Cortland, like so many upstate areas, blossomed and prospered because of New York’s fertile farmlands. From their first cash crop, potash, settlers who trickled into the area along the Tioughnioga River beginning in 1791, forged a new life on the tillable acres they reclaimed from this once heavily wooded region.
Agriculture, still the heart and soul of the county, has been replaced as the economic foundation here by the manufacturing, light industry and service business sectors. This county on the eastern fringe of the Finger Lakes region, nevertheless, continues to generate revenues of $45 million per year according to most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture data. And that is being accomplished in spite of the makeover of the current agricultural landscape that has seen the number of farms decline while acreage per farm and yield per acre have increased.
The advent of modern technology and equipment hastened this phenomenon, challenging the memories of early farming. Francois Boeres, though, had developed an inquisitive love for the pioneering days of farming when he was young, and his entrepreneurial determination to preserve agriculture’s storied tradition led him to open the Cortland County Farm Museum. For anyone interested in what made farming tick years ago, time stands still here.
Boeres, the owner, curator, and extra-added attraction in his own right, of this independent museum, doesn’t let much grass grow under his feet. Or herbs for that matter. Whether it’s explaining how a 125-year-old thrasher worked, guiding a tour group along the two nature paths that cut through his farmland exploring for the more than 100 remedial plants, shrubs and trees on the property, or showing a guest the soon-to-be-published book he wrote on local farming, Boeres is accessible and available. But he wants the museum to be an informal experience for visitors so he remains in the background until called upon.
The thrasher (two functioning steam engines used in the early conversion days are on loan to an Ohio museum) is one example of the diverse pieces of farming’s past he has gathered at his 185-year-old, 100-acre farm on a picturesque hilltop about 20 miles east of the city of Cortland. Boeres has collected enough timeless trappings that he has turned his quaint homestead into a tribute to the early days of agriculture in New York state.
“It’s certainly not your typical museum,” says Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Cortland County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It is a hands-on trip through farming history and Americana where you’ll be able to see and touch things that you may not be able to find anywhere else. Anyone expecting to find the usual museum atmosphere will be pleasantly surprised. And you just can’t place a value on Francois. Visitors will be in the company of a hospitable, knowledgeable host who comes packed with passion and answers.”
Dempsey also believes the museum will interest people in or out of agriculture, and whether they are young or old. “It is very much a family-oriented experience,” he says.
Visitors will easily recognize the museum as more of a labor of love for Boeres than a business. It is open by appointment from May through October and there is no admission, but donations are accepted. Boeres estimates the number of visitors at more than 600 yearly, whether individuals, families, civic organizations or school groups. He likes to keep group tours in the neighborhood of 20 to 35 people so everyone has the opportunity to participate and ask questions.
A Growing Collection
Boeres has been acquiring items for the museum, primarily in upstate New York, for more than 40 years, but he can track his enthusiasm for the subject to 1939 and another continent. “I became intrigued with farming, its history and tools, the day I watched a farmer back home in Luxembourg hook up a horse-drawn plow to a new tractor and send the horse to pasture,” he says. Since moving to Cortland County in the ’60s, he has collected a cross-section of equipment on his farm that is representative of the area’s rich agricultural heritage. Consider these items on display:
• Barn lifters, circa 1770
• Hand-forged tools, 1830
• Flip-over rake, 1860
• Corn sheller, 1870
• Hand-held grain thrasher, 1890
• Wooden drag harrow, 1900
• Wagons and buggies, 1900-1930
• Allis Chalmers tractor, 1948
Since formally opening his farm museum to the public in 1990, Boeres has expanded tours to include such things as exploring the foliage, particularly the herbs that grow wild on this mountaintop. Two years ago, he and his wife Friederun educated themselves to recognize the types of plants and their remedial applications. He passes out a detailed list of these foods and their effects on the human system.
Cooking Is in the Blood
He and his wife make herbal teas and spice their foods with these natural ingredients. But, then again, what would you expect from a master chef who learned his trade in the Old World and refined it at some of Europe’s finest restaurants. He proudly remembers the times he cooked for General Dwight Eisenhower when the allied commander visited Ambassador Pearl Mesta in Luxembourg following World War II.
It was that background that brought Boeres to the United States in 1955 to work in an upscale restaurant in Greenwich, Connecticut. Ten years later Boeres and Friederun bought the Cortland County property as a summer home. They moved here permanently from Connecticut in 1967. Coincidentally, another New England transplant, Issac Smith, actually began the farm with a log cabin sometime before 1820. Thurlow Weed settled Cincinnatus, named after the Roman general, in 1808.
Except for raising sheep to sell and for their own consumption, the Boeres rented most of the farmland to their neighbors in the early days while they opened Lauberger Alpine Restaurant in nearby McGraw. The restaurant attracted a clientele from across the state with its continental menu specializing in French cuisine. After 14 successful years, the Boeres closed the restaurant. “Business was good,” Boeres says. “It was the grind that finally took its toll on us. After all, we cooked everything from scratch, just as I learned apprenticing in Europe 60 years ago.”
A Need for Change
They didn’t sell the business because they couldn’t find interested chefs willing to cook the old way, Boeres says. It should come as no surprise that tradition is a way of life for Boeres.
It was the importance of preserving tradition that motivated Boeres to begin buying outdated farm equipment from his Cortland neighbors while running the restaurant. He found most of the equipment on display at the museum within a 30-mile radius of the farm. There are about 750 items on exhibit, mostly in the barn, which is the main museum component. The centerpiece of the barn is an authentic re-creation of a blacksmith shop. A proud naturalized citizen, not to mention a true Renaissance man, Boeres also counts American history as an interest and there are four prominent display cases containing memorabilia – including vintage muskets that can still be loaded and fired – spanning the Revolutionary War to World War II in a section of the barn. That also goes for the retooled civil war cannon that has added a boom to a few family blasts over the years.
Boeres says he can’t put a price on the museum and his collection because he measures its worth in historic and sentimental value.
“My fascination with farming began when I was a kid,” Boeres says. “I was captivated as farmers embraced the new farm machinery even though it meant abandoning their time-proven horse-drawn equipment. As I watched them cut off the shaft and then attach it to the modern equipment, I remember thinking progress is inevitable but the past should not be forgotten.”
While it was out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new for the Luxembourg farmers, it was the old ways that made the lasting impression – and the kernel that produced the Cortland County Farm Museum – on young Boeres.
If the barn is the Cortland County Farm Museum’s main setting, the crown jewel of the museum is the farmhouse with its eclectic collection of books, music, antiques and knickknacks. “We’ve made alterations to the house and added modern conveniences to make life more comfortable, but we have kept much of our home as true to its past as possible,” Boeres says. Occasionally, the Boeres fire-up and cook on their 1930 wood- and coal-burning stove. The farmhouse, which is opened to the public, is among the oldest in the area.
A Man of Many Talents
Boeres is a guy who does not take his passions lightly. His book on the history of upstate farming, Two Centuries of Farming in Central New York, is due out before the end of the year. The book is based on the research and information he recorded talking with the old-time farmers and neighbors who sold him equipment. It is illustrated with diagrams he drew showing the mechanics of the equipment.
Boeres also has finished a second book dealing with cooking, His-story of Good Cooking. It contains 350 recipes from around the world, which he collected working as a master chef. Both books are self-published with the cookbook produced by an Internet publisher.
Even with the books, barn, farm equipment and the rainbow of other collectables that capture the imagination of most visitors, Boeres still considers the farmhouse, as original as the host, the staple of the museum’s collection.
A thirsty visitor, however, might think otherwise. The well, sunk when the original farmhouse was built almost two hundred years ago, still works.
For more information and directions, please call the Cortland County Farm Museum at 607-863-3514.
by Cornelius J. Hannon
Cornelius J. Hannon is a career journalist and freelance writer. His marketing communications agency, Aspex, recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.