In the Field: McCollum Orchards

A Lockport orchard is reborn



Rich and Bree Woodbridge

kc kratt

One of Lockport’s best-known historic landmarks, McCollum Orchards in Lowertown, is getting a creative overhaul. And we look forward to drinking it all in.

Rich and Bree Woodbridge, who relocated to 284 North Adam Street from California, are upgrading the abundant apple farm (one of the last two farms within city limits) to include beets, Bibb lettuce, chives, Mache, radishes, spinach, sweet potatoes, and—most significantly—a bumper crop of hops.

As they settle the estate of Josephine “Josie” Carveth Woodbridge, Rich’s famous grandmother, who managed the farm for three decades, the Woodbridges are upgrading the farm’s equipment and buildings to today’s standards. They are the sixth family generation to live in the palatial canal-stone home on North Adam.

Leaving big city jobs for farm work has been like “going back in time,” said Rich Woodbridge, who met Bree in 2003 in San Francisco, where they lived for a decade. “It has been quite an adventure so far,” he explains. “From cleaning out parts of buildings that had not seen daylight in years to recovering from the eighty-three-mile-an-hour winds that did damage here in April (2011), we have our hands full. But we love it.”

The well-educated and highly energetic couple plan to grow hops as a main ingredient for microbreweries. They know business; raised in Princeton, Rich served as an expert market researcher for Intuit, the Gap, and Yahoo!, while Bree was a director for a U.S.-Russian business exchange program. Bree learned farming while growing up on the University of Arizona’s Citrus Ag Research farm in Phoenix.

After their 2008 marriage, Bree graduated from Monterey Institute of International Studies with a master’s in public administration, while Rich graduated from University of California, San Diego, with a master’s in business administration. In 2009, they served as consultants in Chennai, India, on a rural economic development institute.

When Josie Woodbridge died, they were overseas. In summer 2010, they came to Cold Springs Cemetery in Lockport to pay their respects. It was then that they decided to return to America to work, seeing the great opportunity that had been waiting in Lockport.

Rich explains, “We continued to discuss the idea with family and friends for six months. On one hand, we were ready to settle down, hard for us adventurous people. On the other hand, restarting the farm and refurbishing the 180-year-old mansion would be a lot of hard work. It sounded like the perfect combination—fulfilling and valuable. On our visits, we really liked the feel of Lockport and what it has to offer. We knew this place has a lot of potential.”
As she leads a walking tour of the new hopsyard, bordering the pear orchard, Bree says, “We researched more about hops and found that the home and craft brew industry is burgeoning across the country and here in Western New York. New York was the largest producer of hops in the U.S. until Prohibition.

“We feel a strong connection to the Niagara Wine Trail, of course. Local people remember Josie’s father, Hector Russell Carveth, who owned the Chateau Gay Winery. Local farms used to sell grapes to Hector’s winery, and we still have some of the cases with the Chateau Gay logo.”

The economy, Rich says, was also a motivator in their decision to leave full-time consulting work for this farm, “which we see as much more exciting and rewarding, especially with our family’s history here. And we will ultimately have more control over our own careers as business owners.”

As a child, Rich spent his summers at McCollum Orchards, helping Josie and her crew. Josie was a local legend, who, throughout her life remained personally active in local philanthropy, creative endeavors, and charity work, doing everything from co-creating the Lowertown Heritage Festival to taking in homeless people.

Josie wanted to preserve the important history of McCollum Orchards, which was founded in the 1830s by her great uncle, popular businessman and city of Lockport founder Joel McCollum. It was during this time that the farm hosted visits from New York Governor Washington Hunt and provided apples to Franklin Roosevelt’s troops.

Rich did extensive research to investigate McCollum’s contemporary potential. “We visited a hops farm in Oregon as well as Foothill Hop Farms in Central New York to get a first-hand look at growing and how to build the trellis system the bines (hop vines) grow on. We realized that is something we could build and grow on this property with the soil and resources we have.”

After the estate is settled and the hops are making a local brew or two famous, Rich and Bree plan to apply for National Historic Landmark status for the property. Bree explains, “While this place was founded by Joel McCollum, the business itself was grown by his nephew, Silas Wright McCollum, in the 1880s. They grew all sorts of fruits and vegetables, and sold ice from the pond to businesses as far away as Philadelphia.” While Silas opened the door to the famous, wealthy, and politically connected, the Woodbridges might consider community-oriented events, someday.

Rich adds, “We have been fortunate to find support and learn about the farm’s history from many people we have met in Lockport. We have learned what used to grow on the farm in its ‘most recent heyday’ in the 1950s–’70s from people who worked on it and still live in the neighborhood.

“The pear and apple orchards are pretty old, and would take a few years to get back to actual harvesting. We are also thinking about other potential ways to make the farm a place of historic pride for Lockport. We feel lucky to continue our family history in such a special place.”

To learn more about what it takes to refurbish a stone mansion and restart a working farm, see Rich and Bree’s hilarious and educational blog at www.oldfarmnewlife.com or on Facebook and Twitter. 

 

 

 

Brandon Stickney, a freelance writer based in Lockport, writes on WNY history and culture.

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