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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, November 23, 2006

‘A legend on the Hill’
Morris Willsey, farmer and mechanic, dies at 79

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — When Morris Willsey died on Saturday, part of a way of life died with him.

"He was a legend on the Hill," Priscilla Schaap, his daughter, said.

Mr. Willsey farmed the Helderberg land where he grew up and watched it progress from the days of horse-drawn plows.

He chronicled his life and times in a 1992 memoir, "The Past Not Forgotten."

"As a man born in the summer of 1927, I have many happy memories of farming a 140-acre farm in Albany County in the Town of Berne, New York," Willsey wrote.

He died Saturday, Nov. 18 at St. Peter’s Hospice Inn in Albany.

He was 79.

Mr. Willsey worked at the GLF Agway in Berne for Frank Hart & Son, and was a lifetime member of the Mohawk Pioneer Gas Association.

Farmers in Mr. Willsey’s day were also mechanics.

"His greatest hobby was engines — anything to do with engines," his daughter said. "As he got older, it was making his family happy."

Ms. Schaap said Mr. Willsey went to any gas or steam engine show he could get to. He and his wife often took their camper out, Schaap said.

"They wouldn’t tell anyone they were going. They would just take off and go," she said.

In "The Past Not Forgotten," Willsey recalls his farming experience — his round dairy barn constructed by his father and grandfather, his cow stable, his dairy herd of Brown Swiss cows, changes he saw throughout the years in milking methods, his creek nearby, as well as the impact new technology and electricity had on his farm.

"Our dairy barn was a round barn, 60 feet across and 60 feet high, built in 1912 by my father and grandfather. The barn was five years in the planning. The sill and plates were sawed round on a tablesaw, the studding and rafters were precut"The new was built of concrete for foundation and the floor which was mixed by hand using creek gravel. The same year the barn was filled with hay," he wrote.

Mr. Willsey’s round barn was included in Barns in the U.S.A. by Wilson Wells, published in 1976.

That same year, the barn burned.

"As the life of the barn ended August, 1976, when an arsonist set fire to the barn, totaled, destroyed, lost three Model A Fords, a 1930 Chevrolet pickup, 14 antique one-cylinder engines, and a $10,000 shop," he wrote.

But most of his memoir chronicles the farm in its heyday.

"The cow stable was in a half-circle. The cows stood with their heads toward the center"The dairy herd was 20 to 30 registered Brown Swiss cows. Prior to 1932, milking was done by hand. Then a milking machine was purchased. The machine would milk two cows on a single pail. The pail set on the floor between two cows with hoses attached to the milkers on the cow. Vacuum for the milking machine was from a vacuum pump run by one-half horse power gas engine. We also had a 32-candle power generator, which furnished lights when milking," he wrote.

"What a great thing lights! This method of lighting was used until 1936 when electric was furnished — used electric for lights until 1962. We stopped farming because of strict rules of the milk company. They wanted bulk milk cooler. I still have the milking machine, which works great!" he wrote.

"The cooling of milk prior to 1938 was with ice cut from the farm pond stored in an ice house covered with sawdust to prevent melting. Then a milk cooler was purchased to cool the milk. Milk was put in 10 gallon milk cans taken each morning to a milk bench, where it was picked up by a local hauler and taken to a milk plant," he wrote.

"In May of 1938, I purchased a new Farmall F-20 International on steel wheels on back. Used the steel wheels until late ’40’s when rubber tires were purchased. I still have this tractor running in fine shape. Later, in farming, I purchased used two more Farmall F-20s; mower for tractor, haybine and pickup baler — used this method until 1962 when we stopped farming," Mr. Willsey wrote.

"Farming was done with horses until 1928. That year, an 816 International tractor was purchased, making plowing, harrowing, planting, and harvesting much easier. In 1932, a hay loader and hay rake were purchased making haying easier — used this method until 1962."

"To supplement the income of farming, apples and potatoes were grown. These were packed in barrels, which were then taken to Altamont, put in rail cars, and shipped to a dealer. We further supplemented the income of the farm from 1930 until 1962 from eggs sold locally and to retail stores. We maintained a flock of chickens from 200 to 700. The feed for the laying hens was made from grain raised on the farm with a supplement to make a laying mash for the hens," he wrote.

"Also had 600 maple taps and made the average of 200 to 300 gallons of maple syrup to be sold."

Mr. Willsey wrote conclusively, "Farming on a 140-acre was rather simple — hard work and long hours."


Mr. Willsey is survived by his wife, Anna Willsey, of Berne; his children, William Willsey, Rachel Haley, Priscilla Schaap, David Willsey, and Karen Murrell; his step-children, Mary Ann O’Neil and Daniel Gunville; and his sister, Janice Irons Pearson.

Mr. Willsey is also survived by three granddaughters, three grandsons, five great-grandsons, and one great-granddaughter.

There will not be any services. Memorial contributions may be made to the Berne Reformed Church, 1663 Helderberg Trail, Berne, NY 12023; the Helderberg Ambulance Squad, Post Office Box 54, East Berne, NY 12059; or to the Community Hospice of Albany, 445 New Karner Rd., Albany, NY 12205.

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