A little over four years ago Seven Days writer Lauren Ober offered an evocative portrait of the strong sense of community that defines Essex, N.Y. Combined with wistful photos by Andy Duback, “The Essex Exception” struck a poignant chord that still rings true with me today.
After several years of earnestly rehabilitating Rosslyn and making Essex our year-round home, my bride and I were adapting awkwardly to our new lifestyle. Although we’d spent nearly every day at Rosslyn orchestrating the astoundingly complex rejuvenation of a house, boathouse and outbuildings – much of which had endured a half decade (or more) in critical condition – we initially struggled with the reward, the project-to-home transition. To be honest, we’re still adapting today, and periodic rereads of Ober’s article have served me well in understanding the eccentric embrace of our adopted community.
The Essex DNA
In many respects Rosslyn Redux, my blog-turned-standup-turned-memoir, is a chronicle of this ever-evolving process. And yet I’m still incapable of deciphering the Essex DNA, still unable to articulate precisely (and with any degree of consistent accuracy) what it is about the sense of community that defines life in Essex. Everyone speaks about it. Some are nostalgic for the patina’ed community of yesteryear. Many visitors and North Country neighbors are unabashedly envious of the ties that bind us together. And yet the formula is elusive.
I would like to showcase several highlights from Ober’s article which is perhaps better framed with it’s full, original title, “The Essex Exception: Community blooms in the historic lakeside hamlet“. My hope is that you will consider the following points not as the last word, but as an open invitation to ponder the question: How would you describe the strong sense of community which distinguishes Essex? Share your opinion in the comments at the bottom of this post, and perhaps together we can begin to convey some of the richness, belonging and eccentricity of our community.
Although Ober focuses a bit on the history, demographics and amenities (as well as the lack thereof) which characterize Essex, it is the personal impressions which I find the most compelling and insightful. I’ve abbreviated and combined the thoughts of four Essex habitues to prime your own community reflection.
The Essex Exception
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… 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… 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… LaForest reckons that even today she is related to at least half the native population of Essex… 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. (The Essex Exception)
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… 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… 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. (The Essex Exception)
Jim Van Hoven
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… 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… 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 Essex Exception)
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… 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. (The Essex Exception)
Community Vox Pops
Vox pops (from vox populi) is a Latin phrase meaning “voice of the people” that was adopted by media broadcasters for spontaneous interviews that offer a barometer on public opinion. Unprepared, random “people on the street” are asked for their views on subject that they have no time to prepare. Simple questions. Quick, honest answers. The result ostensibly yields authentic public opinion. Will you contribute a vox pop in the comments below? We hope so. Consider this question: How would you describe the Essex community? Thanks.
- Essex-on-Champlain, by George O. Webster (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Vintage Postcard: Rosslyn/Essex Waterfront (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Vintage Stereoview: View from Essex Quarry (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Dianne Lansing Wins La Mia Tote (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)