Historical association posts story on Bender Melon Farm’s past as funds are sought to preserve property's future

NEW SCOTLAND — The history of the Bender Melon Farm is being published anew as fundraising efforts are underway by the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy to purchase for $1.2 million the 200 acres where the melons once grew.

Voorheesville’s historian, Dennis Sullivan, researched the farm’s history, using original sources — right down to octogenarian Margaret Jane Blessing’s memory, as a child, stopping her play in the school yard to watch the wondrous sight of the Bender wagon, pulled by beautiful brown horses clopping down New Scotland Road.

Thirty-three years ago, Sullivan’s history of the farm was published in two consecutive editions of The Altamont Enterprise, Aug. 28 and Sept. 4, 1986. Then, in 1990, the New Scotland Historical Association  published a 32-page pamphlet, “Charles Bender and the Bender Melon Farm: A Local History,” which the society has now posted online at https://bit.ly/356js4z.

Sullivan opens his history with a description of Charles Bender’s 1905 trip to New York City to peddle his Golden Queen melons, which were eventually served at such fine hotels as the Waldorf-Astoria and the Savoy. Bender, Sullivan noted this week, was a salesman as well as a seedsman and farmer, and he also called the same melon Bender’s Surprise.

The account goes onto explain how Bender developed the strain and remained covetous of the seeds, and details other produce he grew, including small white turnips that were also sold to New York’s finest restaurants.

Sullivan’s history describes a grand gathering in 1917 — a fundraiser for the Red Cross during World War I, which attracted 2,000 people to the Bender farm, where Charles’s wife, Elizabeth Bender, had hit upon the idea of serving slices of melon topped with ice cream.

Sullivan’s account follows the farm history through its sale to William Taylor in 1939 as public tastes and farming itself changed. The property became a dairy farm, which Taylor sold in 1976.

This week, Sullivan said he got interested in the story when he was reporting for The Enterprise — he’s now a columnist for the newspaper — after he talked to William Taylor. “I began to find out that Charlie Bender’s melon was big,” said Sullivan. “New Scotland had something really important.”

Sullivan recalled that the Enterprise publisher emeritus, Jim Gardner, himself an avid gardener, showed great interest in the melon story, which took up pages in the paper, “urging me to pursue it with gusto.”

Sullivan went on about Bender, “He worked so hard, putting these little greenhouses over each melon.” Each had a glass top that would be removed when it got too hot so the melon could breathe, he said.

“And he would put a plate under each melon so it wouldn’t grow a flat side,” said Sullivan.

He concluded of his deep dive into the Bender Melon Farm history, “It’s a paean to the seedspeople, to the growers, to the orchardists, to the people who farm in New Scotland.”

The land

The old farm property, located at the intersections of routes 85 and 85A in the center of New Scotland became the focus of a grassroots uprising a decade ago when Sphere Development proposed building a 750,000-square-foot mall on the site.

An organized public outcry first led to a six-month moratorium on commercial buildings over 30,000-square-foot, which eventually led to the adoption a size-cap law, and finally to the adoption of a plan for the New Scotland Hamlet, which includes the Bender Melon Farm, and an update to the town’s comprehensive plan, both adopted in 2018.

This summer, the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy acquired the option to buy the 198-acre property, which is owned by 306 Maple Road, LLC. The conservancy had about a year to raise $1.2 million to purchase the property, which continues to be listed at $4 million, a price that has not changed since 2008. At the same time, the town’s assessment rolls list its full-market value as just under $800,000.

“The future of the Bender Melon farm remains uncertain,” says the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy in an appeal on its website. “There is the threat of it becoming the next site for a large residential development, joining more than two hundred homes already approved in the vicinity.”

The appeal goes on, “The headwaters of the Philipinkill originate on these lands and then run through the Five Rivers Environmental Education Center and several MHLC preserves before eventually emptying into the Hudson River. Construction of this scope would have a significant negative impact on water quality and groundwater hydrology, thus affecting the stream, our local wetlands, and vernal pool pockets.

“Also, by preserving this landscape, we can conserve one of the iconic landscapes of Albany County, while preserving habitat for insects, birds, and other animals to live and thrive as well as vital wildlife corridors in the age of global warming.”

The conservancy applied for a matching grant, an Environmental Protection Fund Grant, through the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to buy the Bender Melon Farm; funds equal to the grant would need to be raised from the community. Mark King, executive director of the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy, told The Enterprise on Wednesday that the recipients of the state’s grants are expected to be announced on Thursday, Dec. 19.

King declined to provide a fundraising total for publication at this point, writing in an email, “I will say progress is good and we are very pleased with the community response to the effort and we have some larger donors that are considering their level of support.”

He told The Enterprise, “We still have a long way to go. An awful lot depends on the grants. People want to see how things fall in place. We’re in a bit of a holding pattern.”

King praised the historical association’s republication of Sullivan’s history of the Bender farm. “It’s great,” he said. “It’s perfectly timed. It gives attention to the project. It’s an interesting history that new people in town might not know.”

The New Scotland Historical Association has at its museum, in the Wyman Osterhout Center in New Salem, a permanent exhibit on the Bender Melon Farm.

“It’s probably the only exhibit on Bender melons in the world,” said Alan Kowlowitz, president of the museum. He said the small exhibit contains the photographs included in Sullivan’s history of the farm as well as a jar of Bender melon seeds.

Sullivan told The Enterprise, “Bill Taylor gave me the last batch of seeds from the farm in a can about six inches wide and 18 inches tall.”

Sullivan gave those seeds to a half-dozen gardeners; none of them germinated.

Kowlowitz said of posting Sullivan’s history now, “A lot of it had to do with the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy’s drive to save the Bender Melon Farm property.”

The association, he said, had only two printed copies of the history left and it was “quicker and cheaper” to “do an E-publication” rather than reprinting, he said. Also, he said, it is likely to reach more people.

“We wanted to help them out,” Kowlowitz said of the land conservancy. “We’re into historic preservation.”

Joined: 03/06/2016 - 19:35
History of Bender Melon Farm

History of Bender Melon Farm 191212


More New Scotland News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.