Behold! New Lebanon

behold new lebanon cynthia creechThe Columbia County town of New Lebanon -- it's just across the border with Rensselaer County -- is attempting to turn itself into "the nation's first living museum of contemporary rural American life" this fall. So what does that mean? Blurbage for Behold! New Lebanon:

We invite you to experience the joy of living seasonally and to fully engage with rural living. Have you wondered how volunteers fight fires? Come meet our firefighters in the firehouse. Have you ever heard of a heritage breed of cattle? We'll introduce you. Have you ever wondered if you could survive by eating what you find in the forest? We'll show you how. Want to make our New Lebanon Slab Pie? No problem. Wish you could give your grandchild a toy to cherish forever? We'll teach you how to make one. Curious about what goes on behind the scenes of a car racing track? We'll take you there and introduce you to our drivers. Do you wonder who lives in small towns and how we spend our time? We'll tell you. And along the way, we'll invite you to sing with us, dance with us, eat with us, learn with us, read with us, and chat with us.
Today, taking our cue from our forebears, the citizens of New Lebanon are again pioneering a new idea. Behold! New Lebanon is building the nation's first living museum of contemporary rural American life. Honoring the techniques and know how of generations past, we are updating them to forge a sustainable future ... You may have visited historic museums where costumed docents play characters from yesteryear and demonstrate skills of times long since past. But during "Behold! NewLebanon," we will introduce you to the way we live and work today and offer you an opportunity to learn, appreciate, and try our way of life.

Here's a recent NYT article about project, which includes some backstory -- the idea is an effort to draw tourists to the town, which as struggled for economic development.

The town-as-living-museum project will be running three more weekends this fall. Tickets start at $25 for a day.

photo: Uli Rose


This looks really cool. I wish I could go to the George Rickey studio opening, but I'm already double booked that day!

Actually quite a few residents from New Lebanon are not happy with being made into tourist attractions. Below is a letter the Town's previous Town Supervisor published last week in the local paper:

The newest concoction to drum up business in the town of New Lebanon has emerged in the form of a museum of contemporary rural living. Selected business members of the community for whom I have had a long abiding, deep respect, many non-resident business owners, and regular homeowners, are preparing to demonstrate for tourists how contemprary rural living happens. The title for the museum, Behold! New Lebanon, implies that those who travel to see how we survive in the wilds of a rural town, will be enlightened, and leave in awe for how we could do it all without the benefits an urban lifestyle affords. Behold! It sounds like the Magic Kingdom. Unfortunately, the creator of this museum, a recent permanent resident from New York City, failed to actually include the town in the planning of something that is about the town! No letter was sent to residents asking for input, no survey was conducted to learn everyone's talents and strengths, and no presentation was made to the town's Planning Board, much less the Town Board. The latter was befuddled.They had never heard of this town project designed to benefit the town. Yet, an official Behold! representative attended a Town Board meeting and asked them for permission to delegate oversight to the Columbia County Economic Development Commttee for any financial donations from supporters, which includes town supervisor, Mike Benson.
In order to effectively project the concept of rural living, individuals will be stationed in their homes, and businesses, prepared to prove rural living is the quintessential and fun way to get through life. Each presenter will be paid $100 each time they demonstrate contemporary rural living to tourists, as well as to their equals, their rural-living neighbors in town! Tourists will pay $25 for a day, $40 for a family for a day, and residents who see their neighbors up close and personal every day for free, will be able to do the same thing if they attend Behold!, except shell out for a discounted ticket price of $12.50, along with an ID and proof of residency. A tour through the Hand Hollow Nature Conservancy, normally free through its intent, is also part of the rural museum, from 5:30pm to 7:30pm, Friday the 29th. But, if you want to walk that trail at 5:25pm, it will still be free!
How will these curious tourists, and even more curious town residents get to all those wonderful rural places? A tour bus, that grinds its gears, belches diesel smoke, and breaks branches hanging over a narrow country back road, will ensure everyone who paid, gets the true experience of rural living. I've got some bad news.Tour busses don't promote rural lifestyles, nor do they provide an adequate portrait of how to experience country living. Adding insult to injury, Behold!'s notion that residents of this town should even pay one nickel to see their neighbors perform normal everyday activities, is hubris at its best. Requiring residents prove they live in this town, indicates that the elitist New York City mentality behind this project, is compounded by the fact those in charge of this project don't know many lifetime residents, outside of their exclusive group. Most residents totally unaware of this affront that has descended upon us, must be living under a rock to not know about it, as supervisor Benson bluntly stated, or not know this privately arranged group has decided, without any consideration of others' opinions, that the town needs to be redefined to fit what they want in the stereotyped image of cutesy simple country folk, a portrait those of us under that rock, find outrageous, and totally unacceptable. While a rock may keep us in the dark, it also protects us from damage.
Nineteen years ago, the movie, "Before and After" came to the area. I was one of a dozen extras chosen to be on site at Darrow School for a scene that took place in the winter. We were told to dress appropriately for winter, which was not difficult to do. A costume assistant from California, in charge of our group, reacted with horror because our winter clothing was nothing she expected, or wanted. Her facial expression said it all, as she snorted that we didn't dress right. Perhaps, out of embarrassment, no one said anything, except me as I bluntly explained to her that we dressed with whatever was available in our closets, and with total disregard for fashion coordination. She angrily told us we should be wearing LL Bean. When I told her she had the wrong idea about us, she walked out, and didn't return for the rest of the day.
This project and its creator's intent reminds me of that woman from the movie, yet the creator went one step further, issuing a deceptive statement to a local reporter, that she had "asked the residents what they wanted". New Lebanon's population is 2305, give or take a few. 26 individuals are participating, to date, a far cry from 2305. Yet, reiterating, she never held a community meeting with the entire town to inquire what our desires were, nor expressed a dedicated interest in the town as a whole, nor wrote a letter to us. No communication was made, except through the former Business Association's website, which, if you didn't have time to read it in its entirety, meant you were out of luck and uninformed, as our trusty rock would insure.
The demand the rest of the town pays to view our neighbors living, indicates this project is about making money, not about building town morale, or embracing the town as a whole. The ridiculous fear and mistrust that the rest of us would sneak into the exhibits of our neighbors, without proper ID, would be laughable, if it weren't insulting. Requiring proof of residency from us, then demanding money from those not included in a "town" project intended to affect all of us, does not bring us closer together, but divides us more than anything ever has. Behold! is sadly unaware of the deep poverty that exists in our town, or the class, and income divisions. Our much-needed food pantry is nearly empty, and many residents struggle to pay their electric bills, or put gas in their cars so they can get to their minimum wage jobs. New Lebanon is not about status, or money, or who you know at the top of the social ladder. Yet, this project intended to promote the community, and should include all classes and incomes, is really for the benefit of those who have contributed financially, or invested their demonstration time to it.
It remains a tragedy most of our town residents are unaware they have been stolen, and sold off because some individuals have decided that after 200 years, we need to be re-defined. Behold!'s creators miss the point, that a tour bus won't promote rural living, but rather stink up, and disrupt the peace and tranquility of our neighborhoods. We don't want that on a country road. It has no place on a country road. The rest of us were not asked, but now Behold!'s definition of rural living will include it, without consideration for its impact on us. The rest of the town doesn't count, and it should.
Three years ago, when I was New Lebanon's supervisor, Behold!'s creator asked me why I thought the town liked me, which was shocking alone in its audacity. While I was stunned at the arrogance of the question, I see now why she wanted to know. It seems, just like three-quarters of the town, and 57 years of contributing to the town's growth, I suddenly don't fit the criteria for what she wishes to promote as the rural image, which-- exactly like the woman from California in "Before and After"-- is what she desires to recreate from an urban newcomer's perspective.
Rural living doesn't mean specially selected people showing their wares to strangers, or fast-moving tour busses on back roads. Rural living means peace and quiet, free from what grows out of a tourist trap, especially diesel busses flying past your house, belching up the air, and adding a noise which belongs in a city. Behold!, and all that it entails, has no right to define what we are as a whole, put words in our mouths, or decide what is important and what is not. Collectively, as a real town, that right belongs to all of us.The entire town should be embraced and promoted without regard to class, or income. Her world really isn't our world, and she needs to stop trying to make it so. In the online flyer, it is stated so definitively, that we know it is summer here when the Shaker Mountain Barbeque opens. In truth, we really know it is summer in New Lebanon, when the fragrant, brilliant colors of dozens of flowers bloom, vegetables are planted, fields are furrowed with real fertilizer for crops, daylight lasts until 8 pm, crickets chirp, fireflies twinkle, and the red-wing blackbirds, Baltimore Orioles, and finches return to the fields with their melodious tunes. That is summer, while the Shaker Mountain Barbeque remains another good place to eat in New Lebanon.


Meg Robertson

As a resident of the Springs for the last two years and Berkshire enthusiast for the last 34 years, this is wonderful event. I no longer have to go over the mountain to Lenox and Stockbridge to
broaden my horizons. This even is bringing everyone together to make New Lebanon a better and more exciting place to live. It is giving national attention to our wonderful community and all who live and work here.

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