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November 19, 2012

Roxbury’s ties to Manhattan school date back to the mid-1960s*

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The Daily Star

---- — If I were ever asked to substitute for Jay Leno in his popular “Jaywalking” segment on The Tonight Show, and ask most local people in our region where the Manhattan Country School is, I’d imagine many would respond near Manhattan, Kan., a small city in primarily a rural state.

I’d have to tell them it was the wrong answer. The Manhattan Country School (MCS) is found at 7 East 96th St., New York City. The independent school, nearly a stone’s throw to Central Park, gets its name from the country, specifically from Roxbury. It is a partnership dating back nearly 45 years in Delaware County, where the school has its farm.

Augustus and Martha Trowbridge grew up and firmly believed in the civil-rights movement. They founded the MCS in 1966, to teach students in a community with no racial majority and broad economic diversity. In that first year, the farm was also established as part of the school. For the first two years, it was on the farm of a friend of the Trowbridge’s, Jim Perkins, in the Meeker Hollow area. A neighboring farm, owned by Floyd Slauson became available, and Perkins helped the Trowbridges establish the present site for the school’s farm in 1968.

Ginny Scheer, farm director of the school since 1974, said the idea of the farm came about to add to a part of the mission of the school, in teaching environmental issues and sustainability. The Trowbridges had attended the Putney School in Vermont, which has a working farm as part of its curriculum, and applied the farm experience to their private school.

“It also is a community builder,” Scheer said. “Kids who come here, whatever their background, have to learn to work together. If they can’t work together, they don’t eat. They get a necessity of what we’re doing, and see what their role can be in it, and how their part is essential.”

Students work with experienced local staff to make the farm largely self-sufficient. They prepare all meals and keep the farmhouse in order. They plant, tend, and harvest garden and greenhouse crops. They care for the farm’s livestock, gather eggs, milk the cows and observe and help newborn animals. They learn to use farm products to make clothing, including dyeing wool, weaving and sewing fabric. In a nature class, students explore animal and plant life in the area, mountains, woods and streams. They study weather and complex ecological issues such as sources of energy and water use.

Students also participate in school projects for the farm. They recently raised enough funds to become eligible for a major grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, to purchase a large number of solar panels, supplying all the electricity for the farm. Any excess electricity flows back into the overall supply for the state, thus reducing the need for fossil fuels in creating power, and creates some revenue for the school.

Students come to the MCS farm from ages 8 to 14. By the time they reach fifth grade, they come for three weeklong trips to Roxbury, one in each season of the school year. Their Manhattan-based teachers also come upstate with their classes, to get the same experiences as the students. While normally the organizers of the students’ activities in Manhattan by day, then taken on by their parents after school, teachers take on a parental role at the farm. The MCS farm has four local faculty, Kathy Cammer, Ed Fersch, Lynn Haroldsen and Donna McDaniel, to teach cooking, textiles, farming and nature.

The farm school has a long-standing partnership with the Roxbury Central School District, called the Urban-Rural Exchange. Students of MCS are matched up as “pen pals” in Roxbury, who correspond with each other during the year when MCS students are in Manhattan. When MCS students come up to the farm, all students exchange visits to Meeker Hollow and Roxbury Central. Additionally, the Roxbury students board a bus each spring, to visit their pen pals at the Manhattan school. In more recent years, the pen pals have entered into electronic forms of communication.

In addition to MCS use, five other independent schools visit the farm during the year, as well as a summer Farm Camp.

Scheer said that MCS will be doubling its school size, “to create a larger pool of families and alumni to draw from and to be more able to carry out our public mission.” The enlargement will take place over the next few years.

This weekend: a bit of World War II home front life in the late fall of 1942.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.

*Editor's note: The headline on this story was changed at 9:30 a.m. Nov. 20 to correct an error.