Jewish family farm marks its centennial
By Cindy Mindell
LEBANON – Frank Himmelstein borrows from his religious and academic backgrounds when talking about the farm that his grandfather established 100 years ago. The former head of the University of Connecticut’s College of Agriculture’s Integrated Pest Management program learned as much about running a successful third-generation family farm.
“My father treated his property and animals with great care,” Frank says. “He would carry the hay out of the fields by hand to the wagon or baler in wet areas before he would ever rut the fields up like some farmers do with their heavy equipment today. When a cow was going to give birth, even if it was the middle of the night, he quite often slept on a bale of hay in the barn until she had her calf. I have the benefit of two generations before me who took care of the land like they took care of their children. I’m getting the benefit of 100 years of fertile land.”
The Himmelstein Homestead Farm will mark its 100th anniversary next month. One of the first Jewish family farms to be established in Lebanon, it is the now the only active one in the area, owned and operated by a third-generation family member, and may be the oldest Jewish family-owned farm in Connecticut.
Lebanon has been an agricultural community from the time of the first settlements in the 1690s. In the years between the Civil War and World War One, the town became populated by immigrants from many countries. Among them was Louis Himmelstein, who came to New York in the 1890s to escape economic hardship and religious discrimination in Russia, and moved to Lebanon in 1903 with his parents and five siblings. According to Lebanon Historical Society records, by 1926, there were as many as 74 Jewish family farms in the town. On Apr. 1, 1913, Louis and his wife, Dora (Zatorensky), moved to their own farm off Route 207, with the help of the Jewish Agriculture and Industrial Aid Society, a subsidiary of the Baron de Hirsch Fund. They raised four children, only one of whom moved off the farm and became a teacher in West Hartford. Louis and Dora’s sons, Meyer and Benjamin, began running the farm in the 1930s. Their daughter, Zelda, divided her time between teaching school in Lebanon and working the farm with her parents and brothers.
The farm is now owned and operated by Meyer’s son, Frank Himmelstein, the only grandson of Louis and Dora who is actively preserving the property and the stories behind it, passed down to him by his grandmother and father.
In 1913, the original farm comprised 125 acres, one cow, and a brood of chickens. During the 1960s, the farm grew to more than 300 acres and 100 head of dairy cattle. From its beginnings until 2004, it was a working dairy farm.
Frank’s father, Meyer, was born and raised on the farm, where he worked for his entire life. As a young child, he was left completely alone with a team of horses to tend to the fields. When he was well into his 80s and could barely walk, he was still planting and harvesting field crops, and tending to cows. “He was never afraid of working hard or doing it himself,” Frank recalls. “The farm would not be here today had it not been for my father.”
Meyer married Eva Shatzman and the couple raised three children on the farm. They were one of the first farm families in the area to purchase a hay-baler, in 1948, which changed the way hay was harvested and handled. The following year, they purchased one of the first John Deere tractors in Lebanon, from Dwight H. Marvin and Son of Colchester. They added a corn-chopper in 1950 to harvest corn. Other farmers followed suit; Meyer Himmelstein would continue to use this original equipment for nearly five decades.
“My father did not need an electrician, carpenter, plumber, mechanic, blacksmith, or veterinarian,” Frank says. “As long as his body permitted, he did everything that had to be done on a farm. He lived in a time and mindset when farmers did all the work themselves and didn’t depend on hired labor to milk the cows. There was no such thing as custom applicators or custom harvesters to get your crops planted or harvested. You did everything or it didn’t get done.”
By age nine, Frank had taken over his grandmother’s vegetable garden. He attended public school in Lebanon until third grade, then transferred to the Norwich Hebrew Day School through eighth grade, returning to Lebanon for high school. He believes he was the last Jewish student to receive a Baron de Hirsch scholarship to study agriculture, which he did at UConn. There, he earned a BS and MS in plant and soil sciences, and completed his PhD in the subject at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, specializing in weed control in field crops. He joined the UConn College of Agriculture faculty in 1991, heading up its Integrated Pest Management program in field crops. Throughout his university studies, he continued to work on the farm, until he left the university to tend the farm full-time in 2007.
Meyer Himmelstein even expressed his passionate tie to the land at the time of his death in 2006, at age 87. “He died on Chol Hamoed Sukkot, during a harvest moon,” says Frank. “His life was done, the harvest was complete.”
Frank Himmelstein is now the sole owner and operator of the working portion of the farm. The 157-acre property, including the original family homestead, is permanently preserved as farmland through a grant from the Connecticut Department of Agriculture Farmland Preservation Program. Last January, Himmelstein successfully petitioned the Town of Lebanon to have North Road, which runs through his property, deemed scenic. The town designation requires the consent of the Planning and Zoning Commission before any changes can be made to the unpaved road. Himmelstein hopes to establish a farm museum on the property.
“The great Hebrew scholars in ancient times had many rules on how to conduct oneself properly,” Himmelstein says. “One of the rules of a perfect man was to never sell your field for the sake of purchasing a house and never sell your house in order to invest the money in business. My father never would do that. Even in ancient times, the sages knew the importance of preserving one’s home and the land surrounding it. It was my father’s wish to preserve his portion of the family farm from ever being developed for housing. Much work and energy was devoted to ensure the beauty of this farm would be available for future generations to see and enjoy.”
Himmelstein now produces hay and organically grown vegetables. Like his grandparents before him, he does not work the land on Shabbat. “A good Jewish farmer is taught by the Torah to recognize that, despite all the hard and back-breaking work associated with the produce grown on their farm, the bounty is more a gift from God than a result of their efforts,” he says. “I always say, ‘If God wants it, it will grow;’ I can do just so much.”
Himmelstein is planning an open house at the farm and a commemorative program with the Lebanon Historical Society. For more information: www.historyoflebanon.org.
Comments? email firstname.lastname@example.org.