By YVONNE DALEY
DANBY — A group of Danby residents has purchased six empty buildings in the heart of downtown Danby. They plan to restore the buildings and to boost the economic vitality of this quiet community.
Developers plan to open a diner in one of the buildings and establish shops in some of the others, according to Annie Rothman, spokesman for the group of investors.
A seventh building located close to downtown was purchased recently by someone independent of this group. The investor, who was not named, hopes to make the building into a professional center.
Developers hope to attract specialty shop owners, a doctor, dentist, pharmacist, lawyer or other professionals, or perhaps a bank branch office — services the town has been without for many years.
The move is another in the town’s capricious history of fame and fortune.
The first player in the saga is Silas L. Griffith, the lumber baron and state senator who made Danby a center for commerce in the 1850s. After his death, Danby’s fortunes declined considerably.
Then came Pearl S. Buck, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, who in 1969 bought six dilapidated buildings, one of them the general store that Griffith had built and where he made his first money.
Buck had a dream of establishing Danby, situated between Rutland and Manchester, as a cultural-artistic center. The dream did not flourish.
Instead, Buck established the town as an antique center with antiques, crafts and copies of her books prominent in the six century-old buildings.
It was the Buck name and Buck herself — dressed in high fashion with her trademark string of pearls and surrounded by her coterie of unusual friends — as much as anything that attracted people to Danby.
When Buck died four years after she came to the town, the dream died with her. The buildings, which she had painted with her personal brand of Chinese red and white paint, were deserted.
They stayed that way for six years while Buck’s estate was disputed in the courts. Buck had left most of her assets to her business associate Theodore Harris. Her family brought suit, and the courts ruled that Harris had held “undue influence” over the author in the last years of her life, that is during her stay in Danby. A settlement was reached in which most of her fortune went to Buck’s children.
By then the red and white paint was flaking and the buildings were in decay. A Connecticut businessman, Ernest B. Latham II, bought four of the six buildings formerly owned by Buck.
Latham moved to Danby, at least part-time, and did some restoration of the buildings — fixing roofs and broken water pipes, and painting exteriors. The Lone Star Cafe operated in Griffith’s store until last year, and some of the houses were rented.
But the buildings had entered another period of decay and were put up for sale earlier this year.
Curiously enough, Rothman had always had an interest in the Griffith building. Shortly after she bought her home, Rothman began research for a book on Griffith, the charcoal king whose rise to fortune fascinated her.
Griffith is the man who more than 80 years ago left money in his name for an annual Christmas celebration for Danby and Mount Tabor children. Each year, children trek into the Danby Congregational Church to receive a toy and fruit in his name.
In researching the book, Rothman found that Griffith was both saint and sinner. Griffith went from modest beginnings to great wealth. In 1861 he built the S. L. Griffith and Co. general store. He sold the store to his brothers in 1865 to devote his time to the lumber business.
He built a logging empire, established company stores and boarding houses and kilns in Danby, Mount Tabor, Dorset, Manchester, Peru, East Arlington and Stratton and, later, bought back the general store.
His 12 sawmills cut 50 million feet of lumber a year and he was said to have ‘been the third largest lumber shipper in the United States. During this era, Danby’s railroad station shipped the greatest amount of goods of any Vermont rail depot.
Rothman said that a diner will be built in this building. Later, the group of developers hopes to open shops in the huge three-story building once it has been restored to its original design, insulated and fire-alarm systems installed. They plan to call the building S.L. Griffith and Co.
“Silas would be proud,” said Rothman Tuesday as she gave a tour of the buildings.
The Obediah Hadwen house, next to the old general store, will be divided into a number of shops. The group already has one tenant. This building, with its plank floors and tin ceiling, needs the least amount of work.
The next house up the road, called the Mill River House, is included in the group. It has a nice bay window and, like the others, a slate roof. No plans for this house have been announced.
The River House, which is next up the road and across the Mill River, was in earlier days a harness shop and shoe manufacturing operation. A pharmacy is planned for the River House.
Behind the four houses, a large lawn will be cleared and made into a town green overlooking the Mill River.
Another house across the road from the Mill River House, called the Ralph House, is included in the deal. No specifics were available on this property.
The last building is the Old Danby Post Office, which was also a general store and more recently a crafts center. This building has fine carved wooden doors and huge windows, overlooking Main Street and will be made into apartments and businesses.
Rothman said the group of investors views the effort as a town project. She said there was consensus among the developers that the small-town character of Danby would be preserved.
Rothman will offer 15 percent discounts for Danby residents renting space in the Hadwen House, which is expected to open first. In addition, she is offering a 10 percent discount to others who rent space and use local help for construction.
Paul Wilson General Contractor Co. of Danby is in charge of the general renovations.
The group is looking for seed money for new small businesses. They are also seeking photographs and drawings of Danby from the 1850 to 1900.