Blue Slope Farm: Home to Cows, a Collection, and More
By Carolyn Battista/Photos by A. Vincent Scarano
At Blue Slope Farm in Franklin, Sandy Staebner spots the farm’s newest resident. “A brand new calf, born this morning,” she says. She and her husband Ernie, aided by other family members, run Blue Slope, which has been in their family since Ernie’s dad began farming there in 1940. Today it’s primarily a dairy farm with about 200 Holstein cows, heifers, and calves on some 380 acres. The Staebners’ work includes raising crops (especially corn for the cows), running a trucking business, making maple syrup, raising meat goats, and raising veal “naturally”—that is, keeping calves in the pasture with their moms. They also look after their four sturdy, steady, wagon-pulling Belgian horses.
And then there’s the “collection,” which Sandy sometimes calls the “stuff.” After another quick look at the new little calf, she’s set to show a visitor around the Blue Slope Country Museum and its collection of some 4,000 items, including little bits of flax, large elderly vehicles, a few picaroons (tools with curved blades, for rolling logs along a river), a corn jabber (for planting corn), and an old crowbar that turned out to have a secret history. The Staebners open the museum for tours and special events, including an annual Fall Festival, to give people a glimpse of old-time farming, logging, blacksmithing, housekeeping and other activities.
It’s not that they ever expected to run a museum while also keeping up with farm chores and truck routes; but Ernie’s dad, Alfred Staebner (1901-1987), was a collector. He was interested in old ways and artifacts; and besides being a farmer, he was a milk inspector. On inspections around Connecticut and neighboring states he’d meet farmers and other folks who had old “stuff.” He’d bring it home; he wanted to preserve it.
“In all honesty, the family was not aware of how much stuff he was accumulating,” Sandy says. “Then after he passed, we acquired the collection. We moved it from his garage and basement to ours.” But in those locations, that interesting, varied, carefully amassed collection, including old wagons, tractors, and trucks, just remained “not visible.” People couldn’t see it, enjoy it, or learn from it. “So in 1990 and ’91, we built this,” Sandy says, as she heads into the building that now houses most of the collection. A nicely carved sign which says, “Ernie’s Toy Box,” hangs above the door. “It was supposed to say ‘Ernie’s Tool Box,’” Sandy explains, but the carver, a family friend, decided to have a little fun.
Inside, a few rows of chairs provide places for listening to talks or watching demonstrations. All around—on walls, on shelves, on the floor—are items that most of us don’t see every day, but that in days gone by, people simply used every day. About 90 percent of the collection, Sandy estimates, comes from Alfred Staebner’s garage and basement, with the rest added by family and friends over the years.
Sandy steps past a shiny, bright green and yellow 1951 John Deere tractor, recently restored to reach an item that Alfred Staebner didn’t need to travel to collect. “This is a crowbar left here on the farm in 1940,” Sandy says. Her father-in-law used it to get stones out of his cropland, but when it finally broke, “buckshot tumbled out.” The crowbar had been made from a musket with the date “1779” carved in it. “It would have been a Revolutionary War musket,” Sandy says, before it became “a very useful crowbar.”
Nearby is a butter churn which can be turned with either its handle or its foot pedal. “I can just visualize the lady of the house sitting there using the pedal,” Sandy says. “With the other foot she’s probably rocking a cradle. And she’s not just sitting there idle, but probably using her hands, too…maybe knitting.”
Then comes “one of Ernie’s dad’s favorites,” a wooden shaving horse thought to be from the 1700s. The “shaver” sits down, puts wood that he’s making into a handle into the horse’s grip, and uses a “draw knife” to shave it.
“Oh, and this is the broom-making machine,” Sandy says. Next to it is dry “broom corn” with its seeds still on it. Also on display are a forge (used for demonstrations), a linen-making assortment (including flax fibers and tools for softening them), animal traps, scythe blades, milk bottles, saws, “log dogs” (for holding logs while sawing them), and more, filling almost every available space. Upstairs there’s still more, including a floor loom from the mid-1800s that does have some new parts, so that it too, stays in good working order for demonstrations. There’s also the library where books include bound volumes of old agricultural magazines that Sandy says go back to the 1700s. “Ernie’s dad would have read every one of them. He was noted for his agricultural history knowledge,” she says. The family has found his notes inside the volumes.
Across from the library is “Granny Lathrop’s Kitchen,” named for the lady whose family built circa 1740, a house that’s just up the road from Blue Slope. In the kitchen Sandy sometimes helps visiting students make butter. She also talks with them about the days when local kids did not have peanut butter sandwiches for lunch because the local growing season was way too short for growing peanuts. Lunch staples for men working in the fields, she adds, included such staples as “cold sliced porridge” and “sandwiches spread with lard.”
Among the kitchen items are pans, canning jars, and a fireless cooker in which stove-heated stones, above and below a food compartment, do the cooking. (Sandy calls it “the early crockpot”). There’s also a yoke made from a sturdy grapevine. In days gone by, a kid might have been assigned to go get water from the well and carry it back in buckets hung on the ends of the over-the-shoulders yoke. Sandy says that young visitors can hardly imagine daily life “without electricity, but still with chores to do.” She also notes that some older visitors remember some items and activities very well.
Also is in this building is the sugar house, a busy place during the season for collecting maple sap and turning it into syrup (with 40 gallons of sap needed for each gallon of syrup). “We spend February, March, and April out here in the sugar house—sometimes, three meals a day out here,” Sandy says.
In 1998 the Staebners added another building, an Amish-style “bank barn,” built briskly and well by an Amish crew from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This two-story structure is indeed built into a bank so that on one side one enters the first floor; on the other, one enters the second. The first floor includes stalls for Blue Slope’s Belgian horses, Betsey, Jewell, Millie, and Bonnie–gentle, hard-working ladies who weigh about 2,200 pounds each. The bank barn also houses several old wagons and has a big room used for events including concerts, square dances, and—a few years ago—a Staebner grandaughter’s wedding reception.
Looking after 4000 or so items is “a challenge,” Sandy acknowledges. There’s always cleaning, but luckily, she says, “Dust is very patient.” Also, there’s always paperwork. A few years ago the Staebners started to catalog the entire collection, but other tasks got in the way. “Now we hope to finish,” Sandy says. They want good records of everything, from the 1929 Farm-All tractor to the rows of augers. This spring the museum received a grant for the cataloging project from the Connecticut Humanities Council.
All the while Sandy is talking, Ernie—who’s an affable, well informed talker himself—is out on a tractor. There’s never a pause to farming operations. “We’re members of Agri-Mark, a milk co-op,” Sandy says. “We milk about 120 cows right now, twice a day. We have all this corn and grass that we need to feed the cows.” For her family, Blue Slope is more than a way to make a living. “Farming is a way of life. You do it because you love it,” she says.
Events offered throughout the year by the museum include tours, campfires, and sleigh rides. The biggest event is the annual Fall Festival, which gives visitors a good look at a working farm and at all kinds of items used long ago on farms and in little communities, inside tidy households and out in the woods. At this year’s Festival on October 4 and 5, there’ll be spinning, weaving, and blacksmithing demonstrations; cow milking, horse-drawn wagon rides, plowing with antique tractors, hands-on activities for kids, live music and more, including a pie-eating contest. “Chocolate cream!” Sandy says.
Blue Slope is located at 138 Blue Hill Road, Franklin, CT 06254; the phone is 860-642-6413. The website: www.blueslope.com, provides info on Blue Slope Farm operations and products and on Blue Slope Country Museum, Inc. programs. The Fall Festival runs 10 AM to 4 PM on Sat., Oct. 4, and 10 AM to 3 PM on Sun., Oct. 5. Daily admission is $7 for adults, $4 for kids 4-14.