© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Living In A Rural Town: New Lebanon Group Looks To New Tourism Concept

New Lebanon, New York is a town of roughly 2,300 people nestled in between the Berkshire Mountains and the Hudson Valley. In a town that small you might wonder why anyone would stop other than to fill up the gas tank or grab a bite to eat, never mind a tourist attraction. But what if the attraction was life in a small town itself? WAMC’s Jim Levulis explores an effort to immerse people in the backbone of America.The first experience of Behold! New Lebanon feels a bit like a field trip mixed with a city sightseeing tour. Maybe that’s because you buy your tickets at a “station” but then hop on a school bus to get to your destination by way of a friendly driver and a tour guide.

“It’s a living museum, without walls," explained our tour guide Dena. "It is a pioneering concept and we’re hoping that it will be replicable to other townships. The community members welcome us into their homes and businesses so that they can show us what they do and give us a little more exposure to rural life which I know myself I wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”

Now, I’ll try to describe this rural living museum as best as a country boy can. It’s based on the idea that small towns across America pique the interest of those living in concrete jungles or even their neighbors a couple fields over. 

“They had come through New Lebanon over and over again just like so many people do down Route 20 and wondering ‘What’s going on here? Probably nothing. I bet there’s just nothing because look I don’t see anything,’” explained Behold creator Ruth Abram. “Well of course. There’s no sign saying ‘Cynthia Creech’s cows this way’ or ‘Debbie Gordon’s quince jam-making that way.’

Ruth Abram moved to New Lebanon about eight years ago. She created the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Manhattan and wanted to help out her new rural home revive itself after a string of businesses including the town’s grocery store shut their doors. So she went out looking for people and businesses with 12125 in their mailing address who were doing interesting things.

And, this one was hard to miss. Lebanon Valley Speedway sits just off Route 20, admittedly in the 12195 zip code. 

“Fastest dirt track in the world right here,” said owner Howard Commander.

Commander is one of 60 Behold! guides who get paid $100 for 90 minutes of their time showing visitors what makes the town tick. With about 100 employees and an economic impact of more than $100 million a year, the raceway and dragway fuel New Lebanon from April to October.

“It is one of the few tracks in the country that have banks that high,” Commander said. “On a Saturday night, the fastest class goes 140, 150 miles an hour and turns left.”

Commander himself is a product of the area. He grew up in the house across from where the raceway now stands. He says his family were poor, poor farmers – “I’m the only living man who buy a root beer barrel and make it last two weeks,” he claims. - when a man came knocking on the door offering $500 for the cornfield across the road. The raceway started in the 1950s and the dragway followed the next decade with Commander’s family eventually trying their own hand at auto racing.

Another stop for Behold! draws a slightly quieter, but no less passionate crowd.

Meissner’s Auction Service sells off hundreds of items every Saturday to some 2,000 people each year. It’s run by Dolores Meisner, her two sons and family and friends. As evidenced by a letter Meissner received, the customers feel like family too.

“Kind of like Cheers,” Meissner said. “Once you walk through the door people knew your name and they all loved you. She said ‘I could leave my cares at the door for another three and a half hours. I didn’t have to think.’ She called the auction house “magical.” How ‘bout that? If my husband were here his head would be too swollen.”

In 2013, Dolores lost her husband Keith in a barn fire. The two weren’t just a duo in life, but also as auctioneers. She says it’s been a journey trying to make things work since, but found out how important this place was to the townspeople.

“My husband and I never realized that,” Meisner said. “We never had a clue. But the way that cards came in and the thoughts that people wrote down in those cards. They talked about their experience here, what they bought and where it sits in their house.”

Other Behold tours explore cheese making, dog training and how homesteaders live off the land. In its first full year, Abram says people are already asking how they can bring the concept to their town.

“This is a museum made up of so-called ordinary citizens,” Abrams said. “The town has turned itself inside out to welcome visitors. So I hope they’ll come.”

Click here for more information on Behold! New Lebanon.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
Related Content