LOWVILLE — The old Lewis County jail and sheriff’s office is rough on the inside after sitting empty for so long. Some areas look like something out of a horror film that takes place in an old jail — or an asylum — but to the owners of Tug Hill Artisan Roasters, it’s a diamond of a cafe waiting to be extracted and shined up, and they’re willing to do the work to make that happen.

Tug Hill Roasters co-owners Scott and Vanessa Gilbert have been scouting for just the right location for years as their business outgrew its humble beginning in 2017, roasting the coffee beans in a shed placed on land in Castorland owned by Mr. Gilbert’s brother and then-business partner.

“It’s very much both of our (dream),” Mrs. Gilbert said. “We need more space. Our place is tiny, so three years ago we kind of started keeping our eyes open and it became more and more serious because it’s more and more of a need.”

To Mr. Gilbert, the move into a brick-and-mortar store has always been part of the plan.

“It’s the next step in the logical progression if, as a business, (we) want to grow,” Mr. Gilbert said. “When we started the business we kind of set it as a goal to have a cafe, like a flagship operation, within three years. So, taking that into consideration, we’re really far behind. That said, I think it’s important to do it right. I hope that we can offer really great services to the community.”

Every place they toured gave them the, “Mm, I don’t know,” feeling that something was missing or not quite right for their needs.

That changed when a custodian for Northern New York Transitional Living Services (TLS) showed the couple the building referred to locally as “the old jail” at 7514 S. State St., with its walls and ceilings covered in jagged hanging sheets of peeling paint in one half and an odd mixture of random “renovations” made over time for various purposes in the other.

But none of that mattered.

“We walked in and, you know, it was like this (gesturing to the peeling paint) but as we walked around it was just like, ‘I want this,’” Mrs. Gilbert said.

“It was the first one we kind of agreed on,” said Mr. Gilbert. “But for me the most important thing was location.”

Mr. Gilbert did some informal “market research” to help inform their decision about location for their “brick and mortar” store.

“I was sitting at Wishy’s in Croghan and I was looking at the cars going by ... counting how many out of state plates were going by and I was like, ‘Wow, there’s eight vehicles,’” he said. “So we had to be on this road. You have (state routes) 26 and 12, it runs into 177: it all comes through here, so this is the area that the building had to be in. For me that was really important.”

While the other buildings they had seen were in slightly better condition, the couple realized they would still need to gut the structures and rebuild to meet their needs and the prices for the buildings themselves were much higher.

“Part of our vision, too... is about redeeming a space and making it usable again. I mean, what’s going to happen to this building if someone doesn’t do anything with it? Eventually it’s going to have to be demolished,” Mrs. Gilbert said. “So rather than seeing that happen, even though it’s a lot messier, more expensive and more time consuming, we think the end result will be better for the community. So, that’s part of our vision with it, too.”

Features like parking in the back and being situated a distance back from the sidewalk and street making a front patio with outdoor seating possible were not available at any other property they had seen but were unanticipated bonuses with the historic structure.

As they speak, the couple enthusiastically bounces around ideas to bring their vision to life, from edible landscaping with berry bushes and fruit trees to the signage they will need to make sure people don’t miss their place.

“I’m the most excited about planting ourselves in the heart of the community and doing so in a building that has history, that has meaning, and being able to bring it back to life,” said Mrs. Gilbert. “Just the potential that the facility has to bring new life into the community and attract people travelling through, to see something different. That’s what I’m most excited about.”

Tug Hill Roasters’ eligibility for a state grant through the Homes and Community Renewal program that will pay for the expensive cleanup of all of the lead paint and asbestos-containing materials in the building made the project not just worthwhile, but feasible for the couple.

“If that hadn’t happened, we would have had to back out,” said Mr. Gilbert.

“That would have been just such a major deal breaker,” Mrs. Gilbert agreed.

As the interior of the building gets cleaned of dangerous substances, the Gilberts are hoping to be able to rescue some of the architectural history like tin ceilings, large windows and hard wood craftsmanship while also using resources at their disposal to make their business more user-friendly, including adding an elevator also covered by the grant, so the entire building is usable again but this time for everyone, including those who can’t make it up the stairs.

The front half of the brick building, the county sheriff’s residence, was constructed in 1864 with a small jail built onto the back, however, the jail section was replaced with what now stands holding 12 jail cells made of steel in 1931.

The difference in sounds between the two structures, from the softening of wood details and carpeted floors to the cold clang and echoes of steel girders, metal walls and ceilings, make it clear where the old Sheriff’s residence left off and the newer old jail took over.

The sheriff’s residence eventually became the sheriff’s office, an area which has been repurposed a number of times since the current Public Safety Building was constructed in the late 1980s: addiction services, records storage, the county Highway Department and the Office for the Aging.

The two county offices were cleared out in 2010 and although the building was purchased in 2011 by TLS, renovation plans never came to fruition and it has remained empty.

Now, however, the Gilberts have projects and plans that will see new life in every corner of the structure.

Mrs. Gilbert bakes breads and pastries under the name Tug’s Market Garden and will use her processor’s license to set up a commercial kitchen at the new location. Like their coffee, the baked goods will be sold at the cafe in addition to the local stores in Lewis and Jefferson counties that sell Tug’s products.

“It’s hard to find a bakery in the north country,” Mrs. Gilbert said. “So to be able to offer bread and pastries, things that would complement the coffee, and if they want to come in and get a fresh baked loaf, it’s here.”

To start Tug Hill Roasters, Mr. Gilbert, his brother Ian Gilbert, who is a lawyer and, since 2020, a Lewis County legislator, and Gregory Widrick, teamed up but now it’s Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert taking things to the next level.

For Mr. Gilbert, who keeps tabs on the world coffee market the way investors do tech start-ups, creating a flagship store will allow them to “vertically integrate” — to have purchasing, roasting and presentation under the same roof — consolidating and streamlining their operations for continued growth.

It will also provide him with more opportunities to share the interesting coffee beans he sources from around the world, each lot roasted to bring out their unique character, with a larger audience even if some people like to stick to the coffee taste most familiar to them.

“That’s fine. We meet the customer where they’re at,” Mr. Gilbert said, noting that regular customers tend to be more adventurous, “But we’re going to be able to really showcase some of those high end coffees that you can’t get anywhere else.”

In the long term, while the Gilberts are open to ideas for their new-to-them building, their own ideas are plentiful: a “makers space” where creative people can rent an area for their workshops; quirky jail-cell vacation rentals; a dance studio in the wide-open attic; a high speed electric charging station in the parking lot.

There are more ideas and there will still be more.

A request for proposals for the asbestos and lead paint cleanup of the building is currently open. A link can be found on the county website, www.lewiscounty.org.

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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(2) comments

AndyJgs

You guys are as bold as your coffee. All the best with the renovation! Love the idea!

TLSNNY

So happy for the Gilberts and wish them great success!

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