NEW SCOTLAND — The historic Bender Melon Farm may appear silent and unassuming near the intersection of Routes 85 and 85A, but it is now the subject of a major preservation campaign.
The farm is a short one-minute drive from the aforementioned intersection, near the Falvo Meat Market and is acknowledged by a historic marker by a driveway. It reads, “Home of BENDER MELONS. Famed ‘Benders’ Developed by Charles Bender in 1900 On This New Scotland Farm Sold Throughout U.S. – Town of New Scotland.”
The farm — taking up around 198 acres and owned by 306 Maple Road, LLC — is now directly on Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy’s (MHLC) radar because it recently launched a campaign to raise $1.2 million to purchase the property and preserve it forever as it faces the risk of development. This campaign has been asking the community for generous monetary donations since this past June and it needs to receive enough funds by spring 2020.
The property’s current owners, however, have declined to comment for this article.
MHLC Executive Director Mark King said it is a valuable property because of its convenient location along the Albany County Rail Trail, its historic significance, and how various animals have made it its habitat. “Preserving the farm would serve as an example for how a community can influence its development and from a land-use perspective, communities have a tendency to grow and blend into each other,” he said. “This property will help divide New Scotland, Voorheesville and Slingerlands, and if it’s not preserved, that distinction of places is lost and everything will blend with each other. It is both a visual and physical separation of communities.”
Regarding animals, King brought up an example of how this past spring, there have been frequent bear sightings at the property from people on the Rail Trail. “You can find virtually all the animals native to the area in that property too because it’s a pretty good-sized property and it’s also very close to Five Rivers [Environmental Education Center] and it’s like a refuge for animals and natural areas from development.”
MHLC’s website indicated that the headwaters of the Philipinkill come from the property and surrounding areas which run through Five Rivers and local preserves before heading out to the Hudson River.
Dennis Sullivan, Voorheesville’s Village Historian, wrote a 1990 book called “Charles Bender and the Bender Melon Farm: A Local History” where he documented how New Scotland farmer Charles Bender was perhaps the most famous local farmer in the early 20th century. Bender had originally experimented with melon seeds in 1884 at 23 years old and he wanted to “put his New Scotland farm on the agricultural map.”
According to the book, Bender visited New York City in August 1906 with “two barrels of his best looking, most aromatic cantaloupe melons which he called his ‘Golden Queens.’” After being turned down by many restaurants or hotels that did not want or have the time to view his melons, an employee at Rector’s, a prominent restaurant at 1510 Broadway, recognized his melons’ quality and helped establish it as a regular feature in its menu.
This led his melons to later be on the “menus at the Waldorf-Astoria, the Savoy, the Lambs and other fine hotels and restaurants in New York.” Eventually, the aptly-named Bender melon was also transported to 33 U.S. states and as far as England, Mexico and France; the melon was also ordered by visitors at the Saratoga race track.
By the mid-1930s though, William Taylor, Glenmont dairyman and owner of the Glendale Farm Dairy, approached Bender about buying the farm and raising cows there; Bender agreed to sell it in 1939. However, reasons like the farm’s deteriorating soil quality, Taylor’s two sons not liking truck farming, and local unemployment and material scarcity due to World War II all led to the farm’s eventual downfall.
Taylor then sold the farm in 1976 and after going through numerous owners, the farm further declined. According to MHLC’s website, the property today “is leased for agricultural use to offset property taxes while it awaits the next chapter in its history.”
The property was the subject of a controversial proposal in 2008 where a big box store was to be located on the farm; this resulted in negative reactions from the community and the Town of New Scotland reassessing its zoning codes. King said this was another major reason MHLC wants to preserve it and the property is still on sale to this day.
Since the $1.2 million campaign launched, King said, “It’s been going well although we’re not there yet. … We’ve put out some ‘Save Bender Melon Farm’ signs around in the last few weeks and we’re hoping for more to come. We want to still get the word out.” He added that MHLC is working with the Town of New Scotland and the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for potential grants and envisioning the Rail Trail’s usage to be enhanced in the area of the farm.
When asked if the campaign has faced any challenges so far, King said MHLC has not heard any opposition although he noted the campaign is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, he expressed optimism in the community coming together for this cause.