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Callicoon Calling

By Tina Traster

August 4, 2011 -- What's been drawing Manhattanites -- and celebrities such as Mark Ruffalo and Debra Winger -- to Sullivan County’s tiny Callicoon, a hamlet of about 2,200 people located in the town of Delaware?

Maybe it’s the beauty of its setting, along a stretch of the Delaware River between the Poconos and the Catskills. Maybe it’s the quaint annual traditions like the tractor parade and the Delaware River canoe regatta.

Whatever the reason, the result is an attractive second-homebuyers’ market for urbanites who want a slice of agrarian life and small-town hospitality -- less than two hours north of Manhattan. Of course, having city folk move in to Callicoon (also known as Callicoon-on-the-Delaware) has helped created an area with easy access to fair-trade coffee (at Café Devine), unoaked wines (at Callicoon Wine Merchant) and handcrafted cheeses (at the Windy Hill Cheese shop).

That blend of wholesome Americana and gentrification might be what attracted Ruffalo. The actor lives -- under the radar, until recently -- on a former dairy farm on the banks of the Delaware with his wife, three children and chickens. (He has given up some of his anonymity by becoming a leading advocate in the fight against hydraulic fracturing -- a method of natural-gas extraction also known as “fracking” -- in Pennsylvania and the Catskills.)

The area certainly charmed Molly Denver and Brewster Smith, who bought a 1,200-square-foot, 1890s farmhouse and barn on 5 acres of an old dairy farm for $182,500 in early May. Denver had never heard of Callicoon but used the “compass” house-hunting method: Look at a map and draw a circle around New York City of everything that is about 100 miles away. Callicoon is situated along the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway (or New York state Route 97), a 70-mile stretch that traverses the western borders of Orange, Sullivan and Delaware counties.

“The place just felt right,” says Denver, recalling their first visit there. “We didn’t know what we were getting into, but we were drawn to this salt-of-the-earth place. It was magical for city folks who don’t even have a lawn.”

House prices in the area are 20 to 30 percent off the peak from 2006. Associate broker Joseph Freda of Matthew J. Freda Real Estate says the majority of homes for sale are between $200,000 and $300,000. You can buy a three-bedroom, Arts and Crafts house in town for $115,000.

More enterprising folk might be interested in purchasing the iconic Western Hotel, a yellow five-room Colonial (with an additional private three-bedroom residence) that includes a restaurant, bar and liquor store, which was recently listed for $699,000. The hotel used to be run by Joe Naughton, who accidentally shot and killed his barmaid in 2008. After serving a six-month sentence, he was sent back to jail in May for selling alcohol to minors, a parole violation.

Lee Hartwell, a former Manhattanite who runs an antiques store on Main Street, says that in Callicoon, no matter what happens, a hotel like this won’t become a white elephant, because people in town rally when hardship visits.

“The Western Hotel will not fall into disrepair,” Hartwell says. “I can guarantee that won’t happen because we’ve already got people talking about how to bring this hotel back to life.”

It’s no surprise that life in Callicoon is tied to the river -- as a source of inspiration to artists and writers (despite occasional floods), and as a highway of adventure for canoeing, kayaking and rafting. The area is an untouched wilderness for eagle watchers, hunters, fishermen, hikers and naturalists.

Callicoon was settled by the Dutch in the 1600s, but the area boomed in the mid-19th century with the Erie Railroad. An 1888 fire wiped out Main Street; most of today’s buildings date to the time when the town was rebuilt. The town has a library, appealing shops, an upscale flea market, galleries, a health food store, fine dining, an Art Deco single-screen movie theater, a bowling alley and a Sunday farmer’s market.

Callicoon is 15 miles northwest of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a performing arts center and a museum that pays tribute to this original Woodstock concert site. Monticello Raceway is a half-hour drive to the east.

“When I arrived, I got to know a whole bunch of people from the city -- ex-chefs, ex-theater people who were fun to cook and eat with, and to tell stories with,” says Hartwell, who came to Callicoon five years ago. “That’s why I never left.”

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