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Where history was made watching over kids

Canaan Town Historian Dodie Gearing (l) addressed the Stephentown Historical Society recently, delivering a brief history of the Berkshire Farm Center. With Ms. Gearing was Mary Young from New Lebanon. Photo by Peter Flierl

CANAAN—Town Historian Dodie Gearing addressed a standing room only crowd at the Stephentown Historical Society on September 11 to present a brief history and current status of the Berkshire Farm Center & Services for Youth founded in1886 by Frederick and Catherine Burnam, affluent residents of Morristown, N.J.

The Burnams, devout Christians, purchased 580 acres from the lower Shaker community to start a farm and training center for boys, and eventually had 1,100 acres in New York and Massachusetts. The Farm Center opened in 1886 with 20 boys who would normally reside and learn farming and trades over three years. Trades included dairy farming, print shop, pigs, carpentry and more. House mothers and haircuts were integral to the services with boys residing in cottages.

The farm attracted attention in the media and among its supporters as cited by Ms. Gearing, with articles back in its early history from The New York Times and others. Boys had split days, with half a day for farming or trades and half a day in school. Its supporters were “noble Christian people” who wanted to help troubled youth succeed.

Today, The Berkshire Farm Center serves 60 unaccompanied migrant children funded by U.S. Homeland Security, which imposes severe security restrictions. When asked for information on other facilities in New York State, the response was innocuous data on numbers served nationally.

Ms. Gearing was denied access for taking pictures of buildings on the grounds.

A reliable source reported that average length of stay for unaccompanied migrant children is 20 to 30 days before being united with family members or placed in foster care.

The Farm Center is the administrative center for facilities and services across the state from Buffalo, the North Country and Central New York to the Hudson Valley and Long Island.

Dodie Gearing was a social studies teacher in Chatham for 34 years. In addition to being the Canaan Town Historian, she is curator for the collection of the Canaan Historical Society.

Stephentown is in Rensselaer County just north of New Lebanon.

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