Make a list so historic sites will be treasured, not trashed

We’ve long liked a traditional saying of the Sioux: “A people without history is like the wind on the buffalo grass.”

The wind makes its mark as it passes through, but it leaves no record; it is temporary, only a fleeting whisper. We have in our midst natural formations and manmade structures that are worth preserving so that they may inform our future.

Last month, our New Scotland reporter, Jo E. Prout, wrote that the LeVie barn’s reprieve from demolition had ended, and only photos, architectural drawings, and salvaged beams would remain after a February deadline.

She wrote of the New Scotland Town Board meeting where councilman Daniel Mackay, a champion to save the barn, was moved to tears as he said, “We may not be able to do right by this structure.”

The owners of the LeVie barn, Country Club Partners, plan to sell both the barn lot and adjacent land to a developer, which may build a dozen houses there near the Colonie Country Club, part of the Kensington Woods development on Route 85A outside of Voorheesville.

The property owners and the town signed a contract last year in which the owners agreed to refrain from demolishing the barn until Feb. 28, 2015. If the town had a proposal to relocate the barn, the owner would allow the town until May 31, 2015, according to the agreement.

But, in that year, no one had stepped forward to bear the considerable cost — estimated at between half-a-million and a million dollars.

Since Prout’s story ran, we’ve received a spate of letters, calling for the developer to preserve the barn where it stands. We like this idea, as it would serve as an icon, not just for the residents of the new development — much better than a newly constructed gateway — but for the entire town until a good use could be found for it.

As letter-writer Timothy Albright so forcefully put it, “Future generations of the people of New Scotland will mock us if this barn is torn down.”

Also, Mackay told Prout, since her story ran, several potential buyers had come to look at the barn with the idea of dismantling and relocating it. Saving the barn elsewhere would be better than razing it, but saving it where it was built would be the best of all.

It is a splendid tribute to the town’s agrarian past. The barn was built for farmer Joseph Hilton by Frank Osterhout with a crew of 160 volunteers, an event recorded 117 years ago in The Altamont Enterprise.  The massive barn is as tall as it is wide — 60 feet — and twice as long.  The roof was covered with 60 tons of slate.

That so many volunteers could work successfully together to complete such a grand structure in just a few days speaks volumes on the tradition of mutual aid that sustained farmers in a bygone era — with everything from barn raising to harvesting.

An expert, Randy Nash, who Makay brought to look at the barn last year, said its size and bent topology make it unusual. He described what this meant by pointing to the timbers in the end wall. “Think of that as a wafer,” said Nash. Each of those wafers, or series of timbers, is a bent, he said.  He also found the 40-foot milled beams unusual since most mills had shorter carriages. An earlier Enterprise story said that a portable sawmill was brought to the barn, and the trees on the back side of the Hilton property were cut for timber.

So the barn was literally constructed, not just with homegrown labor, but also of homegrown materials.

Nash said, too, that he was “flabbergasted” at the solid state of the sills, which are often rotted in old barns, causing the buildings to tip. “This one’s still straight,” he said. This bodes well for its chances of standing strong for ages to come — that is, if it’s not razed now.

Nash also said, “Even though I’ve moved all these buildings, and given them a new life” — he estimated he has taken apart and put together over 60 buildings — “as a barn historian, I don’t want to look at a barn somebody moved.” He concluded, “This building has potential for being today’s world.

But that is true only if it still stands. We hope citizens, enraged now by the historic structure’s potential demise, will turn that energy to saving what remains of the town’s history.

We were struck last week with a letter sent to us by Edie Abrams, who has long been active in New Scotland planning issues. She wrote, “Our comprehensive plan speaks to an envisioned future that cherishes the town’s agricultural history,” citing surveys of residents that said as much.

This led us back to an editorial we wrote a dozen years ago, urging then, as we do now, that the town include as part of its comprehensive plan a catalogue of valued places, both natural and manmade.

We wrote then about the disappearance of a magical place in New Scotland. The field along the Altamont-Voorheesville Road was edged by the Helderbergs — lush green in summer, vivid hues of flame in the fall, white and gray in the winter, vibrant with the leaves come to life in the spring.

A quirky cartoonish dip near the edge off the field, not far from the road, provided character. For hundreds of years, farmers had worked around this ancient oddity. Kids imagined the depressions were a giant’s footprints or a fairyland. Houses had sprouted in the field in recent years but, because of the ice-age topography, the place had maintained its charm.

Those who have lived in New Scotland a long time are already nodding now in fond recognition of what geologists call depression kettles. Those who moved here in the last 12 years may have no idea what those are because all they can see now is a flat field. Kids no longer flock there on school field trips to learn about geological history, to see it with their own eyes.

At the time the kettles were filled, our geology columnist, Michael Nardacci, explained how they were formed: During the Pleistoscene epoch, the north polar ice cap expanded until it reached as far south as Long Island. When the ice sheets began to melt, huge blocks of ice became buried in sediment, insulated from the sun’s heat, leaving depressions when the ice turned to water.

You didn’t have to be a geologist to appreciate such a natural wonder. In the summer of 2003, people called or came by our news office to report — some with outrage, some with horror — the kettles were being filled. The owners of the land had bulldozed it and arranged for rubble — asphalt and cement — from a nearby road project to be dumped there. They had the legal right to do so.

Why, then, were people so upset? Because sometimes ownership isn’t just a matter of who holds a mortgage with a bank, or whose name is on a property deed. A community can feel a sense of ownership for a historic site or a natural wonder in its midst.

In 2003, we urged the town to come up with a list of sites the community considers important. We asked citizens to consider what features, what places, what buildings are unique to New Scotland.

Any place can have big new homes built on leveled land, land without magical kettles, land without magnificent historic barns nearby. What makes New Scotland special? What structures and views should be preserved?

The town’s Residents’ Planning Advisory Committee, in its report submitted to the New Scotland town board in 2005, recommended the town take an inventory of its historic buildings. We’re urging the town, again, to survey its citizens and come up with a list of sites considered important to preserve before the next controversy arises. Determining what creates our sense of place would be both useful and inspiring. Owners of historic properties may be moved to apply to be listed on historical registers and other safeguards may be put in place.

No municipality can afford to purchase all the places its citizens value in order to preserve those places for the future. And a property owner — whether a company or an individual — has a legal right to do as it wants with its land.

But such a list would at least let someone planning a purchase know what townsfolk value; it would be a way of giving fair warning. Further, it could inspire some property owners to donate development rights of their land. Some residents may be proud to preserve what they own and want it protected beyond their lifetime. Future owners would then maintain the legacy.

Once a natural feature or building is gone — whether it’s the old hotels that the city folk frequented or the cider mills where locals worked — a piece of history disappears with it. Real Victorian buildings will be replaced with modern pseudo-Victorians and ancient barns built on site with lumber from the land will be replaced with the ubiquitous prefabricated sheds. New Scotland will look more like every place else and less like itself. We need to make the effort now to identify what we value or those places will be lost — forever.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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