We arrive in Cambridge, New York in a gentle rain. At the corner of Main Street and Memorial Drive, a scattering of war memorials, monuments, an old piece of artilery, a gazebo decorated with bunting. It is the Fourth of July 2015. The cupola in the distance belongs to the Jerome B. Rice Seed Company building. Across the street is The Rice Mansion, which the family moved into inJanuary of 1904; it is now a bed and breakfast.
The family would have moved in earlier than 1904 but the Cambridge Hotel a few blocks away burned soft coal, and the new structure had to be washed before it could be painted. The Cambridge Hotel had opened in 1885 and ran for years and even appeared in an episode of the Fox reality show Hotel Hell; then it closed, was auctioned in foreclosure, is now being renovated as an assisted living home.
We get a tour of Hubbard Hall from Hannah, local volunteer and tour guide. Hubbard Hall has a general store on the ground floor and an opera house above. Small towns in America had opera houses once, sometimes more than one because nice ladies, Hannah explains, wouldn’t dream of entering a saloon or a dance hall unaccompanied; an opera house, however, was something else. Language helps you negotiate the world; names matter.
Times change. A business thrives and an opera house opens, a mansion gets built, a railroad arrives. Small towns boom then bust, retreat into quiet neglect and some are spared earlier cycles of improvement, ill-conceived ‘urban renewal’ projects. New people show up. There’s now an arts and theater community growing up around Hubbard Hall, Hannah tells us. Could I live here? I ask my traveling companion Rose. We have an app for available real estate. We look around.
The baking cheesecake nuns have a convent here, I discover, and brother companions in the local monastery breed and train German shepherds. There is also a community of married monastics. “Like the Shakers,” Rose observes, referencing another leg of our journey through this part of the country. “Segregation of the sexes but industrious, and lots of opportunity for religious devotion and sublimation,” she adds. The Shakers, I remind my friend, were responding to change, to the Industrial Revolution, to the transformation of the world. “And an opera house,” Rose throws in for good measure.
I am reading Stella Adler on American theater. “Very few people can take change,” Adler says. Think of Miller, Williams, O’Neill. The marriage isn’t working, the family is falling apart, the career has failed, the job is degrading. “American playwrights write about the difficulties of giving up one way of life and going into another.” (Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012, p. 203).
I am always thinking about giving up one way of life and going into another. Could I live here? I ask. Could I take that kind of change? Could I make cheesecake? Volunteer in the local theater group? Raise dogs?