Just riding through rural Rensselaer County can stir up memories of a bygone era, and for those fortunate enough to stop at Eastfield Village, a trip back to the early 19th century becomes about as real as you can get, thanks to Don Carpentier.
“Going to Eastfield is like stepping back in time,” said Nassau town historian Melody Howarth. “It’s not a museum, it’s better than a museum. Don had this vision for a full, operating village from the early 1800s when he was 15, and he’s done it. He’s done a wonderful job.”
Carpentier began creating his village more than 40 years ago. Just a few miles south of Averill Park, on Mud Pond Road in East Nassau, Eastfield consists of 28 historic buildings on 14 acres of land given to Carpentier by his parents back in 1971. The structures, all 18th or 19th century buildings that were condemned or abandoned, were taken apart board-by-board by Carpentier, hauled to his family’s farm, and then reassembled. Among the faithfully restored relics are a 1793 tavern, an 1836 church, an 1811 general store and an 1834 doctor’s office.
“When I first heard Don at a workshop I was impressed by how knowledgeable he was,” said Albany’s Marilyn Kaplan, who works in the historic preservation field. “Then I went to Eastfield Village and I was totally taken aback. There was all this living history that was so accessible for everyone to touch and live in rather than just going to museum. It’s a very unique place.”
The buildings are a whole lot more than empty shells. Carpentier, who is battling chronic Lyme disease, either has actual antiques or authentically restored items as well as the 19th-century tools that were used to build them. He has been the subject of articles in The New York Times, Country Living and Early American Life, and also has been profiled by Martha Stewart Living. Carpentier’s expertise in Mochaware and all kinds of 18th and 19th century items had made him a highly sought-after consultant for places such as Old Sturbridge Village, Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello and The Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown.
“Don’s skill and knowledge in the restoration of historic structures, along with his mastery of traditional building trades, made him an invaluable partner in The Farmer’s Museum’s efforts to enhance its historic village,” said Paul S. D’Ambrosio, president and CEO of the museum and the affiliated Fenimore Art Museum. “In many ways, his work at Eastfield Village was an inspiration.”
Since 1977, the Eastfield Historic Foundation has been helping Carpentier put on series of workshops called the School of Historic Preservation and Historic Trades.
Carpenter expects to make a complete recovery from his illness, but the fight has for now made it impossible for him to speak.
“Donald’s personal expertise and his network of people that he knows in the field are amazing,” said Ingrid Schaaphok of Stephentown, a past president of the board and currently its secretary. “He’s lost his voice, but he’s doing pretty well, and he’s an amazing teacher who considers Eastfield his laboratory. When my husband and I first heard about Eastfield, we thought it must have been owned by some eccentric millionaire who paid to have the village built. But it was Don’s baby. He still owns all the buildings. Our foundation is a not-for-profit which bought up all the property around him, including his parents’ farm, and we help him take care of that property.”
Eastfield Village is not open to the public, although if you’re a serious lover of antiquity you have several ways to get there and appreciate the place. There are a series of workshops all summer long beginning June 6-7 with a class on Traditional Period Stone Masonry. Other topics include Early American Printing, Furnishing Your Historic House and “Dish Camp,” a three-day workshop on historical ceramics. Many of the workshops are three days long and students are invited to spend the entire time at Eastfield Village by renting a room at 1793 Briggs Tavern.
“If you’re spending the two nights they tell you to bring 10 candles,” said Howarth, who has been a regular participant in Carpentier’s “Dish Camp” workshop for years. “There’s no electricity so you’ll need them. It gets real authentic. I live close by so I don’t spend the night, but there are people who come from all over the world to work with Don. They sleep here and they cook here. They live here just like people did 200 years ago.”
John Mesick, who lives in the town of Schodack, has been attending classes at Eastfield for more than 25 years.
Not a museum
“It’s a hackneyed word, but Eastfield Village is truly unique,” said Mesick. “I don’t know of any private village in the country where you can go and learn early American building techniques, the actual craft of it, as well as all crafts in general. In schools you’re taught by academics, but at Eastfield you’re taught by people who actually do it, not just people who teach it. And Don has been passionate about this since he was 15. It’s remarkable what he’s done.”
Eastfield Village is so impressive that a few enterprising folks every now and then try to get Carpentier to open it up to the public.
“It’s the workshops, the historic trades and the preservation that sets Eastfield apart,” said Schaaphok. “We don’t consider ourselves a museum. We’re incorporated as an educational resource. A museum requires a whole different set of rules that would have to be set up, and we’re just not at that place yet.”
To Mesick, things at Eastfield are about as good as they can get, and that’s fine with him.
“The logistics of a museum village are almost self-defeating,” suggested Mesick. “You look at places like Willliamsburg and Sturbridge and they’re struggling. You need staffing to keep the place open to the public, you need insurance, you’d need to make every building accessible. The way things are now, Don has groups come in from various historical societies and other groups by appointment, and then there’s always the workshops. Every now and then there’s some enthusiasm to open it up to the public, but this way is much more manageable.”
For more information about Eastfield Village, visit www.historiceastfield.org.
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or email@example.com.