A Catskill Catalog: August 3, 2011

The best way to visit the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown is with a little kid. I was up there last week with a two-year-old – let’s call her Evie – and it was a blast.
First off, two-year-olds get in free, right up to age seven. From 7 to 12, kids cost six bucks. Thirteen and over, you’re an adult and pay $12.

Two-year-olds are notoriously uninterested in museum displays, so we didn’t spend much time in the big stone barn that is the exhibition-hall entrance to the museum grounds. The barn was originally a stable for Clark family dairy cattle, an imposing natural stone edifice on state Route 80, just across from Cooperstown’s lakefront golf course.

Evie was willing to indulge our little group with a few moments in front of the informative celery-growing display. Celery was a very trendy 19th-century food, and central New York’s mucky wetlands became productive celery swamps. I was particularly interested because John Burroughs, our Catskill Mountain sage, was something of a celery grower. But Evie wanted to press on.

“New York’s Good Eats: Our Fabulous Foods,” is this summer’s exhibition theme, so the big barn is filled with food displays, informative and attractive presentations on oysters and potato chips, shredded wheat, Jell-O and life savers. It was great to see Binghamton area Speidies – skewered, marinated, grilled chicken chunks on white bread – make the museum cut.

But we went through quickly, on our way to the old-fashioned country fair that welcomes visitors at the far end of the stone barn.

Two carnival tents are staffed by costumed interpreters ready to get kids hoop rolling like it was 1910 all over again. Peddle-powered tractors, a Ford and a trio of John Deeres, drew Evie’s immediate interest. There are benches to sit while two year olds ride.
My own inner two-year-old came out on the Empire State Carousel.

I rode a cow, but I could have ridden a fish, or any one of 23 hand-carved animals featured on this merry-go-round, handmade by scores of New York artisans over the past 25 years, now in its sixth year of operation.

But we were here in search of living animals to pet, not wooden animal to ride, so reluctantly, I got off my mount, and followed Evie toward the museum farm, where living history means living animals, and the baa of sheep beckoned.

It’s 1845 in the Farmers’ Museum village. All the buildings are actual: stores, homes, barns, shops, farm sheds, a church, moved to Cooperstown from within a 100-mile radius. The children’s barn is an authentic English-style barn, built in Rensselaer County around 1790, and remodeled in the 1840s.

I was kind of partial to the two-month-old heifer calf who nuzzled my hand, while Evie found the baby goats particularly personable, and the baby lambs particularly soft. A big tom turkey strutted his stuff out back. When thunder rumbled, chickens ran around every which way like…well, like chickens.

Out in the fenced-in paddocks, sheep huddled against the fence. If you were two, you could snake a small arm between the fence slats and feel just how soft and thick that wool really is. Such small things bring such smiles of unexpected joy!

Hops were a major crop in the Cooperstown area right up to prohibition. Hops provide a necessary preservative in brewing beer. Thirteen years of prohibition put a serious dent in the local industry. Cheaper competition from western hop-growers, once beer was legal again, killed it. The museum farm contains a hop field, where hop vines climb tall poles, and a hop house, where the crop was dried and stored.

Evie cared nothing about this. Instead, she watched pigs wallow. For some reason, I, too, am particularly fond of pigs, so, together, we watched two fat brown hogs get down in the mud and wallow, digging their thick bodies deep into the wet muck. They were happy as pigs in mud and so were we.

But the thunder kept rumbling and the sky began to weep big drops. The pigs dug in deeper, the lambs ran for cover. Evie’s mom gathered her up, and I made a run to get the car. Fickle weather is no surprise in the Catskills or in Cooperstown, and, for a two-year-old, a couple of hours at the farm is probably enough anyway.

Funny though. We had to stop at the carnival tent for another ride on the pedal John Deere. Rain or no rain, a tractor is a tractor, and no self-respecting two year old can pass that up.
I’m taking a couple of weeks vacation from “A Catskill Catalog,’ and look forward to the next column on August 24.
© William Birns