Jason’s dad is one of five kids, raised on a dairy farm in central New York. His family collectively owns a ton of adjoining property, somewhere in the neighborhood of 500+ acres. Four of the homesteads are within walking distance of one another. From our earliest time together, I loved coming here with Jason, and letting our dogs run free in fields that are deceptively large–20 acres or more. Picture me, huffing and puffing after an enthusiastic “Let’s run from one end to the other!”

Jason’s dad Joe is on the left in orange, with his brother and sisters at Christmas in the 1960s. The photo on the left is of the barns during a winter in the 1990s.

The land is the site of former Native American camps/jamborees, so over the years the Behnkes have amassed a ton of artifacts from beaded necklaces to arrowheads to 18th century musket balls. Many of the artifacts are on display in a local Native American museum, but there are some in the living room of the main farmhouse.

I loved the huge barn with hay stacked through the rafters, and chutes down to the cow stalls below. The barn, like the house, was built in the Civil War era, and the floor board cracks are just wide enough where you need to watch your step to not twist your ankle. Jason would tell me stories about playing for hours with his cousins in the sweet smelling haymow when he was young, and later, haying the fields for the livestock.

The barns today.

When Jason’s mom suggested living in the farmhouse during our house renovations, I scoffed and said, “It’s a bit far of a commute.” But thinking it over more, why couldn’t the girls and I live in the farmhouse while Jason lived in the new house and could knock out some tasks after work? Coming into the winter months, I knew the girls would love exploring and sledding on the land, and the dogs would love the freedom. Jason’s family was nearby to help with babysitting breaks as I needed, and my in-laws were stoked about extra time with the grandkids. And, let’s face it…no 35 year old likes to be living with their parents, no matter how temporary the situation is. 😉

Pulling out some cozy throws and pillows to lighten the place up and make it feel more home-like.

However. The Behnkes are collectors…for generations. The farmhouse was absolutely FULL of stuff. It can be difficult to let go of things that are perceived useful, or have sentimental value. When a home is in the family for a few generations, that problem is compounded. Add to that leaving the house vacant for a year, and it was a big job. Working only on the first floor, it took a week and a half of full 9-10 hour days (uninterrupted, as my in-laws had the girls) to get the farmhouse in shape for living in. Washing the small kitchen’s floor, I changed the water 5 times and it was absolutely black each time. However, the house is now cozy and clean on the first floor. I haven’t worked up the energy to get to the second floor or the front porch yet…maybe in a month or two.

I’ve found some amazing things while cleaning out the house. Ancient knives that are at least 100-150 years old but are sharper and stronger than anything I’ve used today; Sears and Roebuck catalogs from the 1930s; local yearbooks from the 1920s-60s; kitchen tools that I can’t even name; rouge from Paris from the 1920s; M. Hohner Marine Band harmonicas from the turn of the century (in their original boxes); and hunks of stone with raw rubies in it, to name a few.

Behnke farm sign on the farmhouse.

There has been the weird and gross stuff, too–mouse skeletons, tons of rodent droppings, exploded cans of moldy peaches, all kinds of ammo (“But don’t worry,” Jason’s uncle assured me, “I removed all the guns and pistols.”–shortly before I found a pellet gun), and lots and lots of junk. Peeling back layer after layer of trash and treasure, it’s given me an intimacy with Jason’s family I never had before, and a greater understanding of who they are and where they’ve come from. I’m looking forward to the next few months here, exploring the secrets of the 1860s farmhouse and the rolling hills and streams surrounding it.

Emily Behnke

Formerly a high level professional in a scientific organization, Ms. Behnke now owns and operates an organization and design company focused on living well in small spaces.