Days of past and future: Small-town dreaming for a happy 2019.
It’s the last day of 2018 and I’m sitting in the Hardware Cafe and General Store on the main street of Fair Haven for lunch. A surprisingly popular idea, it turns out, as the solo server has almost a full house to accommodate. But nobody seems to mind, as we all instead compliment her as she does her best. This was a year where so many of us found ourselves working hard and doing so many things that this seems like an appropriate metaphor … especially as the patrons generally leave satisfied.
I’m not the type to make any grand proclamations or recommendations or resolutions as we leave 2018 in the rearview as we head toward 2019. But I do like to take time at the end of the year to remember and, whenever possible, support things I enjoyed for the year. The village of Fair Haven, which has turned into a sort of adopted other hometown this year more than ever, is a great reason to be thankful.
As I enjoy a plainly titled yet delicious Meat Sandwich (eggs, cheese, bacon between two large slices of bread), I feel blessed that this diner/seller of curios is a place my son and I have enjoyed plenty. Arius is elsewhere today, so he’s not around to charm the population nor make me guess what foods he currently likes, but plenty of other warmth and community abounds. People come in and hug their neighbors or long-lost friends. A woman brought in cookies for the owners, wherever they may be. And nobody’s really in any hurry and never is heard a discouraging word.
After the meal, I will pop across the street to say a quick hello to my friend Bobby in the bank. He and his wife Amy, a teacher in the local school district, opened the Sterling Cidery, purveyor of delicious hard ciders and a convivial atmosphere — it and the cafe are my anchors in a year that saw me visit this village more and more.
The latest census counts Fair Haven’s citizenry at 727 souls, although the lakeside community swells in the summer as snowbirds come back north to both modest cottages and homes resembling mansions along the West Bay. When we would spend summers at our camp a few miles down Lake Ontario or the Sterling Renaissance Festival, this is often where we’d come for groceries and modest entertainment. Back then the Fair Haven Register newspaper and my future employer the Oswego Palladium-Times would run stories about the small town’s aspirations to become a year-round tourist destination. Those dreams, like the Register itself, seem to be defunct, but nobody seems to mind that much. Fair Haven’s a gem they are not necessarily in a hurry to share.
While many families have been here for generations, Bobby and Amy are among the new blood. Bobby went to SUNY Oswego, and his history degree eventually found him on the other side of the country working in a museum where he met Amy. She was making hard cider under her sink as a hobby, and their love and an interest in doing more with it blossomed. So when they decided to leave Seattle for a better place to raise a family, Bobby remembered the area and they ended up in Fair Haven, where they have since added two children to the population. Bobby’s parents even moved upstate to join them.
The new year will bring a transition at my favorite cidery, as having day jobs and small children have kept Bobby and Amy plenty busy. They’re in the process of selling to two local couples who have more time and grand plans. Their final weekend of 2018 a few weeks ago saw many members of the community come in as the cidery served its last stock under this ownership — first the blueberry ran out, then the cassis, then standard, then oaken (only the hopped remained when I called it a night). But the inventory and the tidy building will refill in 2019, bringing the populace and their growlers back through its friendly doors.
All around town
This village has served up plenty of food, drink and adventures for us in 2018. Arius and I walked in the parade at Pirate Fest, built (sort of) a snowman during Winter Fest and checked out some music during Porchfest. The latter citywide musical celebration is in just its second year but has already become an annual highlight. The biggest celebration of the year remains its Independence Day celebration, and I was here this year to catch its Mile-Long Parade from the porch of the cidery with a number of people who were strangers just a year or two ago but are now friends.
If you look east from the cidery or north from the cafe, your gaze would take you to Brandon’s Pub + Grille, known as O’Connor’s until fairly recently, where I’ve enjoyed food, beverages and acoustic music this year. Just west along the main drag of Route 104A is Bayside Grocery, where I’ve secured sustenance to accompany my appreciation of fine cider. Bayside shares a parking lot with Big Bo’s ice cream, where Arius will consistently ask for a chocolate/vanilla twist cone. Down the street a few blocks east sits a re-opened Guisseppe’s Sub and Pizza Shop, which has also provided necessary carbs this year.
Also on the east side of town, you’ll find a playground that Arius enjoyed a few times this year, and down the hill is a small park along the creek that splits the village, where a few months ago I took my kid fishing for the first time. Across that inlet in a West Bay marina is Whitecap Charters, which took Bobby, his father Bob and I on a much more serious fishing trip, where the two enormous salmon I caught were among a large seven-fish haul for the day. A stone’s throw away sits Turtle Cove Marina and Restaurant, where my brother and I plus our families took our mother for her birthday dinner this year.
My 2018 adventures also included Bobby and I checking out the cider and scene at Colloca’s Winery on the West Bay and some non-cider at Little Sodus Bay just beyond the playground. I also watched the Fair Haven Tree Lighting Ceremony in the town’s Central Park, which at other times hosted everything from the Winter Fest snow-building activities to a live mermaid during Pirate Fest.
I’m the product of a small town — although at nearly 2,000 people, Weedsport is almost a city compared to Fair Haven. Many of us wanted nothing more than to get out of town when we completed high school. Not everybody did; some have never moved out of town. Others left and never looked back. Others, like me, come back to visit family but don’t necessarily harbor a heap of affection or nostalgia from a place that seemed so small.
So in a way, my continued love of Fair Haven, here at the northern end of my native Cayuga County, is strange. I guess I’ve always loved small-town living but was looking for the right small town for my affection. Housing prices are cheap (tempting), as is the cost of living in general unless you want to drop $200K or decidedly more on a palace on the West Bay.
And if Fair Haven never found that year-round tourist activity, things are decidedly on the upswing. Up until a few years ago, Bayside Grocery about the only place on the east side you could expect to find open year-round. Then the Hardware Cafe and General Store — which, as its name demonstrates, has been quite a few things over the years — decided to stay open year round and succeeded. Guisseppe’s is giving it a go this year as well. Under new ownership, maybe Sterling Cidery will join them in 2019 or beyond?
We’re on the cusp of 2019, so why not be optimistic? Before leaving the cafe, I bought a copy of a calendar put together by the talented Kyle Meddaugh, who operates his photography business OnePhoto and a gallery across the street from the cafe. A new calendar for what we hope will be a brighter 2019. Thus even if I’m not in Fair Haven, views of the small town and its lakeside vistas hang on a wall for me to enjoy throughout the year.