Cooperstown Crier - Your Source for Hometown News - Cooperstown, Baseball Hall of Fame

May 8, 2014

Falk's 'Barns of New York' resonates with general public

By Bera Dunau Staff Writer
Cooperstown Crier

---- — Even though it was published in 2012, Cynthia Falk, a professor of material culture at the Cooperstown Graduate Program is still receiving attention for her book “Barns of New York.”

“So far the reaction has been very strong,” said Falk, who is also a village trustee in Cooperstown. “I’m getting a lot of invitations to speak at various places.”

Published by Cornell University Press, Falk described the book as a catalog and guidebook of the agricultural landscape of New York, both for those who own and those who love historic farmsteads. It is her second book, and contains more than 200 pictures. She also said that it was written to appeal beyond an academic audience.

“I really wanted it to be a general audience book,” said Falk.

Falk said that she began doing research in 2006, after the project was suggested to her by The Farmers’ Museum. Despite its title, the book doesn’t just focus on barns, choosing instead to cover all types of farm buildings. It also doesn’t exclusively focus on the past.

“I really wanted to connect agriculture across time,” said Falk, who said that the book follows New York agricultural buildings and their uses from the first Euro-American practices all the way up to the present day.

For her research, Falk said that she took advantage of the fact that students have been documenting farmsteads at the Cooperstown Graduate Program since the program began in 1964. She also utilized what she described as short cut approaches, such as a now discontinued state grant program for barn repair, and National Historic Registry entries for round and octagonal barns in the state. Additionally, Falk did extensive fieldwork, driving New York state Route 17, New York state Route 20 and New York state Route 28 in search of sites to document.

“There were certain things that I … (was) definitely keeping an eye out for,” said Falk.

Numerous students also assisted Falk in her endeavors.

“For three semesters I put the students who were taking my class in the thick of it,” said Falk. “It’s more meaningful when you can involve more people in it.”

One thing that Falk noted about the New York agricultural landscape was the diversity of crops and animals that have been, and continue to be, grown and raised in the state.

“There is a good variation, which leads to an interesting variety of buildings,” said Falk.

She was also asked about the renewed interest in agriculture in the rural northeast that has sprung up in recent years, and the effect that this had on her book.

“From my perspective it’s a really hopeful thing that’s been happening,” said Falk, who said that the previous narrative has been one of agriculture’s decline since World War II.

Although the number of farms in New York decreased from 2007 to 2012 according to federal statistics, the decline was less than the national average, and the number of acres under cultivation increased. In nearby New England, the number of farms actually increased.

Falk said that some of the smaller operations that people are beginning to start up might actually help to preserve older buildings, as many are well suited to small-scale agriculture. ‘

“It actually shows that there are potentially uses for these older structures,” said Falk, who also pointed to their usefulness for agricultural tourism.

“Barns of New York,” netted Falk the Peter C. Rollins Book Award from the Northeast Popular Culture/American Association, which honors an outstanding contribution to popular culture scholarship, last year. Additionally, the book won her the Susan Sutton Smith Prize for Academic Excellence from the State University College at Oneonta.

Falk said that she has had good attendance at the lectures she has given on her book.

“It is something that sort of resonates with a lot of people,” said Falk, who said that many attendees either grew up on or had grandparents who owned farms. “There is this sort of a sense of nostalgia.”

As for what’s next for Falk, she has written an article for an exhibit that will be opening this year at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. The exhibit is entitled “A Shared Legacy: Folk Art in America,” and will be opening on Dec. 16. 

Asked about future research ideas, Falk said that she is interested in looking at the material culture of a group of German immigrants who came to New York around 1810, as well as the life of John Christopher Hartwick, who founded the town of Hartwick and Hartwick College.