10 Things To Love About New Lebanon
The Kendall House
By Lisa Green
In 1787, the Shakers settled in New Lebanon, NY and established a thriving community that today is still a pretty bustling scene, sans the Shakers. If you’ve only thought of the town as the place you pass through as you make your way to the Interstate or Albany, it’s time to slow down and look around. There’s a lot to see.
1. The History
This town has a diverse backstory, and the more you delve into it, the more fascinating it becomes. There’s the Shaker side of it; Mount Lebanon was the largest and most important Shaker community (more on that follows). And there’s a second chapter that brings in Lebanon Springs and its healing properties, which ushered in its era as one of the most fashionable spas in the United States between the 1860s and World War I. Opulent spa hotels brought in high society; these were followed by the emergence of local hotels that catered to the middle class. Other businesses emerged, most notably the first thermometer and barometer factories and the first U.S. pharmaceutical firm, an outgrowth of an existing herbal medicine business that used the medicinal herbs grown in the warm spring feeds of the Shaker Swamp. Though many of the landmarks have been torn down, there are still plenty remaining and it’s worth a drive to explore them.
Photo by Markley Boyer.
2. Shaker Museum|Mount Lebanon
We love the Shaker heritage in our region, and one of the largest communities settled in Mount Lebanon. They’re no longer here, of course, but the Shaker Museum|Mount Lebanon tells their story with a collection of over 56,000 Shaker items, the most comprehensive collection of its kind in the world. With more than 6,000 acres and 100 buildings, this village, a National Historic Landmark, lets us imagine the daily lives of one of the most successful utopian communal societies, which ran from 1787 to 1947. Explore the grounds and exhibits on your own, or take a guided tour of various parts of the site. A highlight is the Great Stone Barn, believed to be the largest stone barn of its kind when it was built. It’s currently undergoing renovation due to a 1972 fire that left just the masonry walls, but the guides can tell you of the Shakers’ advanced systems in dairy processes and what the complete renovation will look like. The current exhibit, “Wash: There is no dirt in heaven” brings to life the day-to-day work of the Shakers as they carried out the chore of weekly communal laundry — in typical ingenious Shaker style.
3. Behold! New Lebanon
We wrote about the town’s newest venture: Behold! New Lebanon, in its inaugural season. Now in its third, Behold! is the first living museum of contemporary rural life in America, and the guides are the townspeople of New Lebanon who invite you to experience rural life as they live it. Created by Ruth Abram, the founding president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in NYC (and a New Lebanon resident), Behold! New Lebanon goes beyond being just a window into country life with its immersive activities. More than 50 townspeople introduce visitors to their farms, studios and workspaces, where they practice cooking, farming, cattle raising, automobile racing and mechanics, woodworking, foraging and much more. Events take place every Saturday through October 15. A Visitors Center in a historic house located on Route 20 is the rendezvous point for all tours, on-site ticket sales, a gift shop with items from local artisans and a depot for information on Columbia County attractions.
In memoriam: Nikolai, Christian Steiner’s pup, who loved music, sat in on all rehearsals for 14 years, and greeted the audiences at Tannery Pond. Photo by Christian Steiner.
4. Tannery Pond Concerts
The music presented by this concert series is world class, but the hall it’s emanating from makes this 26-year-old concert series extra special. Founded and directed by Christian Steiner, a concert pianist and professional photographer, the concerts are held in the barnlike Tannery, built by the Shakers in 1834 (it’s part of the Darrow School campus, the only school in the country located on the site of an historic Shaker Village). The Shakers were known for the beauty and simplicity of their design, but whether they intended to or not, they created a structure that’s as acoustically superb as the music. Think of the biggest names in classical music and chamber groups and they’ve probably performed here. Concerts run between May and September and this season include pianist Stephen Hough and the Miro and St. Lawrence String quartets, among others.
5. George Rickey Sculptures
World-famous Rickey was one of the two major 20th-century artists to make movement a central interest in sculpture (the other being, of course, Alexander Calder). In 1960 he moved to the East Chatham/New Lebanon area until the end of his life, in 2002. Although his home and studio are strictly private, you can see some of his famous works from the road. Or you can take advantage of a rare opportunity to tour Rickey’s studio and outside sculpture garden offered by Behold! New Lebanon on July 16 and August 6. Philip Rickey, son of the artist and a sculptor in his own right, will be the guide.
6. Meissner’s Auction Service
Friends introduced us to this weekly country auction when we first moved here, and I fell in love — with the family who runs it, the serio-comic auctioneer patter, and the history lessons imbued in the merchandise, much of it gleaned from estate sales that turn up furniture that they just don’t make today. The auction starts at 5 p.m. every Saturday, but you have the whole day to preview the enormous selection of furniture (period, oak, pine, mahogany and Victorian walnut), glassware, pottery, quilts, stoneware and artwork. I’ve seen buyers walk away with entire bedroom sets for $100, but prices run the gamut. One of my favorite parts is the boxlot auction, tables of boxes offering a curious jumbled mix of books, glassware, prints, frames, costume jewelry and things that make you say “huh.” Go to furnish your place or enjoy some free, edifying entertainment. Food is available for sale and I’m told the macaroni and cheese is pretty delicious.
7. Blueberry Hill Market Café
When this breakfast/lunch place and small market (primarily locally made items), opened four years ago, our reviewer wrote that owner Melanie Hunt “hoped the market would attract folks on their way home from work and that both the café and market would suit the needs of those just passing through.” It’s more than done that, evidenced by the busy parking lot. It still oozes “ample charm” (what is it about mismatched tables and chairs — handsome wood tables and ‘50s dinette sets — that make a sit more inviting?). The offerings of creatively executed soups, sandwiches and locally roasted coffee have expanded, and the desserts that pull you in to the pastry case like a magnet still include Hunt’s famous slab pies — double-crusted squares bursting with fresh fruit (on the day I visited, sour cherry, apple and blueberry-peach). The chocolate croissant bread pudding rendered me speechless.
8. Kendall House Roast Beef Sandwich Shop and Antiques/Uniques
If the name of this shop doesn’t draw you in, the front yard of The Kendall House will catch your eye. A whimsical arrangement of furniture and vintage curiosities welcome you as you drive up to the former home of Thomas Kendall Jr., the inventor of the thermometer and its namesake factory. The building is festooned with old-timey signs announcing that there is food and more fun going on inside. (The town’s Zoning Board is insisting on removal of supplementary exterior signage, whether decorative or directional, for this and other businesses, which seems short-sighted in a town that’s dependent upon traffic streaming by, but I digress.) Glen and Pat Farnan opened an antiques business about five years ago, then added the deli with a knockout rotisserie-cooked roast beef made on premises. “You won’t get a better roast beef sandwich around here,” he says, and I believe him. There’s a full menu of other sandwiches, burgers, soups and Perry’s ice cream, and before or after you’ve shopped you can enjoy your lunch in the café among the collectibles or at the picnic table down by the creek in back.
(Note: There’s another unusual pairing of food and commerce just down the road at the New Lebanon Minimart and gas station, which offers, along with Boar’s Head products, Indian takeout made by the owners.)
Every town needs a restaurant that feels like it’s been there forever, and Mario’s is that one in New Lebanon. Mario and Julia Soldato opened a restaurant devoted to authentic Italian cuisine in the early 1960s, and their children now run it, with some updates to the fine dining experience. Today the menu is more “Italian-inspired” and seasonally appropriate, and the CIA-trained chef (and son) Mickey Soldato uses local ingredients whenever possible. Mario’s is celebrating 50 years in business, and the soul-satisfying food, the to-die-for popovers and friendly atmosphere insure that it might be there another half century. It can get crowded on the weekends, so we suggest you make reservations.
10. The View
Technically, you approach the breathtaking vista from the Berkshires side, but why quibble? The ride into New Lebanon is a treat in itself. If you’re heading out of Pittsfield going north on Route 20, you pass the other Shaker site, Hancock Shaker Village, and begin ascending the mountain (Pittsfield State Forest is on your right). Just as the terrain starts its descent, almost directly above the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village, there’s a scenic overview on the left where you can pull in and park. That’s when you hear the angel chorus; the entire valley is spread before you, verdant and peaceful as if a distant kingdom, an open-arms welcome to Columbia County.