On one of my bike rides a few weeks ago, I happened onto the Hamptonburgh Country Fair. The word “country” excited me, so I turned in.
The first thing I saw was a giant farm animal. And I mean huge—its rear haunch was higher than my head.
Actually there were two of them, hitched together. I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know exactly what they were, although the big wooden yoke around their necks should have provided a hint.
For the record, an ox is generally defined as a steer (or castrated cow) that is at least four years old. Because oxen are kept to work and not led to slaughter at a relatively young age, they grow much larger than the average bull.
As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have a clue.
“Wow, look at that….cow,” marveled one visitor. “Look at the size of that…bull,” gasped another.
I bet the early settlers would have been hard pressed to imagine a future in which not even the country folk would recognize a team of oxen.
Later, hoping to gain insight into what role the big animals might have played in local history, I googled “oxen in Orange County.”
The result: an 1888 New York Times obituary reporting that the last freed slave to die in the county had originally been sold to his local master for “a yoke of oxen.”
Cow Milking Contest
Walking the perimeter, passing the giant plastic inflatable play structure for kids, I found a tent full of materials advertising Hill-Hold and Brick House, two local museums that are working hard to enlighten people about the area’s farm heritage.
Nearby, I spotted a small pen containing two rabbits and a adorable little piglet wearing a blue leash.
A child was kneeling inside the fencing and reaching toward the piglet, which was backed up against the mesh and emitting bone-chilling squeals that sounded to me like abject terror.
I wanted that piglet, too, but I feel sorry for almost any creature in a petting zoo, even if it’s a crab or a flounder.
On the way out, I noticed one more nod to the good olde days—a plywood cutout of a cow with plastic udders and a promise of “cow milking contest” later that day.
I thought this was utterly weird—there were real cows just down the road, just across from the "Farm for Sale" sign.
But then I realized they probably got milked by machine—by robots, even.
Actual milking, with real hands on real teats, was probably as quaint to today’s kids as the old wooden stocks I used to see in my childhood visits to colonial museums.
(Hey, those seemed like fun at the time.)
Returning to the main road, I spotted a historical marker. Back in the 1800s, this very fairground had been home to the first butter factory in the U.S.
That’s when the irony of the wooden milk cow and the giant mystery bovines really hit home.
I kept trying to bring this history to life in my mind, but it was hard.
The following week I came back to take another look at the site. I hadn’t realized that there was a red barn in the background—the scene was actually quite bucolic.
Embedded in the boulder in the foreground is a plaque that reads:
This spring, with an abundance of cool water, determined the site of the first butter factory in the U.S. 1856.
I took a picture of the spring. Oddly, there’s a milk crate at the bottom of the concrete pool, and the plastic of the antifreeze container floating at the surface is an undeniably buttery yellow.
I wasn't quite sure why I set out to write this blog entry. It wasn't until I was nearly finished that I remembered—I'd spent my earliest years down the dirt road from the Durland dairy farm in Florida, New York.
Mrs. Durland was my friend. The wall of the stairs to the cellar was lined with things she'd canned and pickled. We sat on the front porch in the evening and watched the swallows gather. She taught me how to spell "Schenectady."
We left there before I was eight. Above is my photo, taken with an old Bullet camera, of the Durland cows coming in for their milking.