For me, seeing Osterhout’s barn is like seeing an El Greco or Goya at the Prado and just a few feet away

To the Editor:

I would like to thank the Enterprise editor, Melissa Hale-Spencer, for her wonderfully informative and thorough piece on the Hilton Barn in last week’s edition of The Enterprise. I would like to thank as well James Gardner, the publisher of The Enterprise, for continuing to provide space in his paper to highlight important issues of cultural preservation in Albany County, particularly in our towns and villages out this way. It is a virtue whose presence is far less felt in more than a few of our regional dailies.

For me the barns of Frank Osterhout (1868-1945), whose house stands diagonally across the street from our front door, are true works of art and include not only the Hilton Barn but also the Furman Barn (at the corner of Krumkill Road and Font Grove) and the Waldbillig Barn located on the former Gerard Farm where the Vly meets the Normanskill on their way to the Hudson.

In the spring of 1990, The Timber Framers Guild of North America found out about Frank’s work as the framers were preparing to hold their annual conference at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in June of that year. Through fellow Voorheesvillian Bob Morrison, they asked if they might visit the structures during the conference (Bob lived in Frank’s house, by the way).

At the time, there was a Town of New Scotland Historical Preservation Commission comprised of Marsha Baker, Elizabeth Mason, Robert Parmenter, Madelon Pound, Marion Raymond, and myself (serving as chair). We were interested in saving some of the historic structures in the town such as the house on the Bender Farm located off 85A behind Falvo’s meat market.

There is a story to that but there was also a story to the Hilton Barn because it was up for sale at a time when developers from downstate were buying up barns this way, disassembling them, and transferring them to more affluent properties downstate, as great show-off items.

Clearly Captain Hilton’s cathedral was not for them. I do not know what happened to that movement but I do recall there were limited governmental funds then for preserving artifacts such as barns and cemeteries.

The Preservation Commission arranged for the framers to visit the three Osterhout barns as well as the Dutch barn on the Czapski farm on Picard Road. They arrived en force in a rented bus to carry them from site to site.

They walked around inside the barns, inspecting every joint with a keen eye; they got up on the beams in the Hilton Barn to see things closer up. You should have heard the oohs and aahs, non-stop. Like Bravos! after Rigoletto at the Met.

They praised the work of Frank to the high heavens. They were especially impressed that Frank was building barns into the 20th Century using mortise-and-tenon construction and by that I especially mean the Furman Barn. The 67-year-old Osterhout built the Furman barn in 1936 at the request of Abe Furman who had seen the barn go up on the adjoining Gerard Farm as a young man.

Frank came with his son-in-law, Jim Bettinger, and a carpenter from Feura Bush named Snyder who chiseled wood from May until the barn was ready for hay in October. As I reported in a printed program that the Preservation Commission put together for the tour, Osterhout had contracted with a Mr. Ferlani, a sawyer on Russell Road, to cut the wood, which included two 40-foot timbers for the center.

The sawyer told Osterhout that timbers that long could not be cut. When an argument ensued, Osterhout exclaimed, “If you don’t know how to do it, I’ll come over and help you saw them!” Osterhout did and the two timbers were soon at the Furman farm ready to be hoisted into place.

When I talked to Abe Furman, who was over 80 in 1990, about Osterhout’s efforts, he said, when the pre-chiseled pieces were raised, they fit perfectly. “He didn’t have to re-chisel a thing,” Abe said.

The same was true for the Hilton Barn 40 years earlier. New Scotland resident Ken Weidman, whose father, John, worked on the project with Osterhout, said all the wood for the Hilton barn was pre-cut from the farm’s offerings and Osterhout did not have to cut a single plank twice.

Because it was too expensive to cart sawed timbers for a monument that size by horse and wagon any distance, Osterhout set up a portable saw mill on the farm and cut wood gathered from the back lots. It was said, and this needs to be verified still, that the wood was yellow pine. That will stir debate among tree experts but Kenny Weidman said: yellow pine. One-hundred-and-sixty men gathered to put up the Hilton cathedral and more can be said about that at another time.

For years, I taught courses on justice at several universities and I used to raise the question about how just is it for anyone to cut him- or herself off from the past and to leave no traces of roots for their children — individually and collectively speaking.

And, in the preface to Voorheesville, New York: A Sketch of the Beginnings of a Nineteenth-Century Railroad Town (Village of Voorheesville, 1989), I asked why would anyone, in our momentum-driven culture, want to expend energy, time, money on some place they’re just passing through? We might be citizens of the world these days but the currency of that citizenship is only as good as the roots each citizen has burrowed into the earth they are standing on. 

It costs money to maintain these historic structures, as we know. The boards of directors of historical associations that maintain buildings housing the past will tell you in no uncertain terms that such structures kill you financially — when the burden is borne by a few. That’s why a visit to the Emily Dickinson Museum costs an adult $10 — and she’s considered to be America’s quintessential poet, America personified!

Preserving the past may not come cheap but neither does preserving the feet that get us from place to place rootlessly. When the cultural feet go, we start to go, psychologically, and I will debate this issue with anyone, for me it is Q.E.D.

Why would 50 members of the Timber Framers Guild desire so strongly to interrupt their conference to see works of art we treat as hot potatoes? I know it’s more complex than that, but why?

I have loved from the first day I came to this area nearly 40 years ago the Osterhout barn on Abe Furman’s farm. I was not involved in local history then but I eyed the barn with great delight. Only years later would I find out the story of the barn and the artist who sculpted it. It changed my life and by that I mean I began to sink roots in the soil beneath my feet. 

I try to take Font Grove Road from Slingerlands to Voorheesville as often as I can. I took it today and looked at Abe’s barn with the same delight as when I first saw it and asked: What indeed is that!

I have wonderful photos of Abe and his son-in-law, Les Ferguson, cutting hay in the field above the barn with an old way-out-of-fashion boat they pulled by tractor to stack the bales of hay. I spent afternoons photographing them.

Several weeks ago, I was on the same route home and had to stop and take a picture of my cherished Osterhout sitting quietly in the snow. For me, it is like seeing an El Greco or Goya at the Prado and just a few feet away.

I hope the editor has space enough this week to publish my photo of this Osterhout. The fare is much cheaper than that to Madrid. Here you can peer at a work of art you might have always enjoyed or maybe you are seeing it for the first time and have a faint understanding of the importance of local roots regardless of where you’re from.

Dennis Sullivan