A Catskill Catalog: March 10, 2010

The late Nat Ciccone used to photograph Catskill Mountain barns. The longtime Margaretville Central teacher and coach would drive scenic mountain back roads, stopping to capture, on 35 millimeter film, those barns of Ulster and Delaware counties, that, Nat knew back in the ’80s, would not be around too much longer.
This was in the days before digital photography, and Nat would go to great expense to have his color film developed, and his best photographs enlarged, printed and framed. If you were a friend of Nat’s, and he had a lot of them, you were likely to receive, as a gift, a framed photo of a Catskill Mountain barn. I’ll bet there are quite a few of them in collections around the mountains.
The value of those Ciccones must have increased this past week with the destruction of several area barns in the late February Snowstorm of 2010.
Most distressing, of course, was the collapse of part of a working barn in New Kingston. The protection of life is a barn’s reason for being, that and the storage of the feed that sustains life. We all want those roofs to hold.
When abandoned barns cave in under the weight of the snow, we feel a different kind of concern. We feel we are losing a little bit of our history. We lost a couple in this storm: one at the old Ruff Farms in New Kingston, one at the old Hewitt place up in Denver. And there were others.
I remember, years ago, lying awake at night unable to fall to sleep. Counting sheep never worked for me, but counting interesting stuff sometimes does, you know, stuff like all the center fielders who’ve ever started for the Mets. This particular night – I was living in New Kingston at the time – I counted all the barns, and foundations where barns once stood, in the New Kingston Valley.
I fell asleep at 42.
That’s a lot of barns. That’s a lot of farms. Today, I believe, three working dairy farms continue to operate in New Kingston. In a valley that once had 42! That’s 42 small businesses, each providing the hiring and purchasing power that make small business, according to today’s oft-repeated political wisdom, the engine of economic vitality.
And the barn was the driveshaft of each one of those economic engines, the place where product was produced, where milk was made, cows were fed, hay was stored, work was done.
Back in the late 50s, in the Town of Andes, 235 farms produced milk everyday. Today, eight dairies remain. That’s a 97 percent loss of the industry that sustained the town for the previous century and a half. An awful lot of gift shops and galleries would be required to make-up that kind of loss in income-producing, money-circulating productivity. No wonder the last 50 years have seen years of shrinking economic prospects in the Catskills.
The kids at Andes Central School have created quite a little reputation for themselves as filmmakers. Under the direction and guidance of educators Colleen Heavey and Wendy Redden, students began producing videos in 2007, with “Shavertown: A Reservoir of Memories,” about the lost villages under Pepacton waters.
In 2008, the Andes film crew followed up with “Dairy Farms of Andes” a video portrait of the lives of the eight families that still make a living with a herd of cows on Andes’ hillsides.
In some ways, “Dairy Farms of Andes” may be a more important film than its predecessor. While “Shavertown” is a great preserver and presenter of our past, “Farms” is a look at the lives of our neighbors, a glimpse into the truth of our present.
I am grateful that I came to the mountains in time to be a small part of the rural, agriculture-based culture and community that had thrived here for over a century before I got here. Grateful that I got to know the Kennys and Sharkys and Bucks and Haps who hung-out, chewing tobacco, shooting the bull, in the last incarnation of a soon-to-be-disappeared General Store.
I’m grateful to have been in the mountains when hay wagons regularly drove down Main Street, when stopping the car for a cow crossing was a regular occurrence, when going for milk meant walking down to a neighboring farm and filling a plastic jug from the bulk tank. I’m grateful that I got to work in the hayfields for a summer job, bringing in the sheaves.
“Dairy Farms of Andes” is a wonderful introduction to that aspect of mountain culture, particularly for anyone whose own arrival in the Catskills was in the post-dairying era. I checked my copy out of my local public library.
Oh, the movie’s student-director was Cheyenne Tait, who grew up on Merry Breeze Farm, one of the eight featured in the film. Cheyenne is presently a student at Princeton University, on a merit-based full ride.
Milk’s not the only thing those farms are producing. Talent has always been a Catskill Mountain staple.