ORANGEBURG, N.Y. -- For nearly 120 years, Bell-ans in Orangeburg has married a unique combination of innovation, creativity, imagination along with respect and care for pets and animals.
The form in which those skills are used has changed dramatically in the past 30 years, from a former pharmaceutical development and manufacturing plant to a burgeoning artists colony. The premise, however, is the same as when the great great grandfather of the current owner developed a product for indigestion in the late 1800s. More than a century later, innovation and creativity remain the magic behind Bell-ans.
“People sometimes say it’s the Bronx Zoo meeting the Met,’’ said Phyllis Dodge, who owns the property with her husband, James, the great great grandson of the property’s first owner, John Lanphere Dodge. “It’s a unique marriage, for sure.”
John Lanphere Dodge, the son of a Civil War Union Army surgeon, worked with a chemist to develop a remedy for indigestion in the late 1800s. The name Bell-ans derived from the last name of the chemist and the main ingredient in the drug.
He purchased the Orangeburg site and business prospered as a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant. The original buildings still stand at the site, along with the factory buildings that produced the remedies and cottages that housed workers.
The site featured far more than drug manufacturing. One of Dodge’s favorite activities, harness racing, inspired a race track and barn. The site became popular for travelers and included a hotel. Bell-ans hosted the Orangeburg County Fair for many years.
Dodge's grandson, Joseph Griswold Dodge, Jr., took over the business in 1965 and it continued to flourish until the mid 1970s. Restrictions on small pharmaceutical companies took its toll on Bell-ans as a drug manufacturer. Joseph Griswold Dodge Jr. died in a race car accident, and his wife, Catherine, managed the property and ran the business along with her son, James Locke Dodge.
“People sometimes say it’s the Bronx Zoo meeting the Met."
Production of pharmaceuticals ended in the 1970s, and pieces of the 150 acre property were slowly sold off. A handful of artists started to discover Bell-ans in the mid 1980s as a place to live and work. James and Phyllis, who had an accounting background, considered renting spaces in the buildings to more artists. “People called it the hidden gem,’’ Phyllis said. “They would come up and say ‘Oh my god, I didn’t know this existed.’ My husband and I really worked hard to build awareness around Bell-ans in the artistic community.”
When more artists discovered the space, the immediately fell in love. They savored the vistas, the workspace and the communal spirit. Businesses, many of them centered around art, health and wellness, soon followed.
Now, 30-35 artists work in studios at Bell-ans, along with nearly 20 businesses, including acupuncture, photography, feng shui and cabinetry. West Carbery Stables, staying true to the original roots of Bell-ans, also rents space on the property which includes 12 acres, two barns and five buildings. There are also six single family homes.
“The artists love the whole combination,’’ Phyllis said. “It’s peaceful, quiet, there’s nature, great lighting, huge windows and unbelievable vistas.”
Phyllis Dodge said she and her husband experimented with bringing artists and businesses to Bell-ans. She had a feeling they would love the surroundings.
“It’s a cool feeling when you’re here,’’ she said. “Everybody is happy and doing what they want to do. It’s one big collective where everyone loves what they’re doing. It found us in a way."
Phyllis, who is now the creative director at Bell-ans, discovered her own passion for art at Bell-ans. After spending 27 years in the corporate world in accounting, she fell in love with the creativity of artists.
“They really hustle,’’ she said. “Many of them are teachers or work in other capacities so they can afford to stay true to their passion.They are really hard working people. Coming from a corporate world, that struck me.”
She yearned for an artistic career at one point, but her parents insisted on obtaining a business degree. Oddly, her position at Bell-ans allows her to marry her business skills and creative passion. “I’m fortunate I have this financial background,’’ she said. “My true being, my true core, is the creative piece. It took me a long time to find my home, but everything has worked out.”
Earlier this year, Phyllis even got her own space at Bell-ans, V°LITION. The space merges art, community, music, poetry, meditation and yoga. James rehabilitates and cares for many of the animals at Bell-ans, and is also the resident restoration expert.
John Lanphere Dodge probably did not envision his once-thriving pharmaceutical business evolve into a successful artists colony. But he’d be certainly proud of his great great grandson, his wife and the workers at Bell-ans who have continued to innovate, create and enjoy their work.
“This is where I belong,’’ Phyllis said. “There’s no question in my mind, even on my most anxious days. This is where I’m supposed to be, and I’m happy about it.”
For more information about Bell-ans, click here to visit its website.