Family farm: Himmelstein Homestead founded by Russian immigrants marks 100 years

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Lebanon - posted Tue., Mar. 26, 2013
April 1, 2013, will mark 100 years that this home, and the Lebanon farmland surrounding it, will have belonged to the Himmelstein family. Photos by Melanie Savage.
April 1, 2013, will mark 100 years that this home, and the Lebanon farmland surrounding it, will have belonged to the Himmelstein family. Photos by Melanie Savage.

Louis Himmelstein emigrated from Russia to New York City in the 1890s. In 1903, he moved to a farm in Lebanon with his parents and siblings. In 1908, Himmelstein married Dora Zatorensky, another Russian immigrant. In 1913, they purchased 125 acres of land along Route 207 in Lebanon and started a farm there.

“There was no electricity, there was no running water,” said Frank Himmelstein, Louis’ grandson, standing beside the farmhouse on his family’s land. “Route 207 was a dirt road,” continued Himmelstein. “The wagon wheels used to get stuck in the mud.”

April 1, 2013, will mark 100 years that this land in Lebanon has been farmed by the Himmelstein family. “They did things differently,” said Himmelstein. His father Meyer, Louis's youngest son, would never run the farm equipment over a muddy field, knowing that causing ruts and compacting the soil could lead to a reduction in the land’s productivity. “He treated the land like you would treat a child,” said Himmelstein. “And he treated the animals like you’d treat a child.”

The son recalled nights when his father would sleep on a bale of hay, watching over an expectant cow until she gave birth to her calf. “He didn’t use veterinarians unless it was absolutely needed,” said Himmelstein. “He took care of everything himself. He did the electricity, he did the plumbing.”

The Himmelstein Homestead remained a dairy farm until 2004, at one point hosting as many as 100 cows on as many as 300 acres of land. “It was one of the first farms in Lebanon that shipped to a milk cooperative,” said Himmelstein. Meyer Himmelstein passed away in 2006. “He was born in that house,” said Frank, with a nod to the sprawling white farmhouse. “If it wasn’t for him, the farm wouldn’t still be in the family.”

Currently, Frank grows organic hay on the land, and organic vegetables, which he sells to the Willimantic Food Co-op, the Connecticut Farm Fresh Express, several restaurants and from a stand at the front of the property. “That’s one of my vegetable gardens,” he said, indicating a plot of land alongside the house. “I took it over from my grandmother when I was 9 years old.”

Himmelstein also leases to two local organic growers, Tobacco Road and Maggie’s Farm. The land produces well because of the way it has been cared for, according to Himmelstein. “This is virgin land,” he said. And Himmelstein knows what he’s talking about. With a Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts in plant and soil sciences, Himmelstein taught at the University of Connecticut for 16 years. “I worked with the dairy farmers all over the state to reduce or eliminate pesticide use,” he said. In the 100 years since his family has owned the land, “only 15 acres out of the 157 I now own has ever had a pesticide applied to it,” he said.

The respect for the land arises in part from the family’s Jewish background, said Himmelstein. The Jewish tradition teaches that hard work is required to grow crops, and that “what you get out of the land should be viewed as a gift from God more than a result of your efforts,” said Himmelstein. The Torah teaches a respect for the land, said Himmelstein. “You don’t sell a field for the purpose of buying a house, and you never sell a house to invest in business,” he said. “And that’s why the farm is still here. We didn’t gamble with it.”

The land has remained in the hands of family for decades, said Himmelstein, despite challenges. The family weathered the depression, and the hurricane of 1938. “The farm almost didn’t survive the hurricane,” said Himmelstein. “If the storm had lasted much longer, it wouldn’t have survived.”

More recently Himmelstein, the only member of his family with an active interest in caring for the farm, has been waging his battles alone. There was the snowstorm of two years ago that did in the roof of one of the barns. There has been repair work done to some of the other buildings to assure that they don’t meet the same fate.

Himmelstein recently had the road running through the property, North Street, designated as a scenic road. The land has been designated as preserved farmland by the state of Connecticut. And Himmelstein is hoping to secure a grant to help do repair work on another of the farm’s buildings. He has amassed a large collection of documents and photographs pertaining to the history of the farm, and hopes to someday turn the main house into a museum.

“This is my family. This is my history,” said Himmelstein.

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