Saturday, April 21, 2007

The farm at the Hudson-Chatham Winery is the last fifteen acres of a spread that by the 1950s and 1960s extended to more than 500 acres. Most of the existing houses that can be seen from our fields now are on lands that once were a part of this farm.
The farm dates back to the 1780s when the house was built. However, most most well-known inhabitants were the Cooley Family. The most prominent of these was Mr. Ralph Colley, Sr. Originally from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Mr. Cooley bought the property in the 1930s.

Ralph Cooley was without question one of the most influential and progressive proponents of Ayrshire dairy cows in the United States, and was highly thought of as a breeder and geneticist.

The Ayrshire cattle is a breed of dairy cattle originated from Ayrshire in Scotland. The average mature Ayrshire cow weighs 1000-1300 pounds. Ayrshires have red markings. The red can be an orange to a dark brown, with or without colored legs. They are known for low somatic cell counts, ability to convert grass into milk efficiently, and hardiness. The breed's strong points are the now desired traits of easy calving and longevity.

The Ayrshire cow is universally recognized as one of the most beautiful of the dairy cattle breeds, but much more important is the fact that she has been bred and developed to be a useful and profitable dairy cow. Now they are shown across the US in many National and World shows. The Ayrshire is changing the milking industry as well as the showing one. The cows are wanted for several desirable traits. In 1929, two Ayrshire cows named Tomboy and Alice, were literally walked from the association headquarters at Brandon, Vermont, to the National Dairy Show at St. Louis, Missouri. Both cows not only survived the trip, but calved normally and went on to produce outstanding milk records of the time. Mr. Cooley bought Ayrshires early on in the breed’s history here in the United States, and was one of the great pioneers of the breed.

Ralph Cooley and his Ayrshires collected many accolades over the years, from live stock associations at the county, state, and national levels culminating in a lifetime achievement award from the U.S. Ayrshire Breed Association in the 1990s for his work with the breed.

More importantly, perhaps, Ralph D. Cooley, Sr. was also known locally as a well liked businessman and neighbor. And even after the farm was parceled and sold in the late 1960s, and early 1970s, many local residents, who remember him fondly, still refer to the property at the old Cooley Farm. Mr. Cooley was a friendly face in Ghent and Columbia County for decades after his retirement.
From the early 1930s until near his death in the late 1990s Mr. Cooley was also a noted local sugarmaker. Mr. Cooley could annually be found near his sugar shack, which was caddy corner to the white barn found on our property sitting up on Route 66.

Every late winter and early spring, Mr. Cooley could be found standing near the boiling pots of sap, filling up the bottles, pails, jars, and jugs of friends and family for a nominal fee. He was as popular for his company as he was for his rustic syrup.

Brisklea Farm often hosted youngsters from around the county. Pre-schoolers and elementary students made class trips here to learn about sugar making, maple trees, and maple syrup. Mr. Cooley also hosted high-school and college vocational groups interested in agriculture and livestock breeding and care.

The farm passed through a series of owners hands. Now, in 2006 and 2007, we have attempted to restore one of the great working farms of Columbia County. And we take our hats off to folks like Mr. Cooley in tribute.

(Special thanks to Ralph Cooley, III, Gilbert Raab, and Phil Trowbridge of Trowbridge Angus)
(photos courtesy of Ralph D. Cooley, III and Brisklea Farm by arrangement with Hudson-Chatham Winery)

Sunday, April 15, 2007


Just yesterday I found these pictures that we both thought had been erased from our digital camera. Dom and I were thrilled to see them and it filled us with wonder, and rekindled in us the sense of excitement we first experienced those many months ago when we discovered this farm.

I had been dragging Dominique up and down the Hudson Valley looking for a suitable farm to turn into a small, micro-batch winery. The original major decision maker, the fact that the farm had be cheap and affordable, had since been discarded as an obselete notion. New Yorkers, and folks form the commuting environs, had recently taken to buying up these houses in droves, for vacation homes, causing each week for new record highs in ever town it seemed we visited.

We had been looking for months and found nothing. We'd argue about a few places. Two I liked that she hated, and one she liked I could not abide. After a reccent spat of disappointing viewings in Chatham and that area, we were headed home, sullenly.

Coming down State Route 66 from Chatham towards Hudson, we passed a few fields that were for sale, and then we passed a beautiful field (in our eyes), and a white house, and as we passed the property's barn, we saw a sign on it. It was for sale.

We parked in the drive way and rang the bell. The house was empty and aapparently had been so for some time. The fields were unkept. The barn needed work, and it had a little, well insulated shack. And it had some really nice, if unkept, fields. We walked the fields back and forth. We walked the parimeter of the whole farm.

We had no idea whether the fields were any good. We had no idea if we could grow grapes there. We had no idea about the traffic, but Dominique and I looked at each other, and we both knew, this was it.

These pictures are from that moment. We took a picture of the barn, not because we loved it (which we did), but because it had all the information we were seeking.

Looking now at these photos, one wonders what the heck we could have been thinking. But I know in both our minds, we were not seeing what was in front of us, but what they would eventually become.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


My stepmother Joanne’s mother, Grandmom Connie Rue, had decided she wanted to go into assisted living. She could no longer make it living on her own in the tiny, two-story Cape Cod house. Her husband, Grandpop Joe Rue, had died ten years earlier, and she was all alone.
Joseph Rue was the only grandfather I ever really knew. My mother’s father had died during World War Two, my stepfather’s father had died after my only meeting him once, and my father’s father, Phil, had died when I was five.

Joe Rue was a machinist with Monsanto almost his whole life, not including the years before the war. I had known he had been in the war, and that he had fought under Patton almost the entire time. He never spoke to me about the war, though I was fascinated by it. It was not until he died, when we went to put his coffin in the ground, when a military attachment showed up, to give him a proper military sendoff that I realized he had won three of the medals including two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star.

He loved animals and kept two dogs fastidiously. He was the nicest man I ever knew. And he could do everything. Paint. Plumbing. Electrical. Carpentry. He loved to read Popular Mechanics, and spent hours shopping at hardware stores and at Sears. He showed me how to use tools in his extensive and meticulously kept tool shop. When he and Grandmom Connie fought, he’d take out a Piels or Shaeffer, and go down into his basement workshop, close the door, smoke a cigarette, sip his beer, and mumble. While I truly appreciated Grandmom Rue, I felt sad visiting afterwards, without the conspiratorial old man, in his Jimmy Stewart-like way, showing me his latest gadget or his newest project or appliance. I missed him.

The Rue household held deep memories for me. Numerous Thanksgivings and Christmas Eves had been held there. I can still remember the TV room jam-packed with a combination of kids and adults, happily watching Laurence Welk, or It’s a Wonderful Life, or a thousand bad television shows from the 1970s. These were the members of the Greatest Generation. These were the people who had weathered the Great Depression and World War II, who had invented Levittown and televsion, and made this country great.

And I remember the basement, which was finished, complete with paneled walls and linoleum floors, lined down the middle with a series of mismatched tables, covered with two or three tablecloths. Twenty-five to thirty people were nothing for one of those events. Kids screaming, mothers chatting, husbands laughing and talking sports.

As I walked through the house, I soon felt odd. My aunt Dolores and my cousins Tressa and Renee had already gone through the house, or declined altogether. Anything now left was destined for a tag sale or the dumpster. I took a deep breath, and began my walk through.

The kitchen, a model of 1970s comfort, with bright sparkly Formica countertop, and metal base kitchen table, and picture of Jesus, was just as I remembered it, as were all the other rooms. It was just as I had seen it in my memories.

Small things, among which were a stack of DVDs or an out of place new appliance, shamed me for not visiting nearly often enough in the intervening years I had spent in New York, or raising my own family.

There were two urges within me. One was to leave immediately, as I felt guilty touching my grandmother’s things. The other was glee, at seeing all the small necessities we needed to stock a new house. This was, to us, a windfall. The prospect of filling a house with furniture from our guest rooms to the living room was a daunting one. And our budget was very lean in this regard. Here was a chance to get a head start.

With the truck backed into the driveway, we collected our memorabilia and booty. A bed, three bureaus, end tables, an antique chair, pots and pans, and glasses, and tools, and curtains, and extra towels. Everything was immaculately kept. Clean and folded. We got lamps, utensils, tableware, etc. You name it, she had accumulated tons of it. We loaded and packed up the station wagon and the old, loud, grumbling truck whose exhaust was still unfixed. It idled in the driveway, sounding like something sinking in a swamp—glug, glug, glug, glug. . . .

The truck took it all. We piled it high and deep. And wound it all up with string and twine, my father Phil and I arguing if it was secure or not. With the chair tied on top, this teetering pile of remnants took on a look of nomadic Oakies in The Grapes of Wrath, as the truck lurched out of the driveway, rocking back and forth, as it swayed with this newfound treasure.

I remember when it pulled into the driveway of our home, how the old truck and its cargo contrasted with the black-and-white striped awnings and trickling water fountains of our pristine Victorian neighborhood. I stepped back to see the sight, and laughed. We were nothing so noble as those resilient old Oakies, we were the Clampetts, pure and simple. It wasn’t comical—it was laugh out loud funny.

A week later, the truck’s raucous engine roared to life again. I revved the engine on a Friday night, and prepared to leave. I had returned from working in the city, and having enjoyed a rich dinner of cereal, I was now ready to schlep the Clampett-mobile up the Garden State Parkway and the New York State Thruway in the dead of night, hoping to avoid detection by police, who would surely either give me a ticket for disturbing the peace with a malfunctioning exhaust system, or a summons for piling up on an undersized vehicle.
Dawson came with me. Dominique and Dylan had left before us. The deafening roar of the engine at sixty miles per hour was excruciating, and was so loud that it actually prohibited us from talking, reducing us to shouting, or turning any attempt at soundless communication into some game of charades played by two village idiots, as we nodded extravagantly yes, or no, or pointed to sodas, potato chips, and traffic signs. Whenever we had to stop at a toll, the toll-taker’s eyes would invariably widen like the victim’s in an old drive-in thriller.

We trudged our way up. Dawson, much to his credit, eventually fell asleep. When the highway lay behind us, now late at night, I tapped the gas ever so gently, trying to keep the loud engine to a gentle chugging. We inched through the sleepy neighborhoods of Hudson, and then rumbled down the road to our home. When I finally turned into the driveway, the truck swayed as we hit the ditch and the curb of our driveway. I put the truck in park and cut the engine. The truck wheezed and died. The door made a loud creaking sound when I opened and closed it. And then I stopped. It was deadly quiet. There was no light—it was pitch black. And the only sound I could hear was the gravel underneath my feet. The truck had made it.

The next day, we unloaded the furniture, and brought it into the house. These pieces made a huge difference, and I felt great pride in unloading Connie’s utensils into our kitchen. The kitchen is all clapboard and beadboard. A real country kitchen. And these were no new retro-utensils. They were my grandmother’s—and they fit beautifully.

Monday, April 09, 2007


By midsummer the unused portion of the field, which we had let go to seed, because we could not plant between rains until it was too late (and we were too tired to deal with the situation once vine planting was finished), was overrun with weeds.
Something had to be done.

So Ralph had his friend come over and brush scrub the whole thing—and then Ralph plowed again. But this brought up, quite literally, another problem—rocks.
Ralph had ripped our fields earlier in the year—and now plowing them again emphasized the large rocks that filled our dirt.

We needed to go out and collect the rocks. They would eventually break tractor teeth or plows, or knock the heck out of the bottom of the truck. You know all those New England stone walls you think are so nice? We grow ’em in our farm!

So, I came up with an idea. The boys always love riding in the back of the pickup truck, but I think it’s too dangerous. But here was a good compromise.

I would go five miles an hour around the farm and let them ride in the back if they helped me to pick up rocks. I wasn’t sure how long they would last, but it was worth a shot.

They went for it in an instant. They were beyond thrilled, holding onto the back of the truck cab as I slowly pulled into the freshly plowed dirt fields. The dirt was turned over and springy like a big brown and gray sponge.

They began slowly, tentatively. I wouldn’t let them pick up anything too big—those were mine. But the medium and small ones were ripe for picking. They especially liked the ones that were half buried.

As the mid-day sun began to rise high in the sky, and the heat began to get to us, the boys asked if they could take off their shirts. I said sure.

Dominique came out and brought us water. There we were, three sweaty men, drinking water in the hot field like from a scene on a Southern chain gang. I was very proud of them. Dom asked if they wanted to stop and have lunch. No, they wanted to finish the field. So I made them a deal.
When we finished the field I would take them to the local Dairy Queen in Ghent for hamburgers and ice cream.

Suddenly the boys began in earnest. I had trouble keeping up with them. They hustled, pointing out rocks to each other. Boom! Crash! Ping! Bonk! Rocks clanged off the inside of my truck bed one after the other. Soon the bed began to fill up and my two little boys were working like field hands. They began to race against each other, and soon the field was being cleared as they hollered to each other.

"There’s one, Dylan!"
"Behind you, Dawson!"
"Here, help me with this one."

I had never seen such cooperation and speed in them for a chore. It was like the scene in Cool Hand Luke when they tar and sand the road at breakneck speed, George Kennedy and Paul Newman pushing each other.

Well, I guess that made me Strother Martin—but there was no failure to communicate. We finished fast. My back was aching from picking up so many stones, but it had been an awesome workout.
We went to Dairy Queen and we ordered away. Big Cokes. Big burgers. Big sundaes. We all were smiling at each other telling stories of rocks we had lifted, and marveled at the size, shape, and texture of the rocks.
And we were all three of us very happy.