New Lebanon to toast 200

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BEN GARVER — THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE
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NEW LEBANON, N.Y. — There's a party going on in New Lebanon, one that has been 200 years in the making.

The New York border town of some 2,300 residents abutting Berkshire County has plenty of reasons to celebrate. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the town's incorporation, when it separated from Canaan, N.Y., to strike out on its own in 1818.

On Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon at the Town Hall, a kickoff reception will set the scene for a year of "NL200" festivities.

Town dignitaries and anniversary organizers will unveil a new town seal and the official bicentennial banner — 30 of which will line busy Route 20 through the center of town and other local thoroughfares — and the "Passport to New Lebanon," a free booklet where people can collect stamps from local businesses to enter a drawing for an iPad.

The presentation will also highlight local religious and spiritual institutions — churches, Mount Lebanon Shakers, Abode Sufi community — outlining their history, evolution and importance to town life. In their heyday, New Lebanon was home to the governing Shaker settlement and renowned chair factory; today these iconic buildings house Darrow School, Abode Eco-Sufi Village and Shaker Museum Mount Lebanon.

From 3 to 5 p.m. at New Lebanon Library, "Culinary Crossroads," the town's official cookbook of recipes such as "Big Ruth's Eggnog" and "Mario's Rustic Meatballs" debuts with a launch party and tea sampling some of the featured treats.

Commemorative postcards with the slogan "Moo-vers and Shakers" highlight images from the town's heritage: a Shaker chair, Lebanon Springs, farming, Tilden pharmaceutical company, and Sir Henry Kitson's "Mohican Blessing" fountain.

"We've been working on establishing celebrations to make it clear what the town has become, what its historical strengths are, and create pride and local enjoyment," said Fiona Lally, director of the NL200 steering committee and president of "Grow The Valley" community development organization.

"There's been a wonderful response and a great deal of support," she added, with local organizations eager to join the celebration and existing annual town activities like the Town Picnic and Memorial Day Parade taking on "a bicentennial flair."

Each month of the year will have its own anniversary highlights, she said.

As a February preview, hardy souls explored the Shaker Swamp, a rich resource of medicinal plants.

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In a town known for popular eating establishments, March is food and beverage month, with $18.18 and $8.18 deals on pizza, pot pies and more in the bagel shop, cafe, pubs and restaurants.

Main anniversary events take place on April 21, the date of the original incorporation, with Town Hall charter signing reenactments, state proclamation, and commemorative postage cancellation stamp, followed that evening by a "Sup and Swing" community dance at the high school with singing by the school chorus and dancing to the Twangbusters.

Additional events include a "Tour d'Manure" farm-to-farm bike ride in May, and a talent show and program of Sufi and Shaker music in June.

Also in June, Mountain Road School will offer traditional children's games of 1818 and tours of its historic 1788 Hand House location; and Lebanon Valley Speedway will celebrate New Lebanon Night in August.

Not many people know that New Lebanon was once part of Massachusetts, before the border with New York State was formalized, said Kevin Fuerst, town historian for two decades.

Common threads running through the town's history have been medicine and health, he noted. The Mohicans recognized the healing properties of warm springs and swamp plant life, and shared them with settlers. Shakers cultivated and sold herbal products, which Tilden Pharmaceuticals refined into a brand new business. And luminaries from John Quincy Adams to Charles Dickens traveled to Lebanon Springs spa to "take the waters" in grand hotels and bath houses.

The town has had a long history of distinguished visitors and notable residents. New York Gov. Samuel Tilden was the first presidential candidate to win the popular vote but lose the election. Then-New York Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt opened the new high school, still in use. And teenage abolitionist Jesse Torrey ran the first free public library from his New Lebanon home in 1804.

High-flying NASA astronaut Pete Conrad credited his time at Darrow School with setting him on the path to the moon.

Lally knows the town's storied history firsthand — she lives in a 1752 former grist mill that famously supplied buckwheat flour for Teddy Roosevelt's White House pancakes.

While the town's population has waxed and waned over the years, nowadays Lally sees young people embrace natural farming practices and run self-directed businesses that don't require a specific physical location, both features that bode well for the future.

Through the anniversary celebrations, she said, "we really want to display what an amazing history it has had over 200 years, and how far the town has come."


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