Not ready to give up the ghost

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Obstacles in the way of reviving Middleway’s business district include the condition of its sidewalks.

Obstacles in the way of reviving Middleway’s business district include
the condition of its sidewalks.

Middleway to host talk with jobs chief

MIDDLEWAY — Once upon a time, the town originally known as Smithfield bustled with shops and businesses — three-dry good stores, a distillery, five weavers, a wagon maker, a saddle maker, three blacksmiths, tailors, a tanner, even a doctor and lawyer — and all by 1810.

These days, the eastern Jefferson County’s Revolutionary-era hamlet’s most notable landmark is its cemetery and its principal claim to fame the 1790 haunting that gives the town a third name — Wizard Clip.

But Middleway Conservancy Association member Peter Fricke isn’t ready to give up the ghost. He said he thinks the town’s historic business district — now vacant — still has a future.

On Thursday, the town will host a conversation with Jefferson County Economic Development Director John Reisenweber to discuss just that proposition.

Fricke says the town’s residents — many of whom are aged and don’t often drive — would benefit from the revival of the historic center and the opening of a lunch counter and other businesses.

“Having a place that they can walk to becomes a very important thing,” said Fricke, who moved to the town in 1990, when its downtown included two luncheonettes, an antique store and two bed and breakfasts.

But Fricke is thinking bigger; come August 2014, the town will mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Smithfield Crossing. Fricke said getting the conversation started now might help the town capture some economic benefit from the event.

Middleway’s historic district, with a population of 200 people in 61 households, is not without some skilled residents. There’s a basket maker, a cabinet maker, a violin maker and a specialist in small engine repair, Fricke said. The trick is to get visitors to the town on more than just Middleway Day each October.

Peter Fricke

Peter Fricke

“There is an opportunity to either expand businesses or bring new businesses in,” he said.

There are some obstacles to opening new businesses, however. Many of the Middleway’s historic buildings are in disrepair and dilapidation, and it’s a dirty little secret among residents that Middleway’s got water and septic issues.

“People have lived in this village since 1795 and even before that,” he said. “You’re beginning to get wells that are not good. Every sensible person dumps a gallon of chlorine down them once a year.”

Indeed, while Middleway’s density was once three times what it is now, the town still boasts a rich assortment of houses, some, like the Daniel Fry House, the home of the town’s first postmaster, the John F. Smith House and part of Sam Stone’s Tavern, were built as early as 1750 after the arrival of a grist mill and hemp mill.

In an interview, Reisenweber called the conversation a “reconnaissance mission,” and noted one proposal, while expensive, would be to hook Middleway up to public water.

“Everything is on the table,” Reisenweber said. “Anytime I hear fouled or contaminated wells it is of concern to me and this is a public health concern.”

Reisenweber said he didn’t believe the wells were contaminated by activity at the onetime 3M plant that closed in 2007. He said, Eastman Kodak, which now owns the sprawling, 270-acre site is currently working to clean it up to sell it.

Sidewalks are another matter. The village’s three blocks of walkways will cost about $250,000 to repair.

Reisenweber said there are things the Development Authority can do to help.

“Each of Middleway’s needs is going to have a funding source,” he said. “Everything depends on what comes out of the meeting.”

Fricke said he also hopes to discuss that matter with the state’s Historic Preservation Office when members from it visit on April 24.

Thursday’s meeting with Reisenweber, open to anyone interested, begins at 7 p.m. in Grace Church Parish Hall at 112 East St.

 

— Marla Pisciotta contributed to this report.

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