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Holiday Gift & Event Guide — The Altamont Enterprise, November 27, 2008

At 80, Ann Marie Vogel helps her neighbors from her Hilltown farm

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

RENSSELAERVILLE — Ann Marie Vogel doesn’t wait for the holidays — she gives all year round.

The octogenarian lives in a cozy cottage on the farm where she and her late husband raised six children. One of her sons owns and runs the farm now and she lives with her cat and her dog in the cottage she and her husband had built for her parents, now gone.

Outside is a fanciful bird feeder, with Victorian gingerbread; it was built by her niece with a tin roof applied by her son. A bear has recently ravaged the feeder. Vogel watched from her window. “I love my birds,” she says.

Inside, the cottage smells of cinnamon buns. On a cold morning last week, Vogel is baking them in her oven. She applies an orange glaze and sets them out on white china plates trimmed with vines.  Her kitchen chairs are similarly painted in white with bright blue morning glories stenciled on their backs. She says her niece rescued them from the trash.

Vogel graciously pours tea for the reporter who came to interview her and explains why she likes it better than coffee.

Her conversation is constantly interrupted by the ring of her telephone.

“Hi, Ida, How are you doing?” she asks. “What can I do for you?”

Vogel is the point person for arranging trips on the town-owned van and bus for seniors who need to get to doctors and other appointments or to go shopping.

A half-dozen years ago, Vogel herself had problems getting rides to her doctor. “I went to the town board and told them my tale of woe,” she says. “They said they’d rent a van if I would coordinate it.” She did, and the program grew.

“Last year, two great men raised money for a handicapped van,” says Vogel. She spreads out the book on her kitchen table where she tracks the volunteer drivers and those who need rides.

”This is my life,” she says. “I’m the senior coordinator for the village.”

She also says, “I’m not good at taking things. My reward is helping people.”

“Taking care of each other”

Her dog, Cody, with a lush, dark coat and soulful eyes, stays close to Vogel. An old dog, he has trouble getting up. Part retriever, part collie, Cody is a big dog with a calm temperament. His spine is degenerating, Vogel explains matter-of-factly.

“We’re senior citizens taking care of each other,” she says, giving Cody’s back end a boost.

“I have two new knees. I would recommend it to everybody,“ says Vogel of the replacement surgery, “but you have to do the exercises or you lose it.”

Vogel has a way with animals and a particular fondness for dogs. “I raised Dobermans,” she says. “All my kids learned how to walk by crawling over and putting their hands on the dog’s back.” She says of the breed, “They are sweethearts, very family oriented, very gentle.”

Cody, though, has a special place in her heart. “My husband died 15 years ago. I lost my Doberman, my old English sheepdog, and my husband, all my best friends, all in one year,” she says. “That’s when I got him,” she says as Cody — short for Cody Bear — nuzzles her.

“He saved my life,” Vogel goes on, speaking literally, not metaphorically. She tells the story of when Cody was half the age he is now. She had had pneumonia and had gotten home from the hospital, feeling tired.

Her niece had given her a splendid glass-topped coffee table and she had decorated it with candles in a pinecone holder.  Vogel blew out the candles and went to her bedroom. “I fell sound asleep,” she said.

The next thing she knew, Cody had jumped up on her bed. She got him down; he did it again, and again she got him down. She never yells at her dog.

“Finally, he stood over me,” recalled Vogel. That got her up and she saw the house was full of smoke.

“The firemen told me five minutes more and I wouldn’t have gotten out,” said Vogel. “I sat outside and cried,” she said. “That beautiful glass table was shattered.” She figured later, a spark must have ignited one of the pinecones.

Coming home

Although Vogel seems the quintessential farmwife, she was born in Queens. “I’m a city girl,” she says with a smile. Her father worked on Wall Street and her mother was a homemaker. An only child, Vogel enjoyed the company of many neighborhood playmates.

“We’d roller-skate and bicycle and play stick ball together,” she said. “I had a wonderful childhood.“  When she got older, she took the train into Manhattan to see plays.

Eventually her city parents came to join her on the farm. The house she lives in now was built 40 years ago when her father retired. “My father came up here, kicking and screaming,” she said, but ended up loving farm life. “After a year, he stopped taking his heart pills,” Vogel said. “I figured I added years to his life.”

Vogel met the man who would become her husband, Charles Vogel, through a mutual friend. It was “just about” love at first sight, she said. She was 19; he was 20. “He’d just gotten out of the service from World War II,” she said.

After they were married, he worked as a roofer, building Levittown. That huge suburban development on Long Island typified the post-war era.

Vogel described the assembly-line type of production that built the houses. “Ten people would be working at once....If the electrician was not out in time, he would get painted,” she said.

The young Vogel family moved to Lindenhurst on Long Island. “I hated it,” recalled Vogel. “The people came to see what your house looked like, not to be your friend.”

She contrasted that to the life she has led on the farm in Rensselaerville. “Neighbors were always willing to help here,” she said. “They didn’t come to see what your house looked like.”

Although she loves the ocean, Vogel had trouble breathing the damp air on Long Island. “The doctor said, ‘Get off the island,’” she recalled. “My cousin had a farm on the other side of Rensselaerville...When I went to my cousin’s, I could breathe.”

She and her husband began looking for land in the Helderbergs to raise their young family. They had three children — Billy, Peter, and Susan — and she considered their family complete.

When their real-estate agent called about a 230-acre farm in Rensselaerville, “We came in a thunderstorm,” said Vogel. “When we got to the driveway, we looked at each other and said, ‘This is it.’”

She went on, “When I came here, I decided I’d raise kids and animals.” The Vogels had three more children — Charles junior, called Bucky; Nancy, and David.

Vogel recalled her thoughts on first seeing the 19th-Century farmstead, “It just felt like I was home. I’ve been here 52 years...When my husband passed away, I didn’t want to sell.” She was afraid she’d loose the farm, not being able to pay the taxes. “David came to me,” she said of her youngest son. He bought the farm and she was able to stay on the land she loved.

Hard work, happy life

When the Vogels came to the farm over a half-century ago, the barn was a shell and the house was “real old-fashioned,” Vogel said.

The couple was unfazed that neither of them had ever farmed or even lived on a farm. Vogel said of her husband, “His vocation was building; his avocation was farming.”

She went on, “We went to the extension service. They made us a three-year plan. The Farmers Home Administration stuck their neck out for us.”

The Vogels moved in to their new home in early October. “It was a little scary to leave family and move up here with a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old, and a six-month-old,” she said. “We all slept in the kitchen where the big wood stove kept us warm.”

Vogel learned to cook on that stove. “The pies came out burnt on one side till I learned how to do it,” she said.

But, right off, she said, she loved farm life. “It’s hard work,” she said, “but it’s family life...Kids bring other kids; there were eight of us to start with. The house was always full of people.”

She’s glad the old farmhouse has young children living there again — her two youngest grandchildren, ages 6 and 11.

“My grandchildren have a camp that looks like a condo,” she said with a laugh. Recently, a beaver felled a tree that flooded the bridge to get to the camp.

Vogel and her husband ran a dairy farm. “I loved the cows,” she said. “I named them all. I’d go in the barn and call them all by name. I talked to them and they’d talk back.”

Vogel shared milking duty with her husband. When he went out to work, she did the chores.

“It’s the only business where you buy retail and sell wholesale,” she said. That’s a hard way to make a living, she said. “There’s only one farm left on this road,” said Vogel. “It was all dairy farms when we moved here.”

“Christmas on the farm is absolutely magical”

Her first Christmas on the farm, she felt “a little bit lonesome with no family around.” But Vogel is not one to sit around and feel sorry for herself; she’s a doer.

She recalled her happy childhood Christmas celebration in Queens. “The whole neighborhood went house to house, singing carols,” she said. “We’d go to midnight mass at Our Lady of Miraculous Medal.”

So what did she do her first Christmas on the farm? “I invited everyone I knew; we had a big dining room,” she said. “We cut our own tree and greens and decorated.” This included not only the house but the barn as well. Through the years, the cows always got special Christmas treats.

“The animals are important on a farm,” said Vogel.

“My first Christmas Eve, I went to midnight mass in Greenville,” she said.

“To me, the church is important,” said Vogel. “I get a lot of comfort from the church...I believe what I believe...I don’t shove it down anybody’s throat.”

A half-century later, she still vividly recalls the scene coming home, as she looked at Rensselaerville. “I saw the village with snow on the roofs of the houses with the white church steeple in the center. It was so bright. I said, ’My God, that’s a Christmas card.’”

She appreciates all the seasons, not the least of which is winter. “The ice coats the trees so they sparkle,” said Vogel, concluding, “I think I live in the prettiest place in the world.

She enjoys both the domestic animals and the wildlife. “We have a pair of eagles we see,” said Vogel.

“Christmas on the farm is absolutely magical,” she said.

To this day, Vogel enjoys all the Christmas festivities Rensselaerville has to offer. She serves on the board at the historic Conkling Hall and enjoys going to the events there.

“In Rensselaerville, Santa Claus comes on a fire truck and we have a party for the kids at the firehouse,” said Vogel. “Then we all walk up to the village and light the tree and go caroling.”

The best Christmas gift she’s been given is the return of her children. Her eldest, Billy, lives nearby; he works driving a cement truck. Peter, next in line, drives a ready-mix truck and lives in Florida. Susan lives in Colonie and works at the nursing home in Guilderland Center. Bucky also lives in the Capital District and drives an 18-wheeler for a lumber company. Nancy is an entrepreneur living in Florida. And David lives in the old farmhouse, now remodeled. “He’s a jack of all trades like his father,” said Vogel; he works as a farmer and roofer, and has a snowplowing business.

Last year, her Christmas surprise was an unannounced visit from Peter. “They picked him up at the airport without telling me. He was right here,” she said, pointing to her couch. “He just said, ‘Hi.’ I started crying.”

HCRC is “there for everyone”

Vogel is impressed with all that the Hilltowns Community Resource Center does. The center is supported by the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany.

“At Christmas time, they have everything from a baby blanket to a senior coat,” she said. “They’re trying to get enough money together to give $50 to each person.”

Sometimes, people hesitate to use what the center offers.

“I’m trying to find people that need it...It’s hard because people say, ‘I don’t take charity.’ It’s not charity. That’s the hardest part to get people to admit they need help...”

She went on about the resource center, “They’re there for everyone. They bring water to someone who doesn’t have it. A new mother came away with a portable crib in a box that had never been used....Everyone that needs help gets it..”

Vogel remembers what it was like to feel in need herself and has some advice to help others. “When my husband first died, I just shut down,” she said. “My friends stopped calling. They’d been after me to join the senior club. One day, I got dressed, and I went...We have a good group; we have fun together.

 She concludes with a bit of life philosophy: “You do for people and they do for you and it keeps you going.”

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