Historic Chappaqua, New York: A small town with a rural feeling

“Chappaqua,” says Sy Waldman, now retired and an artist, is “a lovely community of concerned and highly motivated residents, who value the arts, culture and education."

THE VIEW OF one of the hamlet’s main arteries, South Greeley Avenue (photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)
THE VIEW OF one of the hamlet’s main arteries, South Greeley Avenue
(photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)
There’s a story that after former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and president Bill Clinton moved into their home in the hamlet known as Chappaqua, about an hour’s ride north of New York City, people would drive to the northern Westchester County town and purposely park illegally on a road near the Clinton home. After getting a parking ticket, they would return to their homes in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut and show their friends they actually went to Chappaqua to see the house that Bill and Hillary purchased in 1999 on Old House Lane.
Since those first days 15 years ago, things have settled down. People don’t gawk at the public figures or entertainers who live in the hamlet. No doubt, however, that the town is now better-known worldwide because of its personalities, including that of Mrs. Clinton – who joins the local townwide parade on Memorial Day. Another prominent citizen here is actress, singer and former Miss America Vanessa Williams.
More and more American as well as overseas visitors now travel to Chappaqua to view what has been described as a “hamlet in a woodsy setting,” “a small town with a rural feeling” that is “ like any other small town, albeit a wealthy one,” or a village with “meandering country roads.”
“Chappaqua,” says Sy Waldman, now retired and an artist, who has lived here for 31 years, is “a lovely community of concerned and highly motivated residents, who value the arts, culture and education.”
Like Waldman, this writer also lived here for 37 years before surrendering to the warmer climes of Florida. For the tourist to the New York City area, spending a halfor full day visiting a town outside the Big Apple can be rewarding in the opportunity to observe an aspect of American life.
Chappaqua is just one such locale of many.
Noticing the increase in day visitors is Russell Maitland, chief of the Chappaqua Fire Department who at age 48, has lived 41 years in the town. He points out that Chappaqua is a mix of people who have resided here a long time, as well as couples just starting to raise families. While the center of the town has remained pretty much the same over the years, the number of homes as well as condos have grown, notes Chief Maitland.
Chappaqua traces its name to the Native American tribes of the Mohegan Confederation who farmed the area and called the town Shepequa, said to be “a place where nothing is heard but the rustling of the wind in the leaves.”
Yes, it’s definitely the nature and pastoral environment that make it such a beautiful town, as well as a great place to raise children.
“We have incredible parks and gorgeous rolling hills,” enthuses Grace Bennett, publisher and editor of Inside Chappaqua and Inside Armonk magazines. She points to the North County Trail, running through next-door hamlet Millwood and on up into Yorktown Heights.
Considering the deep presence of nature, one is not surprised at the popularity of the Chappaqua Farmers Market, featuring “locally raised and produced food products” – held at the train station on Saturdays between 9 am and 1 p.m., and indoors at the Chappaqua Community Center during winter.
In size, Chappaqua itself is only 1.17 sq.km. But it is part of the town of New Castle, the governing body, which covers nearly 65 sq.km. and encompasses another hamlet, Millwood, and parts of Mount Kisco and Ossining. Chappaqua hamlet only has about 1,500 residents, but the greater New Castle area counts approximately 18,000 residents.
The town, founded by a group of Quakers in the 1730s, boasts a great deal of history – including a well-known 19th-century political figure, Horace Greeley, the founder and first editor of the former New York Herald Tribune, a reformer, politician and presidential candidate. Through his newspaper columns, he opposed slavery and was one of the founders of the Republican Party.
“Go West, young man” is a phrase often credited to Greeley, a saying which concerned America’s expansion westward, first stated by John Babsone Lane Soule in an 1851 editorial in the Terre Haute Express: “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country.” Greeley later used the quote in his own editorial in 1865.
The local high school is named after Greeley, as are main arteries North and South Greeley Avenues. His home still stands on 100 King Street (New York State Route 120) and is headquarters of the town’s historical society. Built about 1820, the house served as Greeley’s home from 1864 to his death in 1872, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Stop at the New Castle Historical Society’s Greeley House – the centerpiece of the village district; it’s open Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., as are tours during that time frame.
Greeley commuted daily to his Manhattan office at The New York Herald Tribune and ironically, most of today’s town residents are commuters who rise early each morning, board Metro North’s commuter trains to Grand Central Station, work a full day in Manhattan and at day’s end, make the 50-minute return trip back to Chappaqua, Because it’s a commuter town, traffic slows down after rush hour. Yet on weekends, this suburban area becomes a busy beehive; youth activities, from soccer to football to baseball games, occupy the many ball fields.
Travelers will not go hungry in Chappaqua; a popular spot is Susan Lawrence Gourmet Foods, 26 North Greeley Avenue.
Spring, summer and fall find locals occupying the outdoor sitting area and inside tables for coffee, pastries, sandwiches and wraps; all get high marks. Takeout and catering are big here.
The town boasts a Starbucks at 2 South Greeley Avenue; it is crowded during commuter rush hours and weekends.
Also popular and an institution for decades is Lange’s Little Store at 382 King Street, “at the top of the hill.” Deli-style and popular for sandwiches, this local establishment is open for breakfast and lunch.
Asian cuisine can be obtained at Spoon Asian Fusion, 415 King Street. More upscale dining can be had at the Crabtree Kittle House Inn, 11 Kittle Road, noted for its extensive wine list and its bed and breakfast facility.
A cultural hallmark of the town is its excellent community library, considered one of the finest in Westchester County.
Located at 195 South Greeley Ave, the Chappaqua Library maintains a large collection of books and is computer-friendly, offering public events, lectures, writing courses, book talks, concerts and children’s story hours and puppet shows.
Five minutes away in the town of Pleasantville is the Jacob Burns Film Center, a nonprofit cultural arts center dedicated to presenting the best of independent, documentary and world cinema.
So if you’re planning a trip to the area in the next few months, Chappaqua is, in the words of editor Bennett, “a really great latespring destination.”
Jewish life
The focus of Chappaqua’s Jewish community is Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, 220 South Bedford Road. The building housing this Reform congregation is renowned for its architectural design by the late, celebrated Philadelphia architect, Louis I. Kahn, whose design has been cited as “stunning in its simplicity.” Constructed of poured concrete, wood and glass, and situated on 2.8 wooded hectares (7 acres), the building was modeled after the wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe destroyed in the Holocaust. The structure was completed and dedicated in 1972. In summer 2010, the congregation broke ground on an addition, its new Center for Jewish Life, which houses classrooms and event space; the center opened its doors in September 2012.
Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe is the new spiritual leader of the congregation, and is proud of what he termed “so much Jewish life in the area.” The temple, he explains, stands as the “religious and cultural center” of the Jewish community, with a religious school and congregation celebrating Jewish heritage, including popular scholar- in-residence programs.
An active Israel program is part of synagogue life. Rabbi Jaffe tells me that the congregation is organizing a group to attend the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington this March, alongside 15,000 other representatives from throughout the country.
The writer covers travel and is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press); The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond (Globe Pequot Press); and A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America (Pelican Publishing Company). Blog: www.bengfrank.blogspot.com; Twitter: @bengfrank