THROUGH THE WOODS: The 180th Chatham Fair

Frank Wambach and his horses Comet and Cupid c. 1925. Photo contributed

THE COLUMBIA COUNTY FAIR in Chatham is back! We can’t absolutely prove it, but it is probable that our family attended since the beginning. My maternal grandfather, Frank Wambach, was off to the fair with his horses Comet and Cupid circa 1925 hoping to win a prize. He lost first prize to the Chatham Payne family team.

The fair was centered on agriculture, which was the backbone of the community. My parents sorted out our prize vegetables, jars of pickles, needlework, and old tools to use in the Austerlitz Grange display. We kids had artwork submitted to be viewed with other schools around the county. In the 1950s I had 4-H entries of cookies, muffins and other desserts. Later I won prizes with my New Zealand White rabbits. These were great meat producing rabbits and relished by my modest number of customers.

In my teen years we showed Shetland ponies in driving and breeding classes. In fact, our favorite part of the fair was anything to do with horses. I trained and showed for others because my parents never allowed us to take larger livestock. The reason given for this was they were afraid of diseases from other animals. I suspect it was more likely all the work and expense involved because I never heard of anyone having this happen. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: A strange visitor in Ghent

DID GHENT TURN INTO JURASSIC PARK? It sure looked like it. Last week this large, 40” tall, strange looking, normally Florida-residing bird showed up just south of Ghent. It was a hungry young wood stork, our largest wading bird in North America that found a pasture with a marshy wet spot containing many delicious large tadpoles and frogs. An area birder happened to spot the bird, identified it as a wood stork, and promptly posted this information to birders. I got the email notification and immediately drove the few miles west to find it.

Some friends were already there, including photographers and birders from Dutchess County. The Taconic State Parkway makes a great route for birders. The wood stork was at the back of the field high up in a dead tree and an electric fence kept any aggressive wildlife photographers out.

The bird was surprisingly active, stretching its wings, raising a leg, and putting its long neck and bill toward the ground and peering at something. At one point it flew to another dead tree showing off the contrasting black wings against its white body. It was a young, juvenile bird evidenced by its fuzzy brown head. An adult bird has a bare gray head and neck. There are currently sightings of at least two other young wood storks in New York State and bird experts are trying to determine why they are so far north. One plausible theory is that there were many young raised in the south this year and they wandered away to find food in other territories. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Childhood freedom

BEING CONFINED has always been difficult for me. I am not sure how I would handle the present norm of being tied to the internet and parents afraid to let one out of their sight. Our Covid-19 epidemic has been a time to reflect on this and I hope we conquer this pandemic soon with a life of freedom returning.

Looking back on those 1950s childhood years there was loose supervision, maybe because my farming parents were too busy to worry about us every minute. I heard my father, and his sisters were raised like this. We always had horses and Tiger was my first horse ridden at age 5. I could ride to my grandparents farm a mile away and not have to beg for someone to drive me. My grandmother worried about me and tried to know where I was wandering on family farms. Gradually she got resigned to it as I grew older and survived, only noting and patching my perpetually cut, scratched and bruised state. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: The importance of clouds

Photo contributed

SUMMER AND GOOD WEATHER meant lots of work and hectic times on our farms. Farmers always have an eye on the weather, and this was instilled in us at a young age. When work was done, and we had a play time we often took a rest and lay on our backs in the grass and looked up at the sky. Up there is an ever-changing scene and on a clear day with big puffy clouds it was irresistible not to search for animals, people or other shapes lurking in those clouds. By the time we argued over whether it was a horse, a cow, or a dog, it would transform and the whole thing was gone. Our imaginations went wild, and it was always a fun form of entertainment.

My grandfather kept our attention with his sayings and ways of predicting weather, and he constantly said them until we were sure to know them. We learned the high, wispy mare’s tails clouds that predicted rain within about a day. A mackerel sky had slightly lower clouds that looked kind of spotty and meant it would rain in less than 24 hours, particularly if the cows were lying down in the field. If there was a “red sky in the morning, sailors take warning” and if there was a “red sky at night, sailors delight.” Those red skies in the morning often brought bad storms by late afternoon.

During the day we watched the sky and checked the wind direction to see if thunderheads were building up or a sudden change in wind might clue us to coming rain. Then we would be racing to cover the loads of hay with heavy canvas tarps and tie them down tight to the wagon posts. At the same time, the men would be baling up dry hay and trying to get it into the wagons and into the barn. We all had a job at these times. I usually got to climb the wagons and tie the canvasses. As I got older, I might have been raking the hay for the person baling or hauling hay back to the barns. During this we always watched the sky. We had to fill the barns with hay each year so there would be enough hay for the cattle during the winter. It was vital to our existence. If the dry hay got wet, it would turn black and mold which made it inedible or could possibly make us and the stock sick to breathe it. Another problem was that damp or green hay could spontaneously combust and burn down a barn. If the black ruined hay was left on the field, it would smother the grass beneath it and decrease the amount of hay obtained at the next cutting. In a good year we might get three crops of hay from a field. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Stumped, briefly, by stunt

THE GIANT CORPSE FLOWER, which takes a decade to bloom and stinks like rotting meat, makes a good morning newscast story. And while I agree that everyone should start their day knowing about Amorphophallus titanum, there are many other notable horticultural stories that get less press. Gypsy moths and emerald ash borers sometimes merit a feature as they destroy our woodlands, but such killers as verticillium wilt, Swede midge, and spotted-wing fruit flies remain unknown to the public. And even I, who strives to be in the know, learned some lessons this week when a landscape contractor sent me photos of dying spiraea.

If you can’t quite picture what exactly a spiraea is, you are forgiven, and to add to the confusion, the word is often also spelled “spirea.” The bridalwreath spiraea, a tall deciduous shrub with abundant but tiny white flowers in late spring, was popular in Victorian times and still grows in older neighborhoods. Most would say, however, that spiraeas in general were bit players and never the stars of a garden. Then, about 20 years ago, many new, smaller types of spiraea featuring colorful foliage or flowers, were developed. Prized for their site adaptability and low maintenance, they were installed by the millions in new housing developments, strip malls and roundabouts. I call them “gas station plants” and in such harsh environs they appear with other tough customers like Stella de Oro daylilies, barberries and arborvitae. Read more…