NEW LEBANON–What is Behold! New Lebanon? In a recent written statement Ruth Abram described it as “an unusual grassroots collaboration among dozens of longtime New Lebanon residents who have built–without walls–America’s first living museum of contemporary rural life.”
Behold! New Lebanon became a reality with a pilot program in 2014 and was founded by Ms. Abram, the founding president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City. The programs for this year were announced at a June 18 gathering at Meissner’s Auction Service held in front of a projected image of local farmer Evan Thaler-Null and his two draft horses.
In a combination workshop and tour, visitors to the rural museum will be led by one or two of the 41 guides–“real townspeople of today”–chosen by the museum. The 60 scheduled tours are meant to reflect a wide range of activities in the town and will range from farm tours to food, jazz and auto mechanics, to name a few.
Rural guides are paid $100 per program and offered the chance to consign their products at the house doneted by Meissner’s at 438 State Route 20, which will be used for a general store and ticket sales. Museum goers pay $15 per tour or may purchase a season pass.
Ms. Abram’s statement places Behold! in the context of the town’s radical past, which includes the first free library, abolitionists, women’s rights activists and spiritual communities from the Shakers to the Sufis.
Mike Benson, town supervisor and board member of the Columbia Economic Development Corporation, a funding conduit for Behold!, grew up farming where he now raises his four kids. “Growing up on a farm was not nearly as cool as it is today,” he said. Though he stopped dairy farming in 1997, he has now decided to reintroduce cattle to the farm for the first time, largely because of the enthusiasm of his kids. He hopes Behold! can inspire others in town to get involved, or re-involved, with agriculture.
John Koepp will lead a workshop on Shaker chair seating, cane rush and macramé chairs. A lifelong resident of New Lebanon, his grandfather was employed by the Shakers and kept one of their diaries Mr. Koepp has read, an account of weather and the waning Shaker population. He would like to see the town gain recognition. “I would like the word to get out better; we’ve got a former governor from New York State buried up there on the hill–the first Al Gore–and no one knows.”
Helen Burton, a resident potter and rural guide who plans to teach about different clays and firing methods, moved here from New York City. “I got anemic for green,” she says, “I’ve often thought this is the best kept secret, this town.”
The second part of the launch for Behold’s 2015 season was held at the Lebanon Valley Speedway, where “rural guide” Heather Naventi demonstrated with a miniature horse. “Horses have been an integral part of civilization either since we started eating or riding them,” she said. Miss Naventi will focus on communicating with another species in her workshop, Horse Sense.
A presentation followed by Howard Commander, owner of the Speedway, rural guide for Speed Demons. “It’s our job to keep auto racing alive and well, we’ll do that as long as we’re taking in air,” Mr. Commander said. As rural guides, Mr. Commander believes, “We’re all gonna work together to show people what a community can do when we’re not after each other.”
He also reminded those in attendance that the Speedway holds the 2004 Guinness world record for longest distanced jumped in a garbage truck (77 ft 4in).
Peg Munves, a self-described, “people and dog trainer,” also participated in the event with her six-month-old lab she’s training for commercial acting.
For 13 weekends July 4-September 26, Behold! will be working to promote Ms. Abrams conviction that “New Lebanon is a small rural town. But, like many others, it is not a sleepy town.”