Community effort saves part of farming history

Bob Hallock remembers when family farms dotted the scenic landscape of Greene County, New York, just south of Albany, the state capital.

The majestic Hudson River lies to the east, while the Northern Catskills rise dramatically to the west. But fewer than a handful of dairies remain in operation, and many of their once-proud barns are rapidly falling into disrepair.

Fortunately, a community-wide volunteer effort recently saved such a structure and moved it to the Bronck House Museum in Coxsackie where it is joined by the oldest house in the Hudson Valley, dating from 1663. and three other barns, including a 13-sided one, which together preserve over 350 years of rich farming history.

Bronck Farm History

The site was once home to a large, prosperous farm founded by Swedish immigrant Pieter Bronck and his Dutch wife, Hilletje Jans. It remained in their family for eight generations until 1939, when it was deeded to the Greene County Historical Society, headquartered there.

Bronck purchased the property from the Mohican Indians. “We have the deed signed by Pieter and three Indians with pictographic signatures,” says Hallock, who is a retired milkman and president of the historical society. “He paid two beaver pelts for that!”

The restored Meadow Ridge Heritage Barn, previously located several miles away, dates from the 1890s and had been condemned by the town of Coxsackie.

“Its owners had orders to take it down, so we showed up and they sold it to us for a dollar,” says Hallock. “It took about three years to take it apart, pull out all the old nails, reframe it, put it back together, and here it is today. It’s amazing how many companies participated. For example, an elevator operator gave us a free week because he thought it was such a great thing we were doing.

New home for the hay baler

The exterior phase of the approximately $100,000 project was completed in 2020. Plans call for the interior to be completed as soon as funds become available for designers, contractors and engineers, and to use the space for educational programs and special events. However, the barn has already taken on new life, housing a massive old hay press that the historical society obtained 10 years ago from another farm in the area.

“We couldn’t find a place for him, he wouldn’t fit anywhere, so it seemed perfect,” Hallock said.

The 8ft by 10ft device is 17ft tall. The hay, in a loft on the second floor, would have been fed into a chute at the top of the baler.

“A horse turns the capstan, which pulls a chain, compressing the hay in the baler chute into bales,” says Hallock. “It’s a logical progression in hay production.”

The Bronck farm primarily grew grain during its first 100 years of operation.

“But through the revolutionary war, the soil here has been exhausted; grain is a big eater,” says museum curator Shelby Mattice. “They didn’t do crop rotation, they didn’t refertilize, so this farm and many others around here switched to hay, which had a business aspect to it. It wasn’t just what they needed for their own farm. This has become an important hay production area for southern urban areas. The hay press itself had to pack it in bulk to get the hay to New York.

At the turn of the 20th century, there were about 130,000 horses in Manhattan, each consuming 15 to 20 pounds of hay a day. Much of it came from Greene County. About 15 presses operated in Coxsackie and neighboring New Baltimore.

When it’s all done, the museum’s press will be the only one on display in East New York and New England, Mattice says.

The oldest barn

The museum’s oldest barn, the New World Dutch Barn, was built around 1790 and helps visitors understand early farming practices, when wheat was still a major cash crop on the Bronck farm. Bundles of grain would be placed overhead on saplings, laid side by side, on crossbeams.

“When it came time to thresh the grain, they simply separated the saplings and threw the bales of grain on the ground to thresh it,” says Mattice. “This is a late period Dutch barn. Normally a Dutch barn would have had a large door to match. The prevailing wind blew in one door and out the other, creating a wind tunnel to help remove the husks from the grain. But it was in a time of transition where they were moving towards a more hay-based economy, so this particular barn didn’t have a back door.

“Side gates were added during the hay season, so hay carts could be brought in and unloaded,” she says. “It’s an example of adaptive reuse as farming practices have changed over the centuries. You will get this when you have a site with almost 300 years of occupation.

The New World Dutch Barn is one of only two Northern European side barns remaining in Greene County. Floorless side alleys were for cows or horses, separated from the threshing floor to keep it clean.

These barns are the descendants of the barns first used in the grain-growing regions of Northern Europe in the Middle Ages. A massive timber frame with 12-inch by 20-inch anchor beams and 50-foot purlins rises above the barn’s original oak floor to support the wide roof.

loose hay gem

The site’s unique 13-sided barn, built in the mid-1830s, reflects a period when the farm transitioned from growing wheat to full-fledged dairy farming and hay production. The structure, designed for the storage of loose hay, is framed like an open umbrella with a single tall central pole rising three stories to the top of the cupola.

“You could say that its particular multi-sided shape comes from a much older form of hay storage used in Holland called a hayrick or hay barn, supported by posts at each of the corner intersections,” says Mattice. “There were no sides. They piled hay underneath and lifted the roof as the pile grew. As they used hay, the roof collapsed. It was definitely a Dutch concept, and it was a Dutch family.

By putting sides – like this 13-sided barn – the hay was protected from the elements, making it more valuable for sale. The museum’s 13-sided barn is believed to be the oldest multi-sided barn in New York City.

Another barn, also built around 1870, is a Victorian stable which was used to stable the Bronck family’s top-class horses, which they kept for riding, driving and racing. Today, it houses many of the museum’s most important historical items, including models of once-famous hotels in the Catskill Mountains.

With two houses dating from 1663 and 1738 and four large barns to maintain, maintenance is endless.

“Every year there’s a major project that needs to be done,” says Hallock. “With buildings all over 100 years old, it must be that way. We’ve done roofs on the Dutch barn and the 13-sided barn, repaired the side of a house, and now we’re working on the kitchen.

Memberships, grants and an endowment are the main sources of income that support the work.

As a lifelong former farmer, Hallock can’t help but feel a pang of regret every time he sees a barn succumb to time and Mother Nature.

“Almost every other barn in Greene County is facing the same thing,” he says. “Wooden barns like this are a thing of the past. You can drive through any countryside you want, and you will see barns falling or falling. The best advice I can give is to save the roof. If you save the roof, you save the barn. But if you don’t, it will crumble and then it will disappear.

Post written from eastern New York.

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