Column: Rediscovering our past in Wading River

09/28/2013 8:00 AM |

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Glenn Townsend operates out of the Red Barn.

I set out to write about my vision for Wading River’s historic hamlet center, believing it has the potential to become the “hippie capital” of Long Island’s North Shore. I figured the owner of BarnStock Trading Post and Woodstock Home Improvement — right in the heart of the district — could help me in those efforts.

And I finally had Glenn Townsend on the phone.

Michael White, editor

MICHAEL WHITE

“The historic district reminds me a lot of those artsy, upstate towns, like New Paltz. It’s got the old barns and old buildings, and hills. Unlike many other Long Island downtown areas,” I said, hoping he would say that’s why he came here.

But Mr. Townsend has never been to New Paltz, I learned. He’s from Ohio.

“Well, I just ask because, some of those areas upstate have adopted the whole, y’know, hippie culture — excuse the term,” I continued. “Do you think that could be what attracted you to the area?”

He said simply that the presence of Bob Dylan probably had a lot to do with the culture up there.

“What type of items do you sell in your store, BarnStock?”

“Well,” he said. “Basically, I’ve got a lot of classical rock and roll music.”

Then he let it slip — reluctantly, but with pride in his voice — that he’d been one of the 500,000 people who had actually attended the Woodstock Festival in Bethel, N.Y., in 1969.

I congratulated him on not being an impostor, given his businesses’ namesakes.

“So … would you call yourself a hippie?”

“As they say, I’m a licensed contractor,” he said, dodging the question.

I figured Glenn Townsend has had enough of labels in his lifetime. I wouldn’t push it anymore.

What I did learn about Mr. Townsend, who operates out of the landmark Red Barn building, is that he’s also one of a few people trying to bring life back to an area that’s been suffering from a general lack of foot traffic recently. (Or, depending on your vantage point, maybe since the time of Woodstock.)

First, he’s been doing contracting work for his landlord, who owns the Red Barn and other properties, to help beautify the area.

He’s also been helping to run a weekend farm stand for the past couple months.

He even tried to plan a big farmer’s market in the hamlet center’s main parking lot, but hit a wall with Riverhead Town.

“If you want to do something like that, you have to have insurance and go through red tape as if you’re putting on a concert or something,” he said. “So unfortunately that didn’t fly.”

The smaller farm stand has been running from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Sunday, outside the Red Barn and overlooking the Duck Ponds.

“Basically, we’ve got a farm stand and a lady who does some cookies and some bakery things,” Mr. Townsend said. “Somebody that does crystal, dream-catcher things. There’s a knitting person.”

Mr. Townsend has been working with the owners of the neighboring Thrifts & Gifts store, as well as the Wading River Historical Society, he said.

“We’re just trying to revitalize,” he said. “If we can get enough artists or something to set up an art show in the fall. We’re all looking to promote the area.”

He may not have given me the hippie money-quotes I was looking for, but Mr. Townsend’s vision for the hamlet pretty much jibed with the one I was hoping to lay out. One way or the other, the area needs to become a mini mecca for small shops offering artisanal foods and crafts. That would likely require conversion of the mothballed mechanic’s garage on Sound Road into a horseshoe of small rental spaces and chasing away the inactive financial planning and accounting offices.

We also agreed that this asphalt-happy historic district needs more green space, with picnic tables and room to throw a Frisbee. Perhaps this could be achieved by clearing some space around the ponds, Mr. Townsend suggested — or if the parking lot was trimmed down. Certainly a few cars parked on the streets wouldn’t hurt; it could even help slow down traffic.

As much as he’s hoping to attract more craft-makers and artists to the area, Mr. Townsend also knows a couple of well-received eateries would be paramount to creating more of a buzz downtown. And, he assured me, things will be happening in the near future.

“Things are going to be on the upswing soon,” he said, hinting that there are people very interested in investing in the district while reminding me that he works for the area’s principal landlord.

He also believes people are yearning for that connection with the past, and with trees and nature — all offered in historic Wading River.

“As you well know, they’re trying to develop up on the hill, the main strip on 25A, and the people are up in arms,” Mr. Townsend said. “You can see what’s happening to Riverhead, everything is getting developed.

“As Joni Mitchell said, ‘They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.’ ”

And they may just be chasing people back to historic Wading River.

Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at mwhite@timesreview.com or (631) 298-3200, ext. 152. 

Follow him on Twitter at @mikewhite31