Know Thy Neighbor

You may have encountered someone in your travels, who, upon hearing that you are from New York state, assumes you live to the left of a skyscraper.

It is one of the grand misconceptions of the universe that everyone from New York state takes a cab to work and shops at Saks. Even Americans from the 49 other states often fail to realize that New York ranks among the top five states for agriculture in the country, or that a quarter of our land is farmland or that we are the biggest producer of cabbage.

I drive across New York state once a month or so to visit family, winding my way through the Alleghany Mountains across to Binghamton and up through Albany. It is a jaw dropping beautiful ride-most recently filled with verdant greens of every shade, Monet-like specks on flowering trees, and lovely little villages awash in spring.

Some of the places I pass and have begun to stop in have names that roll sweetly off the tongue and seem to promise more than a gas station. You might not know that some our neighboring towns were designed to look like Paris, or once housed the gun that killed Alexander Hamilton, or were recently voted the Coolest Small Town in America.

Angelica is one such place. From a road sign, this Alleghany County town proudly declares that it has historical worth along with its lovely name. English pioneer Capt. Philip Church, a nephew of Alexander Hamilton, chose this site for the town and named it in honor of his mother Angelica Schuyler Church, who was also the daughter of a general in the American Revolution and a senator from New York state.

Angelica herself was a beautiful and charming woman who had the ability to beguile men, and as such, she befriended some of the country’s revolutionary icons like Benjamin Franklin and lifelong friend Thomas Jefferson. She hobnobbed with the Prince of Wales, lived in places like Paris and London, and was a celebrated hostess. Her ongoing correspondence with Jefferson is kept in the archives at the University of Virginia.

There are other wonderful stories from Angelica: For many years, the pistols from Alexander Hamilton’s duel with Aaron Burr had been kept in a village home. And buried in the town cemetery is Methodist preacher the Rev. Calvin Fairbank, who was confined in prison for 17 years for freeing 47 slaves in Kentucky by way of the Underground Railroad.

This pretty little town was laid out in a design meant to be reminiscent of Paris, France, with streets that form a star with a circular drive in the center, five churches adorning it and crowned with a village park. This area of Angelica was added to the State and National Historic Register in 1978, and the 1,000 residents who share the sidewalks are proud of its storied past.

Because you can get a great cup of coffee in Owego, and it looks like it’s straight off a postcard, it was voted by Budget Traveler magazine as The Coolest Small Town in America in 2009. Its quaint streets, a revamped waterfront area and new storefronts along the Susquehanna River have brought out the pride in its residents.

Farther down Interstate 86 (and near Elmira) is the town of Horseheads, whose residents twice tried to change the name but ultimately returned it to its historical moniker. It means exactly what it says: It’s named after the heads of horses found littering the fields during the Revolutionary War.

In September of 1779, in a campaign against the Iroquois Indians, Major-General John Sullivan trudged through the area with 5,000 troops and as many as 300 military pack horses who had become exhausted. At the end of their endurance of a 450-mile journey from Pennsylvania, the horses were executed and their sun-bleached skulls were gathered by the Indians and laid in a straight line along the trail as an omen to future settlers. That spot is still known today as The Valley of the Horse Heads and the town is the first and only in the United States dedicated to the service of the American military horse. A 28 square mile memorial, unparalleled in American military history, enshrines the town and village of Horseheads today.

It is a magical ride from here to Albany on Interstate 86, with parks like Allegany, Letchworth and Watkins Glen offering gorges and trails and unparalleled views. There is the renowned Corning Museum of Glass, the beautiful forests of Hornell, wonderful little historical museums and the natural formations of Rock City Park in Olean. Most of it is just a few hours ride away.

In a world that defines our state by New York City, it’s lovely to know that we are so much more than that famous metropolis.

We are also agriculture. And horse heads. And history.

And surely, beauty.