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FARMING the scoop-shaped hills of Delhi, N.Y., turns up “two stones for every dirt,” a local saying goes. But 19th-century settlers in this upstate town persevered. They learned to scratch out a living, and eventually earned a national reputation for their butter, which sometimes fed hungry prospectors out in the Wild West.
The dairy farms today have dwindled from the hundreds that used to surround Delhi (pronounced DELL-hi) and neighboring towns like Franklin, Hamden and Walton, which curl up against the Catskills, between the Susquehanna River and the West Branch of the Delaware River.
But a similar pioneering do-it-yourself spirit still stirs the region’s second-home owners, who have discovered its vintage homes full of period wide-plank floors, pocket doors and eyebrow moldings. Designers, professors, musicians and doctors are among those who are renovating them, making up for decades of neglect.
Those old homes grace a deeply rural landscape of former one-room schoolhouses and roadside stands selling Boer-goat meat. The clear sky fans out in all directions and the area often feels farther away from New York City than 150 miles.
Real estate prices, too, can seem a world apart. Although the restored properties with rambling stone walls and meadows can ultimately resemble spreads in getaways like, say, Litchfield County in Connecticut, their prices are minuscule by comparison, local real estate agents say.
Lawrence Lewis, a Manhattan gemologist, bought an 1820 farmhouse on 25 acres in adjacent Franklin for $380,000 in 2005.
When Mr. Lewis arrived, the green-shuttered home was abandoned, save for 13 garden snakes living in the fieldstone foundation. Today, though, the cleaned-up 2,500-square-foot house comfortably fits 18 guests for dinner.
Summers find Mr. Lewis lounging by the property’s spring-fed pond. But this time of year, he’s likely to be cross-country skiing on nearby trails that pass “mountains and little bridges and open fields and these great expanses,” he said. “The views are pristine.”
Delhi has a population of about 4,600, according to a recent Census Bureau estimate, and its village is the region’s liveliest gathering place. It includes a well-kept three-block Main Street with two wine stores, the Steinway Book Company bookstore and a sushi restaurant.
The Quarter Moon Cafe serves panko-crusted shrimp ($9.95) and seared hanger steak with green peppercorn sauce ($12.95) beneath a chandelier made of roofing flashing. On a recent Saturday, three men sat at the bar, which serves 50 bottled beers, including Ommegang from nearby Cooperstown, and compared notes on a kayaking trip.
Although 2,971 students are enrolled across the street from the cafe at a New York State University campus, they maintain a low profile, locals say. Some spoils from the school’s presence, though, include the 50-acre SUNY Delhi Outdoor Education Center, whose paths by the Little Delaware River are popular with hikers (and their dogs) year-round.
Dropping by a neighbor’s house usually requires a car trip. The towns that dot the area also offer limited night life, so residents often have to entertain themselves, said Zonder Kennedy, a professional guitarist from Manhattan. His three-bedroom A-frame in Hamden cost $253,000 in 2005, he said.
“There’s usually not a lot going on unless you create it, which is perfect because I don’t want social obligations,” said Mr. Kennedy, who has formed a “roots-rock-punk-blues” band called Scoville Junkies with local residents. “I’m here for the sunsets and the tranquillity,” he added, “and the whole vibe.”
In season, two local theaters stage surprisingly good performances, says Julian Peploe, a CD-cover designer from Manhattan. Mr. Peploe began clearing land by hand in 2002 for his own retreat; it includes 87 acres, a 2,100-square-foot Colonial-style modular home, garage and pool, and cost $750,000 altogether.
His favorite is West Kortright Centre, a 200-seat former Presbyterian church that from May to November offers chamber music, square dancers and gospel singers. The more traditional Franklin Stage Company sticks to classics like Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” and Ibsen’s “Doll’s House.”
“There was this huge hippie exodus up here in the 1970s,” Mr. Peploe explained, “so there are many creative types around.”
Diversions are also found outdoors, even during cold snaps. Mr. Peploe snow-tubes in Roxbury and snowshoes on his wooded property. And venturing farther afield isn’t usually a problem. Of Delaware County’s 939,000 acres, development is restricted on much of it, and many areas are open to the public.
The most active conservation force is New York City, which routinely buys up land in the valley to protect its drinking water, which flows from there. Some year-rounders complain when those acquisitions result in bans on snowmobiles. Second-home owners, though, tend to support the watershed purchases, because they ensure postcard-worthy panoramas.
What didn’t go over so well, though, was the 2006 plan to install tall power-generating wind turbines on ridges in the nearby town of Meredith. They were ultimately banned after spirited protests from part-timers.
Unlike the eastern Catskills, which are still thick with old resorts, Delhi and its 64.57 square miles are still largely wild. Although some vacation homes have sprouted, pastures often return to the way they looked 200 years ago when farms vanish.
Floods almost washed Walton away in 2006, and other streams periodically slip their banks. But the weather talk this season concerned an Oct. 28 storm that dropped a foot of snow.
The Real Estate Market
Buyers who want secluded older houses on plenty of land look on Case Hill or Snake Hill Roads, or County Route 21. Those homes, often Italianate in style, need restoring and sit on parcels of 20 acres or so; they sell for about $170,000, local agents say.
Other buyers don’t want the work of maintaining large properties and so pick the village sections of Franklin, Walton or Delhi, or the hamlet of Treadwell.
Those houses, in the Stick style with decorative porches on one-eighth-acre lots behind tall oaks on Clinton and Franklin Streets in Delhi, come on the market less often than outlying properties, agents say, and sell for $250,000.
Like the market nationwide, home sales have slowed in and around Delhi. But among those homes still selling, prices have actually increased slightly.
The average price of the 64 homes sold in the area in the last six months of 2008 was $170,800, according to state sales data, compared with $143,600 for the 99 homes sold a year earlier.
The explanation may be that the lower-income buyers of the cheaper properties have not been able to get mortgages, said Barbara Roberts, a broker with Prudential Fox Properties.
“There’s been a move to higher-end properties among buyers who are priced out of Woodstock” and don’t mind a longer commute, she said.
And homes are taking longer to sell. The 104 homes currently for sale have an average price of $242,600, and have been on the market for an average of 223 days, up from 168 in 2008.
Eric Lysdahl, a Manhattan interior designer, has felt the slowdown firsthand. In August, he listed his Federal-style home in Delhi village for $289,000 with the idea of relocating to a farm on the outskirts. But after four months with no offers on the three-bedroom 1,800-square-foot home, which had cost less than $150,000 in 2004, he took it off the market, content to stay put.
“We have an exquisite, picture-perfect house,” he said, “that can still be a refuge every weekend.”