Take a step back in time at historic McClew farmstead in Burt - The Buffalo News

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Take a step back in time at historic McClew farmstead in Burt

BURT – The rooster crows, a hummingbird darts around the side porch of the 1850 red brick Italianate home, and people stoop in the gardens to pick collard greens and peppers.

The red barn looms behind the house, offering visitors dark, cool relief from the hot sun and the opportunity to see an Underground Railroad hiding spot in its basement, next to an icehouse and smokehouse.

This could easily be a scene from the mid-1850s, when Charles McClew and his wife, Anna Maria, constructed the farm at what would become 2402 McClew Road.

But it’s 2013, and Carol Murphy, who bought the 65-acre site in 1979 and renamed it “The Historic McClew Farmstead at Murphy Orchards,” wants to ensure that this site continues for decades to come.

“I have been tenaciously clinging to it ever since, against all odds,” said Murphy, a slight woman with the work ethic of a farmer and conversational tone of an educator.

To that end, Murphy created a tea room on the first floor of her stately home, where she offers afternoon tea and luncheons featuring goods from the farm; stocks the shelves of the barn with homemade jams, jellies, salsas and vinegars; sells fresh fruit and vegetables while still offering the U-pick option; and gives Underground Railroad historical tours, as well as agricultural and environmental conservation tours.

In 2003, the Town of Newfane proclaimed the site a “Local Historic Landmark.” The farm has also been recognized as part of the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom and is part of the New York State Heritage Trail.

The McClew Interpretive Center Inc. was founded in 2005 as a charitable, not-for-profit organization, to acquire all real property and take over operations of the McClew farmstead from Murphy Orchards in the next five years.

“We did this to preserve and share the history of the McClew farm for future generations,” Murphy said. “I believe in that mission, and the best way people can help us is to get involved. Volunteer your time or monetary support. Offer your expertise. A historian could volunteer to do research for the site, or a carpenter could help do repairs. Service organizations could help out. We just received funds from the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area to put in self-guided walking tours, and we could use help from a group – maybe the Boy Scouts – to groom the trails or put up signs.

“Any help we could get so that we wouldn’t have to spend our meager income on these things would be huge,” she said.

Murphy raised her children on the farm, but they have pursued different careers elsewhere.

“I am the sole owner,” she said. “We have been blessed with the most magnificent soil and growing conditions here. Hopefully, I would like to see it kept as a working farm. It will be tough to find a farmer who wants to manage a historic site, but I’ve loved every minute of it. Ultimately, I would hope that the National Parks or New York State Parks would take this over.”

At the heart of Murphy’s mission is telling the story of the McClews and the importance of the lessons they still teach us nearly 200 years later.

“There were some people who dedicated their whole lives to the Underground Railroad movement, but then there were others who were just leading ordinary, productive lives who made a moral commitment to make this effort part of their lives, and that was the McClews,” Murphy said.

“I think this is really important to stress to children, that one doesn’t always have to devote an entire life to a cause but can still do the right thing and make a big difference,” she said.

Murphy said she hadn’t heard about the McClew homestead being a stop on the Underground Railroad until after she purchased the property. Subsequent research led to the National Parks designation, and today there is an opening in the barn floor, protected by a small fence, where visitors may peer down a lit path to the dirt floor under the barn, which sheltered runaway slaves on their way to freedom in nearby Canada. Murphy created an informative DVD that plays on a television screen set up in the barn, to help set the scene and answer questions.

The site has long been a hit for area fourth-graders studying local history.

“These children can read, study and talk about the Underground Railroad, but when they come here, they have a chance to see, touch, feel and smell what it was like, and it becomes very real to them,” she said. “Our mission is to help dispel some of the romantic notions or fantasies surrounding the Underground Railroad. We have walking trails along Hopkins Creek, but there was no pathway back then. People had to follow the waterways – the creeks, rivers and lake shores – for hundreds of miles, and the purpose of the Underground Railroad was to get people from one safe place to another.”

Murphy laments that school budget woes have cut the number of school field trips to the farm.“It’s an absolute tragedy that children are denied field trips,” she said. “Think about your school days – you remember every single field trip you took because they were vivid experiences. That’s another way someone or some corporation could help – they could provide money for transportation here for school field trips.”

Murphy’s agriculture and environmental conservation tours focus on two other topics close to her heart.

“The McClew family had well over 1,000 acres of farmland in their time in this area – all pre-tractor, so the work was done with horses,” Murphy said. “They did wonderful, socially important things, but they were also extraordinarily good farmers. They helped found the New York Farmers’ Society, which led to the New York State Farm Bureau, and they were instrumental in inviting Cornell University into this area to learn about innovative farming practices, which led to the Cornell Cooperative Extension.”

“I’m so impressed with what hard work farmers do and how wise they are,” Murphy said. “They produce something that’s tangible and useful, and yet we are losing so much of our agriculture. We are in the process of losing our small farms and our farmers. These people should be honored.”

Murphy said she has been “dazzled” by learning of the McClews’ self-sufficiency on the farm and believes lessons from the past can enhance the future.

“We need to explore that kind of ingenuity,” she said. “We need to look at wind and solar power – renewable energy.“

And she’s gratified by what she has seen in the past few years with the resurgence in popularity of locally grown produce.“There seems to be a push to eat local produce, a resurgence in appreciation for local food and for growing things properly, without pesticides – food grown in harmony with nature,” she said.

Murphy Orchards’ tour season runs from May to the end of October.

Sister Margaret Donner, pastoral associate of St. George’s Church in West Falls, led a group of 24 visitors to the farm recently, a few of some 40,000 who visit the farm each year.

“It’s wonderful to have this type of place to draw people,” she said. “I hope it does continue. This shows rural life in America, with all of its fruit and vegetables and flowers. Our rural space is disappearing, and everything here is just beautiful. This is probably my third or fourth time here, and it’s very informative. It’s wonderful that they share this with so many people.”

For more information, call 778-7926 or visit www.murphyorchards.com.

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