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Luskin: Rock River Studio Tour

When the town of Newfane celebrated its centennial in 1874, the Federal style courthouse, the steepled Congregational Church, and the Newfane Inn were already anchoring the Newfane village green that remains photogenic today.

But back then, the villages of Williamsville and South Newfane were the grittier manufacturing centers of the town. They’d sprung up along the aptly named Rock River, which in low water is more rock than river.

We all witnessed the awesome power of water four years ago, when the river uprooted trees, washed out roads and destroyed bridges and homes during Tropical Storm Irene. But back in the day, the Rock River powered significant industry. In Williamsville alone, the Rock powered two saw mills, a grist mill, tannery, bobbin factory, carding machine, cloth dressing mill, planning mill, pail factory and two blacksmiths. Williamsville was also host to two churches, two stores, a hotel and a hay scale.

In South Newfane, there was another sawmill, gristmill and carding machine, as well as a church and a store. These days, only South Newfane has a church still used for worship. In Williamsville, one church was dismantled and moved out of state; the other is now privately owned.

All the stores have gone out of business, though one has recently reopened as a restaurant. All the dams along the river have washed away.

Despite these changes, the tradition of industry along the Rock River remains. It’s just a different kind of creation. Instead of milling and manufacture, these villages are now home to contemporary artists whose creativity bolsters the local economy and keeps these tiny villages vibrant.

Instead of harnessing the kinetic power of the Rock River, artists and craftspeople tap into the river’s inspirational power as they carry on the tradition of small artisanal workshops where they manufacture wares that range from functional to fantastic. There are painters and printmakers, potters and fabric artists; there’s even a blacksmith who creates practical, structural and sculptural items for use around the home – or museum.

Once a year, these artists organize the Rock River Artist’s Tour, when they open their studios to the public. This event gives visitors a reason to travel this stretch of river that links Williamsville and South Newfane through geography, history, and common purpose.

As the Rock River’s waters rise and fall, so does the health of our community; it seems only fitting to celebrate it - and the industry it supports.