Schenectady County is in a state of revival. New events, businesses, initiatives and people have been coming to the city and surrounding communities to make their mark on one of the oldest settlements in New York State.
As a native to the area, I see two sides to this; it is great to see a new swing of development, making Schenectady attractive to those who don’t already call it home. However, as developers seem to be changing the cityscape ever faster, it is interesting to note where nature has taken its course.
As part of my 2018 internship with the Schenectady County Historical Society, I explored several locations in rural Schenectady County abandoned by their former residents. For most of its history, Schenectady County’s economy was primarily agricultural. Farms dotted the landscape from Duanesburg to Princetown to Rotterdam.
With the 20th century came a transition from farming to industry. Suburbs began to sprawl, bolstered by the growth of GE and the development of the automobile. The landscape and the culture of Schenectady County changed dramatically during the 1900s, as towns like Glenville became suburbs of city employees. Locals shifted their aspirations from self-sufficient or market-enterprising farms to a house in the GE plot and a college degree. The demographics of Duanesburg and Princetown changed as suburbanites moved in and farmers moved out. Today, many farms lay abandoned, their fields ever fallow.
But, just like the stories that come from the rise of bedroom communities and the transformation of the “Schenectadian Dream,” these farms hold stories about their prime.
Their current state of disrepair does not tell the whole story, only their end. I set off to learn more about what these farms were like in the past, and make a trip to the farms in their current state. My research focused solely on abandoned farms.
From today’s vantage point, abandoned farms seem old and forgotten. My first day of exploration led me to an old farm on the corner of Pattersonville-Rynex Corners Road and Mariaville Road. As I surveyed the land, I felt peaceful and spooked at the same time. The air was cool and dead-still; the light hazy-warm and seemed to saturate the colors of foliage and fallen farm structures.
This strange medley of sensations exemplifies the state of this place: lost in time and claimed by the earth it sat on. The barn had collapsed in the middle, and some windows were removed, so the interior was exposed and condensed with fallen beams and left over equipment. Contradicting this scene was the mowed grass that surrounded the barn, a sign of ownership, however absentee. There was a certain ethereal beauty – and a real sadness – that a remnant of a family’s livelihood was so dilapidated. I wanted to know the people of this place.
And there began the more difficult part of my journey, the research. I emailed the Princetown historian Robert Jones for information on the location. We are lucky at the Historical Society that the Mabee Farm was lived in and taken care of until the society obtained the property; the fate of abandoned farms is often ruin. If a private owner is not taking care of the property, it is unlikely that the site’s history is being maintained either. Thanks to Mr. Jones, I could get started looking for the former proprietors of what I now know is the Plotterskill Farm and Inn.
My next resources came closer to home, in the form of the Schenectady County Historical Society librarian and archivist Michael Maloney. With some direction through the library, and a few search queries, I came across a lead. Using the newspaper database Fulton Search, I found a legal notice from a June 1939 copy of the Schenectady Gazette that stated a Clarence Gregg gave a parcel of the land from his dairy farm to the county, as part of making Mariaville Road the more official Route 159. The name was familiar, as I had attempted to take Lower Gregg Road to the farm initially. Now that I had a family name, I checked out the Gregg family in the extensive family records of the Society’s Grems-Dolittle Library. These types of breakthroughs are the fun part, especially when finding the faces of those you did not know you were looking for.
Clarence Gregg was the second child of Milton Gregg, the earliest proprietor of Plotterskill Farm that I could find. Milton and his wife Ella Aurelia Kline Gregg ran the white house on their property as the Gregg Inn. I found a photograph taken at the Gregg Inn in 1905. In the photo, a seven-and-a-half-year-old Clarence is wedged between his aunt and uncle to commemorate the Gregg-Kline family reunion. The adults have faces that are serious and pleasant; Clarence’s mischievous grin is indicative that this photo was a brief break from the toil of a working family. On the day of the reunion, this farming family was relaxed.
Clarence Gregg went on to Union College to become a civil engineer, and was an alignment engineer in 1923 on some of the first vehicle tunnels built from Manhattan to Jersey City under the Hudson River. It is unclear when he returned to the Plotterskill Farm, but upon his return, he became a staple of the Boy Scout community as a Scout leader for Troop 1 in Schenectady. Clarence was also the caretaker of the Schuyler Mansion, and an avid community volunteer; his name appears near constantly in the newspaper for committees and events during the 1970s. He still lived on his childhood property, but it is unclear what happened, as information about the modern Greggs seems to dry up.
Looking back at the photographs of the farm that I took before my archival research, their color and emotion take on a new meaning. Rather than the spookiness I had initially perceived, I now felt more of a bittersweet sadness, appreciative of the farming family’s memories and livelihoods, while also mourning the decay of what once was.
As I continued exploring the area, I learned of a fallow farm on Route 7 in Duanesburg. At first, the only information I could find on the property was a series of black and white photos taken in winter. The photos depict pines shielding the barn, and its name, the Pine Grove Farm. With some help from Michael Maloney, I began to locate the Pine Grove Farm’s history.
Pine Grove Farm was purchased by Joseph DeMarco in 1919. DeMarco used the farm to supply his creamery on Ferry Street in Schenectady. The farm grew in production and prominence over 20 years, until a huge overhaul from 1949 to 1950. The farm became a technological pinnacle for the area. Nearly fully-automated, the farm also increased the number of cows and chickens it could hold and care for. A new sanitation and cooling system were added, which reduced the number of necessary employees, but increased the health and quality of the cattle.
This renovation of the Pine Grove Farm lead to an annual event in the 1960s called the “Rural-Urban Mixer” which encouraged collaboration between Schenectady city and county officials and residents to deal with new issues caused by the rise of suburban communities. Photos from the 1969 event seem like Norman Rockwell scenes; long tables with fresh food, and conspicuously dressed individuals. By this point, Joseph DeMarco had died, and the farm had passed to one of his six brothers, Ernie. After Ernie, Pine Grove Farm changed hands several more times until it closed in 1980. By this point, the farm had expanded, and its processing plant was located next to Morette’s on Erie Boulevard in Schenectady, where a gas station now stands.
Once I had gathered the story of Pine Grove Farm, I took a ride down Route 7 for a visit. In front of me was a similar view to the Plotterskill Farm. Two houses stood adjacent to the barn, which was clearly not in use. A mowed lawn encircled the enormous barn complex and the overgrowth it anchored. However, the feeling here was very different.
The barn was weathered, but was standing strong. A proud metal sign ran across the roof line, silos tall despite the plant growth that climbed them. My visit was curtailed by a fact that the adjacent homes seemed to be occupied. Not wanting to trespass, I took a few photos and left.
When I arrived back at the Mabee Farm to our preserved house and barns, I silently thanked the people that have maintained its house and barns over three centuries. For years, the Mabee family remained dedicated to the land, farming all manner of crops and livestock. Since the Mabee Farm passed into the hands of Historical Society, volunteers have dedicated countless hours to the preservation and maintenance of the site’s structures. Today, the Mabee Farm tells the story of farming in Schenectady County, a story – and a lifestyle – that may be otherwise lost to time. Of course, there are still farmers in Schenectady County.
SCHS is documenting and sharing these farmers’ stories as part of its “Rural Modern” project. But, it is all too easy for the county’s myriad micro-histories to be forgotten. To that end, I encourage everyone interested in local history to stay curious, to stay involved, to take ownership of your history, and to preserve stories for those that come after us.
This article was written by Julia Walsh and first appeared in Schenectady County Historical Society Newsletter, Volume 63. Become a member online at schenectadyhistorical.org.
Photos, from above: recent photograph of the Pine Grove Farm courtesy Julia Walsh; Gregg-Kline family photo shows a 1905 reunion on the grounds of the Plotterskill Farm courtesy SCHS Collection; and Plotterskill Farm’s barn provided.