When it’s spring in the Mohawk Valley, and the crisp, crimson stalks of rhubarb poke up from the earth, it’s pie-making time for Mary Davis.
On Saturday, the day before the annual Rhubarb Festival in Montgomery County, Davis will buzz around her kitchen for hours: rolling out crust, chopping rhubarb, mixing it with sugar and then slipping tins into the oven.
“I’ll be making about 25 pies. Half of them plain rhubarb and half rhubarb and strawberry,” Davis says.
For the 23rd year, the Pallatine Settlement Society will celebrate the season and all things rhubarb next Sunday at the 1747 Nellis Tavern, a bright yellow house on Route 5 that’s one of the oldest surviving wooden buildings in the Mohawk Valley.
“Why it made it through the Revolution when houses were burned all around it is an amazing thing. Nobody really knows why,” says Davis, the president of the Pallatine Settlement Society, and a direct descendant of Christian Nellis, the German Palatine farmer who built the house after emigrating from the Rhine Valley in the early 1700s.
Davis, her four siblings and many families in the Mohawk Valley and other parts of state, donate rhubarb from their gardens or bake for the event.
“We go out and ask local folks to donate a pie or two or three,” Davis says.
Visitors can buy a slice, a whole pie or bundles of fresh rhubarb to take home for their own pie-making. Rhubarb also pops up in cookies, breads and tarts in the festival’s baked goods sale.
“We make a rhubarb punch every year, and people are quite interested in trying a glass,” Davis says.
At 1 p.m., the winners of the pie contest are announced. Anyone can enter the contest by baking a pie with rhubarb or rhubarb mixed with other fruit and bringing to the judges by noon.
“We’ve had blueberries and rhubarb. Apple. Any fruit can go in it,” Davis says. Visitors who prefer a little lunch before dessert can step up to barbecue grill for a hot dog or German dog with a side of potato salad.
The Battenkill String Band will play from 1 to 3 p.m. “We have a tent and people can sit outside and listen. It’s a real community gathering,” she says.
The festival kicks off the season for the historic site, which is open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sundays through September, and there will be guided tours of the kitchen, barroom and parlor and the second-floor bedrooms. In some of the rooms, one can see colorful stenciling painted on the walls. About 25 original patterns were discovered decades ago when wallpaper was removed during renovations. Sandy Nellis Lane of Johnstown, one of Davis’ sisters, copied the patterns, and then a few years ago, an artist from Washington state painted them on the refurbished walls. In an upstairs room, there’s a section of the wall where one can see original stenciling.
The Pallatine Settlement Society has owned and cared for the Nellis Tavern since the early 1980s, when the group saved the building from demolition during highway construction on Route 5.
The rhubarb festival is their main fundraiser for restoration. “It goes right back into the tavern…roofing, stencils, repairs and so on. There’s always something that needs to be done,” Davis says. “Toward the end of the summer, we hope to get the tavern painted again. We’ll be painting the three sides that are yellow.”
On their wish list is revealing the foundation of the house to visitors. “There’s a very interesting cellar,” Davis says. “It has huge beams and a huge fireplace.”
In the winter, the inhabitants may have hunkered down in the cellar to stay warm. After the snow melted, they were eager to taste the first edible greens and fruits.
“Rhubarb and asparagus, leeks in the woods, are all spring things that the early settlers used as soon as they came up. Every Palatine homestead had a patch of rhubarb in the back yard,” says Davis.
A mother of six with 12 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, Davis fondly remembers rhubarb from her childhood.
“Every spring, we had rhubarb sauce on the table. We just ate it like applesauce.”
Rhubarb plants can thrive for generations, including at her home, near Herkimer, which is on land owned by another early Nellis.
“There was patch of rhubarb that I remember as a child. It was my grandmother’s patch, and she came there as a bride. She said the rhubarb patch was always there in her time.”
Rhubarb was “a spring tonic” for Davis’ grandmother. “She said it clears out your whole system. It gives you a fresh new outlook on the season to come.”
23rd Annual Rhubarb Festival
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, June 2
WHERE: 1747 Nellis Tavern, Route 5 East, St. Johnsville, Montgomery County
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: www.palatinesettlersociety.org, Facebook
For serious rhubarbians, more festivals are on tap in the coming weeks
If you love rhubarb, you’re living in best part of New York.
There are only two festivals celebrating this springtime veggie in the entire state: at the 1747 Nellis Tavern in Montgomery County and in Warren County, at the Warrensburg Farmer’s Market.
Serious rhubarbians who are up for a road trip can also skip over to festivals in the Berkshires or Middlebury, Vermont.
In Warrensburg, the ninth annual rhubarb festival jumpstarts the town’s outdoor market season from 3 to 6 p.m. Friday (May 31) on River Street, in a park along the Schroon River.
“We have a rhubarb contest,” says Market Manager Teresa Whalen. “People bring in different foods and we give out samples.”
You can also buy rhubarb stalks and plants for your backyard, pick up info on growing it or chat with a master gardener.
The sixth annual rhubarb festival in Lenox, Massachusetts, is scheduled Saturday, June 8 on Main Street.
A chef will whip up pancakes topped with rhubarb sauces, and bakeries and restaurants will sell sweet and savory rhubarb foods from booths.
During a savory rhubarb contest, local chefs will show off their recipes for soup, chili and stew. Buy a spoon for $5 and you can taste all the entries.
In Middlebury, the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society will hold its annual rhubarb festival on Saturday, June 1. This event is all about eating a slice of pie and buying whole pies to take home. You can also buy plants.
— Karen Bjornland