Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Let’s Eat: Rockwell Kent’s Asgaard Dairy

In 1926 artist Rockwell Kent married Frances Lee, his second wife. An infamous womanizer, Kent made little effort to hide his affairs, even bringing some of his paramours home for dinner with his new bride. In less than a year, the Kent’s marriage was in serious trouble. To save the relationship, Rockwell and Frances agreed to leave New York City and move to a place with fewer temptations.

Frances found a perfect spot in the heart of the Adirondacks–an old farm near Ausable Forks with views of Whiteface. Kent remembered his first view of the property: “The nearer we got to the house the worse it looked; and when we finally came so close as to lose sight of its general proportional unsightliness we became only the more aware of its particular shoddiness.” Nevertheless, the couple purchased the property for $5,000. It was about 200 acres, the heart of the farm “being level meadowland, and the rest pine woods and pasture of a sort…Lock, stock, and barrel we had purchased our farm: the land, the buildings, the team, the cows and heifers, the wagons, implements, and tools.”

Within three weeks of purchasing the property, plans for a new house and barn were complete, and within five weeks contractors had poured the concrete foundations. By snowfall, the buildings were under roof. Kent named the farm “Asgaard,” meaning the “farm of the gods” in Nordic myth. He painted the name in four-foot-high letters on the barn.

The property came complete with a tenant farmer on site. Kent purchased a local milk route, and hired the man to manage the dairy operation. The business of farming did not prove very profitable: “You’d think—I mean that people who have never owned a farm would think—that when a farmer, paying his own taxes and all his costs of operation, can earn enough to live, he’d earn at least as much when someone else pays his taxes and his costs for him, not to mention a salary. But it’s funny about farming…It just doesn’t work out that way.” Kent persisted, finding satisfaction in making his land productive, if not entirely profitable.

During World War II, Kent aided the war effort by doubling Asgaard’s milk production, increasing the size of his herd of Jersey cows, enlarging the barn, and installing a bottling plant so he could sell directly to local customers.

In 1948, Kent’s business ran afoul of local political sentiment when he organized a chapter of the leftist American Labor Party. After distributing political leaflets in Ausable Forks, his customers began canceling orders, one of them saying, “We don’t want Russian milk.” The local Catholic priest visited his workers, telling them to quit and asking them if they were Communists. After losing two employees and the major portion of his customers, Kent gave his entire business to two of his remaining employees and asked them to move it off the property as quickly as possible. When he and Frances received death threats, and a warning that “Someday they’ll be up to burn him out,” friend Billy Burgess watched the property armed with two guns.

The national press picked up the story of the controversy, and although Kent estimated that the incident cost him $15,000, the resulting publicity for the American Labor Party was well worth it. Kent himself decided to run for Congress on the American Party ticket, but to no one’s surprise, was not elected.

In 1969, lightening struck the house at Asgaard, and burned it to the ground. Rockwell and Frances rebuilt a smaller home on the site, where Kent, aged 87, died two years later. He is buried at Asgaard, under a slab of Vermont marble inscribed “This Is My Own.”

Come see Rockwell Kent’s milk bottle (2008.21), and more, in “Let’s Eat! Adirondack Food Traditions” at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake. Open for the season on May 28, 2010.

Laura Rice

Laura Rice

Laura Rice is Chief Curator at the Adirondack Museum.

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