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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 27, 2009
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
KNOX A hard-working and frugal man, George Van Etten loved farming his land and providing for his family.
After a long illness, he died in his sleep at his Knox home on Aug. 22, 2009. He was 76.
He and his wife of 52 years, Janice T. Van Etten, ran a farm in the Helderbergs that they opened to the public for hayrides and to gather Christmas trees.
Mr. Van Etten was also active in community affairs as a member of the Helderberg Kiwanis and the Knox Volunteer Fire Department, and as a 4-H leader.
“He was a treasurer for the fire department and the Kiwanis,” said Mrs. Van Etten, describing her husband as thrifty. “You knew he was an honorable man,” she said.
Although Mr. Van Etten was brought up a Catholic, he came to attend his wife’s church, the Knox Reformed Church.
“But he always said, ‘I meet my god in my fields.’ That’s where he often was on Sunday,” said Mrs. Van Etten.
Born in Schenectady, Mr. Van Etten was the son of the late Percy and Mary Van Etten.
“His best buddy has stories about him; they were kind of rascals,” said his wife.
A graduate of Draper High School, Mr. Van Etten worked for a year for his uncle, Fred Flansburg, in Balston Spa before going to college.
The couple met when they were both students in the Agricultural College at Cornell University. “He had taken a year off to work on his uncle’s poultry farm and then went to college to study animal husbandry,” said Mrs. Van Etten.
They were paired off as lab partners in a “Feed and Feeding” class, she recalled. “I kind of looked him over, and he didn’t look too bad,” Mrs. Van Etten recalled with a laugh. She then found out where and when his classes met and arranged to cross his path.
“It was kind of mutual,” she said about their growing affection.
After two years at Cornell, Mr. Van Etten joined the United States Army and served a two-year hitch.
“He got out in December and we married in April,” said Mrs. Van Etten. That was in 1957.
The couple lived on one salary and saved the other so they could realize their dream of buying a farm. He worked for the phone company as a linesman.
“When I got pregnant, George said, ‘I want you to stay home.’ We could manage on his salary,” said Mrs. Van Etten.
In 1959, the Van Ettens traveled up the Hill to Knox in an old Model T to look at a farm for sale.
“We went putt, putt, putt up the hill to God’s country, God being the only one that wanted it,” said Mrs. Van Etten.
The Van Ettens purchased the 200-acre property with a barn and two houses for $11,500.
Twenty-one years later, they added another 100 acres of land that lay between their two parcels. “George said he put the farm back together,” said Mrs. Van Etten.
“His dream was to have a poultry farm but the price of grain was so high that he shifted his focus to beef cattle,” wrote his daughter Judy Niedzielski in a tribute.
“Cattle eat for free in the summer,” his wife explained. “Then he could bale the hay and feed them all winter.”
“His life’s work was his 300-acre farm,” his daughter went on, “where he planted 50 acres of Christmas trees, had 40 head of cattle, chickens and pigs, gave fall hayrides, and cut and sold firewood. Maybe you have visited Van Etten farm on the Hill. The farm continues in the family and is operated as a horse farm by his daughter Susan.”
The idea for a Christmas tree farm was born because, said Mrs. Van Etten, “We had land that was not good for planting; it was rocky with very little soil.”
So the Van Ettens planted 50 acres of tiny trees that would grow to grace family rooms and parlors throughout the Capital Region.
“He always said, ‘You never plant more trees than your wife can shear.’ He always called me his branch manager,” said Mrs. Van Etten.
As he was farming, Mr. Van Etten worked a day job to support his dream. He started a career with the state when he built the stone fireplaces at Thacher Park and the caretaker’s house. He then became a bridge painter for the New York State Thruway when it was being constructed and helped to build the rest area buildings as well.
Mr. Van Etten tested into the newly formed Conservation Department and built the concrete piers for the chairlifts on Gore Mountain. With the 1980 Olympics approaching, he was sent to create the biathlon target range in Lake Placid. He also held the titles of building inspector and dam inspector.
“He made sure the concrete was just the right mix,” Mrs. Van Etten said of her husband’s work on the biathlon range. “They knew he would get the job done right. He would help with the work. He always said, ‘Why stand around?’”
Mr. Van Etten retired in 1988. “When he retired,” his wife recalled, “he said, ‘I don’t know how I had time to go to work.’”
Mr. Van Etten was a strict father, said his wife. “He had a firm hand, which is fine,” she said. “I have two boys that tower over me…The way to manage children is with love; sometimes it was tough love.”
Mr. Van Etten was a 4-H leader. “He had the boys; I had the girls,” said Mrs. Van Etten. While she was teaching sewing to the girls, her husband was teaching the boys to work with leather and wood. He also had them incubate chicks and build birdhouses.
It was as a grandfather that Mr. Van Etten became tender. The Van Ettens have 16 grandchildren. “When a little baby was crying, we’d put him on George’s chest, and soon he’d be asleep,” said Mrs. Van Etten. “He was a great grandfather.”
In addition to his wife, Janice Van Etten, George Van Etten is survived by his children: his son, Jeffrey Van Etten, and his wife, Patsy, of Leesburg, Va.; his daughter Judy Niedzielski, and her husband, Andy, of Wethersfield, Conn.; his daughter, Sue Mason of Knox; his daughter Nancy Stewart and her husband, Keith, of Aurora, Colo.; his son, Andrew Van Etten of Bethesda, Md.; and his foster son, Raymond Butler, and his wife, Cindy, of Altamont.
He is also survived by 16 grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.
He was the brother of the late Lawrence Van Etten and his wife, Barbara of Mariaville; Elizabeth Van Der Snoek and her husband, Simon from the Boston area; Ida Saburro and her husband, Fred of Schenectady; and Mary Clark of Holbrook, Mass..
A funeral service will be conducted at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 29, at the Knox Reformed Church followed by internment at the Knox Cemetery.
Calling hours will be held at Fredendall Funeral Home in Altamont on Friday, Aug. 28, from 4 to 7 p.m.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Knox Reformed Church, Post Office Box 86, Knox, NY 12107 or to the Knox Volunteer Fire Department, Post Office Box 131, Knox NY 12107.