Ballston Spa offers interesting attractions, good food

Ballston Spa markets itself as “The Strolling Village” — a small community that has plenty to do.
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Ballston Spa markets itself as “The Strolling Village” — a small community that has plenty to do.

Museums, shops and restaurants are all within walking distance in a traditional, compact downtown about six miles south of Saratoga Springs.

This summer, in addition to strolling, visitors can sit a spell, too. The well-received “Ballston Rocks” campaign has placed 102 uniquely decorated Adirondack wooden rocking chairs throughout the village. Yes, people can actually sit in most of them.

How could you spend a day enjoying Ballston Spa? An hour could be spent walking historic streets like East and West High and Pleasant, admiring the magnificent old Victorian mansions that were once the homes of lawyers and mill owners. Many homes have had eye-pleasing modern restorations.

But scanning historic architecture doesn’t fill a day, and there are other things to explore.

The downtown business district, along Milton Avenue (Route 50) and Front Street, has recovered in recent years from the doldrums of the 1970s and 1980s.

Shops sell locally made crafts, jewelry and used books, in addition to the antiques stores that have been a staple of the local business community, drawing people long distances.

Indulgences

Ballston Spa has two museums, and a spa where a visitor can indulge in the same reputedly healing mineral waters that made it a popular resort in the early 1800s.

Today, naturally effervescent water from the original San Souci spring is piped into the Medbery Inn and Spa at 48 Front St. The Medbery is itself one of the few buildings left from the village’s Thomas Jefferson-era resort heyday.

Under the ownership since 2002 of Jim and Dolores Taisey, the Medbery offers 11 guest rooms or suites, and takes appointments for a range of heated mineral water baths and spa treatments.

“[The water] fluctuates in effervescence, but it all has therapeutic qualities,” Jim Taisey said.

places to eat

People coming to Ballston Spa for a day might want to start with a hearty breakfast. Manna’s Restaurant on Low Street, the White House on Milton Avenue and the Main Street Cafe in the Carousel Village plaza are the mainstays for locals. The Coffee Planet on Milton Avenue offers caffeinated beverages and lighter fare.

After a spa treatment or a plate of eggs, one possible strolling destination is the Brookside Museum on Charlton Street, home of the Saratoga County Historical Society.

The museum’s main exhibit, “The Crime of the Century,” tells the story of justice for the wealthy in the late 19th century. Jesse Billings was a rich Northumberland canal merchant who was acquitted of killing his wife at a trial in Ballston Spa in 1878.

Brookside is the oldest building in the village, having been built as a hotel in 1792. A new permanent exhibit tells the story of the building itself, which has been, successively, a hotel, a school, a private residence, a sanitarium, rooming house, and finally, a museum.

“People are always so interested in the building, and there really wasn’t anything that discussed it,” said Kathleen Coleman, the exhibit’s curator. Brookside’s admission is $2.

National Bottle Museum

Visitors can also take in the National Bottle Museum at 76 Milton Ave., in a former commercial building in the heart of downtown. The bottle museum, with its collection of thousands of antique glass bottles, describes itself this way: “The museum’s mission is to preserve the history of our nation’s first major industry: bottle making.”

Many of the mineral springs in Ballston Spa and Saratoga Springs were commercially bottled in the 19th century and the museum has examples of many of those bottles. There are also displays on how glass was made, how glass bottles were formed by hand, and explanations of some of the many compounds, elixirs and poisons that came in those bottles in the 1800s.

Dining

By lunch time, all the eating establishments mentioned for breakfast can revive the weary-footed, and other restaurants and delis are also open by 11 a.m. The Factory Eatery on Prospect Street is in part of a 19th-century mill complex known locally as The Chocolate Factory. The decor combines history and sports themes. Across the street is the D-Line Pub, owned by the family of NFL star lineman Anthony Weaver.

Wherever one wanders, a decorated “Ballston Rocks” Adirondack rocking chair is bound to be nearby. There’s a guide to the chairs — listing their individual titles, locations, sponsors and the artists who painted them in a range of unique ways. The pamphlet is available at the village hall, both museums, and at many retailers and restaurants.

Anyone who tried to find them all in the process would discover interesting antique stores, the craft shops of Washington Street’s “Art Alley,” and other businesses.

“Most of the chairs are usable art — and people are welcome to set a spell,” the Ballston Spa Business and Professional Association says in its promotional literature. Most of the chairs will be auctioned as a fundraiser at the end of the summer.

On Thursdays from 3 to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon, there’s a local farmers market in Wiswall Park, at Front and Low streets.

Concerts will follow the Thursday evening markets for the rest of the summer. Wiswall Park, with its flower-lined walks, sitting benches and bandstand, is one of several public parks that dot the village. A fountain there produces water flowing from the San Souci spring.

Parks

Just down Front Street, opposite the Brookside Museum, Old Iron Spring Park offers a sylvan setting on the edge of Gordon Creek. The constantly flowing spring is available to the public.

Kelley Park, on Ralph Street, is a much bigger multi-use park, located on the banks of the Kayaderosseras Creek. Here, fishermen can share space with dog walkers (there’s an enclosed run), skateboarders (there’s an enclosed set of ramps) and a large new community-constructed children’s playground.

Also worth noting is the Jim Tedisco Fitness Trail, a wooded walking path between Front and Prospect streets, built along the side of a hill on top of an old railroad line. Through the leaves, it offers views across the village rooftops.

Tea time

A tea-time break might take place at The Whistling Kettle on Front Street, which offers teas, soups, salads, sandwiches and delicacies. Local dinner options are more plentiful and diverse than they were a decade ago, ranging from fine dining on Southwestern or Italian cuisine, with a table cloth and some very good wines, to JJ’s Snack Bar, a seasonal stand with picnic tables, grilled burgers and hot dogs, and soft ice cream.

The first Ballston Spa Film Festival will be held Aug. 1-2 in Wiswall Park, with a variety of short films to be shown.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 885-6705 or [email protected]

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