On summer days, tourists from around the globe jump out of their cars to snap photos of the Blenheim Bridge. The Schoharie County landmark is not only one of the oldest covered bridges in America, it’s a peaceful and picturesque rest stop for weary travelers along Route 30.
But on one day in July, the quiet bridge comes alive with people and artwork. Music fills the air, and women in colorful, bouncy skirts do-si-do with their partners.
The Blenheim Bridge Artwalk will return for a third year on Sunday, with 20 artists inside the bridge exhibiting and selling paintings, sculpture, photographs and mixed media works. Outside the bridge, the Upper Catskill String Quartet, musicians Kim and Reggie Harris, and the Schoharie Valley Hayshakers, a traditional square dance group, are featured on the entertainment schedule, and folks from the North Blenheim United Methodist Church will serve up homemade pie and other goodies.
Last year, the Artwalk, sponsored by Schoharie Valley Watch, attracted more than 2,500 people to North Blenheim, a hamlet of about 200 residents that is the smallest community in the county.
Third Annual Blenheim Bridge Artwalk
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: On the Blenheim Bridge, Route 30, North Blenheim, Schoharie County
HOW MUCH: Free
“It’s a delightful setting. The bridge is iconic,” says Renee Grabowski, who is co-director of Schoharie Valley Watch, a nonprofit citizens organization, with Don Airey and Bob Nied.
Built in 1855, the 232-foot-long Blenheim Bridge feels a bit like an ancient barn when you walk inside its dimly lit interior. There’s the scent of wood and, here and there, through crevices in the floor, you can see the lazy, rock-strewn waters below. Look toward the roof, about 25 feet up, and you see clouds and sky through open-air slats at the top of the walls. From one end of the bridge, there are views of mountains and a church steeple.
Blenheim is not only scenic, it’s the world’s longest wooden, single span, two-lane covered bridge, a claim to fame that has made it a National Historic Landmark and put it on the National Register of Historic Places. Horse-drawn wagons crossed the bridge in the 1800s, followed by cars in the early 20th century. The bridge has been vehicle-free since the 1930s, when a modern steel bridge was built next to it. In 2005, the state replaced the 1930s span with a new Route 30 bridge.
Connected to the past
Photographer Kevin Gray of Cherry Valley, who exhibited at the Artwalk in 2009 and 2010, says the covered bridge is the main reason he keeps coming back.
“Presenting my work in a historic covered bridge is a unique opportunity that somehow makes me feel more connected to the history of the region,” Gray says. “There is a relaxed atmosphere that the setting provides that allows me to converse with and get to know the public better than at some other venues.”
The art show is not juried and there are no awards.
“It’s just for the artist to have a venue to show and sell their work,” says Grabowski. “The bulk of them are in Schoharie County, but there are also artists from Greene, Montgomery and Fulton counties.”
Schoharie Valley Watch also invites local schools to show student artwork.
“There are such talented children and they don’t get to show their work,” she says.
Each artist gets a 10-by-10-foot space, and artworks are hung on free-standing walls or from pegboard that is wired to the bridge walls.
“You can’t use any nails or hooks in the wood,” says Airey.
During the Artwalk, another historic structure, the Old Blenheim Schoolhouse Museum, which is close to the bridge, is open to visitors.
Fanchon Cornell, a former town historian, and Gail Shaffer, who grew up on a farm in North Blenheim and served as New York’s secretary of state from 1983 to 1995, will be on hand to chat with visitors.
In the museum, one room is set up like an old classroom, with wooden desks, and the other houses an eclectic collection of photos and objects.
“We’d like to develop this at some point,” says Airey, who envisions a makeover of the mini museum.
Airey came up with the idea for the Blenheim Bridge Artwalk. Grabowski, who is from New Jersey, and Airey, who grew up in Maryland, fell in love with Schoharie County in the late 1980s, when the couple bought a small weekend vacation home five miles from the Blenheim Bridge. Six years ago, they moved here full time and opened DESCO Associates in Richmondville, a company that provides alarm and security systems.
When Airey and Grabowski approached the town board about the Artwalk idea, they received enthusiastic support.
While the event receives assistance from the New York State Council on the Arts through the Tri-County Arts Council, funding is limited, Grabowski says, and Schoharie Valley Watch depends on support from community volunteers.
Before the first Artwalk, electricity had to be installed on the bridge. Highway superintendent Jerry Felter and Ken King from King Electric put together a crew that brought wires and power from the nearby highway garage to the bridge. Employees from the Schoharie County Department of Public Works cleared brush, dug a trench for the wires and put up parking signs.
“The town road crew gets involved,” says Grabowski.
Each spring, youthful offenders from Summit Shock correctional center clean the inside of the bridge.
“They do it as a service, and they do a great job,” she says.
At the first event, in 2009, more than 20 organizations and individuals were listed as supporters in the program, and Philadelphia musicians Kim and Reggie Harris, who have a vacation home in Middleburgh, were among the performers.
For three years, Schoharie Valley Watch has scheduled the event on the same day as the Antique Car Show and Antique Road Show at the New York Power Authority’s Blenheim-Gilboa Power Project Visitors Center, which is three miles down the road, so visitors can do both events on the same day.
Co-organizers Grabowski, Airey and Nied start work on the Artwalk in the spring: reviewing applications from artists and scheduling entertainers.
Lighting is always a challenge, as it has to be attached to the high rafters inside the bridge, One year, they tried hanging globes. This year, lights will be hung from ropes.
And while lighting is a task for any group mounting an art exhibit, the Blenheim event has another unique challenge.
Today, tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday morning, Airey and Grabowski will be on poop patrol, cleaning up droppings from birds that roost in the cool, dim bridge.
“You have the critters,” Grabowski says with a smile. “Owls come in here and pigeons.”