The Daniel Parrish Witter Agricultural Museum at what is now known as the Great New York State Fair opened officially on April 30th, 1928. Daniel Parrish Witter, a long-time New York State Assemblyman representing Tioga County was born in 1852 at Richford. Witter assumed the greater responsibility for working the family farm after his father became disabled, one of his older brothers was killed in the Civil War, and two others were seriously wounded in the same conflict.
A frequent lecturer at the Farmers’ Institutes on dairy issues and soils, Witter was elected president at the New York State Dairymen’s Association in 1902. His first election to the New York State Assembly came in 1895. By the time of the dedication of the museum in his honor, Tioga County voters had returned Witter to Albany for nineteen terms. He never lost an election. It was as chair of the agricultural committee in the assembly that Witter promoted a bill that provided $50,000 to establish a farm museum at the state fairgrounds in Syracuse.
When given a turn to say a few words about the honoree at the 1928 dedication of the red brick building, Jared van Wagenen, Jr., a prominent farmer from Schoharie County, said, “Concerning my associate, Mr. Witter, I am sure that this is true. His old friends are his best friends, and they esteem him most who know him most intimately. And so, on this happy occasion when here, in brick and mortar and bronze, we do tribute to his services, I crave the opportunity to add my tribute to the gentleman who, whether as a wandering apostle of agriculture or in his more conspicuous services as legislator, has, like the Chevalier [de] Bayard of France, stood four-square, without fear and without reproach.”
Van Wagenen’s reference to Chevalier de Bayard (1473-1524), the French nobleman and chivalrous knight who some claim was the last flower of the Middle Ages, is striking. By creating the agricultural museum to house and preserve the agricultural past, Van Wagenen and his colleagues were, in their own way, attempting to fend off the amnesia the cult of modernism breeds.
Assemblyman Witter was somewhat taken aback by the fuss over naming the museum in his honor. At the end of the dedication ceremonies the man of the hour was given an opportunity to respond. Witter, known to his friends as “Uncle Dan,” did so with a bit of wit. After expressing feelings of unworthiness, Witter said that on the evening before the dedication ceremonies he had gone to see the new building and noted that it was designated as a “memorial” building. He went on: “Then I felt of myself, and I saw I was alive and quite active. Today I see they have repented, and they are going to let me live a little longer, as they have changed the title to an ‘Agricultural Museum,’ for which I am thankful.” Witter died in 1930, but two years after the dedication of the museum that still bears his name.
Filling the Museum
The purpose of the museum was to showcase the arts and crafts of the pioneer period, focusing, of course, on New York State’s heritage. In Days of My Years, Van Wagenen tells us that the backers of the new museum at the fairgrounds started with a heterogeneous collection of old implements and farm machinery that belonged to the New York State Agricultural Society and had been “stored in a dark dusty hole underneath the State Education Building in Albany.” A beginning, perhaps, but not an auspicious one, the assortment was “dug out and trucked to Syracuse.”
“If the truth must be told,” Van Wagenen said, “it hardly constituted an exhibition of real pioneer handicraft tools and implements. Among other strange objects were a couple of big, heavy wooden plows from India as well as a nondescript lot of implements which represented the dreams of early inventors even if they failed to work in practical use.”
To remedy this paucity of authentic artifacts, the promoters of the Agricultural Museum went public. Using appeals in newspapers and the new medium of radio, they advertised for donations. Before long a cornucopia of what Van Wagenen described as “a considerable and varied assortment of tools and implements, much of it of authentic and unquestioned pioneer vintage” flowed in.
When Van Wagenen conducted an inventory of the artifacts in the possession of the Daniel Parrish Witter Agricultural Museum in 1932, the total came to 367. The collection included firearms of the Revolutionary Era and artifacts from the Civil War, a spinning wheel used by Witter’s mother, a hand-made sugar box “probably 150 years old,” a collection of Native American relics, a tailor’s goose used in making clothes, hanks of homespun yarn, candle molds, an old cradle and high chair, a potash kettle, an exact replica of the original Cyrus McCormick reaper, an ox cart, samp mill [for processing grain], various churns, bed warmers, a broom machine, a leather water bucket dating back to 1796, bark spud, straw bee hive, tinner’s anvil, and much more.
Log Cabin or Log House?
Van Wagenen contributed Item No. 446, a one-horse grain or vegetable drill used, I suspect, at his Hillside Farm in Schoharie County. But his most important influence on the Daniel Parish Witter Agricultural Museum Collection is the largest artifact that one can see today. Most fair-goers refer to the structure as a log cabin, but Van Wagenen insisted that we should think of the log edifice as a house and wrote in the essay accompanying that 1932 inventory that as late as 1855 there were more than 33,000 log dwellings in New York State. The story of how the log home exhibited today at the agricultural museum came to be is testimony to Van Wagenen’s insistence that preserving the past necessitates fidelity to the facts. Though he tended to romanticize “the golden age of homespun” in his most poetic moments, he wanted nothing counterfeit in the museum’s collection.
Sometime in the early 1920s, Charles H. Baldwin, then Director of the Bureau of Institution Farms, decided that he needed an exhibit to fill a corner of the big State Institutions Building at the New York State Fair. Baldwin, according to Van Wagenen’s recollections, “had the instincts of a good showman” and installed a “log cabin” found somewhere in Franklin County up in the Northern Adirondacks. It was just partially reconstructed, as only the best logs and part of the shaved-shingle roof were trucked to Syracuse.
The back wall of this bogus “log cabin” had to be set up against a brick wall while one of the sides was brick and another end constructed of varnished boards. There was a concrete floor and no fireplace. Van Wagenen deemed this effort to educate the public about the past more of a “show or stunt rather than a real educational exhibit.” His dour assessment was not altered by the appearance of “two or three pretty secretaries, who were attired in some theatrical costumes which were alleged to be replicas of those worn in colonial times.” The secretaries were on loan from the Department of Agriculture offices in Albany. They gave away samples of what was claimed to be Johnnycake of the pioneer period. “As a matter of fact,” Van Wagenen tells us, the Johnnycake, “was baked in big slabs by a Syracuse bakery.”
The log house seen in the agricultural museum today came from a remote Catskill Mountain valley of southern Schoharie County. John M. Young, a farmer who lived in it with his wife and five sons, built it in 1876. The log house was, said Van Wagenen shortly before his death in 1960, “authentic and complete except only the fireplace, which sad to say, represents the ideas of a Syracuse bricklayer.”
Van Wagenen’s use of the descriptor “house” rather than the more colloquial “cabin” is telling. In his classic The Golden Age of Homespun (1953), Van Wagenen wrote of “the log home in the clearing” as generally being a rectangular structure sixteen by twenty feet. Unlike the cabins that were only temporary abodes, these log houses, so prevalent along the Atlantic Coast and in the hinterland, endured for generations.
The next time you attend The Great New York State Fair, visit the Daniel Parrish Witter Agricultural Museum. Pay your respects to the log house that Van Wagenen helped to save and restore. Then go next door to the Carriage Museum named in honor of Jared Van Wagenen, Jr., who was once hailed as “the greatest farmer in New York State.”
Illustrations, from above: Daniel Parrish Witter Agricultural Museum, Wikimedia Commons; Daniel Parrish Witter, Wikimedia Commons; Jared Van Wagenen and his Berkshire boar, from John R. McMahon, “New York: Jared van Wagenen—a Farm Kept Productive for 119 Years,” in How These Farmers Succeeded, edited by John R. McMahon (New York: Henry Holt and Company 1919), between pp. 132 and 133; Photo of the Log House by Milton Sernett; Image of the unrestored Log House, DPW museum; Photo of signage before the Jared Van Wagenen Carriage Museum by Milton Sernett.