The Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve
Farming in the Early Days of the College
Since 1865 when the first students arrived, Vassar College has had a farm. The map of the college grounds in Benson Lossing’s Vassar College and Its Founder, published in 1867, places the vegetable gardens to the west of what is now Raymond Avenue, where faculty houses now stand. The barn and stable and probably the grazing fields for the cows were on the east side of the road, around where Skinner Hall of Music now stands. The college hired a farmer and built him a “farm-house” near Mill Cove Lake, now called Vassar Lake. Produce from the farm supplied the college kitchen probably with milk and eggs and some vegetables, but the college was by no means self-sufficient. Shipments from food suppliers in Poughkeepsie and the surrounding area arrived daily to keep the storerooms in the cellar of Main Building well stocked.
The land upon which the college was built had been a farm known as Mill Cove Farm, and sometime before that, according to the anonymous Historical Sketch of Vassar College, it had been the site of the “Duchess [sic] County Race-Course”. Apparently the land had been overused, and during the early years of the college the yield from the vegetable gardens was poor. But by 1876 when the sketch was published, the situation had been ameliorated by taking muck from the bottom of Mill Cove Lake and mixing it with sewage “to form a valuable fertilizer, to the virtues of which the soil of the College farm has begun to bear gratifying testimony.”
Where did this sewage come from? According to the Historical Sketch, “[a]n improved and, as nearly as may be, perfect system of sewerage and drainage has been adopted….The sewage from the College is carried through pipes to the ravine, four hundred feet east of the building, and there discharged into a large covered brick tank, from which, after the settling of the more solid portions, the comparatively clear liquid is conveyed through sewer-pipes underground nearly two thousand feet, before it is discharged into the united Casper Kill and Mill-Cove Brook [now called the Fonteyn Kill].” In other words, the college basically dumped its sewage into Casperkill Creek. What was left in the tank was then carted off to the “muck-heaps” and converted into manure for the lawns and gardens.
This “system of sewerage” served the college until the 1890s when farmers downstream of Vassar began to complain of ill effects and pressure was brought to bear on the trustees of the college to come up with a better plan for eliminating its waste. Engineers and consultants were brought in, various scenarios were considered, and finally, in 1894, the trustees settled on a plan to build a sewage pipe from the college to the Hudson River six miles away. (Discharging sewage into streams and rivers was a common method of dealing with it, and buildings were often constructed on the banks of streams and rivers to facilitate this.) The expensive and complicated proposition entailed securing right-of-ways from all the property owners through whose lands the pipeline would pass.
The “Filter Beds” Solution
Fortunately, at the same board of trustees meeting at which the green light was given to this project, Ellen Swallow Richards, Vassar class of 1870, joined the board. The first woman in the U.S. to earn a BA in chemistry, the first woman admitted to study at MIT and the first woman appointed to the faculty at MIT, Richards was also the first scientist to conduct water surveys in the U.S. Her work had led to the first state water-quality standards in the nation and the first modern municipal sewage treatment plant. At the meeting, Richards apparently gave her professional opinion that this was not the most efficient way to resolve the Vassar sewage problem. She suggested that instead the college implement a “sewage farm”—basically a septic system, a method that was just beginning to catch on in the U.S. Probably because it was a much cheaper and less complicated solution, the trustees immediately abandoned the other plan, which had been years in the making, and resolved to investigate sewage farming.
This decision led to the acquisition of the first parcel of land of what we now call the Vassar Farm. Vassar Brothers Hospital owned 200 acres south of Hooker Avenue, land that had been willed to the hospital by John Guy Vassar, Jr., Matthew Vassar’s nephew. The college purchased this land in 1895 to create “filter beds”—what are now called leach fields. The event was sufficiently newsworthy to attract the attention of the New York Times. In an article titled “Sewage Used To Enrich The Soil: The Intermittent Filtration System Adopted At Vassar” (Nov. 16, 1895), the system was described in detail, and trustee Edward E. Elsworth was quoted at length: “I think the question of sewage disposal for Vassar is solved for all time to come. The pollution of streams is avoided, and the college itself put upon the most approved sanitary basis.” Richards, incidentally, was not given credit for coming up with the idea.
Thus, sewage had salvaged the first farming operation at Vassar, and sewage was responsible for the acquisition of the land that was to be the Vassar Farm.
Relocating the Farming Operation
At the turn of the century, the college’s farming operation was still located on the southernmost part of the main campus. After the Vassar Chapel was completed in 1904, college administrators wanted to move the farming operation because the mooing of the cows interfered with the solemnity of Chapel activities. This move was made possible by the acquisition of several parcels adjacent to the Vassar Brothers Hospital parcel: the Davies farm (300 acres deeded to the college as a gift in 1911 by Augustus and May Elton Davies) and the Doughty property (the land bordering Rt. 376, acquired in 1916 from James Doughty, a trustee in the early years of the college). The Doughty property, between Zach’s Way and Cedar Avenue, the locale of the Cider Mill, well known to Vassar students in the 30s and 40s, included a beautiful house, which the college now uses as an apartment house for faculty members. (1)
With the consolidation of these parcels into a single tract, Vassar’s farming operation was relocated and enlarged with the building of a double farmer’s house, the cow barn, and chicken coops. According to the 1918-19 Vassar College Catalogue, the farm included “a model dairy and poultry farm, greenhouses, stables, storage barns and farm houses….[It] produces vegetables for the college table, and grain and fodder for the cattle and poultry. The dairy supplies milk and cream for the college from a tested herd of Holstein cattle.”
The Vassar Farm Unit
They chopped wood, milked cows, ploughed fields, and hoed the rows. Because of its novelty, the Vassar Farm Unit was invited to present a “live exhibit” at the first Eastern States Exposition, a ten-state agricultural fair in September 1917, and five girls were excused from class for ten days to demonstrate their farming skills before some 138,000 visitors. (2)
In World War II, students were again employed on the farm and also to keep up the grounds and gardens on the main campus. Some of the students worked for a local canning factory, and others helped local farmers with their garden work.
The Farm at Mid-Century
In 1925 President MacCracken had introduced a new position, business manager, to the Vassar administration. He appointed Keene Richards, under whose direction the college tightened the farm food-raising operation. During the ’50s, an efficiency expert, Louis Brega, followed Richards as general manager, and Brega convinced the trustees that maintaining the farm diverted funds from the main enterprise of the college, educating students in the classroom. By the end of the ’50s, the herd of cows had been sold at auction, and other farm animals were also retired. The college thereafter bought all its food from commercial sources. No longer did the students sit at the supper table eating broccoli with the comment that it must have been endowed by a generous alumna.
The Evolution of the Community Gardens
Around the same time that Vassar’s farming operation was discontinued, a new type of farming enterprise began. The area south of Skinner Hall was designated a community garden for members of the Vassar faculty who enjoyed weekend farming. Prof. Elizabeth Daniels remembers creating a garden alongside that of Prof. Leslie Koempel in the area south of what is now the Raymond Avenue entrance to Skinner Hall. Eventually, this enterprise was moved across Hooker Avenue to the Vassar Farm in the area behind the barns, and in the 1980s, the garden plots were made available to members of the Poughkeepsie community as well. As of 2008, 120 plots are available to the community on a first-come, first-served basis for a nominal fee. Gardeners are required to follow three simple rules: garden organically, bring your own hose (but unhook it when you leave), and build your own fence.
The Ecological Preserve
In 1973, a group of faculty led by Prof. Margaret Wright of the Biology Department proposed that part of the farm be set aside as a field station for ecological study. After commissioning several studies to explore the best use for the 527-acre tract, the college adopted a mixed-use plan in 1976, designating 275 acres as an ecological preserve for conservation and research. Today, 416 acres are actively managed as a preserve.
In 1978, the first field laboratory—a modified mobile home—was installed and the beginnings of a trail system were established. The laboratory served as a field classroom for the Biology Department, a center for faculty and student independent research projects, and, beginning in 1983, a natural history classroom for local elementary schools. In 1993, Vassar alumna Priscilla Bullitt Collins ’42 donated funds to build a new field research station, which opened on the farm in 1995. The ecological preserve is an invaluable resource for Vassar scientists. Classes in biology, biochemistry, earth science, and environmental studies use the preserve for observation and research, and professors and students have numerous independent research projects under way at any given time.
Exploring Science at Vassar Farm, a program initially funded by a gift from Vassar English professor Barbara Swain, gives local elementary school children hands-on lessons about nature and science, and it also gives Vassar students who are interested in science education hands-on experience teaching second- and third-graders. Since it began in 1983, 35,000 children have participated in the program.
The Poughkeepsie Farm Project
A member-supported organic farm, the Poughkeepsie Farm Project began in 1999 with 70 members and three acres of farmland leased from the college. As of 2008, PFP has ten acres under cultivation and grows vegetables for about 300 members, for its booth at the Poughkeepsie Farmers’ Market, and for local soup kitchens and shelters.
Now with concerns about “sustainability” coming to the fore, the college is experiencing a return to local sources of food, enhanced by a growing interest in “green” living. This has resulted in increased use of the Vassar farmland for gardening by both Vassar community members and others from the larger Poughkeepsie community.
- Before its purchase by Vassar, the property had been used as a racetrack for many years. Interestingly, the 200-acre property on which Matthew Vassar had originally founded the college had also included a flourishing racetrack in the area between what is now Lagrange Avenue and Collegeview Avenue.
- Now called “The Big E,” the exposition continues to be held annually in Springfield, MA.
Historical Sketch of Vassar College, 1876.
“Sewage Used To Enrich the Soil: The Intermittent Filtration System Adopted at Vassar,” New York Times, Nov. 17, 1895.
Alice M. Campbell, “An Experiment in Farm Labor,” Modern Priscilla magazine, April 1918.
Benson Lossing, Vassar College and It’s Founder, New York: C. A. Alvord Printer, 1867.
Robert Suter, “Idyll Thoughts and Prescriptions from a Farm Ecologist,” Vassar Quarterly, Spring 1982.
Marcia Yudkin, “Earth, Air, Water, Hearth: The Woman Who Founded Ecology,” Vassar Quarterly, Spring 1982.
Vassar College Board of Trustees Minutes, 1894/95.
EAD, JV 2008