Harvesting history: Family tradition seeded farmer's 'extraordinary' collection
Most people would not be overjoyed about receiving an old outhouse as a gift, but Ron Bush is not most people.
When Bridgehampton farmer Richard Hendrickson contacted Bush about 15 years ago and offered him the circa 1860 four-seat toilet structure, the lifelong farmer and farm equipment collector didn’t hesitate. Bush gathered two helpers and drove his truck out to the South Fork to collect the outhouse to add to the accumulation of farm history he began assembling back in his college days. The outhouse is one of about 6,000 objects displayed on his South Haven property.
The 88-year-old Bayport resident enjoys showing visitors the jaw-dropping collection by appointment. But cognizant of his advanced age, he is in discussion with two museums, which he says he can’t identify yet, to become a repository for his unique chronicle of disappearing or nearly vanished Long Island farm history and culture. "I do not want my family to have to deal with disposing of the collection," he said.
Farming is in Bush’s genes. In his rapid-fire speaking cadence, he unspools his family’s long association with agriculture while seated in the milk house, where raw milk was once bottled and stored.
"My maternal grandfather Israel Katz came over from Lithuania in the 1800s and in 1920 he bought 40 acres in Holtsville," Bush related. "He was a cattle and milk cow dealer. My mother and father got married in 1930 and lived on the farm from the ’30s until ’41, and I grew up with the cows there until I was in second grade. When he would go to buy a cow, I would go with him."
When Bush was 3, his grandfather assigned him chores: maintaining a device that allowed cows to obtain their own food and water. "Or he would give me a broom to push the grain and chopped corn into the manger for the cows to eat."
In 1941, Bush’s father, Jacob Bush, a dentist, built a house in Patchogue where he maintained a practice and the family lived. It was home for Bush until he attended Cornell University; then he lived in Patchogue and worked on his grandfather’s farm until he joined the Navy in 1956.
The family farm saga that started with Israel Katz continued with the next generation. "In 1933, my uncle Abe Katz leased a big dairy farm in East Hampton from the estate of George L. McAlpin for two or three years and then bought it in 1937," Bush explained. "He started off with 45 cows and ended up with 125. The farm produced 2,500 quarts of milk a day. He was also a cattle and horse dealer. I started driving my uncle’s Farmhall Regular model tractor when I was 8 years old." Bush spent summers and vacations there.
Abe Katz sold the approximately 100-acre property in 1973 because of ill health. It was converted into a residential subdivision in the 1980s, but the farm buildings and about 10% of the land were preserved.
Meghan Bush, Ron’s daughter, represents the fourth generation of the family in the business. (Her brother Jamie is an architect in Los Angeles.) She grew up in Bayport and collected ribbons in jumping competitions with her horse Willie. After college, she lived on her great-grandfather’s Holtsville property, where she raised horses.
"She and I farmed and bailed hay for her horses and grew vegetables in the ’70s and ’80s until we moved to Brookhaven," her father said. "Then we started growing vegetables for a farm stand in Patchogue. And it just grew from there."
Bush’s Aunt Beth inherited the Holtsville farm and sold it off in sections through 2000. The Israel Katz farm is now the site of a cosmetics factory and parking lot of the Internal Revenue Service’s regional office.
In the late 1980s, Ron, his wife, Nancy, and four other investors purchased the defunct 100-acre Robinson Duck Farm, established in the 1940s on the site of an old dairy farm, Rosewood Farm, on the south side of Montauk Highway in South Haven. The Bushes kept more than 6 acres along the road and the rest of the property was sold to Suffolk County for its farmland preservation program.
The farm came with two houses, two barns and the milk house. Bush added two greenhouses — one for him and one for Meghan — as well as transplanted historical structures like the outhouse. The most prominent is an early 1900s Brookhaven railroad freight depot that he bought in the 1990s and restored. It was moved to serve as storage space for Meghan’s farm stand, Meghan’s Munchies, when she started it about 15 years ago following running one at the Holtsville farm beginning in 1990.
Ron Bush has his own farm stand, Bush Farms, in Davis Park on Fire Island. He travels there on Friday mornings in the summer to stock the stand, which operates on the honor system.
Not surprisingly, Bush grew up wanting to be a farmer. Though his father was content to let Ron do as he pleased, Uncle Abe insisted Ron do anything but farm.
"A dairy farmer works eight days a week," Bush said. "And he didn’t want me working eight days a week with terrible hours, and milk prices were terrible. So I became a real estate broker." But not right away.
Zigzag route to farming
Bush served four years in the Navy as a salvage diver aboard the USS Cree, an oceangoing tug based in San Diego. In that role, he witnessed 32 atomic bomb tests at Enewetak Atoll in the South Pacific, protected only by goggles.
After Bush returned to Long Island in 1960 and got married, he had various sales jobs before opening a real estate office in Patchogue in 1963. But farming wasn’t out of his system. "Every day I would leave the real estate office at 3 and then I would go to the Holtsville farm until 7," he said.
These days, Bush drives from his home in Bayport to the farm in South Haven every day to have lunch with Meghan and work in the garden plot where they grow sunflowers, dahlias, zinnias and vegetables.
Like her father, Meghan, 56, who lives nearby in Brookhaven hamlet, always knew she’d be involved in agriculture. She said her farm stand is the logical extension of a childhood that included peddling tomatoes from her great-grandfather’s farm on a wagon around Davis Park.
Bush said photos of his uncle and grandfather and their farms that are mounted in the barn are a regular reminder of the family legacy. "We walk by their pictures every day and we talk to them like they’re still alive," he said.
It was the nooks and crannies of those farms that spurred Bush’s awe-inspiring collection.
"At my uncle’s farm I was always intrigued because the sheds were filled with old equipment, sleigh bells, harnesses — a wealth of stuff. This was in the late ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. And my uncle would say ‘If you want it, take it.’"
He did, initially stashing his collection at his grandfather’s farm. Bush expanded it with finds from farm auctions. A lot was donated by farmers who didn’t need items anymore or were getting out of the business.
"It just grew like topsy," Bush said. "At one point I had 50 trucks and 30 tractors in Holtsville." Most were later sold or donated. He’s given vehicles and artifacts to the Hallockville Museum Farm in Riverhead, Suffolk County Farm in Yaphank and Old Bethpage Village Restoration.
Many of the smaller items were stored in the garage at Ron and Nancy’s 1852 sea captain's house in Bayport that was purchased three years after they were married.
"Then Meghan got two horses and a pony in Bayport," so the collection was moved to South Haven. There it mushroomed when Bush started running ads in farming journals. "All of a sudden, farmers are calling me and dropping off stuff."
Nancy, married to Ron for 61 years, said, "I’m very proud of him. It’s absolutely amazing. But now it’s housed in the right place."
Bush, exhibiting tireless energy and enthusiasm for the collection, started a recent tour in the 1940-vintage Rosewood Farm milk house. It retains its white-tile interior and large walk-in refrigerators, one repurposed as a restroom.
"The cows were milked in the barn, the milk would be brought in here and cooled and then bottled and then put in a refrigerator," Bush explained. One of the original milk bottles from the dairy sits on a shelf over the sink.
Bush then walked to the greenhouses to show off his prized tractors and other vehicles. All of them start right up. Bush is an excellent mechanic, a requirement of any successful farmer. "We do everything here," he said proudly.
In his greenhouse, he stopped by his uncle’s first truck. "1935 Chevy. Dune Alpine Farm, East Hampton."
In Meghan’s greenhouse, Bush walked over to a tractor. "This was owned by my grandfather — a 1940 John Deere B model. I restored it."
Bush then moved on to the 1920 cow barn, where one room is dedicated to his family’s history. Pointing to a photograph of a child, Bush said "there’s me, 3 years old, holding a hay fork on my grandfather’s place."
The room is lined with dozens of milk bottles. "These are from local dairies that no longer exist," he remarked. "We used to sell cows to them or sell milk to them, such as Schwenk’s Dairy in East Hampton."
The ceiling beams are lined with metal farm tractor seats. "Aren’t they neat, Bush said. "A lot of them were scrapped for the war effort during the Second World War."
Bush has many implements unfamiliar to anyone without a farming background: among them, a cow lift from Dune Alpine Farm used to raise sick cows and a circa-1900 fanning mill, used to separate dirt and other contaminants from grain, from Husing Farm in Mattituck.
The first floor of the barn also has groupings of rusty milk cans from Long Island dairies, grinders, truck hood ornaments, oil pumps from Bush’s grandfather’s farm, and a dozen butter churns ranging from a 6-inch miniature to a large floor model.
A metal spiral staircase with a tight circumference leads to the second floor, where the high arched ceiling with exposed beams suggests a cathedral. This is the showcase for Bush’s tool collection.
There are 1,500 wrenches along with dozens of wood planes; hammers, including two unusual ones with double claws; mallets; pliers; drills; corn planters; posthole diggers; saws; eel spears; corn grinders; calipers; plows; apple peelers; sprayers; irons; circa-1800 ice saws from Osborn Farm in Wainscott; ice chippers; apple peelers and cherry pitters; glass telephone pole insulators; caulking mallets and other shipbuilding tools; whaling hardware from Sag Harbor; and a centrifuge for testing the butterfat content of milk used by an inspector from Patchogue.
Bush concluded his tour in the bull barn, which contains blacksmith tools and an array of "brasses": brass medallions used to decorate horse harnesses.
While Bush has inventoried everything — each object has a little paper tag attached to it or number painted on it — the history of all the major artifacts lives in his head.
Asked about the value of the collection, Bush said, "I have an idea" but declined to elaborate.
Whatever the monetary value, the historical value is incalculable.
"It’s extraordinary," remarked Thomas B. Williams, who got to know Bush when Williams was executive director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension agricultural service from 2000 to 2008 while Bush served on the advisory committee for the 250-acre Suffolk County Farm in Yaphank operated by the cooperative extension.
Williams said the collection is "full of memorabilia of both the spirit of farming in Suffolk County and details and information and the tools of the trade that are so valuable in understanding how farming evolved in the county, which up until a couple of years ago was the leading agricultural county in the State of New York."
He added that it’s particularly important that Bush has collected information on the farms and farmers, what Williams called a "rogues gallery," because otherwise it would be lost. "Having that history and those stories is really wonderful and really valuable."
Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show the diminishing presence of farming on Long Island. In 2007, 59 farms in Nassau County totaled 1,288 acres and 585 farms in Suffolk totaled 34,404 acres. A decade later Nassau was down to seven farms, totaling 910 acres, while Suffolk had 560 farms totaling 30,032 acres — even with a county farmland preservation program.
Bush, who welcomes visitors by appointment on weekdays, said 400 to 500 people visit annually.
There is no charge, he said, but "we tell them to bring a tool."
WHAT The Bush Farms, an agricultural museum
WHERE | WHEN 2948 Montauk Hwy., South Haven, is open weekdays by appointment; call 631-472-0530