Cindy Elder began her day at the farm last Monday shoveling snow for seemed like the hundredth time, helping dig out a car that slid off the road behind the farmhouse and hauling water to animals that couldn’t be delivered through frozen pipes, all before sitting down in her office surrounded by barn cats let in out of the cold.
Such is life in winter as new executive director of Coggeshall Farm Museum.
“When you come to the farm, you’re going to get your hands dirty,” Ms. Elder said. “You really do get to jump in with both feet here. I’ve learned to go from the boardroom to the farm.”
The challenges of running a working farm and living museum are compounded in the winter, particularly one as challenging as this one has been. There are acres of paths to be shoveled — then shoveled again … and shoveled again as the relentless winter dumps snow over Bristol seemingly every other day — in order to maintain access throughout the 48-acre facility off Poppasquash Road. There are animals to be fed and watered, decisions to be made about whether it’s warm enough to let the chickens out of the coop or the ox out of the barn, and tours to be conducted as the general public comes to visit the living museum. And even when the pipes freeze, the animals still need to drink.
“We’ve hauled a lot of water this winter,” Ms. Elder said. “We have a small but very talented staff, and with the unbelievable winter we’ve had, everyone has had to pitch in. Even the board members have been like staff members, even walking the donkey.”
Ms. Elder picked a fine time to leave the boardroom of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, where she served as communications director until leaving to take the helm of Coggeshall at the end of December, just in time for one of the worst winters in recent memory to kick into high gear. But it’s nothing new to the Bristol native who has associated herself with the farm since the early 1970s when she first rode on the Coggeshall Farm float in the 4th of July Parade. She has spent most of her life around museums, growing up the daughter of Barbara Hail, former curator – and current curator emerita – of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.
“I’m what you’d call a museum baby,” Ms. Elder said. “Since I was little, I’ve been a museum prop. This is a challenge I couldn’t resist. I’ve had a love for this place since I was a little kid.”
Ms. Elder is planning for the future of Coggeshall Farm. She plans to expand the programming at the farm to incorporate more activities for adults and older teens, in addition to the children already drawn to the animals and living history. She hopes new programs like 18th-century cooking over an open-fire hearth and a RI Historical Society speaker series — focusing on the significant historical impact of the farm, the role of women and children on the farm in the 18th and 19th centuries, etc. — will draw an older crowd.
“If we look at the history of wealthy people, it is very well documented. But this is the history of the middle class,” Ms. Elder said. “People here in the 18th century were the typical working families. The story of the Rhode Island middle class has strong historical roots. We should be proud we have this agrarian history. This is a great place to honor Rhode Island’s past and relate it to today.”
Ms. Elder also plans to expand the educational offerings for schools around the state. Education Coordinator Travis Crocker is developing new lesson plans, focusing on common core principles to match the “experiential education” at the farm with what students are learning in class.
“We understand schools can’t send kids here just for a fun day,” Ms. Elder said. “We want to reestablish Coggeshall as an educational facility for school children. They can begin to see history not as some static picture in a book, but connect kids to history in a way that reminds them these were real people.”
She also wants to reconnect the farm to the community, in Bristol and beyond. She is focusing on increasing attendance at the farm’s main events — the Wool and Fiber Fest on May 16, and the Harvest Fair Sept. 12-13 — but also at the smaller, regular events and daily visits. The farm will be applying for statewide grants and trying to appeal to residents for support and connecting with Explore Bristol and the local business community.
“The farm is healthy — we have a small budget, but we live within our means,” Ms. Elder said. “In order for us to grow, we need more support. We’re counting on the people of the East Bay but won’t rely on them solely. We’re trying to really beef up the festivals, which is not only good for Coggeshall, but it’s good for Bristol.”
“Treasures like this don’t stick around forever if someone doesn’t take care of them,” Ms. Elder said. “I want to know this is going to be here in 30, 50, 100 years.”
Coggeshall Farm is open to visitors Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., year-round. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children and seniors. Kids under 3 are free. The living museum gives visitors a look at what farm life was like in the 18th and 19th centuries. In addition to the many animals and historic exhibits, the grounds contain picnic spaces and a museum store, in addition to periodic special events. For more information, visit the museum’s website at www.coggeshallfarm.org.