With more than three centuries to navigate when researching the Mabee Farm in Rotterdam Junction, Mary Zawacki decided it was time to take a new look at the place, especially the house itself.
"We all decided, staff, board members and volunteers, that the farmhouse needed some attention," said Zawacki, executive director of the Schenectady County Historical Society, which owns and operates the 1705 farm located on the southern banks of the Mohawk River. "There were some repair projects we had to do for the structure of the farmhouse, and the furnishings inside were getting kind of stagnant. Many of them didn't make sense. It was a whole hodgepodge of items, and many of them were irrelevant to the story we are trying to tell."
The historical society will unveil its new look inside the Mabee farmhouse as well as celebrate the entire site this Friday at 5:30 p.m. For its work reinterpreting the site, the society is a recipient of the Greater Hudson Heritage Network Award for Excellence.
Zawacki said the project of infusing new life into the farmhouse and the surrounding buildings and grounds began back in 2016. Along with a two-year funding campaign, Zawacki and Susanna Fout, the society's exhibitions and collection manager, and Michael Diana, education and programs manager, began digging into Mabee history.
"Suzie's expertise is decorative arts, so she looked into what people had in their homes in the Mohawk Valley back during that time period, and Mike and I focused on the people, trying to find stories to pull out and put into a new script for tours of the farm. We researched the documents we had, and we went out looking for new sources so we can ultimately put together the best narrative we can about what it was like living on a farm in the Mohawk Valley in the 18th century."
That new narrative caught the eye of the folks at the Greater Hudson Heritage Network, a group based in Elmsford in Westchester County that assists historical not-for-profits around the state in their mission to preserve a region's history and culture.
"The reinterpretation of the Mabee Farm Historic Site is an excellent example of an educational experience that is meaningful, engaging and vibrant," said Priscilla Brendler, executive director of the Greater Hudson Heritage Network. "It enables the public to view the history of the museum through a unique historic lens. Our Awards for Excellence are made to projects that exemplify creativity and professional vision resulting in a contribution to the preservation and interpretation of the historic scene, material culture and diversity of the region."
Fout, a graduate of SUNY-Oneonta and the University of St. Andrews with a Master's degree in Medieval Studies, was tasked with redoing the interior of the Mabee house.
"I went online and searched for reproduction pieces or actual pieces from auction houses that we could use that would be time-appropriate," said Fout, a Plattsburgh area native who began working at the historical society in October of 2017. "We took out all the items that had just been placed there over the years, and there were a few original items, like the corner cabinet and linen press, that we're safely going to store and have on display. We have restored our alcove bed and built a four-poster bed. When you walk into the main room, it will reflect life in the Mohawk Valley in the middle of the 18th century, and when you go into the kitchen, it will be set up as a colonial kitchen from 1705."
The new narrative and items in the house forced Mabee Farm volunteers to do a little extra reading.
"We have about 10 docents that we use as tour guides, and they had to go through a pretty vigorous training program to continue serving as docents," said Zawacki. "But I think everybody thought it was a good idea. We didn't get any pushback."
Scotia's John Angiletta, who's been volunteering at the site for seven years now, was all for the reinterpretation project.
"The narrative we were telling was all right, but you'd be talking to people about living in 1705, and there'd be a rocking horse in the corner that was obviously from the late 1800s," said Angiletta. "Now we're talking more about the people that lived there. Katrina Mabee is one of my favorites. She was an amazing woman who lived there during the French and Indian War."
Many of the Mabees were interesting figures. It was Jan Mabee and his wife Anna who built the house in 1705. There they raised 10 children to adulthood.
"They all grew up and had lives of their own, which is kind of remarkable for that time period," said Diana, a Guilderland native who majored in political science and history at Hamilton College. "People wonder why there are so many Mabees everywhere and maybe that's why. The family's descendants had the house until late in the 20th century. They were pretty big fish in a small pond at that time. They were wealthy, but they weren't so wealthy that they're not representative of the general population. They're not that much different from other people living in the Mohawk Valley, and that makes them a great family to study."
There were also a handful of slaves on the Mabee Farm until New York State finally outlawed the practice in 1827.
"We don't know that much about the slaves except for Cato, and we know about him because he's the one who ran away and they tried to get him back," said Diana. "They took out an ad in the newspaper which provides a good description of him. They may have had as many as 15, but unfortunately we know very little about them."
Other features at the Mabee site include an inn that is attached to the house, a small brick structure that may have been home to the slaves, a 1760 Dutch barn not original to the property, an English barn, a family cemetery and a blacksmith shop. The Franchere Education Center, built in 2011, houses exhibit space and meeting rooms, and the land upon which the house sits was a fur-trading post before the Mabees bought the land.
"There were never any Indian attacks here and we think that's because they had good relations with the Mohawks," said Zawacki. "We believe some of them were part Mohawk themselves. When Jan Mabee bought the land it extended all the way out to where the Schoharie Creek enters the Mohawk."
While the Mabee descendants finally sold the farm out of the family in the late 20th century, George Franchere donated the property to the historical society in 1993.
Mabee Farm's new look
WHAT: An unveiling and celebration of the Mabee Farm Historic Site's new interpretation project
WHERE: Mabee Farm, 1100 Main St., Rotterdam Junction
WHEN: Friday, Oct. 12, 5:30-6:30 p.m.
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: (518) 887-5073, or visit www.schenectadyhistorical.org