A River, and History,Runs Through It

WRITTEN & PHOTOGRAPHED BY DAN LUNDQUIST


I found this place by accident.

Or did it find me?

A few years ago, at a cookout in Greenfield, a friend suggested
I try out an old motorcycle of his. I objected saying I didn’t know how to work the gears, but he said “squeeze the clutch, tap the pedal down to shift ahead, tap the pedal up to downshift; it’s that simple. Have fun and don’t worry!”

So I went out for a ride and, with a minimum of stall-outs, pretty quickly got the hang of it. In fact – much to my surprise – I enjoyed it so much that I started keeping an eye out for those “end of the driveway specials” that are so common in the area. Before too long I was the proud owner of a twenty-five-year-old Honda Nighthawk motorcycle.

I learned that the country roads of Saratoga and Washington Counties are a gift from heaven: they’re well maintained and lightly traveled, and they offer spectacular views.

On one such foray–I never planned a trip or used a GPS–I found myself winding along the Hudson River about ten miles east of Saratoga Springs. It was beautiful–no, it was breathtaking–and I wondered how such a cool place could be so close and so, what... unknown?

Besides passing a couple pedaling on their bikes there was virtually no traffic.

Yet I was twenty minutes from downtown.

Then I saw the FOR-SALE sign.

I’m retired. Or as I’ve come to say, I’m self-employed, which seems to make more sense when you are “only” in your early sixties. Four years ago, anticipating my early retirement, I began to think about new beginnings with a growing excitement.

I had a successful career in higher education, at large urban Ivy League universities and small liberal arts colleges. I was a vice president at Union College for 16 years. My work had taken me all over the world and across the United States. I knew I wanted to travel when I retired, but as a world traveler, I also knew there was nowhere beside Saratoga that I wanted as my home base.

But where would home be? I’m divorced and my wonderful daughter Molly had just graduated from college. It was just me, Sammy, and Bosco (Golden Retriever and black rescue Lab).

So, deciding to leave the idealized “21st Century Leave It to Beaver” neighborhood behind, I began to look around for local alternatives. I looked at some small houses closer to downtown, but felt a sense of claustrophobia. I went to a cute townhouse community near Saratoga Lake, but found it to be not particularly dog friendly.

So, with no sense of rush, I continued to juggle the improbable and kept returning to that farm along the Hudson, both in my mind and a couple of times actually going out and visiting it at different times of day. I was charmed to see that at different times of the day, evening, and even after dark, the place took on different complementary characteristics. It wasn’t quite a “pinch me” feeling but it was pretty close.

Of course, I decided to take the plunge.

I wasn’t exactly sure what retirement–I mean self-employment–was going to hold for me, but I knew I was handy and healthy, and this would clearly be an adventure, likely one I wouldn’t have again.

It’s a big house, but I envisioned a home office off one living/media room. The 1820 riverside section has a bedroom with its own stair and bath that I thought would be perfect for guests. I could see a studio in the insulated portion of the barn, and maybe an indoor driving range (with a tarp) up where the hayloft should be. Who knows? Endless possibilities!

When I went for my last walk-through, the owner met me and explained many quirky items to me: the reverse osmosis water purifier (“as good as the White House”), the electric and water hook- ups run underground from the house to the barn in case I wanted

to complete an apartment out there, and so forth. As I was getting ready to leave, he handed me a small photo album, the kind we used to have when Kodak still existed.

I riffled through it and a couple of images stood out. I smiled and said “smart move not showing me these until now...”

In 1770 a young Englishman named Samuel Lewis secured riverside property on the west side of the river. It was “prime real estate”: flat, fertile, with easy, abundant access to the river. As British General Burgoyne headed south from Canada aiming for the upstart forces camped at Stillwater to prevent the British from reaching Albany, he selected the western shore for his approach south of Stillwater. Marching past what is now Five Porch Farm,

It was one of those perfect summer days: high cotton-candy fluffy clouds against a deep blue sky, warm in the sun and cool in the shade.

As I rode along I passed a beautiful old covered bridge that connected the river road to one of several islands. I continued south and saw people fishing from “party boats” and a couple of mini yachts that must’ve traveled the Champlain Canal from the Atlantic Ocean up to Montréal.

Bliss.

I saw one of those blue and yellow New York State historic markers in front of an old two-story house that had gone to seed. I stopped and read the sign to learn that it was the home of John McCrea, brother of the famous Jane McCrea, the Revolutionary War heroine who, through her brutal murder by Indian mercenaries hired by the British, so inflamed public opinion as to accelerate colonists’ support for the insurrection and, in no small way, aiding the American victory.

Path of history.

I knew from my college studies that this stretch along the river– between Lake George and Stillwater–had been the scene of unusually brutal skirmishes, not just during the War for Independence, but for twenty or so years before that, including the French and Indian War. At the same time, apart from military conflicts, the life of the farming families along the river was precarious in the untamed and ungoverned frontier. The Native American populations who had inhabited this territory for hundreds of years were expert at appearing from the dense woods and raiding farms with lightning speed, before disappearing with scalps as trophies.

I rode on.

After a few gentle hills and a long, lazy bend, the road straightened out. I went about a mile and then turned around. Something “caught me,” but what?

I backtracked and stopped, pulling over on the river side of the road and turned off the motorcycle. Then, taking my helmet off, I got off of the bike and looked around.

I couldn’t put my finger on it: there was a “something,” a quiet and stillness. (I would later learn that I was at the midpoint of the only section of the Hudson River that is not “through-navigable” due to two small waterfalls, boats use the canal on the Washington County side. So this was... Hudson Lake?!)

I enjoyed stretching my legs and taking in the peaceful scenery. I walked along the road directly on the river and saw the large yellow farmhouse ahead on the left. As I approached, I saw that hedges and a white fence enclosed it, and there were what looked like acres of golf course quality lawn. I stopped in my tracks when I saw a life-sized– I’m over six feet tall and it wasn’t smaller than me–statue that was a lookalike for the Venus de Milo in the shade between two trees.

Like many old farmhouses, this had obviously been built in phases with additions over the years to adapt to growing needs or a growing family. Looking around I saw a couple of barns partially hidden by a quarter mile of carefully planted cypress trees. Wow I thought, “a view with privacy!”

the British troops recognized what Lewis had–flat land with river access–so they set up a commissary and hospital (historic markers still exist) on the site, one of the few large areas north of Stillwater so situated. Lewis fled and became a lieutenant in the American force.

Following the British defeat, Lewis returned to his farm and, in 1820, built a grand–for its time–Greek Revival enlargement on the river side, where it stands today.

However, reflecting changes in the economy over the centuries– most notably the shift to urbanization in the early-to-mid 20th Century–the farm shifted hands, and by the late 20th Century had fallen into disrepair. Like so many structures that dot the local landscape to this day.

West River Road is no longer a busy road–Routes 32 and 4 get most of the traffic–yet I’ve met many people who will say “you live in that house?” or “I remember exploring that when there were no doors or windows!” and “we always thought it was haunted... is it?”

Why the Connor family ever chose to restore the place is unknown to me–I’ve never met them, but the father and sons undertook the project in 1994, and in a year completed total modernization of the existing structures, adding a garage on the west end.

Probably for similar reasons, the Sirianni family purchased the place (and an additional eight acres to the west) in 2005, and hired Sonny Bonacio to build an addition that would more than double the size of the house, while staying in character with the original architecture detail. (The first year I went to pay my taxes at the Northumberland town hall they were still talking about the “precision carpentry” and care and time that had gone into this chapter of the farm’s life!)

The commercial kitchen is probably the jaw-dropper–excepting the exterior views–no expense was spared in equipping or making the true “heart of the house” totally modern while looking 100 years old. The walk-in fireplace is stunning.

The entire 20 acres is covered with Invisible Fencing for dogs (as well as regular fencing) and the four acres of horse paddocks have Electrobraid fence along with running water and electricity to keep the buckets from freezing in winter. Less visible are “systems”: Five Porch Farm can essentially run off-the-grid with an Artesian well dug far beneath the riverbed and a sophisticated water-purification system (Darren, my “water guy,” says “you are probably getting better water than Camp David!”). The entire property–including the “barn” that is really a garage with a studio and in-law apartment where the hayloft should be–is protected by a generator that can give us a couple of weeks’ coverage should it be necessary. And there is a small 2-3 stall horse barn with a tack room for supplies.

By September
I was living on the river.

I had used the lag time to be sure all the fences were intact, and I added a gate on the River Road entrance. (Because there is little traffic, I worried it would be hard to teach the dogs to stay away from the road, especially with the lure of the river right there.)

And, despite owning a quarter-mile of deeded river rights, no deck or easy river access existed, so I hired a guy from Saratoga Lake to build a deck overlooking the water with a staircase going down to a gravel dock for a canoe and kayak.

People have asked me “What was the biggest surprise you found when you moved to the farm?”

Well, right off the bat: there is a big difference between visiting... and living in a place like this.

It is fun and easy to visit, marvel and enjoy. That is like being an uncle. You can hold the baby, feed it, giggle at it... and when it starts crying or needs its diapers changed, you call your sister.

Putting aside doing the dishes after guests leave, when you own the farm, you own the responsibility for caring for it. The pleasure, pride, fulfillment, hard work, expense... that all comes with the package.

As does the sheer quiet joy of having coffee on the river deck... or watching birds at the feeder while having a drink ...with my 800 pound girlfriend, the marble statue.

If you have a farm you need a tractor.

If you know what a “PTO” is, you are ahead of where I was when I bought a used diesel Kubota tractor. I wanted “one motor” that could do all I needed, which I figured was grass and snow. A tractor–not a garden mower–that could cut a swath of grass five feet wide.

I purchased one from a dealer nearby and it arrived with the five- foot snow blower attachment set up. But the lawn–all eight-plus acres of it–really needed cutting.

I called the office, and they apologized and promised to get the mower deck out to me ASAP. I looked at the grass and thought of the quip the delivery guy made as he got in his truck: “yup, you’ll want that mower,” he said as he surveyed the expanse of lawn, “or soon you’ll be hayin’.”

It seemed like forever, but within a couple of days a truck was coming my way.

The driver was a big, burly guy, who looked perfect for his part. I am a tall, slender guy who might look perfect for the part of retired college vice president or aging preppy. We might not appear to have much in common, but we quickly bonded. Which is the way it is when one lives in the country.

An unlikely duo, tractors brought us together.

This mower deck is three-by-five feet of heavy steel. It must weigh close to 300 pounds. I don’t remember his name, but the delivery guy rolled it across the back of his truck onto a hydraulic lift which he lowered to the ground and then pushed the deck onto the gravel by the barn, whereupon its little wheels sunk in the grit.

“How am I gonna get this to the tractor?” which was parked in its own bay at the back of the barn. Not a big talker, the driver looked around at all the gravel and the sunken deck. “Do you have any web belts?” he asked, “I don’t think we should try to carry it.” I wasn’t really sure what he meant, but figured he meant something to pull it.

I did find a few odds-and-ends. He rejected the extension cord and clothesline, opting for some kayak tie-downs, which he lashed to the deck and dragged it–without asking for help–across the gravel to the flat cement of the garage floor. From there I knew I could drive the tractor and maneuver the deck into position. Only one question remained. I rushed over to the truck–he was raising the lift and getting ready to leave–and asked him “how do you attach it?!”

“Didn’t they give you an owner’s manual?” he asked. No, I bought it used.

We walked over to the deck and he pointed a beautifully greased finger at it “see that? when you get this under the middle of the tractor, connect that to the PTO.”

Huh?!

I didn’t think any anxiety was showing, but I had no idea what he was talking about and said, “What are you pointing at and what is a ‘PTO’?”

He had sized me up perfectly but, according to the Rules of the Farm, met me where I was: respectful, appreciative, and clueless.

Even after an oral walk-through he could tell by the fish-out-of- water involuntary motions my mouth was making that I was lost. He stuck his ham-sized fist out, we shook, and as he walked to his truck he said, “check it out on YouTube, you’ll be fine.”

He was right.

I got the first cut in by keeping the blades set on high, thus avoiding “haying” ...just barely.

Happily Ever After

I moved here four years ago and have been tinkering ever since, even a “new” 250-year-old house requires attention. In fact I spent a good portion of the summer of 2016 with Jim Smith, a “restoration carpenter” who specializes in the care of places like this.

Astonishingly, while removing softening exterior columns, we uncovered the original chestnut timbers that framed the house– and were the reason it kept its structural integrity–they were rock-solid actual trees and you could see stubs where branches had been trimmed off, as well as the mortise-and-tenon “no nails” construction technique.

They, quite simply, do not “make ‘em like they used to.”

There is a lot of room here. It is beautiful, and the power of nature is alternatingly astonishing and soothing. The farm has solitude, yet I can get to Saratoga Springs in 20 minutes.

I’ve hosted everything from family reunions to corporate retreats and Skidmore College team-building events. I’ve had a few “cause” fundraisers–local community and environmental efforts–as well as killer croquet tournaments and clay pigeon shoots.

Year-round, the austere power of Mother Nature welcomes, while reminding us that “you were not here first” ...so we enjoy and care for it while we can. SS


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