Tilly Foster Farm Closing Leaves Responsibility to Putnam County

With animals gone, management team calls it quits

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

The closing of the Tilly Foster Farm Museum Jan. 31 leaves its owner, the Putnam County government, with the task of caring for the historic property and determining its future.

Located near Brewster on the county’s eastern edge (about 25 miles from Cold Spring), the site consists of nearly 200 acres, traditional buildings, and antique machinery. Until recently, it featured animals – from ducks, chickens and geese to rabbits, pigs and cows, with a donkey and horse, too.

Tilly Foster Farm Photo by K.E. Foley

Tilly Foster Farm (photo by K.E. Foley)

An equine presence could ostensibly return. Even as the farm in its present incarnation shuts, a county resident wants to bring ex-carriage horses to live out their days in its fields. And at least two county legislators think the idea is worth exploring.

In November, Preserve Putnam County, a non-profit organization charged with running Tilly Foster, revealed “with great sadness” its departure – five years into a 40-year lease – after months of complaints from the county legislature about the organization’s financial stewardship.

More recently, declaring that the rare-breed animals already “all have been sold,” managers thanked Tilly Foster’s supporters and bade “a heartbroken good-bye to all.” Preserve Putnam scheduled sales of office furnishings and farm equipment Jan. 18-19 and Jan. 25-26. However, it said that Avalon Archives, a rock-and-roll exhibit, would stay open, at least “sporadically,” despite prior questions about putting such a collection in a place supposedly dedicated to Putnam County’s agricultural heritage. Old agricultural equipment owned by the Putnam County Antique Machinery Association also remains.

In announcing the surrender of the lease, the Preserve Putnam board of directors (including Putnam County Sheriff Donald Smith and former County Executive Robert Bondi), said the organization would “assist the county executive and legislature in returning the farm to direct county control.”

A key Putnam County Legislature panel, the Physical Services Committee, put the matter on its Jan. 22 meeting agenda. District 1 Legislator Barbara Scuccimarra, who represents Philipstown and whose horse was foaled at Tilly Foster, said Wednesday before the meeting that the committee had to officially vote to let Preserve Putnam County end the lease. “If they want to get out, let them get out,” she recommended.

She said County Executive MaryEllen Odell intends to set up a task force to devise a plan for Tilly Foster going forward. Scuccimarra said the property would remain a farm. “There’s no plan to do anything other than leave it as it is,” she said, suggesting Tilly Foster would be ideal as an educational center and resource for small-scale agriculture and such practices as bee-keeping and backyard farming.

Legislator Sam Oliverio, of Putnam Valley, sent colleagues a letter from a Mahopac man who proposed that Tilly Foster shelter New York City carriage horses, since Bill de Blasio, the new mayor, plans to abolish the carriage-ride trade. “This will leave the beautiful animals needing a ‘retirement home,’” Oliverio wrote in a Jan. 9 memo to Odell. “Certainly there would be many details to be looked into and addressed, but I believe this idea warrants consideration.”

Scuccimarra said Wednesday she “would love to be able to do something like that” for carriage horses. “It’d be very nice for some of the older ones.” Nonetheless, she acknowledged that de Blasio’s views on ending the carriage business are controversial. She noted that before the county acquired the site, it was part of a horse-breeding operation, and earlier probably specialized in dairy farming.

Farmland saved from development

Using environmental protection funds, the county acquired Tilly Foster for approximately $4 million several years ago. Declining to run the estate directly, the county government subsequently leased it to Preserve Putnam County (formally, the Society for the Preservation of Putnam County Antiquities and Greenways Inc.), led by George Whipple III, whose sister Meredith became executive director.

Preserve Putnam County said it had “added infrastructure to the farm, including painting buildings that had not been painted in 40 years,” constructed fences, and “created a world-class museum of critically endangered Early American farm animals, when there was not a single animal on the farm when it took over.”

Moreover, the Whipples devoted personal time and skills to Tilly Foster and “additionally donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in meeting the shortfalls of the farm,” Preserve Putnam County stated. Preserve Putnam’s board kept admission free and said it was “very proud of its successful venture – and adventure – in its management.”

George Whipple, left, founder of Tilly Foster Farm, as he prepares to show Putnam County officials around the farm in 2008. Then county legislator, now County Executive, MaryEllen Odell, at right.

George Whipple, left, founder of Tilly Foster Farm, as he prepares to show Putnam County officials around the farm in 2008. Then county legislator,
now County Executive MaryEllen Odell, at right.

County legislators at a September meeting of the Physical Services Committee sounded less enthused about the Whipple-Preserve Putnam record, claiming that despite repeated requests they never received crucial financial information.

“Since 2009, he hasn’t been in compliance” with county requirements, District 8 Legislator Dini LoBue said at that meeting, referring to Whipple. She urged him to promptly “explain what’s going on there.”

“Enough is enough,” Richard Othmer, then chairman of the legislature added, suggesting the legislature demand a forensic audit of the farm’s books. “I want everything [scrutinized].”

Oliverio wondered about the Avalon music museum. “That farm was not made for a rock-and-roll hall,” he said.

Ann Fanizzi, a long-time Tilly Foster volunteer and donor, similarly criticized inclusion of the rock-and-roll collection in the old farmhouse, where she said it fills six rooms better utilized for telling the story of the farm. “For five years the residents of this community have been bereft” and “the Tilly Foster historical legacy has been erased,” she told the committee. Yet, she continued, under proper administration “we have a chance to make Tilly Foster a gem.”

Two months later, the Physical Services Committee again took issue with the Whipple-Preserve Putnam performance. The legislators said that although Whipple had finally sent a large packet of data, numerous questions still existed, while he ducked requests to come before the committee. According to draft minutes of the November deliberations, LoBue referred to the Whipple material as needing decipherment and Othmer likened it to the “Book of Kells” – an ornate early medieval manuscript.

The committee spoke of subpoenas and a member of the public expressed concerns about the welfare of the farm animals. LoBue, too, wondered about arrangements involving the livestock, which, she said, the county did not own.

In statements on the lease relinquishment, Preserve Putnam said it had “filed with the county every document required by federal, state, and county law, all of which are publicly available….”


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7 thoughts on “Tilly Foster Farm Closing Leaves Responsibility to Putnam County

  1. So our legislator thinks it’s okay to just let them out of a 40-year lease without any penalties? I guess she’s never been a landlord.

  2. Reclaim Tilly Foster’s glorious history — remove the Rock n’ Roll Collection. The “sporadic presence” of the Rock n’ Roll collection inhabiting the Bloomer Benedict Homestead is an affront to the vision of establishing Tilly Foster Farm as a center memorializing the authentic historical, cultural and agricultural history of Putnam County. It is an insult to the hard-working, immigrants who lived and worked and made Tilly Foster what it was and is – the Emilio DeBenedictis (a.k.a. Edward Benedict); Elena Amaducci (a.k.a. Elena Duke); their family; John Gaudelli – master builder and manager of the Farm and his wife, Sherrill); Arvid Swensen, manager and his daughter, Dagmar, who still resides in Carmel; Myrna Sak, Secretary to the Benedicts, Dr. Hermann Kohl, friend, confident and advisor to the Benedicts and so many others.

    For five years, without lease or rental payments, Whipple and the collector have conspired to deny the residents, visitors and children the benefit of this incomparable testament memorialized in oral histories, pictures and memorabilia to Putnam County and the Town of Southeast’s place in the evolving history of the State of New York; a history of immigrants writ large on the landscape and the very fabric of our community. Contact Legislators and the county executive and help reclaim Tilly Foster’s glorious authentic history (808-1020 and 808-1001).

  3. Much of what has gone on at Tilly Foster of late was prudently predicted before the lease agreement with the county was signed. That agreement was clearly a favor to a political insider and did not protect the county but gave all the protections to Mr. Whipple and his foundation.

    As well, much of the labor done on the farm wasn’t paid for by the Foundation but came from the sweat of those collecting public assistance dollars in what may be a clear violation of county, state and federal labor laws, assuming an investigation were held. People collecting such dollars may be required to perform work at county institutions but the work done at Tilly Foster was apparently done for the managing foundation and not for the county.

    Contrary to Sam Oliverio’s protestations, the Rock and Roll museum is a remarkable collection that deserves a public venue and its current home at Tilly Foster is an added bonus for the farm and our community. The R&R museum draws thousands of visitors who may not have visited the farm at all, let alone Putnam County. After their visit they may have shopped at a local store, eaten a meal and may very well have decided to return at another date to see what the county has to offer.

    Complaints that the museum sullies, in some way, an “historic” building presupposes that other such structures have not been transformed into new uses, which we know is clearly not the case. The exterior of the building remains intact as does the interior. What is missing are “original” furnishings (if they even exist), but the physical and historical integrity of the structure is maintained and its care and maintenance handled by its current occupant. The R&R museum is a gem and should be lauded, not criticized.

    Lastly, we should all be amused, albeit sadly, at the current efforts of county government as they do everything and anything they can do to absolve themselves of any blame for the debacle raging today. While it’s true that there only two members of the Legislature remaining from when the agreement was signed (both intelligently voted against it), it’s not like the problems that have come to a head now were not brewing all along.

    Government’s failure to pressure Mr. Whipple and his foundation to honor his end of the terms of the contract have brought us here and the current county administration must take direct responsibility. They won’t, of course — they’re in “circle the wagons” mode — but that’s where the buck stops and we should not allow them any leeway in shifting or hiding the blame. Unless they take full responsibility they cannot put into place procedures to prevent this from happening in the future.

    This entire affair has been a train wreck from day one and could have easily been avoided if county government were responsible to the constituents first and not to a favored friend and political insider. That this happens in Putnam County should be no surprise to anyone who follows the antics in Carmel and if a close reminder needs to be brought up we have the Bikepath Country scandal and a few years before that County Executive Bob Bondi’s promise to renovate and use Butterfield Hospital with money he received from the Ziff family for mining on county property in Patterson. The list of favoritism goes on for far more space than is available here.

    For a fuller explanation of the affairs at Tilly Foster
    see this link and read back through the history and see what brought us here today.

  4. There is no evidence the Rock and Roll collection attracted “thousands of visitors.” The installation of that collection precluded that of the authentic memorabilia of the local history of Putnam County and the Town of Southeast with which the Benedicts were so inextricably tied. As a regular visitor to the farm, I know it attracted mostly families with small children who had absolutely no interest in sex, drugs and rock n’ roll but did want their children to have a farm experience with the animals and use the venue of The Lodge to celebrate family functions. As Jeff Green stated the failure was not in the lease itself but in the failure of government officials to enforce its provisions and hold Whipple to the same standard that Chairman Albano held Mike McCall, manager of the Putnam Golf Course, at last night’s Physical Services meeting. Over a five-year period, Whipple appeared three times instead of 24 to explain the financial and operational management of the farm, two of which predated the official signing of the lease. Instead Albano, Gross and Nacerino and Chairman Othmer put the private reputation of one man before the public interest and that is the real disgrace of this debacle.

  5. Where is a copy of this lease that allows someone to back out without any penalty? So the County Sheriff’s group, Preserve Putnam, already had the sale we just heard about? Why is Odell allowing Whipple to have a sale without getting the financials records the legislature required? And, regarding the carriage horses, there are places for every last one, not the death auctions or dying in the street due to colic, whippings or being hit. They have suffered enough. I hope they don’t end up here since it would not be a stable (pun not intended) home for them.

  6. The legislature and CE finally received them but can’t attest as to accuracy since the Whipples and the Sheriff, who is chairman of the board, defiantly refused to appear to explain what the numbers mean and the decisions behind the numbers. There is still a questionable account of $60,000+ for electric and heating from 2011-2013, omitting the years 2009-2011 for heating, which a resident has written for an accounting and is getting the fast shuffle from Highway Commissioner to the Law Department. All this resident wants is an explanation. Too much to ask?

  7. A “closing sale” sign on a banner strewn across a wagon is giving the residents the impression that the farm is for sale. They are very upset. To the end, the Whipples and the County have sought not to protect the reputation of the farm but their own private interest. Take down that sign, County Executive Odell and Chairman Albano!