the mountains, and we love history,” Van Hoven says.
His more urbane friends questioned the couple’s move. He tried to paint them a picture of the town and its appeal, but, he says, “It’s just something you can’t explain.” Part of what Van Hoven likes about Essex, he says, is the diversity of the population — not the ethnic or racial diversity, which is nil, but the jumble of people with different income brackets, educational backgrounds and life experiences. Like Perry and LaForest, Van Hoven appreciates that everyone knows each other: After a recent trip to the hospital, he says, his phone rang off the hook with neighbors asking if he was OK.
The Town of Essex is not solely the domain of wealthy retirees: An increasing number of younger people are choosing to live there as well. Mark and Kristin Kimball, a thirtysomething couple who run the much-vaunted Essex Farms, chose the lakeside town in 2003 as the home base of their operation. It employs about a dozen young people, from prep-school teenagers to graduated Ivy Leaguers.
Mark and Erin Hall, another couple in their thirties, landed in Essex almost by accident. They always thought they’d settle in Burlington, but after spending a summer in Essex, they decided to stay. “We’re in the fifth year of a two-year plan,” Mark Hall quips.
Hall, 37, attributes their decision to stay largely to the people of Essex. Hall, an architect, and his wife, an interior designer-cum-baker, bought a fixer-upper house in the village and set about becoming part of the town. “I’ve never experienced the kinds of community we have here. It’s like an island community,” Hall says. He and his wife have connected with the small but active local population of young people largely through their 20-month-old daughter, Oona.
When she is old enough, Hall says, Oona will attend the Lakeside Preschool at Black Kettle Farm, a progressive, sustainable enterprise in neighboring Whallonsburg run by the Eddy Foundation, a nonprofit land trust. The preschool was founded recently to meet the needs of a growing populace of children.
Living in Essex hasn’t always been easy. It was only within the last five years that the town got decent cellphone and Internet service: former New York governor George Pataki bought a farm in Essex and needed access to the outside world.
Sometimes, Hall says, he feels he’s missing out on something. But new residents say the sense of intimacy and security that comes from living in a remote rural environment trumps whatever they had to leave behind. That can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it sense of community wins out.
Though she roamed far afield, Shirley LaForest always felt the town’s draw. Eventually, she let Essex pull her back. “I feel so rooted here,” she says.