August 14, 2006
Penn Yan, Another St. Helena in the Making

In driving about the Finger Lakes region of west-central New York today, I began to indulge a fantasy that my bosses had dispatched me here to find the ideal location for a company bureau, and then stick around to staff it.

Feeding this fantasy is an affection for the area that grows with each visit, though from what local residents tell me I might want to staff that office only during the summer and fall. Winters are brutal, they say, or boast. I'm not sure how a seasonal bureau would go in the daily newspaper business, but the industry is changing so much I'm sure a happy accommodation can be worked out. Our minds are more open than usual these days.

At any rate, the area is gorgeous, even far back from the lakes, where stands or corn and fields of soybeans occupy much of the land. The area just sings with enduring values, tradition and history. Ancient cemeteries look like veritable forests of granite obelisks. Big handsome homes that could date from the Civil War, maybe earlier, stand far back from the roads, lawns as lush and large as fairways sweeping up to the porch; sales of rider mowers must be higher here than in any other region in the country. Roads are lined with surprisingly little clutter; if you see a sign coming up you know it advertises something important, usually "sweet corn." Roadside produce stands generally operate on the honor system; no one is around, so motorists pick up their sunflowers and zucchini, presumably pay into a tin or box, then mosey on. The sense of history is so palpable you find yourself hitting the seek button on the car radio expecting to find a station playing solely music composed for the harpsichord.

Memo to bosses: My search for a bureau office was successful. It's in Penn Yan, at the northern end of wishbone-shaped Keuka Lake. While McClatchy Penn Yan Bureau may not exactly trip off the tongue, it does sound exotic, and it is historic. Penn Yan was settled in the late 1790s, taking its name from the former Pennsylvanians and Yankees from New England who settled the area. The village is rich with huge and historic buildings. David Maslyn, who is fixing up the 1871 Prosser house along Main Street, said he'd rent the whole place for $2,500 a month and probably sell it for between $225,000 and $250,000. Get this: It's a two-story red-brick Italianate with 4700 square feet. A big parking apron is in back, along with a substantial carriage house. The bureau could be on the ground floor, with living quarters above.

Downtown Penn Yan may look a little shabby right now - the community is still recovering from the loss of furniture, clothing and bassinet factories that have closed - but with wineries flourishing in the area, as well as summer cottages rising about the lake, it has all the signs of becoming another St. Helena.

OK, so where's the food angle? Here it is: One industry still thriving in Penn Yan is Birkett Mills, which has been turning out buckwheat and wheat since 1797. Bolted to one side of the mill is the original griddle that on Sept. 27, 1987, was used to cook the world's biggest pancake. Like the pancake, it's 28 feet and 1 inch across. No sign, however, of the pitcher that held the maple syrup.

Speaking of food, I've got to run. Jim Trezise, executive director of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, which sponsors the New York Wine & Food Classic, a wine competition that starts Tuesday, is always tweaking the gathering to give it novelty. This year, he's asked judges to prepare dinner for the crew that will be opening and pouring the 600 or so wines to be judged. Where's my apron?

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