February 2, 2021
For decades, Tom Hohman lived next to one of Rensselaer County’s most stunning and dramatic waterfalls, Barberville Falls, in the town of Poestenkill. Tom grew up and raised his family in a nearby farmhouse. He harnessed hydropower from the falls to run his sawmill and heat his home.
The 140-acre Barberville Falls Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), was just across the waterfall from Tom’s property. Part of the preserve was on his side of the water, downstream of his sawmill.
The preserve and 92-foot waterfall were a major attraction but lacked adequate parking or trails. Visitors would park unsafely and cut through private property to reach the falls.
“Sometimes I’d be working in the sawmill and people would just walk right up to me and ask me where the falls were,” Tom chuckles.
Over the years, Tom and his neighbors witnessed unpleasant and dangerous behavior, such as loud parties, vandalism, and accidents at the falls. Clashes between visitors and neighbors turned into bitter feelings and gave the preserve a reputation of trouble.
To minimize issues, TNC decided in 2012 to close the preserve between Memorial Day and Labor Day each year. That helped, but it wasn’t a long-term solution.
TNC started looking for a new owner for this beautiful but challenging preserve. They offered it to the town of Poestenkill and to other land trusts.
No one wanted it. At RPA, we imagined what this Plateau gem could become with local attention. “We just thought – if not now, when,” board member Shari Gibbs reflects. In August 2019, TNC transferred the entire property to RPA along with generous funding to match two grants for improving infrastructure.
Some thought it was a risky move. RPA Executive Director Jim Bonesteel recalls Tom Hohman’s initial response: “I know you mean well, but you don’t know what you’re getting into. No amount of new signs will solve the problems.”
“For RPA,” Jim says, “this was exciting, and we were honored that TNC entrusted us with the land. But we knew we had to find a way to get past the history. We started by forming a committee of neighbors and others who wanted to help guide decisions.”
With COVID-19, the need was greater than ever.
Little did we know that 2020 would bring a pandemic and a shutdown, sending many more people outdoors to visit each of RPA’s preserves. On sunny spring days, Barberville Falls was flooded with visitors, sometimes with 30 or more cars parked along Plank Road.
In response to this community need for nature, our new volunteer committee discussed keeping the preserve open throughout the summer—something that hadn’t occurred since 2012.
But first the preserve needed a larger parking area and a safe trail down the steep gorge to the falls. We planned a new parking area on Blue Factory Road, closer to the falls, and a crew of professionals and volunteers scouted a trail. Thanks to COVID-19, the necessary grant funding to cover these projects was on hold.
The community stepped up, donating time, materials, and talent.
Thankfully, many hands joined in to pull it off. Warren W. Fane, Inc. donated the materials for the parking area, and EMI Earth Movers donated time building it. Neighbor to the preserve Doug McLaren, and RPA treasurer Walter Kersch, brought energy and equipment. We were also able to borrow from RPA’s operating reserves, and the 16-car parking area came together swiftly.
Next, Jim talked to Fran Egbert, leader of the Rensselaer Land Trust / Rensselaer Plateau Alliance Volunteer Trail Crew about creating a trail in time for summer. This would mean working on steep terrain, extra hours, and heavy stonework. The crew talked it over. “People really needed it— especially this year with Covid,” Fran says, “and we just decided we had to do it.”
The trail crew spent nine days in a row, including through a June heat wave, building a new trail to the falls. “The excitement for the finished trail kept us moving,” Fran says.
Before June was over, Fran’s crew had finished the Falls Trail, complete with stone steps and even a beautiful staircase made of wood from the surrounding forest. For the first time in a long time, there was a safe route down to the falls.
We re-opened the preserve a few days before our goal of July 1st, and the community immediately embraced the new trail and parking area. Dozens of hikers, birders, and walkers enjoyed the preserve throughout the summer, and into fall and winter.
This note from one visitor, Jeff Wasbes, captures a sentiment expressed by others as well:
My wife and kids and I went out for what I expected to be a quick visit to Barberville Falls. The experience was very different from what I remember from my youth. I was delighted to find a parking area and marked trails … We spent a beautiful extended morning hiking the rim trail and visiting the falls. I didn’t expect to be able to share that experience with my family.
Tom Hohman no longer lives in the house next to the falls, but he still works in his sawmill. He’s pleased the preserve is in RPA’s hands. “It’s still a work in progress,” he says, “but it is better. I don’t have anyone walking through my sawmill anymore.”
Jeff and Tom’s gratitude belongs to our volunteers, neighbors, and you, our supportive members, for giving Barberville Falls a chance to shine.