LAFARGEVILLE — "That's from when I first started farming," said Lawrence R. Proven, pointing to a restored 1929 Case tractor with heavily treaded metal wheels. "They didn't have rubber back then. I wrote to the Case company to find out about it; it cost $600 at most."
Mr. Proven, LaFargeville, restored and donated this piece of his own history to the Northern New York Agricultural Historical Society Museum at Stone Mills.
The barn in which the museum keeps its historic farm machinery collection is crammed to capacity with pieces that together tell stories: of Northern New York's rural character, of technological progress through time, and of how the lives of farmers have changed through the years as a result of labor-saving innovations.Every piece has been donated.
But the museum has fallen on hard times recently. In the past three years, the society has lost money through its investments as the economy has gone sour, and attendance at its signature events has fallen dramatically.
The annual craft fair that a few years ago drew as many as 15,000 people to the museum's 50-acre grounds over three days attracted about half as many visitors last year. Aside from donations, the museum's income comes entirely from gate receipts, "so you can see where the hardship has come in," said Marguerite C. Raineri, museum director.
Ms. Raineri, one of two paid employees at the museum, spoke about its financial stress Wednesday, breaking occasionally to chide her office pet — a big, spotted rabbit named Hitch — for nibbling the books stacked against every wall of her office.
Mr. Proven, a lifetime member of the museum and its resident mechanic, is one of about 100 regular volunteers who are crucial to the museum's success, she said. Other volunteers pitch in to help host special events, keep the gardens tidy and bright, and keep an eye out on their travels in the region for the rusty skeletons of other forgotten machines left to the elements in fields, like the corpses of dinosaurs.
Still, running the museum "has been a real struggle the past three years," she said. "People need to think of other things to use their money on. Hopefully, people will go close by to enjoy some of the things they have in the area."
The phone rang, and Ms. Raineri answered it.
"We're not doing the Yellow Pages," she said, in response to the caller who was seeking advertising in the phone book. "We're on an austerity budget this year, and we can't afford it. ... OK, thank you." She hung up.
The museum has cut back a lot on advertising this year, and is carefully conserving electricity and gas — "things that you would be conserving in your home," Ms. Raineri said. In addition to the old equipment barn, the grounds hold restored or replica versions of a historic stone church, granary, schoolhouse, cheese factory and sawmill, and a building holding household and business items. There also are two rabbits and two goats, one of which is fatly pregnant, for children to visit and pet.
The museum is suffering from the kind of local apathy many such institutions fall victim to. Regional visitors may find the collection magical, but local people often complain about the $5 entrance fee, Ms. Raineri said.
"They just don't get the picture that it takes a lot of money to keep this place going, and we have no other financial aid. What we get from our events is all. We get grants for certain things — like to restore our steeple — but nothing that keeps up with the operational expenses," which total about $90,000 a year, she said.
One of the museum's most enthusiastic and reliable benefactors, Donald C. Whiteman, Adams, died last fall, adding to the tightening financial times. Like Mr. Proven, Mr. Whiteman collected and donated many items to the museum, and he also helped fill financial gaps when the museum was in a pinch, Ms. Raineri said.
The labors of love of people like Mr. Proven and Mr. Whiteman have helped Ms. Raineri, who herself grew up on a dairy farm in Canastota,to introduce modern and increasingly urban children to mysterious processes like turning grain into bread. Those agricultural processes have laid the foundation not only for modern diets, technology and life, but also for the historical identity of a changing region.
Back in the equipment barn, Ms. Raineri points out one of the museum's prized pieces, a horse-powered thresherdating from the 1880s or 1890s, that once was used "probably on every farm in Jefferson County," she said. Pieces like this often are headed for the dump until the museum intervenes to rescue them.
"It took about 30 men to operate this particular machine," she said.
A thresher from just about a decade later sits on display nearby; the technological progress visible in just those two machines is startling.
"Farmers are the backbone of this country," Ms. Raineri said. "And our early years brought forth what we have today."