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Happening in Hillsdale


Matthew White is a man of diverse passions, many of which have found expression in his dedication to the little hillside town he discovered almost two decades ago.

White and his partner came to town some 17 years ago as weekenders but it was not long before the New York City interior designer became bewitched by the beautiful but decaying, buildings in the center of the village.

“I honestly just fell in love with the whole of the Berkshires and Columbia County,” he said. “As we got settled, I began to notice the little town we were connected with. I’ve always been a preservationist and am interested in history and historic buildings. I saw all these beautiful, historic buildings, some of which were vacant or needed renovation.”

Motivated to explore the town’s potential, White became a member of the Hamlet Committee and later the Historic Hillsdale committee. He threw himself into the groups’ efforts to revitalize the town. “These groups had brilliant people on them who had already established a foundation (for the regeneration of the town). The Hamlet Committee had already hired a consultant to create a plan.”

Surveys were conducted to discover the demographics and infrastructure of the community and its village—what businesses were there, which businesses were thriving, which were aging out, data about income and the like. “What was interesting to me were the surveys, the long, extended meetings and the knowledge of the planners. They were totally knowledgeable and when I read through the document they created, they pointed out things that should be obvious but weren’t. They said we had three audiences for our businesses: long-time residents, weekenders and tourists and they said that any business to survive had to appeal to all three.”

White was intrigued to find that the town had the last (or one of the last) independently owned supermarkets in Columbia County and that another of the business anchors was Herrington’s, a hardware store established a century ago. “These are big anchors for a tiny hamlet,” he observed. Also important was the junction of two highways, feeding traffic into the town.

By this time, White’s attention had been attracted by the town’s former general store, a mid-19th century building that had operated for more than a century by five generations of the Dimmick family. Started in 1852 by Eliphalet Dimmick, it continued into the 1960s.

“At the time I first saw it, it was a video store,” White recalled. “The gentleman who ran it had been there since the 1950s when he had a television store. He wanted to sell and I bought it with a friend from the Hamlet Committee. I just wanted to make the building beautiful—it’s heart-crushing to see these old buildings failing. Any developer would have immediately torn it down.”

“This building is big part of the history of town,” he observed. He turned his experience as a designer and former antiques dealer into its renovation as a 21st-century incarnation of a village general store. “I have Dimmick ledgers from the 1860s, photos, old newspapers, crates with ‘Dimmick’s’ on side and advertising paraphernalia that I found in the attic,” he related. “I have made a tiny little museum with it. I decided I was going to sell some of the same things they sold 100 years ago, to make it a continuation of what existed but with the mindset of attracting my three audiences. My goal is not to exclude anyone in pricing or offerings so you can still get a candy bar or post card for seventy-five cents.”

“I try to sell things made in America,” he continued. “I had an antiques business when we lived in California. I love antiques and things that are vintage.”

“It’s really so much more than a business for me,” he said, adding that he is “deeply touched” by the stories shared by customers, one of whom recently reminiscence about working in The Farmerette, a clothing store located on the second story in the 1950s. “It’s always like that, you have the most wonderful conversations.”

He tries to keep his store fresh with seasonal offering to keep customers coming back. “Right now, it is very Easter-y,” he said.

Established in his new store, he found himself peering at a fading rose of a building across the street. “I was looking across the street at this beautiful old house built in 1871 that was completely overgrown. I was bemoaning that it was just hideous and thinking about what could be there. Eventually it was foreclosed, and I bought it.”

Inspiration for what would come next came from Margaret Roach, a New York Times gardening columnist and former editorial associate of Martha Stewart who lives in nearby Copake.

“As I was building my business, Margaret Roach walked into the store one day. We started talking and she said people need to buy things but they also need things to do and that I should do cooking classes. The house looks like a little gingerbread house and I thought it would be a perfect place for people to cook so I renovated it as a kitchen store and put in two kitchens. This year, we will exceed 400 cooking classes—that’s a lot of dirty dishes!”

He has been able to attract some James Beard Award winners, cookbook authors, local chefs, bread bakers, sausage makers and more to present classes. “There are endless topics,” he said. “I’ve learned so much.”

Bringing in renowned personalities has brought people from as far away as Pennsylvania to take classes. “We’re kind of unique up here. The CIA in Poughkeepsie does classes but they are in big commercial kitchens. Ours is a different vibe with charming small kitchens. Friendships are formed when eating and cooking,” he said.

He has found that the cooking classes touch all three demographics the planners said were needed. “When we were renovating the building the workmen were so fascinated that there would be a cooking store with classes,” he recalled. “They were serious cooks. I was talking to one painter whose favorite dish to make was pavlova with lemon curd. We all have memories of what we loved to eat, what our grandmothers made.”

In the general store he offers some cooking implements with vintage characteristics such as cast-iron pans and ceramic teapots; across the street it is a different story. “People kept wanting more expensive kitchen stuff so Kitchen Chef HGS is an extension,” he said. “The general store is about nostalgia but the kitchen store does sell plastic and electric. It’s a very different vibe and the conversations are always about food.”

The vibe may vary but the tone remains the same. “I try to make both stores joyous places. We’ve all been to businesses where the staff is not so nice or even the owner is cranky. We refuse to be the kind of store. We try very hard to create spaces that are joyous and celebratory.”

While he has trusted associates in both businesses, White says he is in his stores every day “I’m in the stockrooms or shoveling snow. It’s not easy running store, it’s a heck of a lot of work, an enormous effort.”

But he said he is still motivated to find ways to enhance the town. “I want to see the community flourish and see its way into the next chapter. I am a preservationist and I think Europeans understand the importance of history more than Americans do. I am currently on the Economic Development Commission and we are trying to promote Hillsdale as a destination for future businesses. There are still buildings that I hope will be filled with creative businesses. This my vision—unique small businesses so when you come here you know you are in this place.”

The renewed business community continues to expand and thrive but White says the town cannot rest on its laurels. “I like to say, if you build it, fill it with something good and work at it every day, they will come,” he concluded wryly.

The Hillsdale General Store is located at 2642 State Route 23; the Kitchen Chef is across the street at 2635 Route 23.