by Kristin Thieling
When I pulled into the unassuming driveway off of Montauk Highway, I had no idea of the journey I was about to take. Greeted by Ron Bush, along with his companion, a Border Collie named Rocco, I quickly learned. “Are you ready to go back in time?” Mr. Bush asked.
Ron Bush has spent years amassing an incredible collection of tools, trucks, machines, and equipment, which he keeps in the barns and buildings of what was once a small dairy farm started years go by Samuel Carman (namesake of the Carmans River). The property was later purchased by Anson Hard (“This was his toy, here.”) before becoming “the largest duck farm on Long Island” under the care of the Robinson family. When Mr. Robinson became too ill to continue the work, Ron Bush bought the property. “I kept the buildings, and I sold the rear to the county for open space,” he explains.
The collection comprises the Bush Farm Museum, a name misleading of the true scope of what Mr. Bush has managed to put together. Yes, there is farm equipment – a lot of farm equipment, in fact. But the Bush Farm Museum also features housewares, craftsman tools, whaling equipment, and even couture shoes.
The shoes were created by Beth Levine, renowned designer and Ron Bush’s aunt. He took me into a room filled with these exquisite designs.
Ron Bush: This is my Aunt Beth. She was a world-famous shoe designer. These are her shoes.
Fire Island Tide: Did she work out of this area?
Ron Bush: No. She had her own factory in New York City. She made for Jackie Kennedy; Mamie Eisenhower; Markova, the ballerina. And so I collect her shoes. They are works of art.
FIT: Are they handmade?
Ron Bush: Oh, yeah… The shoes were in demand. I have 50 pair. And Helene Verin, who did the book [Beth Levin Shoes, published by Stewart Tabori & Chang], she has 250 pair… My Aunt Beth made the shoes for Nancy Sinatra – “These Boots Are Made for Walking.”
Pictures of Aunt Beth, as well as many other members of the family, surround the shoe collection. Pictures are important to Ron Bush: photos of family and local farmers share much wall space with his collection.
Ron Bush: I take pictures of the farmers. Because a lot of them are no longer here. And I label them, so I know where they came from.
FIT: What made you start taking the pictures?
Ron Bush: Because, all of a sudden, I started going to farm auctions, and people were dying. Go right down the list. And if I don’t do this, nobody does it.
Ron Bush: This man – he was 94. He had to get up on his combine. Couldn’t see. His niece would be next to him saying “Go this way, go this way.” So he would drive the combine, and his nephew would be behind him with a baler to bale the straw. Never stopped. He was still on a John Deere, and all his family would say, “He’s going to die on a tractor.” His nephew said, “That’s what he wants to do.” He died about a month ago, but here he is.
It’s not just the memoires of farmers, family, and friends that Ron Bush works to keep alive. It is the value of history, and those who were vital to making it. He respects the importance of the everyday: of the people whose hands were essential to daily living, the tools that enabled work to be done, and the ingenuity that made everything possible.
Ron Bush: You come in here, it sounds corny, but can you imagine – every wrench belonged to a craftsman. Every axe belonged to a craftsman. They’re no longer here. I come up here, and I say they’re still here.
Perhaps the main building of the Bush Farm Museum is a cow barn that is filled quite literally to the top (the collection continues into a second-story space) with memorabilia of a time gone by: cast iron tractor seats, wooden farming equipment, an authentic cobbler’s bench, a butter press once used at his uncle’s Dune Alpin farm in East Hampton, hand-carved pitchforks, apple peelers, egg scales, a ship caulker, wrenches, measuring devices, and more. There are even pieces of equipment used in the whaling trade, including a harpoon and a killing lance, both of which date back to the 1840s. One particular piece, an impressive blubber hook, is something Bush’s daughter, Meghan, does not want to see him part with.
Meghan Bush: I wouldn’t let him donate, because it’s a huge hook, its brutal, it’s about whaling. But to me, it’s huge. And people back in that time when they were using it – they were not that big. And this had to ensure a lot of ingenuity and workability to get this to operate for life to go on. Which, in today’s age and day, doesn’t exist.
Meghan is a fourth-generation farmer who raises flowers and organic produce on the property. When I first met her, she was planting basil by hand. Meghan runs a farm stand in front of the property. Mr. Bush runs a farm stand as well, in Davis Park.
Seated at a small kitchen table in a dairy building that has been converted into a comfortable, livable space, Mr. Bush gave me a little more insight into his family’s history and his own ties to the land.
Ron Bush: There were many, many small dairies on Long Island, similar to this. They were a lot of rich men’s toys. And they gradually got larger. My grandfather had one milking 50 cows, my uncle had one in East Hampton milking 125 cows – and that’s where I grew up. They did not want me milking cows eight days a week, and so I became a real estate broker, commercial/industrial, and opened up in ‘64 and retired in ‘99. I always worked for my grandfather and my uncle, and my daughter– she’s fourth generation. So we work eight days a week. And we enjoy it.
FIT: Enough to come back to it after you retired from real estate?
Ron Bush: Well, basically, I worked. After my grandfather passed away, the cows went, and my daughter lived in his house in Holtsville. She had five horses there. She took in borders, and we were farming 20 acres. I worked there after I got out of the real estate office in Patchogue; I’d go to Holtsville and work there with her. And then that farm had to be sold. It was left to my Aunt Beth, and then she kept it until 2000. She was getting into her 90s, and she asked me to sell it because she wanted it to be sold before she passed away. So then we bought this in ‘88… I have groups come here and historic societies and organizations, and people just stop in – I like people to call first. Anson Hard built all these buildings. I have pictures of these buildings in 1936 – they have not changed.
There are many buildings on the property, some original and others moved in from different locales. There’s a 19th-century outhouse, which was once part of the Hendrickson Farm in Bridgehampton, and a fire station from an estate in Blue Point. There is even a former Long Island Railroad freight station.
Ron Bush: What happened was, we bought it, moved it to my grandfather’s farm in Holtsville, and when that farm went in 2000, moved it back here.
There is also a bull barn, which is dedicated to items related to horses. Among the items housed here are horse shoes, saddle racks, bridles, spurs, files, racing memorabilia, and a hobby horse that once belonged to Meghan. There are replicated pages from Diderot’s encyclopedia, hunting horns, and dozens upon dozens of horse brasses.
Ron Bush: You won’t see this any place: horse brasses. They’re all English, Scottish, or Irish. … Every one has a story.
Everything on the Bush Family Farm has a story, including Ron and Meghan. And, as my tour wound down, I was happy that they both shared a little more of that story with me.
FIT: What made you start collecting?
Ron Bush: What happened was, as a child, I grew up at Dune Alpin Farm. And I just noticed all this stuff – sleigh bells, stuff just laying around. All the farms had that. So I was always very interested in it. And then I started going to farm auctions and farmers. And then Meg would go with myself and the dogs to farm auctions. And the auctioneers knew I collected, so they would make sure I got the stuff. And then farmers dropped stuff off or would call me and bring things over. Or carpenters, fishermen, just dropped stuff off.
Meghan Bush: It’s a Catch 22, because farmers sell out, and so they call him. And it was great going, but then I was young and you’re like, “It’s nice we can go through the barn and pick what we want, but that means it’s gone.” And I started thinking that when I was, I don’t know, 12 or 13.
Ron Bush: That’s why I collect pictures. To keep the memory alive.
FIT: Would you say you have a general interest in history?
Ron Bush: Oh yeah. I am – I guess you’d call me a Luddite. I’m an anachronism. All of our trucks and tractors are made in ‘50 and back. I don’t do email. I don’t do MySpace or all that stuff.
FIT: Are you, Meghan, interested in keeping the legacy going?
Ron Bush: She’ll keep some. Of course, you can’t keep it all.
Meghan Bush: It’s a matter of really thinking about it, really figuring out how you can make it beneficial all the way around.
FIT: Is there any specific aspect of your collection that you would consider your favorite?
Ron Bush: Basically, the stuff from my grandfather’s farm.
FIT: Is there anything else you want people to know?
Ron Bush: Just – we just live a different life.
I got into my car and drove away – back into the present day. Filled with information, history, and appreciation, I was enriched.
The Bush Farm Museum is open to the public by appointment. As Ron Bush says, “Just call.” And then, with a smile, “But don’t email.”