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Historian sours on plan for old milk factory

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ANCRAMDALE–Does the future trump the past?

That’s the question facing the Ancram Town Board, which has to decide whether to sacrifice the historic former Borden Milk Factory for a new highway garage.

The controversy over where to put a much needed new Ancram Highway Garage seems to be over. A majority of the current Town Board members is committed to putting a new structure on the same 2.9-acre property where the town highway garage is now.

The Garage Construction Committee, appointed shortly after the new Town Board took office in January concluded, according to the minutes of the committee’s February 18 meeting, that to make building a new garage on the site “work well,” the former Borden Milk Factory located on the property should be torn down. An estimate puts the cost for demolition at $15,000. The Town Board will vote on whether to raze the building when the garage committee submits its complete project recommendation to the board in the coming months.

Built in 1896 and closed in 1954, the old milk factory is currently used for storage of some of the town’s highway equipment. Town Historian Clara Van Tassel says that at this point the structure has already been compromised.

It was constructed just across from the railroad station in the Ancramdale hamlet to “receive the white ore,” as milk was described in “A History of the Roeliff Jansen Area,” a booklet published by the Roeliff Jansen Historical Society in 1990.

“Established in the post-Civil War period, when the railroad reached this region, I believe this building is of no small significance to the history of that area and its agricultural traditions,” William Krattinger, an historic preservation program analyst with the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP), wrote in a February 5 letter to Mrs. Van Tassel, who forwarded the letter to Town Supervisor Art Bassin.

Though the old structure had been changed “in association with modern uses, I nevertheless am of the opinion a thorough examination of its remaining physical features should be undertaken, in order to evaluate just how much of the historic building survives,” wrote Mr. Krattinger, suggesting that the building could potentially qualify for listing on the state and national Historic Registers and for grants for restoration and reuse.

But in a letter read by Town Clerk Monica Cleveland at the March 18 Town Board meeting, Mrs. Van Tassel said that the earthen ramp that led up to the plant’s former receiving room has been removed and the scales used to weigh the vats of milk described in the book “Looking for Work” by Peter H. Stoot, have been taken down from their original place on the upper floor.

Mrs. Van Tassel’s letter says that the former milk factory “is the only milk plant known to survive in this section and is only one of two in the county. The other is a deserted plant in North Chatham. It represents an era, lasting nearly a century, in which small dairy farms throughout the Northeast grew to maturity.”

Mrs. Van Tassel wrote that as town historian she should have been informed before the scales were moved and the ramp excavated so she could have the opportunity to take photographs and measurements for documentation purposes. She does not know who authorized the alterations “but I do know this isn’t the way to preserve our historic buildings and the history of Ancram,” she wrote.

In a phone interview March 23 Supervisor Bassin confirmed that the Town Board has the final say on the fate of the milk factory. After trying to work out a site plan for a new 80-by-80-foot highway garage without removing the milk factory, the garage committee has determined that where the milk factory currently stands is the best site for a new structure, said the supervisor.

The existing highway garage is situated too low on the property and is not a good site for a new building, although the committee thinks leaving that structure standing, using it for secondary storage and even eventually fixing it up may be a good idea, said Mr. Bassin.

In a March 28 email, Mr. Bassin acknowledged that the Borden milk processing operation was an important part of the history of Ancram, but said “the conversion of the milk factory building into a garage 60 years ago, with three vehicle storage bays and storage on both ends for salt and sand has effectively destroyed its original character and whatever historical significance it may have had as a building.”

As for the excavation of the earthen ramp, Mr. Bassin said by phone, Highway Superintendent James MacArthur was operating on his own authority when he dug out behind the building to create a storage area for salt and sand about a month ago. Mr. Bassin said Mr. MacArthur is an elected official and doesn’t need Town Board permission to operate within his own facility. The supervisor also said he was not aware that the earthen ramp was of historical significance and apparently neither was Mr. MacArthur.

Mr. Bassin said the metal scales, which he described as “big, heavy,” were moved to the ground floor as a first step in getting them refurbished and deciding where they can be displayed for the public.

Reached by phone March 23, Mr. Krattinger said his capacity with the state parks office is strictly advisory and if the town has other plans for the building, it is free to pursue them.

Asked if the struggling economy is affecting historic preservation and restoration projects, Mr. Krattinger said he had “no quantifiable” way to know, but he is “still very busy with tons of preservation projects for public and religious buildings.”

In fact, it was through Mrs. Van Tassel’s efforts that St. John’s Lutheran Church in Ancram was added to both the state and federal registries of historic places.

To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@columbiapaper.com

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