Yesteryear at Stony Ford

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This is a post we’ve been wanting to share about the house for some time now. It’s about the previous owners, Les and Fred. We’ve been discovering them as we’ve been putting stuff away in the house and cleaning out closets and shelves, and kitchen cabinets. Prior to us, Leslie (Les) and Fred lived at Stony Ford. Our neighbor Wayne, is Les’ nephew and visited the house when he was growing up. Before we bought the house we heard two things about Fred and Les that clicked with us: they liked to entertain, cook and bake, and fixing up old houses. We’re excited that we’re able to carry on the traditions that have lived in the past in this grand house. We’ve never met Les and Fred but feel like we know them because we keep finding their things. Admittedly, our favorite is probably the recipes. Wayne left us a large stack of vintage cook books and you can tell the favorite pages because they are stained or burned! Wayne also left all the wine making supplies and books so we can learn how to make our own wine. (I’m super excited about this because I love canning and this is taking preserving up a notch!).

I’m a big believer in the ‘energy’ of homes, especially with older homes. When we read the real estate listing it said: perfect for entertaining. I knew this house was for us and stalked it online for 3 years. (Yes, I can be pig headed!) When we finally came to look at the house in person, the energy felt right. We both fell in love immediately. When you look at real estate you’re not supposed to show if you really like it, so we would just look at each other and ‘silent scream’. After we found out more about the house, and Les and Fred, we couldn’t be more honored to continue the traditions at Stony Ford.

When Les passed away, Wayne wrote this tribute. We’ve really enjoyed knowing their story and hope you do as well. A big thank you to our neighbor, Wayne for sharing it with us. Not only is this story full of beautiful memories, but a piece of history to be shared. Les and Fred lived a good life. They loved, ate wonderful food and surrounded themselves with loved ones. We can only hope to be so fortunate.

Stony Ford… A Time and Place Remembered

Written by Wayne, June 7, 2008

Welcome to Stony Ford, the residence for over 50 years for my uncle Les and his lifelong companion Fred. How does a farm boy raised in Wisconsin meet a boy born in Brooklyn… the son of a dentist.

They meet and decide to purchase a broken down home, needing plenty of TLC, in the  quaint hamlet of Campbell Hall. Luckily Fred was mechanically inclined and knew all the trades… plumbing, electric and carpentry… all were in his grasp. Les, on the other hand, was not mechanical at all, but could layout a room, coordinate colors and possessed an artistic eye. All these skills would be needed to rejuvenate Stony Ford.

As the years progressed, Les became more mechanical… he screened the back porch once while Fred was on a trip… but Fred never developed an artistic eye. There was common ground between them, not all opposite. They were both highly intelligent and well read. Each had a strong appreciation of music. Fred and Les both enjoyed gourmet meals… fine food and wine. They kitchen they shared… Fred was the baker… breads, cakes, pies… a wild blue berry pie would be created at a moments notice… Les planned and prepared most meals. Select recipes whether handed down from Sadie, his mom; Michael’s mom; Mrs. C – “cook it ’till it’s nice”, or taken from the back of a Rigatoni box, were equally treasured. All cuisines graced the table at one time or another.

Many a Sunday, Fred would be playing Bach on the pipe organ or in the library playing on the Mason & Hamlin while Les cooked away in the kitchen. I think playing inspired Les to create a new dish or perfect an old one. On occasion, Fred would take over the kitchen and prepare dinner… Fred’s French Pot Roast, his speciality with that thick wine gravy… I can still taste it. Fred had to use every pot and pan in the house to create this masterpiece. “Don’t worry Les, I’ll do the dishes in the morning”… and he did, sipping fresh brewed coffee out of a chipped Fiesta ware cup.

As I began to collect photos and chronicle Fred and Les’ life, I came across a picture of this house. I have seen the picture a hundred times… but this time paid attention to the title: “Noted for Horses and Hospitality”. I can personally attest that during Les and Fred’s reign at Stony Ford, the tradition of hospitality continued uninterrupted. Horses weren’t a big part during their time, but many smaller four legged beasts found a home for the asking. Any stray cat or dog that wandered through the stone pillars was given a handout and pat on the head. These orphans, if they had fortitude and persistence, would whittle away Les’ defenses… and eventually the oversized Dutch door would open and they would become part of Les and Fred’s family.

Fred, a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines, was fluent in 5 languages and with his seniority could pretty much choose his route and days off. Fred loved to travel, especially to visit his friend Louie in Puerto Rico. Louie lived in El Yunque (the rain forest) high atop the mountains. For a short time Fred owned property there too, but, decided to sell. I don’t remember why… ahhhh… pity. Louie worked for FDR and now retired, he had plenty of time to plan interesting trips, and with Fred’s flexible schedule, they both traveled together along with a long time Eastern Airline girl, Arlene. She was an interesting character and regular at Stony Ford. Their travels were not the run of the mill destinations… the more exotic the better. I know they traveled to the Yucatan on an archaeology dig. Traveled to the Amazon on a small boat… there are pictures somewhere of Fred swimming in the river with crocs looking on. Louie was a researcher and would plan these adventures in great detail. Not to be outdone, Fred had to do his research too. The bathroom was always piled high with “National Geographic” and “Archaeology” magazine.

Fred met his share of famous people flying to Puerto Rico. Katherine Hepburn asked is he know a “good and out of the way” restaurant for dinner. Of course he did… she invited him to join her… of course he went. He also met Eleanor… FDR’s wife. She was a frequent passenger on Eastern to Puerto Rico. Visited the governor  – Tugwell – a long time friend of FDR who served in his administration.

Fred was always home for the holidays… it was important for him to be at home at those times. Some of the crew, not so fortunate, faced spending the holidays oat a motel near LaGuardia. To those, an invitation to spend the holidays at Stony Ford was always offered. For the unsuspecting first timer, the experience of drinking a glass of Stony Ford red in front of the roaring fire and anticipating the upcoming meal was the epitome of hospitality. There were some rules about dinner… just a few. Dinner never was served before 7:00 pm and later than that in the summer months. Salad was always served after the entree. “Salad means Salt and aids the digestion: I was always told. Some rules are heard to break… so if you ever dine at my home, dinner is never served before 7:00 pm and salad waits to the end of the meal.

As said before, Fred was the baker and if guests we around, Fred would prepare the dessert. On occasion, Fred’s afternoon siesta would be longer than expected and his baking and Les’ meal preparation were in a collision course in the kitchen. Most of the time, the baking won out and the dinner was put on hold. This battle between entree and dessert did cause friction between Les and Fred. The times that Les’ entree won over Fred’s baking, Fred would say in disgust, “Then we’ll just have to suffer with Cherrie’s Jubilee.”

As large as the house was, the kitchen was always Mecca to the guests. This vignette was planned and performed in front of guests and Fred’s timing was perfect. It was the beginning of Dinner Theatre… what better way to be hospitable… a dinner and a show. Act II was the ceremony of Cherries Jubilee. Fred would rise from the table to retrieve the chafing dish, (a purchase from Peterson’s Secondhand Store years earlier). Next, find the Kirshwasser (Black Forest of course), and then disappear down those cellar steps to the canning cellar. A few moments would pass and Fred would reappear holding a jar of those burgundy globed beauties… which he and I picked and canned earlier that year. The contents of the jar would be emptied into the chafing dish and the cooking would begin. The Kirshwasser would be added when the sauce got syrupy and cooked some more. Les would be signaled to assemble the dessert bowls along with special sterling spoons with the gold bowls used only for Cherries Jubilee. “Les, it’s time to serve the ice cream”… this was a two man show… Les scooping out ice cream and Fred igniting the cherries. Ladies and Gentlemen – The great “Fredwalla”, Fred with his shaky hand tried to strike a match. “Damn”… strike one, match two was lit and almost made it to the bubbling cauldron but went out in mid flight, “O Damn!, strike two. Match three was struck; it lit and made it to its target while Fred tried to coax the mixture to ignite, stirring with a  large silver spoon in one hand and the match in the other. “Les, it won’t light, something’s wrong!” WHOOSH! And all of a sudden Fred would disappear with a smile on his face behind a blue flame curtain; ignition had occurred. When the flames subsided Fred would come back into view with singed eyebrows, that same smile on his face. It was a successful performance and an incomparable dessert. Bravo! After dessert, the guests were ready to retire for the evening. “Where are you going???… Cordials being served on the porch.” Some declined; others went along… it didn’t matter. The tradition was for the guests but for their favorite dog Lola’s nightly constitutional. The front porch was used nightly year round, lit by the flames from kerosene lanterns. The only thing that changed was the attire. They sat on the porch, on the snowiest of winter nights and stifling nights sipping their drinks as Lola stood guard. Life was good at Stony Ford.

My uncle performed in several Broadway shows; in the early says, “Lute Song” was one. His career as a dancer didn’t last long and he became more involved in the production side. His design sense sent him into the Costumer profession… creating wardrobes for productions and for performers… initially working on early television dramas – Playhouse 90, the U.S. Steel Hour. He go his big break when he started to work on the Ed Sullivan Show, and worked there until the final curtain fell.

How Sadie, his mom would keel at the credits when she saw his name… we all had to applaud. Needless to say he worked with a lot of famous stars and could tell stories about each. He had his favorites. Merman topped the list. The Beatles were…”nice boys” and he enjoyed Pearl Bailey. On rare occasions, Fred stopped at the studio. One time Marlene Dietrich was on the bill and during a break in the rehearsal she asked, “Does anyone have a cig-a-wette?”… in her unmistakable accent. Fred was so flustered; he gave her the whole pack. With Les’ showbiz connections and storytelling ability, he would always keep the guests at Stony Ford entertained. My uncle, although the less gregarious of the two had his moments. If you were down on your luck, in a personal crisis, or just feeling crappy, Les would extend an invitation… “Come up for the weekend and get your mind off things.” “Get out of the city and spend a few days.” The bill of fare would always be the same… good food and wine and witty, witty conversation were always on the menu. For those that accepted the invitation, they were in store for an experience. What they didn’t know is they would be enlisted in whatever project was going on at the time… no exceptions… everyone must participate and always everyone did. The projects could be as varied as building a terrace, picking wild blueberries at Yankee Lake, weeding the vegetable garden, making wine, or if you were lucky, say a trip to “the only true county fair left in New York State”  …according to Fred, in Grahamsville, NY. You were treated as a member of the family and all that goes with it… chiding and teasing were not off limits; the ultimate gesture of hospitality. In all the time I spent with my uncle and Fred, I don’t know of a single person that refused a second visit.

Wine was a big part of Stony Ford life, thus winemaking became part of the Stony Ford experience. It wasn’t always that way. When they first settled into the house, they relied on jug wine. They must have drunk a lot of it… there must have been 100 empty bottles of Gallo or Carlo Rossi in the cellar. As their palate became more refined, Fred tried his hand at winemaking small scale. First dandelion wine. Yuk! Then he tried to grow his own grapes. That didn’t work well… the grapes he preferred wouldn’t take so he resorted to Concords… not great for wine, but good for jelly. We still have a lot of that. Still determined, Fred planned a trip to the Bronx Terminal Market to pickup his varietals… Grenache and Syrah were his favorites. He would trek down to the Bronx and load up the Willys with grapes until the springs sagged. Then he knew it was time to go home. Winemaking became an annual event and bigger production was needed… this occurred about the same time I became of drinking age… coincidence? With this increased demand the old Jeep could no longer handle the load, and Benito, a produce purveyor from Middletown, was enlisted to deliver the goods. This had to be carefully planned to ensure the grapes were at their peak.

When the grapes arrived, all hands participated in destemming… the first step in the process. Fred conceived and built the ‘destemmer’ machine which allowed the grapes to fall into buckets while keeping the stems in the mesh cylinder. Everyone took turns cranking the machine and swatting the bees that hovered over the grapes and the juice! Buckets of grapes were then carried to the crusher – a medieval looking machine. Grapes would be placed in a large wooden hopper at the top then down two large gears with teeth… end result: crushed grapes and a lot of juice. From there the grapes were hand carried to blue plastic barrels at the other side of the cellar where fermenting would begin. In a few days this mush would begin to bubble, the sugar content was measured at the proper time and the pressing would begin. Pressing was an all day affair. Grapes were taken from the vat and placed in the press lined with burlap. Two metal rods were inserted for turning and you walked in a circle around the press. As pressure was applied, juice would flow, faster and faster, then slower. You would continue to walk in a circle until you couldn’t move. In a few moments the pressure would decrease and juice flowed again and you began to crank again. The juice was then carried to the wine cellar and funneled into barrels. When the barrels were filled, a glass tube filled with a little water was inserted through through a cork. This allowed the gasses to escape and keep the air out. The wine aged for about a year in wooden casks, then was bottled, corked, labeled and racked. From grape to drink, it was a two year process. About 100 gallons of wine were made every year, stored in the cellar. Fred declared when the new vintage was drinkable. The wine could have won awards… deep, red, dense and delicious. Bottles were decanted at every dinner.

Over the years, Stony Ford has been host to many people… some famous, but mostly ordinary folk. Of the famous… it’s said that President Grant smoked his last cigar here, I don’t know about that, but he stayed here and I can prove it. There has also been the lover of a former President. I met her here… nice lady. The original “Man of LaMancha” was here. He sat in the chair by the fireplace. I met him… gentle man with a sweet wife. It was always fun to answer the phone… you never knew who would be in the other end of the line… some famous or just folks. Famous: “Hello, is Les there?” (Who’s calling?) “Ethel, (Ethel who?) Ethel Merman…” (Sing out Louise!) There were others… Joan and Judy and my favorite Jackie… “Hey Pal, can you get Les on the phone?”

The regulars were not famous, but in their own way just as colorful. The overweight chemistry teacher with a high pitched voice and looked like Teddy Roosevelt… always arriving just as dinner was being served, always offered a plate and never refused one. His bond with Fred was the mutual love of the pipe organs and he helped Fred install the one at the top of the stairs.

Then their was a plumber… strong man who helped Fred install the coal furnace and their common bond of wine making. He often visited the dinner table but called first and came for dessert with a bottle of his own making. Conversation centered on winemaking and gardening and ended with Les and him arguing about politics, each of them from opposite sides of the aisle.

Anthony, the piano tuner… he showed up one day to tune the piano and returned every Saturday afterwards for years, for spaghetti and meatballs. He brought his homemade meatballs and Fred and Leslie provided the hospitality. He would help Fred perfect his piano playing and the lessons would end in teacher/student duet in the front room. In the earlier days he worked with the Gershwin brothers assisting with their compositions. Somewhere we have the manuscripts to prove it.

There were two dancers from broadway, Ethel and George… “city people” …came for a visit, loved the country, bought a house down the road, a fixer upper and turned it into a showplace… loved the red carpet in the center hall.

Mrs. C and her son Michael would take a drive in the summer to see how Fred’s garden was prospering. Mrs. C loved to cook, loved to garden. I remember her showing up with a huge bunch of broccoli rabe that she had just picked from the roadside. I was astonished.

Last but not least there was Dutch ‘Milliner to the Stars’, Gary with the wicked sense of humor. He and Les worked early on television. They had the same kind of wit and worked with the same stars… boy, they could tell some stories… doesn’t anyone wear a hat anymore?

Things have changed at Stony Ford. The pipe organ that stood on the second floor landing that Fred rebuilt and played has been dismantled and donated to a church in Cobbleskill New York… the birthplace of Fred… a fitting tribute. The two pianos in the library are still there but badly out of tune. Clementi has not been played for some time. The huge fireplace that warmed the living room has been sealed off to cut down on drafts. The Yule log saved for that special day has decayed and become part of the soil. The kitchen that provided this home with so many wonderful aromas was replaced by Meals on Wheels. The last barrel of Stony Ford Red never made it to the table. It could not have been saved and turned to vinegar. And the last three strays… Dolly, Stella, and Spats… that wandered through the stone pillars have been orphaned by the loss of both their masters.

I learned a lot from my uncle and dear Fred. I learned a strong sense of right from wrong, be on time and always keep your word. My uncle helped me refine my artistic eye. Fred taught me to build straight and strong. I learned to cook by watching them both in the kitchen… gardening and winemaking too. I learned hospitality – if you stop by my house, there’s always an extra chair and meal to be served. I learned a lot from Uncle Les and dear Fred.

My uncle died at home as he wanted. With Fred passing in late December, Les’ purpose for living was also gone. For almost seven years Les visited Fred at St. Teresa’s every day. If he missed a day it was due to the weather. Those that were close to Les knew he was ready to join Fred. My uncle’s heart and his will gave up at about the same time. Throughout Fred’s ordeal and Les’ failing health, he never lost his wit or sarcastic sense of humor. He often said, “People aren’t made to live to 87; they’re just to dumb to lie down.”

This home has seen a lot… it’s a special place. For those who had first hand experience with the adventures at Stony Ford and those who have known my uncle and dear Fred, you are the fortunate ones; you have the memories and stories to recall about life at this place named Stony Ford.

So once more enjoy Les and Fred’s gracious home, they were so proud of it and enjoy the company and food… a remembrance of the hospitality at Stony Ford.

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  1. S@sha says:

    So sweet. You’re house looks very cool. And I love how uniform people’s handwriting was in the past. My grandmother wrote exactly like the writing for the Dill Pickles and Date Pudding.

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