The History of Meadowburn

The history of the farm at Meadowburn begins in the 1750’s when William Willet DeKay, one of the sons of Col. Thomas DeKay, built the small homestead that is still a part of the main house today. His father earlier had bought 1,200 acres in the area, part of the original Wawayanda Patent, swapping some land in New York City. Thomas settled in the area in 1724 and was active in the border skirmishes between the New York and New Jersey colonies. (Today the state border runs through Meadowburn Farm. There is an old marker in the woods.) Thomas divided his acreage and left parcels to his children including what is today Meadowburn Farm to William. The DeKay family, with one or two outsiders, owned the property up until 1853. It is reported that there were DeKay gardens near the house at Meadowburn and there was an active farm although no details are known.

In 1853, sisters Louisa and Mary Rutherfurd bought from Major Thomas S. DeKay 248 acres that are the heart of today’s Meadowburn Farm. The Rutherfurd sisters named their home Meadowburn after the Wawayanda Creek which runs through the meadows below the house. The Rutherfurd family, prominent in the history of New Jersey, had another farm at Maple Grange just south of Meadowburn, and other extensive land and mining holdings. (Rutherford, NJ, the site of an early Rutherfurd estate, was named after them although the spelling became confused since President Rutherford B. Hayes had emerged as a more famous alternative spelling.) Mary Rutherfurd was reportedly considered to be a significant businesswoman, serving as sole executor of the large estate of their famous father, Senator John Rutherfurd. After the deaths of Louisa and Mary, Meadowburn was inherited by their nephew, another John Rutherfurd.

In 1881, Meadowburn Farm was given as a wedding present to Helena Rutherfurd Ely, daughter of John Rutherfurd and Charlotte Livingston. Her husband, Alfred Ely, was a New York attorney but apparently began devoting himself to improving the dairy as well. An advertisement in the 1911 Milk Reporter refers to “Alfred Ely, owner of the famous Meadowburn Farm” as among the “prominent users” of the advertised product, a “sanitary washable water bucket, the only perfectly sanitary washable bucket on the market for watering dairy cows and live stock generally.”

Helena and Alfred began to spend summers at Meadowburn, first expanding the main house and then building a separate farm house across the road to accommodate the farmer and his family. The first summer, sharing the small main house with the farmer and his family, including just one kitchen (which was the room, and Dutch oven, first built by William DeKay), was a found to be a little too crowded! Helena planted her first flower gardens at Meadowburn in the 1880’s and embarked on her successful career as an innovative gardener and a garden writer of national renown. She selected a young man from the farm, Albert Furman, and trained him to be her head gardener.

Alfred Ely died in 1914 at Meadowburn, aged only 62. His obituary in the New York Times referred to his “model dairy farms.” About this time, Helena installed her last garden at Meadowburn. Hereafter she spent less time at Meadowburn and in 1916 she remarried and installed new gardens at her new husband’s estate in Connecticut. She died in 1920 and is buried in Warwick Cemetery alongside Alfred.

Alfred Ely, Jr., inherited Meadowburn from his mother but spent very little time here. It is said that his wife did not take to it. His sister, Helena Meade, and her family spent occasional summers at the farm.

In 1930, Ely sold the farm to Charles Henry Coster. Coster, a veteran of World War I and honorary U.S. consul in Florence, was the son of an early partner of financier J. P. Morgan and had grown up over the mountains in nearby Tuxedo Park. Henry Coster’s main work was as a classics scholar. He and his wife, Vincenza Giuliani, called Byba, who was a Florentine, divided their time between Meadowburn, New York City and Florence. At the farm, Coster experimented with sheep and some on-farm meat production but for the most part the farm continued to be managed by tenant farmers such as Ferdinand van Strander and, in the 1950s, Ted Levinsky whose widow still lives in the area. The garden continued to be looked after by Albert Furman. Ethel van Strander, a daughter of Ferdinand, married Albert Furman, Jr., who took over the gardens from his father in 1948.

In addition to the Rutherfurd farm, Henry Coster also purchased, from Henry DeKay, the neighboring dairy farm along Route 94. These two properties plus smaller purchases to the north make up today’s Meadowburn Farm, which is mostly in Vernon NJ and partly in Warwick NY. Because Vernon developed later as a population center, the farm’s address until the 1970’s was New Milford and then Warwick NY.

Henry Coster, Byba Vincenza Coster, and Albert Furman, Jr.
Henry Coster, Byba Vincenza Coster, and Albert Furman, Jr.

In 1975 Henry and Byba Coster gave the farm to their nephew, and Henry’s namesake, C. H. Coster Gerard and his young family. In these years the farmer was Louis Storms who had a good eye for Holsteins and in later years had the capable help of his son, Louis Jr. Prior to his death in 2012, Coster Gerard worked hard for decades to encourage policies and legal mechanisms such as sale of development rights that would help preserve farming and open space in the area. Meadowburn’s development rights were sold, and efforts were made to innovate on the farm as milk prices fell and conventional dairying became uneconomic. Rotational grazing plus value-added strategies, making cheese and catering to the retail potential of the greater New York area, became the order of the day beginning in 2002 first in partnership as Bobolink LLC and now once again as Meadowburn Farm.

In 2010 a fire destroyed the main milking and hay barn and the milk house, creamery and farm store. These have been built back, with a smaller dairy in the upper barn and the cheese-making, hay storage and farm store in generally the same place as before. Holsteins have given way to Jerseys, but Meadowburn Farm as a model dairy remains the ambition and the challenge.

Historic photographs courtesy of B. Danforth Ely, The Gerard Family, and Walter DeVries