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Behold! New Lebanon Is A Living Museum Of Rural Life

By Lisa Green

We’re quite fond of our towns, villages and hamlets in the Rural Intelligence region. But let’s face it, some towns beg you to jump out of the car and explore their Main Street, while others seem more like drive-through towns. The rural New Lebanon, despite its presumptive cachet as a “Hudson Valley town” hasn’t been able to rev its economic engine the way, say, Hudson — its polar opposite less than 30 miles away — has. 

But that may be changing, and it won’t be by rehabbing historic buildings, bringing in big name chefs from the city or creating a design district (or any district, for that matter). It will be in the recognition that the heritage, agriculture, scenery, food, culture, arts, crafts of New Lebanon — in other words, the people who live there — have skills and experience to share with visitors.

That’s the mission behind Behold! New Lebanon, a living museum of today’s rural American life. Last weekend kicked off a series of four weekends this fall. Consider it a “choose your own adventure” in which you can go into the homes, farms, workshops and places of businesses of the people who are living successfully in rural America.

That might mean visiting a first-generation farmer and finding out why and how he’s harvesting 150 varieties of organic vegetables using two Belgian draft horses. Getting a behind-the-scenes tour of the Lebanon Valley Speedway, or learning why the town’s postmaster loves hunting — without a gun. Or watching a chef as she demonstrates how to make New Lebanon’s famed slab pie. It’s an opportunity to find out who lives in a small town and how they spend their time.

Each event is eye opening, bringing focus to a city dweller or suburbanite’s possibly fuzzy lens on rural life. The “country guides,” who are paid an honorarium, are sharing their hopes and dreams — things you cannot glean when cruising Route 20 on your way to I-90.

Behold! New Lebanon is the brainchild of Ruth Abram [photo, right], an historian and activist who founded the wildly successful Lower East Side Tenement Museum. The concept of Behold! New Lebanon was tied with an economic mission. After Abram bought a weekend home in New Lebanon, it saddened her to learn of the town’s early shining history, contrasted with the current situation of its loss of businesses and people. 

“In the 18th and 19th centuries, New Lebanon was the natural healing center of the world,” Abram explains, referring to the world-famous Lebanon Springs. “It was alive with spirituality. The Shakers were here. The abolition and temperance movements were here. It was a centerpiece of evangelical thought.” It was thriving — a very different story from what she found in her new community.

Abram isn’t exactly evangelizing, but listen to her and you’ll see the idea makes sense. “We see Behold! New Lebanon as a way to serve as an economic engine for the entire town,” she says. “Inviting the resident ‘experts’ to share their knowledge, talent and enthusiasm for the rural life can ignite their wherewithal to bring in tourism dollars and” — keeping the historical reference going — “create their own salvation. We hope that people from surrounding cities and suburbs will visit Behold! New Lebanon, and enjoy their interactions with our marvelous country guides and our magnificent landscapes.”

At the Visitor’s Center, Rich Crouch handles registration.

Bring a good idea to the table, and people will come. The program has been seeded by donations (and, as a nonprofit, will be applying for grants).  The New Lebanon community has embraced Abram’s idea and it showed at their launch day. The Visitor’s Center (a rather deluxe shed, which was donated for Behold! Lebanon’s use by the Shed Man) was practically vibrating with good spirit and excitement as volunteers registered visitors, shepherded them to their events (a bus drops off and picks up visitors; no need to seek out the locations on unfamiliar country roads) and hand out surveys.

Tickets range from $25 for a one-day pass to $40 for a weekend of events. Residents of nearby towns get a 50-percent discount. Kids 12 and under are free.

Even that first day, the mission was being well accomplished. “I’ve lived in this area for years, but never knew how to find out about these people and places,” said one participant.

The country guides express enthusiasm for the program. The common refrain: they simply like showing and telling people about themselves. Melanie Hunt, owner of the Blueberry Hill Market Cafe, enjoys the opportunity to talk about what she does. “Instead of just doing, it’s nice to talk about what we do,” which is, for Behold! Lebanon, the slab pie demonstration and a coffee chat.

“I think it’s a tremendous effort to promote this wonderful town,” said Heather Van Ort, who is owner and designer of Masterpiece Jewelry Studio, and whose event was “Gemstones Demystified: Pearls Renewed.” Eric Johnson of Wild Goose Chase NE (he demonstrates how he trains dogs to help people rid their ponds of geese in a humane way) acknowledges that some residents have expressed some skepticism for the venture. But he appreciates that it helps preserve the town’s heritage. Plus, he says, “it’s a way to self promote. Anytime I can present myself as a dog trainer to the public, it’s a good thing.”

And, if the concept works in New Lebanon, Abrams says, why not in other towns? 

“I want to establish a working model for small towns to use their own resources to benefit the town, and develop a how-to manual for other towns.”

The logo and website were designed by Peter Blandori of Columbia County.

So sign up and get on the bus to “Surviving in the Forest,” “Pigs On Whey,” Working Dogs,” “The Farming Life” or any of the other events, available only in New Lebanon. You’ll walk away from these authentic experiences — and people — awed and impressed, as I was. Plus, you’ll be helping them expand their tourism base. And that is rural intelligence at its best.

Behold! New Lebanon
Friday, September 12 – Sunday, September 14
Friday, October 10 – Monday, October 13
Friday, October 31 – Sunday, November 2
Visitor’s Center: 14398 NY Route 22, New Lebanon, NY
(518) 795-5756

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Posted by Lisa Green on 09/01/14 at 01:45 PM • Permalink