A big family: Growing up in a cooperative community

Play equipment, constructed by residents. Shown, left to right, are Ronan Varner, Cavan Varner, Dorothy Varner, Charlotte Courtney, Jennifer Triplett and Martina Compain holding Connor. (photos by David Gordon)

When Martina Compain moved to Cantine’s Island Cohousing in Saugerties with her parents, she was eight years old. She missed her friends in New Paltz. She continued to attend her old school, and had some play dates with friends. But it wasn’t the same.

After a fairly short time, Martina found friends in the new community. “There were a lot of kids living here; Karla, Otto, Amelia, Jasper Eli, Jonah and my brother,” she said. “Even though my old friends weren’t up here, I had my extended family.” In fact, she said, the Cantine’s Island family came to be closer to her than her blood relatives. While she saw her neighbors every day, she only rarely saw her aunts, uncles and cousins.


Cohousing is a blend of a neighborhood and a commune. Families own and live in separate houses on small lots, and nearly all of the nine-acre land parcel is shared property. It’s similar to a condo association, but with a stronger community spirit. Pricey items every homeowner needs are shared. For instance, the 18 families in Cantine’s Island share one snow blower, a couple of small tractors, a collection of hand tools and some larger power tools. There are two workshops, one located in a recently refurbished building that was once part of the iron foundry that occupied this section of shoreline.

One element of nearly all cohousing communities is the common house, where community members share meals (three times a week and on special occasions at Cantine’s Island), hold meetings, watch movies, and do other various activities. Community kids play together there as well.

Dues are modest. Residents do a lot of the upkeep themselves. With three engineers, a licensed plumber and other skilled people, many resources are available. The residents also include artists and therapists. A professional accountant offers advice for the community’s treasurer.

Following the record snowstorms last month, the main roads were plowed by a professional. The paths, much of the parking area and walkways were handled by residents with the snow blower and shovels.

The first residents moved into Cantine’s Island in 1997. The homes were customized by their purchasers, but most have a similar layout.

Julie Gallagher reads to Cedar and Jasper Novak in the common house.

Across the generations

For most of human history, people lived and died within a few miles from where they were born. With no Social Security or pensions, the elderly depended on their grown children to care for them. The elderly helped look after younger children, and extended families often consisted a few dozen people within the same village.

These days, that’s not the case for most people. We move for work and lifestyle, and the support extended family can provide has to be made up for in other (usually very expensive) ways, or foregone. Cohousing, at least for families, can be a creative way to solve some basic needs created by the disruption of traditional settlement patterns.

The Cantine’s Island community has a lot to offer parents with young children, from built-in babysitters to play areas and companionship for the kids. Cohousing offers the opportunity to share experiences and advice, as well as contact with an older generation that has raised children.

Martina Compain is the first to return to the community after growing up there. She’s back with her baby, living in her parents’ home for the time being. “The thing I loved the most about the community is that it was just a big family,” she said.

Some of the newest members have lived in various arrangements similar to cohousing. Two families were involved in a fledgling community that eventually went under. A third, seeking a better place to raise their young son, was introduced to the community by a friend who had recently moved there.

“We had both lived in community-oriented households,” Michael Courtney said. He and his wife, Jennifer Triplett, built their home on an adjacent property adjoining the original community, which they then joined.

Cantine’s Island had some of the qualities of a commune, but the couple was looking for more privacy. “We wouldn’t have a shared house any more,” Triplett explained. “We had our own home with the option of privacy. We looked at cohousing communities in New Mexico, in Colorado, and we were interested in our own lives – we were in our early 30s – and we were thinking about buying a house, thinking about having kids. I wanted to be closer to my family. We took two years to explore communities on the East Coast, and Cantine’s Island was the first one out of ten. We came here before we were ready to decide, and we watched the little gang of kids running from house to house, and they really made an impression on us.”

Jennifer and Michael were reintroduced to Cantine’s Island by Leah and Jason Novak, who had been involved with them in Legacy Farm, a cohousing community in Rosendale that never came to full fruition. “Jason was more interested in communal living. He had traveled across country on a school bus,” Leah said. “He had a community experience there.” The bus ran on vegetable oil, and the group was presenting alternative fuels to school groups.

“I’m used to having a lot of family around, and want that kind of experience, where there’s sort of an extended family. The kids are like cousins, running around together,” Leah said.

Jennifer said her daughter Charlotte made up a song about living in a community, which she compares favorably with living “on a street where I would be all alone.”

The common house.

Hanging with the neighbors

The children have the advantage of interacting with a lot of adults, which helps the feel comfortable making the transition to adulthood. “My kids are pretty interested in adults .… They can hang in any generation,” said Leah.


The proximity of many adults and children creates relationships and frees parents, Michael said. “Sharing time together, especially in the young years, was really helpful, taking turns at watching them in the circle and come down to dinner and get some adult time while the kids play.”

“You don’t have to set up a play date, you just walk out the door,” said Jennifer.

One of the tenets of cohousing is that people work together on community projects. “I love the kids seeing us all get together and work, and I love the kids grabbing a wheelbarrow,” said Leah. “They see that this is something we all do together, and I imagine they can all feel that way – this is fun.”

Novak said he tries to include the kids in mechanical or repair work he does around the community. “If I’m building something, I’ll ask them to hammer in a nail or screw in a screw for me,” he said.

Where but in a cohousing or similar community would children in 2017 feel confident enough to go door-to-door asking the neighbors for ice cream?

Ronan Varner, shortly after moving to the community, did just that. “We went from house to house with a bowl, asking for ice cream,” he said. “We found some ice cream in the common house.”

Ronan’s parents, Pete and Dorothy Varner, came ashore after about two years of living on a boat when Dorothy was pregnant with Ronan. They’ve been living in the community since 2013, and their younger son, Cavan, was born there. (“When we knew we would be having a baby we came back to land.”)

Dorothy and Leah were in college together. Leah introduced the Varners to Cantine’s Island. They rented the house they live in now from a member who left when she married, and then they bought it. A good part of the attraction was the closeness to other people, Dorothy said. The kids are learning to get along with a variety of people.

With all the cars parked in a common lot, there’s no traffic going by houses, so the community is safe for children at play, Dorothy said. Knowing the neighbors well and having shared values is also important. “I especially enjoy these lovely spring days, when everyone is out,” she said.

While she appreciates the freedom that sharing childcare offers, there are drawbacks, Dorothy said. “Parents have different styles, and inevitably parenting styles clash.” Parents meet regularly to discuss their differences, she said. Another drawback is that with many friends in close proximity, there’s a tendency to lose contact with old friends, several in the community say.

“We also have to recognize that it isn’t all about kids all the time,” Dorothy said. “We have to respect the other adults’ needs.” The age range in the community is from ten months to the mid-80s. Many of the original settlers still live at Cantine’s Island, and they appreciate the generally peaceful atmosphere.

“It occurred to me that raising kids here would be easier,” Pete said. “We have about seven acres where they are safe and can run around.”

For Pete, the initial draw was the lower property, with frontage on the Esopus Creek and a boat house and floating dock. “Now we appreciate the people,” he said.

“Soon after we first moved in, Ronan slipped outside in his pajamas,” Dorothy said. “We were asleep. Gail [Buchman] brought him back.”


Full disclosure: Reporter David Gordon is a resident of the Cantine’s Island cohousing community