New Lebanon launches living museum


NEW LEBANON -- In this small town, Giku Kumar cooks Indian food from scratch, following her mother's recipes. When her neighbors catch the scent of onions and ginger at her market, she said, they come in to see what she's cooking today.

Around here, Roger Boutard forages for chantarelles. Melissa Engenbrodt, the postmaster, hunts to feed her family. And Larry Benson sets down a toy in his woodshop and leaves his dairy farm to deliver Meals on Wheels.

New Lebanon is rich in flavor. And this month the town will offer samples.

In New Lebanon, Ruth J. Abram, founding president of Manhattan's Lower East Side Tenement Museum, has invented what she calls "the first living museum of contemporary New England Life."

Ordinary local people will invite visitors into their houses, farms, garages, studios, barns and fields. (All events will begin at a central visitors' center and spread out from there.) Across four weekends, more than 50 people will show what they know.

The idea came to her, Abrams said, when she watched how excited visitors to town became when they had a chance to get close to a cow or an auction house.

"They were mezmerized by these pleasures," she said.

She wanted to show country life and to record the skills and traditions here today, she said, in the tradition of the Foxfire guides -- a series of books that began in 1966 in Northeast Georgia, when high school students and teachers in Southern Appalachia began to talk to the people living in the hills and record their practices and their stories.

The Foxfire guides now have almost 9 million copies in print.

People living in the New England countryside have skills and resources that many suburban and city people have no idea about, Abrams said.

This weekend, Aug. 29 to Sept. 1, talks and activities will range from pie to plough horses to gemstones, and from kinetic sculpture to microbrewing.

As they demonstrate their skills in photography or jazz improvisation, the people in Abrams' museum will talk about how and why they do what they do.

Schuyler and Colby Gail at Climbing Tree Farm raise five kinds of heritage breed pigs free-range under their mast trees -- trees bearing acorns, walnuts, hickory and beech nuts. Their Mule-foot hogs, Large Black, Berkshire, Tamworth, Old Spot and Red Wattle, have a lot of room to roam, Schuyler said. And heritage breed pigs are smart enough to feed themselves.

"Conventional pigs would fail," she said. "They don't know how to be pigs anymore."

The Gails started their farm with a small flock of sheep in 2007. (They still sell lamb, eggs and poultry as well as pork.) In New Lebanon, they are part of a growing movement. Seven new farms have started in the area in the last few years, Schuyler said, and they all work cooperatively together.

She spoke warmly of Cynthia Creech at Artemis Farm, who saved the rare breed of Randall cattle from extinction.

Creech describes her operation as cutting edge, because she does what farmers did 100 years ago -- with electric fencing.

They are bringing old methods of farming back, Creech and Schuyler said, combining small, diversified farms with new technologies.

"There was a huge rift when we separated animals from the land," Creech said. "We've gone back to putting animals on the land."

The land and the animals are better cared for, she said, and the food, in the end, tastes better.

Roger Boutard has also seen change for the better in the area, though his harvests grow wild.

He remembers Rachel Carson speaking at the Berkshire Botanical Garden when his father made cuttings for the garden center there. She and his father worked together with a local group to stop the aerial spraying of pesticides for gypsy moths. The sprays never worked well against the moths, he said, but they killed many other insects, including many of the moths' natural predators.

He remembers still fields, empty of butterflies. But now, generations after the spraying has stopped, the land is alive again.

He will lead a walk and talk on edible wild foods. What he shows the group will depend on what they find in the woods, he said. He has gathered black trumpet mushrooms recently, and this time of year brings hickory nuts, which taste like grape nuts. Porcini mushrooms will come out later, he said, and hen of the woods, now given as an immune booster to people undergoing cancer treatments.

A museum made of mushroom walks and rare cattle and pie recipes can become a new model for economic revival, Abrams said. She hopes to expand on this beginning and to grow beyond these first four weekends.

She wants to explore how a museum benefits when it becomes essential to its community, she said -- and how the community benefits as visitors come.

Over the course of these weekends, Fiona Lally will open her house, the former Elm Tree Mill, a flour mill built when Gerge Washington was a bachelor, she said. Teddy Roosevelt, visiting Lebanon Springs to take the waters, tasted pancakes made with Elm Tree buckwheat flour and had buckwheat shipped to the White House.

If you go ...

What: Behold! New Lebanon -- tours, talks, workshops and

When: First of four weekends,
5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 29; 9:30 a.m. to auction beginning
at 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 30;
10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 31; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, Sept. 1

Where: All tours start at the Visitors Center, 14398 N.Y. Route 22, New Lebanon, N.Y.

Admission: Varies, see schedule

Full schedule:


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