Whitcomb’s Garage Revs Up Whallonsburg’s Arts Scene

by | April 2022

Photograph by Ben Stechschulte

 

In October 1926, a fire erupted in the harness room of George Gladd’s Whallonsburg general store. Within minutes the flames jumped to Ralph Lobdell’s gristmill next door, and, according to the Adirondack Record–Elizabethtown Post, “for a time the garage of Gordon Whitcomb near the mill was threatened, but the tin roof on the building and the work of the bucket brigade saved it from going up in smoke.”

 

Nearly a century later, the townsfolk of this Champlain Valley hamlet once again came to the garage’s rescue, this time from the slow burn of decay. After sitting vacant for years, a team of volunteers rehabbed the Whitcomb’s building to house artisan-based businesses, a retail boutique, and a communal room for workshops, small concerts and informal gatherings. It’s the kind of “third space” that can pump life into an isolated Adirondack hamlet—and a tribute to the building’s earlier role.  

 

Gordon Whitcomb built the garage in 1920, just as the automobile was overtaking the horse as the preferred mode of transportation. Back then, this dairy-farming community in the town of Essex had its own schoolhouse, post office and a handful of businesses, plus a grange hall that hosted dances, theatrical productions, town suppers and other doings. “It was a very close community,” says Norma Goff, born here in 1941.

 

Narni Whitcomb circa WWII. Photograph courtesy of the Whallonsburg Grange Hall

Gordon’s son Clarence, known as Narni, served in the Army during the Allied invasion and occupation of Germany in World War II, returning to Whallonsburg in 1946. Narni worked at and eventually inherited his father’s business, pumping gas and selling used cars. Handsome and charming, he was a well-liked figure around town. 

 

To Scott Hurlburt as an 11-year-old in the 1960s, “there was something mysterious about” Narni—a suave fellow with a shiny red truck and a girlfriend “who could have been a double for Ann-Margret.” Hurlburt remembers the garage as a bustling place where Narni always greeted him with a friendly, “How are you, my boy?” when he stopped by to ogle the latest wheels. (Today, Hurlburt, an antiques dealer and a town councilmember, drives a shiny red 1951 Chevy pickup.)

 

But by the 1990s, Whallonsburg’s population had plummeted. As dairy farming became less profitable and young people fled for better opportunities, the school and the post office closed, the grange was rarely used and Narni eventually retired and moved to a senior facility in Plattsburgh.

 

Then, starting in 2004, several events in and around Whallonsburg helped set a mini renaissance into motion. Mark and Kristin Kimball launched their Community Supported Agriculture operation, Essex Farm, which attracted young workers who often moved on to start their own local businesses—and families. Responding to the new demand for childcare and nature-based education, Lakeside School opened at Black Kettle Farm in Essex, attracting even more young families. 

 

Meanwhile, with all this new energy came a push to reopen the Whallonsburg Grange. Beginning in 2006, a group of volunteers donated thousands of hours of labor and raised more than $150,000 to renovate the building. Today it’s once again the centerpiece of the community, hosting a robust calendar of performances, lectures and films. 

 

When Whitcomb’s Garage went on the market after Narni’s death in 2017, the board of the Whallonsburg Grange Hall, now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, saw its potential as the next step in the town’s revitalization, says Mary-Nell Bockman, the grange’s program manager and a member of its board. “Our experience with renovating the grange gave us the confidence we could do this and have the community support it.”

 

But even Bockman was surprised by how much “this project resonated with the volunteers.” A private donation allowed the organization to purchase the building in late 2018. Nearly everything else came from an outpouring of grassroots support. Essex architect  and board member Mark Hall drew up plans. Local potters donated a kiln and two wheels. A skilled construction committee supervised volunteer crews. And whenever a work party was called, there was no shortage of hands eager to pitch in.

 

Relying on volunteer labor “wasn’t just a way to get it done cheaply,” says Andy Buchanan, vice president of the grange board and project manager of the Whitcomb’s renovation. It was also about getting community buy-in. “When it’s successful, it has a sense of dynamism that’s unique to it.”

 

“This is how they used to do this stuff, this common labor,” says Bockman. “People want to come together and help. They love it. It really renews your faith that people can tackle big problems.”

 

Two men stand at doorway to woodshop in renovated garage

Sean Kullman, left, and Marcus Soto share a woodshop. Photograph by Ben Stechschulte

The first artisan to rent one of the workspaces at Whitcomb’s was blacksmith Mark Van Duser, who makes custom fireplace screens, handrails, chandeliers and other commissions. Potter Joe DiNapoli uses a small studio at the back of the building, and two carpenters—Marcus Soto, of Sojen Design, who makes custom cabinetry and furniture, and Sean Kullman, who builds custom homes as the Hemlock Apologist—share a spacious woodshop. Soto, who moved to Whallonsburg from the Hudson Valley in 2019, originally planned to work out of a barn on his property, but was attracted by “the collaborative nature of being part of a group of artisans.” 

 

The board felt it was important to have a retail tenant in the building as an “anchor.” Jori Wekin, a grange board member, connected Bockman and Buchanan with Teddi Rogers, who at the time had a seasonal jewelry and floral design boutique called Kit+Syl Studio in downtown Essex. 

 

Rogers, who previously lived in New York City, had fallen in love with the area after taking a job at Essex Farm in 2018. “I realized I could make a living as an artist here,” she says. Moving her shop to Whitcomb’s, where she is also the building manager, has allowed her to achieve her goal of having a permanent workshop with retail space. 

 

Kit+Syl Studio—named for Rogers’s grandmothers—overflows with local and handmade goodies: fresh and dried flower arrangements; plants in vintage containers or pots thrown by DiNapoli; beeswax candles from Thankful Sage Farm School, in Willsboro; old-fashioned brooms from Isaac Gunther, of Elizabethtown; and “Bernie mittens” like the ones popularized by the Vermont senator.

 

The merchandise spills over into the adjacent community room, where workshops and monthly storytelling open mics are held. The rest of the time, visitors can drop in to use the WiFi or sit by the wood stove, where the office pooch, Lake, likes to nap on chilly days.

 

In November, the Whitcomb’s project was honored with an Excellence in Historic Preservation Award from the Preservation League of New York, which called it “a vibrant center of economic revival and engagement” that is “having a positive impact on the morale and confidence of the entire community.”

 

Bockman says that even locals who never enter the building are glad to see it come back to life. “The first time I drove by at night and saw the lights on, I burst into tears.”  

IF YOU GO

Whitcomb’s is at 1598 NYS Route 22, in Whallonsburg. The community room and Kit + Syl Studio are open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, plus for special events and workshops.

Storytelling open mics are held on the second Wednesday of every month from 7 to 9 p.m. Find information about upcoming workshops, including portrait photography, mixed-media classes for kids, and a watercolor series, at www.thegrangehall.info or by emailing Teddi Rogers at hello@kitandsylstudio.

 


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