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Community effort saves piece of farming history

Barn Spotlight: The Meadow Ridge Heritage Barn was restored and moved to a New York museum.

Bob Hallock remembers when family farms dotted the picturesque landscape of Greene County, N.Y., 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 working dairies remain, and many of their once-proud barns are rapidly falling into disrepair.

Fortunately, a communitywide volunteer effort recently saved one such structure and moved it to the Bronck House Museum in Coxsackie where it’s joined by the Hudson Valley’s oldest home, dating back to 1663, and three other barns, including a 13-sided one, that together preserve more than 350 years of rich agricultural history.

History of Bronck farm

The site was once home to a large, prosperous farm founded by Swedish immigrant Pieter Bronck and his Dutch wife, Hilletje Jans. It stayed in their family for eight generations until 1939 when it was deeded over to the Greene County Historical Society, which is 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 dairyman and president of the historical society. “He paid two beaver skins for it!”

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

“Its owners were under orders to take it down, so we showed up and they sold it to us for a dollar,” Hallock says. “It took about three years to take it down, take all the old nails out, reframe it, re-erect it, and there it is today. It’s amazing the number of businesses that pitched in. For example, a lift operator gave us one week for free because he thought it was such a nice thing we were doing.”

New home for hay press

The roughly $100,000 project’s exterior phase was completed in 2020. Plans call for finishing the inside as soon as funds become available for designers, contractors and engineers, and using the space for educational programs and special events. However, the barn has already taken on a new life by housing a massive, old hay press the historical society obtained 10 years ago from another area farm.

“We couldn’t find a place for it, it wouldn’t fit anyplace, so this seemed just right,” Hallock says.  

The 8-foot-by-10-foot device is 17 feet high. Hay, in a second-story loft, would have been fed into a chute at the top of the press.

“A horse turns the capstan, which pulls a chain, compressing hay in the hay press chute into bales,” Hallock says. “This is a logical progression in the production of hay.”

The Bronck farm primarily raised grain during its first 100 years in operation.  

“But by the Revolutionary War, the soil here was depleted; grain is a heavy feeder,” says Shelby Mattice, museum curator. “They didn’t rotate crops, they didn’t refertilize, so this and many other farms around here switched to hay, which had a commercial aspect to it. It wasn’t just what they needed for their own farm. This became a major hay-producing area for urban areas to the south. The hay press itself was to bulk-pack it to get hay to New York City.”

By the turn of the 20th century, there were an estimated 130,000 horses in Manhattan, each consuming 15 to 20 pounds of hay daily. Much of it came from Greene County. About 15 presses operated in Coxsackie and neighboring New Baltimore alone.

When everything is complete, the museum’s press will be the only one on display in eastern New York and New England, Mattice says.

Oldest barn

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

“When it came time to thrash the grain, they simply moved the saplings apart and dumped the bundles of grain on the floor for thrashing,” Mattice says. “This is a late-period Dutch barn. Normally, a Dutch barn would have had a large matching door. Prevailing wind would blow in one door and out the other, creating a wind tunnel to help remove hulls from grain. But this was in a transitional period when they were moving toward a more hay-based economy, so this particular barn didn’t have a back door.

“Side doors were added during the hay period, so hay wagons could be brought in and off-loaded,” she says. “It’s an example of adaptive reuse as agricultural practices changed over the centuries. You’re going to get that when you’ve got a site with almost 300 years of occupation.”

The New World Dutch Barn is one of only two remaining Northern European side-aisle barns in Greene County. Side aisles with no floors were for cows or horses, kept separate from the thrashing floor to keep it clean.

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

Loose hay gem

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

“You could argue that it’s particular multisided shape came from a much earlier form of hay storage used in Holland called a hayrick or hay barrack, supported by poles at each of the corner intersections,” Mattice says. “It had no sides. They would pile hay under it and jack the roof up as the pile increased. As they used hay, the roof would come down. It was certainly a Dutch concept, and this was a Dutch family.”

By putting sides on — like this 13-sided barn — hay was protected from the elements, which made it more valuable for sale. It’s believed that the museum’s 13-sided barn is the oldest multisided barn in New York.

Another barn, also built around 1870, is a Victorian horse barn that was used for stabling the Bronck family’s specialty high-end horses, which they kept for riding, driving and racing. Today, it houses several of the museum’s most important items of historical significance, including scale models of once-famous Catskill Mountains hotels.

With two houses dating to 1663 and 1738, and four large barns to care for, maintenance is never-ending.

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

Memberships, grants and an endowment are the main revenue streams that support the work.

As a former longtime farmer, Hallock can’t help but feel a tinge of regret each time he sees a barn succumbing to time and Mother Nature.

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

Post writes from eastern New York.

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