Millbrook may be a small a village in New York’s Dutchess County, but its positive impact on world is actually quite big. The philanthropic activities of its citizens are punctuated by so many different achievements, it’s hard not to be impressed. It is a village filled with charm and tradition, decorated with lovely parks and estates—and the locals work had to preserve these historic places and values.
In Millbrook, the Thorne family has always been interested in providing large areas of beautifully landscaped open spaces for the public to enjoy. Oakleigh Thorne and his wife, Helen Stafford Throne, donated six acres in 1919 to create a park to honor the veterans from the town of Washington, New York, who fought in the first World War. In 1943, to help maintain the garden they created, The Millbrook Tribute Garden was formed. Oakleigh B. Thorne (son of Oakleigh Thorne), Helen S. Thorne, George T. Whalen Sr., and Paul Haight were officers.
Today, Oakleigh Thorne, son of Oakleigh B. Thorne—now President of the Tribute Garden Foundation—clarified, “The Foundation owns and maintains a number of public spaces in Millbrook including the Tribute Garden, Village Green, and parking facilities.”
The Tribute Garden Foundation is well known for its philanthropy. It supports a wide variety of local non-profit enterprises including schools, colleges, churches and other religious organizations, and hospitals, among others—all focused on improving the quality of life in the greater Millbrook Community. “Each year,” said Thorne, “two seniors from the local high school are awarded merit scholarships which extend through four years of college.”
The Tribute Garden has given funds to the Village of Millbrook for over 30 years to fund façade improvements of buildings in the commercial district. The program is known as Millbrook Restoration. And In return for the funds, the building owner grants the Village a façade easement. “The historic gas station on the green,” Thorne pointed out, “is another example of the thoughtful restorations the foundation is known for.”
“The Thorne and Whalen families have been working together on the Foundation for five generations of Thornes and three generations of Whalens, dating back to the 1940s.” He continued: “Two of our major community goals right now are the restoration of the Thorne Building as a Community Center, and the conversion of the collapsing Bennett College campus into an open community space.”
“We had to shut our Garden playground, which is a major gathering spot for young families in the Village. We also made our Village Green available to the Black Lives Matter movement for a peaceful demonstration.”
During the early part of COVID, some businesses were either shut or had limited hours. “Traffic in the Village,” reported Thorne, “is back to normal now.”
The Thorne Building—another landmark that has been emblematic of the Village of Millbrook for the past 125 years—will also see new life as a community center. There was a recent announcement to move forward with the selection of an architect for the project, and the Board of the non-profit Thorne Building Community Center declared that Michael Sloan and his team at Sloan Architects, P.C. have been chosen as the architectural firm for the proposed revitalization.
Said Charles Pierce, Chairman of The Thorne Building Planning Committee and Member of the board of directors of The Thorne Building Community Center: “I am personally most proud of the effort that we made to interview a broad section of the people of Millbrook to discover how the Thorne Building, restored and renovated, could enrich the cultural, educational, and social life of the community.”
Even during these challenging times, the community of Millbrook has stuck together and remained creative it its endeavors. Events may not be possible, but that hasn’t stopped residents from holding virtual galas. On August 20, Play for P.I.N.K. hosted a virtual cocktail party to benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF). It was the organization’s fifth event in this community, but its first virtually. $130,000 was raised.
“Considering our small community, it was really amazing,” enthused Beth Ledy, a co-chair for Play For P.I.N.K. Millbrook. “Breast cancer does not stop for COVID-19,” she noted, “and research needs to continue.” Since many events have been canceled, Ledy and everyone involved with Play For P.I.N.K. Millbrook—including Barbara Tober (who hosted the event), Lorna and Larry Graev, Deborah and Peter Krulewitch, Karen and John Klopp, Kathleen and John Dunagan—were thrilled to raise the record amount of money for such an admirable cause. Myra Biblowit (President of BCRF) spoke on the importance of research, now more than ever.
Along with the charitable actions of its citizens, Millbrook is also well known for its excellent preservation of estates and farms. One of those places is Wethersfield. Tara Shafer, Vice Chairman and Secretary of the Wethersfield Foundation, describes Wethersfield as a “sprawling estate set atop a hill in rural Dutchess County with commanding views of the rolling farmland.”
The property is nestled in Millbrook Hunt Country. Shafer’s grandfather, Chauncy Stillman, had a passion for all things equestrian, which is what inspired him to make his home there. He purchased the property in 1937 and started to build what would soon become Wethersfield.
“He spent the rest of his life refining his vision,” said Shafer. “Reforestation, irrigation systems, and sustainable farming practices were used at Wethersfield decades before they were commonplace. This was a result of the lessons emerging from the Dust Bowl.” Wethersfield was the actually the prototype for conservation in the Northeast. “As a child, I remember looking from the top of the hill at the rolling valley and tracking the shadows of the clouds. It felt to me like what T. S. Eliot described as ‘the still point of the turning world.’”
Shafer says that she is grateful to have supports from locals and neighbors. “We are lucky to have friends in the community such as Donald and Barbara Tober who help us in many ways—most recently by helping to restore the equestrian trails. We were able to welcome the Four-In-Hand Club, and, as always, the Millbrook Hunt.” Fernanda Kellogg—who, along with her husband, Kirk Henckels, own a 150-acre farm that hosted a series of horse trials—plays a significant role in the Millbrook Hunt and other local charities. “We are so grateful to the community for the abiding friendship,” adds Shafer.
The main goals of the Foundation are to preserve and promote the Wethersfield Estate for the purposes of sharing with the public. Land stewardship and conservation are central as well.
“This summer, although we could not hold events, we have stayed open.” As a result of COVID-19, Wethersfield decided to waive its admission fee. “It felt important to help our community—and beyond—after the spring that was challenging for many families as they look to reconnect with nature and beauty. Social distance is easy at Wethersfield; we have 1,000 acres of space.”
Another stunning place to visit is Innisfree Garden. Jean Parker Phifer, President of Innisfree Foundation, said: “During the time of the pandemic, people have been eager to find safe outdoor destinations.” In order to control the number of visitors at any one time, Innisfree set up an online system so that reservations must be made in advance. “Instead of discouraging visitors,” continued Phifer, “the reservation system, together with our safety protocols, reassured people that it would be safe to visit. So even though it takes more staff time to manage the process, we have had an influx of happy visitors and have doubled our membership!”
Karen Klopp, a Millbrook local, has been getting groups together to go visit Innisfree, which she describes as “a truly amazing place.” Klopp says that instead of going to events, she is now just donating money to help support local causes. Usually in June, she hosts The Mashomack International Polo Challenge. It wasn’t possible this year, due to COVID-19. “We’ll be bringing it back next year,” she says with confidence.
Much of Millbrook’s land preservation also helps local agriculture businesses. Dutchess Land Conservancy, founded in 1985 to protect the county’s incredible scenic resources, has been saving working farms and helping to promote the local food supply, preserving a way of life that is part of the heritage of Dutchess County. Said Rebecca Seaman, Chairman of the Dutchess Land Conservancy: “We are proud that as of 2020, we have protected over 43,500 acres.”
“When we preserve forested land,” she continued, “we preserve important recharge areas for our groundwater supply, we promote carbon sequestration—which combats climate change—and we save wildlife habitat to preserve species from large predators to minute salamanders.”
Becky Thornton, the Executive Director of the Dutchess Land Conservancy, said COVID-19 has affected the County’s food industry, leaving many farmers in vulnerable economic positions.
“Since we all know how important our farms are—especially when thinking about local food security and availability—the DLC has stepped up its work to promote the support and patronage of local farm stands and farm markets, encouraging people to participate in Community Supported Agriculture programs and to make gifts to farmer relief funds and provide direct links to helpful resources.”
If you are visiting Dutchess County for the first time, Rebecca Seaman has a few suggestions: “Visit the Dover Stone Church, which is actually an interesting geological formation with an intriguing history. (It is called the Stone Church as it was a popular site for weddings in the 1800s.) The Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies provides wonderful walking trails… The Buttercup Farm Sanctuary on Route 82 also offers the opportunity to walk the rolling hillsides and appreciate the bucolic views of Dutchess County.”
There are other fun parts of Millbrook that help tell its rich history, such as The Museum of the Streets. From 2011–2014, Barbara Pierce was the driving force behind Millbrook’s Museum in the Streets, a bi-lingual (English and Italian) installation of historical plaques throughout the village—a self-guided walking tour that explains (among other things) Millbrook’s ties to Fondi, Italy. “From whence the ancestors of many of Millbrook’s residents emigrated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to work as masons on Millbrook’s great estates,” Pierce explained.
Millbrook offers a charming lifestyle, filled with natural beauty and passionate residents—who have done a great job of sticking together to persevere local organizations and institutions. As Oakleigh Thorne put it, “If current events have taught us anything, it is the extraordinary importance of community in all of our lives.”