Monday, January 11, 2016

Happy Birthday Caroline Wright-Reis!

Today, January 11th, is Caroline Wright-Reis' 134th birthday! In honor of this, I've compiled a list of 11 facts to get to know this amazing Somers resident!

1) Caroline was born on January 11th, 1882.

2) Caroline was an only child, and after being orphaned at age ten she was raised by her Uncle William Wright.

3) As a child she attended the Blaire Academy in New Jersey, a boarding school for young girls.

4) Caroline studied fashion and costume design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, graduating in 1912. At this point in history women did not have the right to vote, and many did not attended college, let alone graduate.

5) Caroline married Walter Reis in 1908.

6) While Walter traveled for business, Caroline was in charge of running their farm.

7) In addition to this, Caroline was also a member of several Somers organizations, including the school board and the Somers Lantern Association.

8) Caroline was also a member of the Katonah Women's Civic Organization, a group evolved from the Katonah's Women's Suffrage Party.

9) Caroline was an accomplished artist, and many of her works are on display at the Wright-Reis Homestead.

10) Caroline also was an avid collector: she gathered a variety of pottery, baskets, and various newspaper and magazine clippings relating to her many interests.

11) Caroline Wright-Reis lived until 1967, at which point she donated her home and 82 acres of land to the town of Somers, asking that it be used for recreational and educational purposes. Today, we call that land Reis Park. The park, the Library, and the Wright-Reis Homestead allow us to remember Caroline and all she did throughout her life and after for her beloved town of Somers.

For more on Caroline visit:

Friday, January 8, 2016

Modern-Made Historic Pictures

Hi all,

I just wanted to share an NPR article that I stumbled upon today. It's about Jerry Spagnoli, a photographer who has been taking photos of heirloom plants (like the ones we have been growing in the Homestead garden) in the Hudson Valley using the very first method of photography. Click here to take a look!

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Heirloom vs. Commercial Vegetables (aka Thank a Farmer)

Last week, I got to work in the garden for the first time this year. I have been finishing my last semester at school and applying for jobs, but the volunteers have kept the garden running nicely. There was plenty of work to be done, though, and since the plants we're growing are mainly heirloom varieties that could have actually been grown for sustenance within Caroline's lifetime, it's been a great insight into what it really took to feed a family back then. To summarize, the heirloom varieties are less productive and less reliable than modern, commercial varieties, and what yield they do produce is easily sabotaged by pests without pesticides or protection. 

As a prime example of how different the producing capacities of heirloom varieties are from the commercial varieties, the corn ears that developed were noticeably smaller than the ones you'd find in a grocery store, and only about half of the kernels developed. I would guess that each ear of corn yielded about a quarter of a cup of edible kernels.

An ear of heirloom corn.

The mesh fence we erected has proven effective against larger pests like rabbits and deer, but fencing like that is a newer innovation and it would not be possible to keep an entire farm fenced even if it was available centuries ago. While the fence broke a while ago, and something ate all of the broccoli and surrounding vegetables (I'm not even sure what they were; they're unrecognizable). These crops have never recovered. There’s no way to protect the crops against insects, which means that many crops are damaged to the point of being rather unappetizing.

Crop damage that occurred without pesticides and when
the fence was damaged.

 Additionally, a lot of the plants either died or never grew, resulting in a much lower yield than we expected given our understanding of agricultural production today. In one bed in particular, our tomatoes grew (though they were small) but nothing else we planted grew.

Small tomato plants. Other crops had been planted between
the tomatoes, but they didn't grow.

 All in all, our vegetable garden - which looks effectively large to us - produced only a small basket full of produce this week. We're happy to know that what we're collecting will help someone, but it's far from a continuously sustaining plot.

One week's yield from heirloom plants and rudimentary insect control.

Additionally, it takes a lot of physical labor to care for and harvest plants without using machinery or chemicals. For example, many of the bean plants had died, and living and dead plants were stuck in a tangled heap. To allow the living plants more space to grow, the dead plants had to be cleared out. Additionally, all of the tomato plants had to be staked up to prevent plants from buckling under the weight of their fruits and encroaching grasses had to be ripped out of the plots and surrounding areas. It's really a wonder how much work goes into cultivating such little food; be thankful that farmers do all the work so you don't have to and that modern varieties make their efforts more fruitful!

A wheelbarrow full of weeds and dead plants
collected during one day of weeding.

Also, on a relatively unrelated note, Erika joined us in the garden this week. She shared some of her Italian heritage with us, identifying ripe zucchini and sharing recipes.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Thinking Spring: Garden Plans and Garden Past

Even though it's still chilly and there's still snow on the ground, we've begun making plans for gardening this Spring! I may not be around to oversee the garden's progress this year, but I will participate in its planning. In fact, today we sorted some seeds.

It looks like a mess, but it's part of this year's seed stock!

Last year's fledgeling garden was pretty successful considering the relative lack of manpower and equipment. The goal was to create a garden much like one Caroline and family may have kept. Volunteers tended the garden weekly, and I harvested ripe fruits, mature vegetables, and some herbs on Fridays.

Harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables.

All yields from the garden were donated to St. Luke's food pantry. We had two reasons for doing this: first, our efforts could help feed people in our community. Even though our small gardens didn't yield much, it's satisfying to know we're making some sort of positive impact. Second, Caroline's great grandfather was a founding vestryman at St. Luke's, so we're keeping the connection alive between the Wright family and St. Luke's Church.

One Friday's yield from the garden early in the harvesting season. Everything was donated to St. Luke's food pantry.

Next to the summer kitchen were four small plots containing herbs like chives, basil, lemon balm, oregano, and mint. We also had beans in this area.  A garden like this would have been kept close to the kitchen so that whoever was cooking could have easy access to herbs whenever necessary.

Herb plots next to the summer kitchen.

Next to the outhouse, we had a few more plots of vegetables like tomatoes, pumpkins, kale, and squash, and we even had a berry bush or two. And when I say we had tomatoes, I mean we had a lot of tomatoes! We grew at least three varieties, including some heirloom varieties from the Seed Lending Library at Somers Library, a partner in this project with us. Library patrons were able to "check out" heirloom seeds to grow at home. At the end of the season, "rented" seeds were returned by bringing back collected and dried seeds from the plants they grew. Unfortunately our kale didn't make it. Some lucky animal ate off all the leaves before we could get the mesh fencing set up.

Ripening heirloom tomatoes.

We're still working out the details of this year's gardens, but the plan is to continue portraying the kind of gardens Caroline and her family would have kept while also helping those in need in our community.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Fantastic Find

Hi there, Erika posting! This summer I've been working on cataloging boxes of documents that belonged to Caroline, and I've found some fantastic stuff. There are insurance policies, personal letters, and even some advertisements all mostly dating from the 1930s. One thing I was particularly excited to find was this:
 Caroline, among the numerous other organizations she donated time and money to, was a member of the Westchester Historical Society. Her love of history and dedication to preserving the past is clear, and makes me more determined to see what else I can find out about this amazing woman we owe so much to.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

"Diseases of the Dog"

[From Madeline, again.]

A week or so ago, my mom found a booklet from 1924 entitled "Diseases of the Dog and How to Feed" by H. Clay Glover, a veterinarian to the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club. Naturally, as an Animal Science major, I had to skim through it. Besides the old-time vernacular used, it seemed more-or-less a typical pet health care manual. However, two things caught my eye at once:

First, epilepsy was listed under the name "Fits." Apparently epilepsy was not a well known condition at the time... or, rather, its symptoms were well known but its causes and/or mechanisms remained a mystery to the general public. Without sufficient understanding of epilepsy among the general public, it seems to have simply been designated "fits." I suppose it makes sense considering the knowledge of the time; a canine (or human) having an epileptic seizure could certainly appear as "they're just having a fit" to the ignorant eye.

Second and most shocking, feeding ground glass, tin, or turpentine was the "traditional" method of controlling internal parasites. Thankfully Glover had the insight to mention that this was not a preferable method of treatment. Just imagine treating a case of intestinal worms by feeding the dog a shattered vase, a soup can, or paint cleaner... Sure, the worms would be dead, but I wouldn't doubt I if the poor dog was dead shortly after that, too. Thankfully we have anthelmintics to kill worms and not dogs nowadays.

Actually, a similar "treatment" appeared in the book I'm currently reading, The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon, which is set around the time of the American revolution. (On a side note, this particular book is the fourth or fifth - I lost count - of seven in the historical fiction/Sci-Fi/romance/impressively-detailed-and-awesome-in-general Outlander series, which I highly recommend reading.) Not to spoil anything, a drunken slave turned up violently dead but without apparent injury, and it was discovered that, in addition to having been drugged to induce vomiting (already irritating to the stomach), she had somehow consumed ground glass. The ground glass caused a hemorrhage in her stomach, which ultimately killed her. Whether that was a successful attempt at murder or the well-intentioned doctor's treatment gone wrong is a mystery that it seems will remain unsolved, but either way, what passed for medicine at the time was alarming.

Also frequently mentioned in The Fiery Cross, blood-letting was common; doctors would create an incision and allow the patient to bleed a bit. The theory was that illness is caused by an imbalance of "humors" (which don't actually exist), and removing blood would remove the humor that is in excess. I would imagine that different illnesses would warrant blood letting in different areas according to whatever hypothetical humor is theoretically in excess, although I have not done research on the topic. If the prospect of allowing an ill patient to lose significant quantities of blood isn't suspicious enough, the instruments used to make the incision were not cleaned or sterilized as the concepts of bacteria and infections were still unknown. Yuck! What a medical disaster!!

A canine health manual from 1924.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

An Attempt at Research

Hi everyone, this is Madeline.

I have a thing for herbs (if my last post about the pressed plants hasn't made it obvious). As I headed off to school last semester, I couldn't help but think, "My school is a large, Land Grant, research institution with a large horticulture section in the library. I bet I can find a whole bunch of information on the herbs in our herb garden there..." And thus I set out on a mission to learn about the herbs in our herb garden.

I don't know if anyone has mentioned the herb garden yet, but I, my mom, and some other volunteers planted the herb garden a number of years ago outside of the summer kitchen. The idea was to cultivate a small garden similar to what Caroline and her family might have grown. It currently houses a number of popular plants: tansy, mint, lavender, chives, rhubarb, oregano, lemon balm, catmint, ginger (coming soon!), and supposedly some Cuban oregano from my family's own, thriving stock. We have plans to revamp the garden, too.

So anyway, off I went to the library during Finals week, armed with my list of herbs. I felt pretty sure of myself, marching past the frantic, last-minute studiers, straight to one of rows in the Horticulture section. I ended up mid-alphabet, and scanned the rows for either mint, lavender, or lemon balm. Behold! A whole section on lavender! I opened up one friendly-looking book, only to discover an unbelievably long list (like over a page of normal-sized font) of subspecies of the lavender family, each with its own, subtly unique properties. I had no idea that so many varieties of lavender existed! Needless to say, I have no idea which variety is currently growing in our garden, and the books I found on other herbs were not much less detailed. In a way, it was a loss: I walked away with no more information on our herbs. I do, however, have my next little project: figure out exactly what type of plants we have before returning for research.

On the plus side, though, I got a good laugh out of finding these potato yearbooks from the mid-1900's. Talk about a random find! Upon sharing this with Erika, she informed me that we have a similar, older one of Caroline's in the Homestead for apples. I will definitely be investigating this during the summer.

P.S. A Potato-Related Historical Nugget: Did you know that potatoes are not native to Ireland, but rather South America? They were domesticated by the Native Americans and later brought to Europe. We learned in my World Crops and Cropping Systems class that the Irish Potato Famine was so bad because Ireland was heavily relying on one variety of potato, and when I say "heavily relying," I mean that this one variety of potato constituted most of the population's diet. The potato crop failed when a blight appeared, and thus the country descended into famine. The population of Ireland has still not recovered from the massive death and emigration caused by this tragedy.

Moral of the story: diversification is key in all aspects of life.