Annual rhubarb fest in St. Johnsville spotlights Colonial heritage

While the tart flavor of rhubarb isn’t for everyone, residents of St. Johnsville celebrate the fruit

While the tart flavor of rhubarb isn’t for everyone, residents of St. Johnsville celebrate the fruit as part of their heritage.

Many people who live in older homes in Montgomery County have rhubarb growing in their backyards, although they may not have planted it. In many cases, the winter hearty perennial still grows from the days early Dutch and German settlers planted it in the late 18th century.

“It’s one of the first fruits grown by early American settlers,” said Mary Nellis Davis, chairwoman of the annual Rhubarb Festival held each June and scheduled for 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Nellis Tavern on Route 5.

The event was started 15 years ago as a way to raise money to save the historic Colonial-era structure. Empty for decades, the building was falling apart, and the state was looking to tear it down to make room for a road.

Outraged area residents formed the Palatine Settlement Society, with members vowing to raise enough money to save the tavern. The group’s top fundraiser is the annual rhubarb festival.

“It’s an uncommon festival to have,” Davis said of the task of drawing crowds. “We wanted to find something the early settlers had.”

Most times the fruit was planted to be used in a “tonic” for medicinal purposes. Davis said it was also popular because its tart taste was different from the bland foods settlers had to eat during the winter months.

The rhubarb used for the festival is donated each year by area residents who have it growing in their yards. Davis said they eventually get enough rhubarb from about a dozen families each contributing a couple of pounds. It’s then used to makes jams, pies, cookies, punch and wine. One women even made ice cream last year.

Cookbooks and recipes are available for purchase along with the goodies, and there’s also a rhubarb pie contest. Dave Ruch from the New York Council for the Humanities will play traditional and historical New York state songs, and a small lunch will be served.

Donna Reston, president of the Palatine Settlement Society, said the money raised this year will be used to replace portions of the tavern’s foundation.

The building is important to many in the community, especially Davis, who is a direct descendant of the family that built it.

Built in 1747 as the Nellis family farmhouse, it’s considered the oldest wooden building in the Mohawk Valley, as well as the one with the longest wooden beams. The beams are still used as building supports in the cellar.

According to Reston, the farm was turned into a tavern around 1790.

“After the Revolutionary War, many soldiers had been given land bounties to fight, and much of that land was in western New York, which was still unpopulated,” she said. “Around then, taverns began to spring up along the routes taken to accommodate travelers. The Nellis family didn’t give up farming, but they decided they could make more money if they took in boarders.”

It’s believed the tavern closed around 1840, after the railroad came through in 1836 and east-west travelers started bypassing the tavern. Also, John C. Nellis, a family member who oversaw the operation of the tavern, died in 1839.

Since the society took over the building, the roof has been replaced, and the siding redone, a new porch was put on, with new windows, and the interior has been rehabilitated. Last year, a new bar was put in, built from 18th century lumber that was donated.

Future projects include building bathrooms and having plumbing installed inside the tavern. The society also wants to restore an addition that once had been built onto the tavern and was used as a general store and a kitchen for travelers. It would be used now to house larger events, like the Rhubarb Festival.

“We’ve been renting a large tent to hold the festivities in, but it gets expensive,” said Reston.

Festival admission is free; all profits from the event go directly back into the building.

“It’s just a fun event for a good cause,” said Reston.

Categories: Schenectady County

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