Small towns have always held a particular fascination for me. I grew up in one, attended college in two of them, lived in or near one for most of my working life and, recently, moved to yet another one – Westfield, New York.
My interest in small towns even took me on a road trip across New York State a few years back that resulted in a documentary film. I travelled along the thruway and explored the towns on the exit signs, to discover what valuable treasures they might offer. I explored and recorded sixteen of these towns from Little Falls to Seneca Falls and Sharon Springs to LeRoy. Many of these communities were struggling economically, although they still had something to offer the interested traveler. Natural beauty, history, art and recreation were intermittently scattered about in many of these places. Some had more to offer than others.
It would be disingenuous for me to say I “found” Westfield on that trip and selected it above all others, as the place to settle. In reality, my wife and I had purchased a home here a few years earlier. What would be true, however, is that after visiting so many other small towns, Westfield stands out dramatically. Westfield is an iconic small town that conjures up images of literary works by the likes of Sherwood Anderson, Thornton Wilder, Ray Bradbury, Harper Lee and Richard Russo. If you connect with the small town images masterfully created by these writers, as I do, you will find Westfield an ideal destination.
The layout of the village and the various styles of architecture, from majestic Italianate mansions to humble two-bedroom bungalows, remind me of Bradbury’s Greene, Illinois or Lee’s Maycomb, Alabama. A centuries-old church steeple draws your eye in not far from the thruway exit. As you drive towards the steeple, the town opens up to you, with a classic Americana park, complete with gazebo and clock. If you look to the right, a statue of Abraham Lincoln greeting Grace Bedell depicts part of Westfield’s proud historical heritage. Turning to the left down Main Street, you see a classic diner with a bright red neon sign. When you step into the Main Diner, you half expect to see Miles Roby, of Russo’s Empire Falls, behind the counter.
One of the things I particularly love about Westfield is that it is not pristine. It’s not slick and shiny and “Disney”. It has warts along with its beauty. Among the manicured lawns and immaculate gardens there are houses with peeling paint and a few empty store fronts. It’s a real village with a struggling economy like so many other towns in New York State, or like the rest of the country for that matter. In many ways, Westfield is complex and multi-dimensional, much like the beloved characters of classic American novels. It has grace and poise, but it also has grit and tenacity and, occasionally, bad luck. In that sense, though, Westfield is unique in that it has not thrown up its hands in defeat. Nor has it deluded itself into thinking one large industry employing hundreds will appear and save the day. It sees itself attracting new and innovative businesses building on its inherent agricultural strengths and tourism and, most importantly, on the character and work ethic of its people.
The abundance of grapes and close proximity to both Lake Erie and Chautauqua Lake brings visitors to Westfield. New initiatives seek to build on those assets to attract more visitors. The development of the Concord Grape Belt Heritage Association’s (CGBHA) Grape Heritage Discovery Center will increase interest in what is one of the largest concentrated areas of grape farming in the United States.
Many of the towns I have visited in New York State have libraries and museums that exalt the importance of their historical footprint. Westfield is no exception. In fact the Patterson Library and the McClurg Mansion are two notable examples of community-supported institutions that proudly blend local historical importance with well-known national figures like Abraham Lincoln and William H. Seward. When I look at the stone steps that lead to the impressive columns of the Patterson Library, I half expect to see Bradbury’s young Will Halloway hurrying away from the clutches of Professor Dark.
Behind the library is the Chautauqua Gorge, very reminiscent of the one described in Dandelion Wine. It is a beautiful and serene place during the day, but when you look down into the gorge after twilight, it gradually disappears into darkness and an irrational feeling of dread comes over you. Nevertheless, the gorge is awe-inspiring and frequented during all seasons by fisherman and hikers alike. Westfield still has many of the wonderful traditions and events one associates with small towns: holiday parades, a farmers market, a fireworks display down in Barcelona Harbor. It even had a travelling circus come through last summer.
I’m beginning to think that Thomas Wolfe had it wrong. Perhaps you can go home again. At least you can in Westfield.
Alan Herrmann is a documentary filmmaker and retired history teacher who lives in Westfield with his wife Sara.