Seems that everyone now wants to get hitched where horses and other livestock once were (and not that long ago either). Locavores, farm-to-tablers, back-to-the-landers and Brooklynites one and all... From this week's article in the Catskill Mountain News.
This weekend someone will be getting married in Roxbury. It doesn’t matter which weekend it is, but the odds are that if it’s summer and a weekend, a wedding is under way. Over the past few years the Catskills have become a popular location for nuptials. The trend coincides with the rise of CSA-box-buying, locavore-eating, farm-to-table back-to-the-landers. It’s the staycation meets the destination wedding because it’s so easy to get here, and the Western Catskills ticks all the above boxes. And, the most popular location? A barn. Not just any barn either. According to local wedding planner and photographer Jill Ribich it has to have a certain je ne sais quoi. Plus parking, a view, landscaped grounds, and it must be finished, well maintained and safe. Bathrooms, however, are optional, so too until this summer was electricity.
Recently on a Friday afternoon in Roxbury, a bride-to-be stood in shorts and sneakers in Roger Ross Williams’ barn. She and her friends were filling cut-down wine bottles with ferns and moss to make terrariums for centerpieces. Just outside, a debate was taking place about whether or not it was possible to buy blocks of ice – the sort used in ice houses 70 or so years ago. The blocks were to be arrayed in an old aluminum canoe to cool the beer. Mere bags of cubes were not stylish or quaint enough, and it’s that quaint quotient which is high here and which attracts weddings to the area with people using hay bales for seating and where the flowers are arranged in mason jars, antique pitchers or old medicine bottles. It’s that certain rustic quality that an old aluminum canoe embodies.
This June a wedding was put on at Stone Tavern Farm by someone who worked on the Clinton wedding. For this the planners trucked in everything from plates to flowers causing gridlock on Upper Meeker Hollow. “They had 70 workers here for days beforehand,” John Burrows, owner of Stone Tavern Farms explains. There was one whole semi for the flowers. “The smell was about enough to knock you on your back after the blooms has been locked up so long,” he says and was more shocked though at the price of the plates. Each one cost over $500. That’s the plate itself, not what was on it or a set of them or the cost of the catering but one dish. A dish used in a barn. Clearly barn weddings are bringing big money to Delaware County.
Most of the weddings aren’t so upscale. They’re more the hand-made crafty sorts like the woman who was creating the terrariums-as-centerpieces. She’d been working on them since Christmas, scoring and sanding wine bottles her friends collected for her. Roger Williams explains, “It’s very specific type – all local, organic, bohemian from Brooklyn.” Just as that borough is often discussed with wide-eyed wonder in the New York Times for its home-butchering and handmade spirit, it’s that vibe that brings couples to the Catskills.
“They all want Lucky Dog and Harpersfield cheese,” Williams says as if the weddings are about bringing the Round Barn to the bridal party. Another thing brides like? Bonfires. “Everyone wants one,” he explains, “and those paper bags with candles leading to the bonfire.” Few couples, though, want traditional cakes anymore, opting instead for cobblers and pie buffets. Marybeth Mills of the Peekamoose explains, “It takes a lot of work to make it not look polished. I’ve dyed tags in tealeaves, and the handwriting –” she sighs about trying to make it not look too calligraphic.
“These are not your hokey pokey dancing weddings,” Mills adds. “They’re forsaking tradition, and getting married itself is more laid back. Some are doing their vows when the spirit moves them,” almost like a Quaker meeting. The satin-wrapped ballroom chair that was once a wedding mainstay has been replaced with a hay bale, and not just any hay bale either. The farmer gets them back at the end, ostensibly just renting them out for the festivities. Because of the popularity of the Catskills for weddings Jill Ribich and Lydia Castiglia of The Flower Shop, formed a company in 2008 as wedding planners supplementing the work they were already doing as photographer and florist.
The weddings-in-a-barn business all started as a fluke of sorts five years ago. That’s when both Williams and Burrows hosted their first weddings. Williams’ neighbors, JP and Amanda-Rey Danko, wanted to get married in his barn. Danko said he’d fix it up and went to work on it with friends transforming the former chicken coop, then in July the wedding. That wedding led to three more the next year including two editors from Timeout NY and a costume designer for the Sopranos, and that was enough to make Williams’ barn hip.
Marybeth Mills catered the first wedding at Stone Tavern Farm. The reception was in a working barn, their indoor riding ring. It was a 5,000-square-foot space, and Mills and others blocked it off with hay bales to make it more intimate. Burrows hosed the dirt floor down and put hay on top, but everyone was breathing that dust for days. It was everywhere, Mills recalls. For his first four years Williams had no electricity. He was running extension cords to the house and only wired the barn this year, about the same time Stone Tavern Farm finished the floor and added toilets.
The upgrades and investments have been worth it. “Weddings,” Burrows says emphatically, “have gone from the smallest part of our business to the largest.”
Few people see, however, the impact they’re having on the region. They’re part of why the Hidden Inn’s reopened and are driving traffic to many inns and B&Bs. Williams explains that a wedding has countless knock-on benefits keeping dozens employed part time. “There are the fiddlers, either Jeanne Palmer and Connie Mohar from Roxbury or Hilt Kelley from Pine Hill. Neil Driscoll from Patria gardens does the grounds. Cindy Whitney mows, and the neighbor boy Drew Underwood makes sure the Adirondack saplings are all in the right place on the bridge. Shawn Farnum, from the Tree Amigos, sets up the bonfires. Dave Dumond does trash (each wedding requires a separate pickup) and the rentals and tables and chairs often come from Mike Finberg. There’s Uncle Bob for the port-a-lets and Shephard Hills for the golf carts because people rent them for the day to get around. Everyone also rents school buses and vans to shuttle guests back and forth, so no one drives drunk and then there’s hair and makeup with Karen Neblung, and often the train for the rehearsal dinner.”
If that’s happening 22 times a summer (and this summer it is between the two barns in Roxbury alone) that’s an economic boon that few are discussing. Based on their weddings last year alone, Stone Tavern Farm estimates, “Our weddings brought almost 3,000 people to Roxbury for two nights each last year. That’s approximately 2,500 rooms at $150 each making $375,000 in room revenue. Each person has two dinners, one lunch, and two breakfasts for 15,000 meals served at $20 each, averaging $300,000 for food, and that doesn’t count other items like gas, entertainment and gifts and shopping.” Even if the figures are high – and they do seem to be since many breakfasts will be included in the lodging – that’s still a great deal of money and it doesn’t even count the actual wedding. Ribich says the least expensive wedding starts at $10,000 and a well-planned affair can go upwards of $30,000 – something Burrows himself can attest with his gridlock and $500 plates.
Mills at the Peekamoose gets at least a call a day about a wedding, and now that gay marriage is legal, Ribich says the market will only continue to grow. “According to the New York Daily News, same-sex marriages could increase New York State tourism revenue by $400 million over the next three years. If we bring just 2% of those weddings here, it will pump $8 million into our economy.” Her photography business Catskill Images has already booked more weddings for 2012 than all of 2011, and she and Castiglia, her partner in Catskill Weddings, have started advertising on same sex marriage websites to promote not only their business but the Catskills in general as a wedding destination.
Weddings though have another added boon to the area. They’re how many people get introduced to the region. If a handful of guests return and keep returning, that’s more and more people visiting and supporting the local economy. In this though there is one problem everyone named. Lodging. The area needs more rooms for more guests.
That bride in her shorts at Roger Williams’ place? She was bussing in her guests from Schoharie.