Farming North East through the dairy decades

Borden’s Milk Plant, Millerton, N.Y., October 1932. Front: Bill Crawford, Russell Snyder, John Canevari, George Snyder, Chas Teater, Eddie Franks, Jim Garrison, John Myers, Les Seamah, Herb Plows, John Patton. Second row: Ben Dietweiler, John Miller, Ralph Bathrick, Charles Howland, Anna Cook, William Bates, Josephine Best, Tony Mechare, Lous Canevari, Vin Crawford, John Haines and Superintendent Fred Evans. On truck: Clayt Marks, Charlie Hanley. Third row: Driver unknown, from Canaan, Ross Maxwell, John Silvernail and Bob Brizzie. Not present: Fred Morgan, Bob Burns.

North East Historical society

Farming North East through the dairy decades

MILLERTON — The region’s cropland has seen several distinct chapters over the past four centuries, beginning with the Indigenous Mahican practice of planting corn, beans and squash together — a naturally symbiotic agricultural system called the Three Sisters — to supplement a diet of hunting and gathering.

Beginning here, Meg Downey, the North East Historical Society board member and career journalist, gave the Society’s headline Dine Out for History lecture at the Millerton Inn on Saturday, Jan. 28.

Several dozen guests sipped complimentary wine while Downey walked them through significant historical phases of local agriculture.

The Dutch influence on farming in the 18th century emphasized on wheat growing and apples for hard cider, she said. While tenant farming, a legacy of the old feudalist Dutch patroon system, was prevalent in the mid-Hudson valley until the mid-19th century’s anti-rent wars, subsistence farming was more common in this area.

“Some would put what they produced into barrels, heave them onto wagons and take a mish-mash of old trails and cowpaths down south of here to what became known as the Kings Highway because it connected to the larger population of Kings County, now known as Brooklyn,” said Downey. “Now, more than 300 years later, that business is back locally with Kings Highway Fine Cider in the Town of North East, south of Millerton.”

According to Downey, grain output was significant in the early 19th century, but the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 flooded the market with grain grown in the Midwest, where soils are better for cultivating wheat. In this area, farmers pivoted to apples and dairy.

New York Condensed Milk Factory Pond and Dam west of North Center Street in Millerton with a boy fishing on the left, April 16, 1897.North East Historical society

Condensed milk production came to play a significant role in the local farming economy with the arrival of the Harlem Valley rail line. In 1856, a man named Gail Borden patented the process for evaporating milk, which led to the establishment of The New York Condensed Milk Company, with milk plants along rail sidings all over the region. The company was significantly buoyed by a government contract to produce condensed milk for Union soldiers in the Civil War, many of whom returned home singing the praises of the product, which Downey described as a “built-in marketing campaign.”

The company, which eventually became the Borden Company, continued to influence the region for many years with a foray into the fluid milk business and plants in Millerton, Pawling, Ancramdale, Copake, Brewster, Wallkill, Canaan and Falls Village. Today’s Harlem Valley Rail Trail users may notice a pond at a bump-out point just north of the Village of Millerton, an ice resource that the plant drew from to cool milk at the Millerton Borden plant before refrigeration.

The Borden operation in Millerton closed in 1934.

“Plenty of inventions made farming more profitable: gasoline-powered tractors, combines and harvesters for reaping, chopping and baling,” said Downey. “With refrigeration, milk and produce could finally be kept fresh without using packs of ice, but it also meant that local farmers would suddenly be competing with farmers across the country and abroad because food could be shipped greater distances.”

The number of dairy farms in Dutchess County has decreased steadily over the last 100 years, going from 1,200 in 1889 to 275 in 1972 to 42 in 1998 to 14 in 2022. Downey cited a number of causes for the decline, including the milk price support system, which made small-scale dairy farming difficult.

She described the challenges of technologies like chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that “knock nature off balance, polluting watersheds, sterilizing soils, and overexposing people to sometimes cancer-causing chemicals.”

Downey said that the Town of North East is currently one of the largest farming communities in Dutchess County. 40% of farmland in the county is leased to farmers rather than owned by them, she said, listing hay as the top crop followed by corn and soybeans, with horticulture and the craft beverage industry both expanding significantly.

After the lecture, attendees proceeded to dinner at the Inn, where 10% of the proceeds went to the North East Historical Society to support research, digitize its collection and make historic content more available to the public, particularly educators.

While this was the only Dine Out event that included a lecture, the fundraiser continues for diners who mention the series at the following restaurants on the following nights: Oakhurst Diner on Sunday, Feb. 4; Willa on Thursday, Feb. 15 (reservations requested); Round III, on Monday, Feb. 26; and the Golden Wok on Monday, March 11 (takeout only).

The North East Historical Society is on the second floor of the NorthEast-Millerton Library, 75 Main St., Millerton. Its hours are 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Fridays or by appointment. For more information, contact Ed Downey at eddowney12@gmail.com.

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