The Beekman Boys: It Takes More than Marketing to Build a Community
Beneath the engaging banter of Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell, known collectively as “the Beekman Boys,” lies a serious theme: sustainable economic development.
The two were the featured speakers at this year’s Girlfriends Getaway in Bolton Landing on May 10.
After purchasing a 19th century farm in Sharon Springs, NY, the couple became the stars of a reality television series documenting their efforts to make the transition from urban professionals to landed gentry, with a crushing mortgage.
Kilmer-Purcell wrote a best-selling memoir about those years, “The Bucolic Plague,” which describes how they created, from scratch, a successful line of cheeses, soaps, tomato sauces, cookbooks and home furnishings.
While more than happy to discuss Polka-Spot, the farm’s diva-esque llama, celebrities they have known and how they won a million dollars on CBS’s “The Amazing Race’ in 2012, the two devoted the greater part of their talk to a celebration of community, to the transferable lessons of building a locally-based business, and how small communities in upstate New York cannot only survive, but thrive.
When the two stumbled upon sleepy Sharon Springs in 2006, the town was “a cross between Petticoat Junction and The Shining,” said Kilmer-Purcell, referring to the derelict hotels and spas that once attracted thousands of visitors.
“Our goal is to bring Sharon Springs back to its glory days,” said Ridge, a former physician.
According to Kilmer-Purcell, four new local businesses have opened in town within the past three years, all the storefronts on Main Street are occupied and doing well and the park is under renovation.
“We’re growing at a rate that we can support,” said Kilmer-Purcell. “We don’t have outside investors.”
The town now attracts more visitors every year than it has in decades, thanks in part to a Harvest Festival initiated by the couple several years ago.
“We didn’t get much support from the town elders at first; they said that it had been done in 1963 and hadn’t worked,” said Kilmer-Purcell.
In its first year, the festival drew 500 people, some of whom were lured off the highway by Kilmer-Purcell himself, outfitted in 19th century garb appropriate to the owner of an 1802 farm.
As it happened, that first festival was filmed as an episode of “The Fabulous Beekman Boys,” the television show about the pair, and the next year 5,000 people attended.
“The series was never aired in the Albany area, so local people never saw the show. But it was seen around the country, and that made the difference. We were startled to see that New York’s Department of Transportation had installed flashing signs reading ‘Harvest Festival’ and directing traffic,” said Kilmer-Purcell.
While the publicity generated by the television show certainly helped, that alone did not make the festival a success, said Kilmer-Purcell.
“Our story is the story of a community coming together, of people learning to work together, of figuring out how to make everyone’s lives better,” said Kilmer-Purcell.
For example, when the food at the festival, and in the town’s one and a half restaurants had all been devoured, one resident drove to a nearby town and bought all the hot dogs he could, grilled them and gave them away for free.
“He didn’t want people leaving Sharon Springs unhappy,” said Kilmer-Purcell.
Last year, 12,000 people attended the festival.
While the festival helped boost the economy, it also promoted civic pride, said Ridge.
“If you live in a small community in upstate New York, you may forget what a special place this is. When others discover that, it lifts everyone’s spirits,” said Ridge.
Necessity, if nothing else, taught Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell the value of cooperating with their neighbors.
“We’re fortunate that we were forced into the position of never writing anyone off,” said Kilmer-Purcell. “We needed help, wherever we could find it.”
Shortly after they bought the property, they were approached by a local farmer who needed a home for his herd of goats, and goats remain the foundation of their business.
Since they lacked state permits to sell goat cheese, they turned to a neighbor for instruction in soap-making.
To their lines of soap, they added towels made by a local weaver.
Today, they work with 48 local artisans who provide their shop and on-line store with any number of products.
“The community has taught us about crafts, and we’ve taught the community about marketing itself and its products. That’s our talent, and we’ve used it to benefit everyone. As a town, we overcame the competitive spirit. We’re all working together,” said Kilmer-Purcell.
“People think we’re lucky that we’re surrounded by so many craftspeople. But they’re in every community. You just have to pay attention,” said Ridge.
The Beekman Boys’ books are available at Trees, Adirondack Gifts and Books, on Main Street in Bolton Landing.