Proposals for Towns, Farmers and Businesses (Hilltowns)

From Helderberg Hilltowns of Albany County, NY

The original and primary goal for Helderberg Hilltowns was and remains to document the history of the hill towns and the people who lived there.

Three new goals of this site are:

  • Historic building preservation
  • Farmland preservation
  • Promote farms and farm activities.

To move towards these goals, this site is encouraging visitors to Head for the Hills - the Helderberg Hilltowns as an inexpensive and close-by alternative to New England.

The Albany hill towns are locally known for their natural beauty: pastoral rural country side, rolling hills, meandering creeks, waterfalls, forest land.

The purpose of this page is to give ideas to the hill towns, the farmers, and other businessmen on ways they can promote farms and farm activities, hiking, and outdoor recreation opportunities, thus giving folks reasons to "Head for the Hills." In the long run, this will help achieve the above goals.

This is a waterfall just below the big waterfall in Berne; photo fall 2009, Charles Sloger

Economic benefits from visitors

Not all visitors to the hill towns are hikers and leaf peepers; or at least they don't have to be. The secret to separating visitors from their money painlessly is to offer them something they want to buy.

One of the suggestions is to have a central Hilltowns Market Day every weekend at a different one of the four hill towns park pavilions on a rotating basis.

Let's imagine that a couple from below the hills wants to attend the Hilltowns Market Day on Saturday; since they are going, they decide to take a mini-vacation. The Albany hill towns are not only easily accessible, but perhaps more importantly, a couple of days in the hill towns would be much less expensive then going to the Berkshires, which they can no longer afford.

Saturday morning they go to the Hilltowns Market and stock up on a week's worth of fruits and vegetables. While there they buy some of Bob Rowe's alpaca head-wear and scarves for gifts. They also buy a couple of dozen fresh eggs and a free range chicken from the stand of Frantzen's Scenic Acres, some antiques, and crafts made by "Sister Sue."
Time for lunch at Jersey's in East Berne, then an afternoon's hike in the Burke Wildlife Management Area in Knox. They enjoy dinner at Maple Inn, (but then so does everyone who eats there!).
They spend the night at Ralph and Jan Miller's in one of their spare rooms. Since the Miller's are renting rooms by the night or week on an occasional basis in a bedroom in their own home, they meet the criteria to call their home a Guest House.
The next morning our couple eats breakfast at the Hilltown Café in Rensselaerville. This is followed by a Sunday Drive in the Partridge Run WMA; then by lunch at the Palmer House.
They leave for home Sunday afternoon with full bellies, a trunk full of goodies bought in the hill towns, empty pockets, and smiles on their faces.

What have they left behind? Not pollution and litter!

They have left behind their money! And not just for sales tax at the MobilMart; rather they have transferred two or three hundred dollars from their pockets to the pockets of farmers and other business persons, the guest house owner, restaurants owners, and waitpersons in the hill towns.

They also took home lots of pictures and fond memories. They are anxious to tell their friends about the wonderful weekend they had, and suggest that the following weekend their friends "Head for the Hills."

And with a Hilltowns Market Day every weekend in a different town on a rotating basis, it would not be just one couple deciding to spend the weekend in the hill towns, it would be a dozen or two every weekend.

Where is the harm in that?

Ideas for farms, other businesses, and organizations

  • Encouraging people to "Head to the Hills" (and spend money while there!) requires an organization to promote the hill towns. It is proposed that a "Helderberg Hilltowns Association (by whatever name) be organized. Members would be the local restaurant owners, farmers, farmers markets, vineyard, alpaca farms, maple syrup producers, etc. Local businesses and farmers who would benefit by more customers from outside the hill towns must organize to do that or it will not happen. An organizational meeting is being planned at the Huyck Preserve in April. More details to follow.
  • Farmers could organize to support one another in their common effort to develop sustainable agriculture. Here is a link to what Schoharie County farmers raising grass fed cattle have done: - MADE in Schoharie County is a community coalition of pasture-based livestock producers dedicated to supporting one another in whatever capacity necessary as we pursue the ideals of sustainable farming. Since our inception in 1999, our respective businesses have flourished. Many of us began farming while working at salaried jobs, but have now managed to make successful full-time transitions to our businesses. They have even created their own web site.
  • 50-Mile Harvest Dinner - Engage a well known local chef to prepare a meal comprised of products gathered from local farmers and producers within a 50-mile radius. There could be live music and perhaps an auction. This could become a primary annual fund raiser and support local agriculture.

Hilltowns Market Day

The first project of a "Helderberg Hilltowns Association" might be planning Hilltowns Market Day whose location would rotate weekly from spring through Christmas among the four hilltowns: Berne, Knox, Westerlo, and Rensselaerville.

In this weakened economy, lots of hill town folks would be glad to raise a few extra vegetables to earn some extra money, bake some cakes and pies, put up some canned fruits and vegetables for sale. Extra money in the local pockets, and the city folk would love it.


  • Advertise the natural beauty of the hill towns and the outdoor recreation opportunities.
  • Appeal to folks interested in hiking, fishing, history, and photography.

Ideas for farmers

Marketing and promotion

  • Farmers Markets - publicize all the local Farmer's Markets in as many print and electronic media as we can. Encourage producers to distribute their brochures in as many venues as possible.
  • Create a centralized farmers market in one of the hill towns to market local products.
  • Have a Hilltowns Farmers Market that rotates on weekends among the four hill towns.
  • Holiday marts featuring locally produced items.
  • Join Local Harvest, a national organization with a website to find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in our area, where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
  • Web site - Farms should promote themselves on the Internet. A free listing is available with Local Harvest for direct marketing of family farms that do not grow GMOs, producers' farmers markets, organizations dedicated to promoting small farms and the "buy local" movement, or businesses whose products are primarily made from ingredients grown locally by family farmers.

Suggestions from Gerry Chartier:

  • Community service signs - Some of these signs would be useful in the hill towns (e.g., ambulance station, library).
  • Sign post for businesses and services in a community - space for a dozen or more entries and directional arrows for each. The entry points to each hamlet would be possible places to install these signs. Perhaps a small charge would cover the individual business signs.
  • Add the town webpage(s) to the sign posts at each of the highway entries.

Farm Activities

Ideas to diversify farms so that they get visitors who will pay for the farm experience:

  • Crop Art - Corn Mazes- Here is a maze that charges $8 per visitor.
  • Processing Demonstrations - cider pressing, sugaring, sheep shearing.
  • Farm tours.
  • Farm animal petting zoos.
  • Hay rides during summer events, etc.
  • Horse back lessons and trail rides.
  • Cut some walking and X-country ski trails on the farm.
  • Weed walks.
  • Forestry demonstrations / classes.
  • Plant sales, especially if for responsibly acquired Heritage varieties.
  • u-pick operations
  • pumpkin patches
  • Historical re-creations - old farm machinery, log buildings, heirloom seeds,
  • "Little village"
  • Natural features - An outstanding natural feature on a farm may become a tourist attraction — a bluff or rock outcropping, a waterfall, a grove of trees, a stream, ravine, marsh area, or a spectacular view. (Click on link for more ideas.)
  • Beaver dam - Build a nature trail around a beaver pond a have trail guide pointing out things of interest.
  • Winter activities - cross country ski trails, hills for sledding, ice skating on a pond, ice fishing, camp fires and marshmallows, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, hot cider, wreath making.
  • Scenic spot? - Share with others your pond, hill top, ravine. Build a picnic area, a pavilion, a cabin, a camp site. Open it to groups or to individuals wanting privacy.

Diversification and specialization

  • Christmas Tree Farm with direct sales and sales to local retailers.
  • Tabletop Christmas trees - a small tree to be noticed and enjoyed without taking over a limited space.
  • orchards with direct sales and sales to local retailers.
  • vegetable truck farm with a farm outlet store and sales to local retailers.
  • flower farm with direct sales and sales to local retailers.
  • herb farm with direct sales of plants, and selling to local restaurants. Green Spiral Herbs in Huntersland, Middleburgh, Schoharie County.
  • cheese producing diary with direct sales and sales to local retailers.
  • local grass fed beef and other specialty meat products with direct sales and sales to local retailers.
  • Meat processor - This article in the Altamont Enterprise presents reasons for buying meat that has been processed locally.
  • smoke house operation with direct sales and sales to local retailers.
  • Local-source food club - A business that buys farm foods and other products wholesale from hill town farms and delivers them to restaurants and homes below the hill.
  • Agroforestry products- Crops like ginseng, shiitake mushrooms, and decorative ferns are sold for medicinal, culinary, and ornamental uses. Forest farming provides income while high-quality trees are being grown for wood products.
  • Landowner produces, markets “garbage” wood with portable saw mill and kiln. Wood byproducts, including those usually left in the woods following Timber Stand Improvement (TSI), can readily become a supply for pen blanks, bowl blanks, or other craft wood projects that do not require the typical boards sold by larger mills.


  • Hoophouses - an innovative way to extend the growing season for berries, vegetables, flowers. Like a greenhouse but unheated.
  • Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) - a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer. Here are the basics: a farmer offers a certain number of "shares" to the public. Typically the share consists of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included. Interested consumers purchase a share (aka a "membership" or a "subscription") and in return receive a box (bag, basket) of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.

Ideas for towns and volunteers

Historic Buildings

Right now there are two historic districts in the hill towns, in the hamlets of Rensselaerville and Berne.

There needs to be an inventory of all historic buildings in each individual hamlet in every hill town. There could also be historic districts out side of hamlets wherever there are small concentrations of historic homes; this would help preserve the rural look we all love.

The towns might consider temporary tax breaks to new business moving into vacant historic buildings. In the long run it would increase town revenue and make the town more desirable to locals and to visitors.

Historic Cemeteries

Make the large number of small family burying grounds a reason for people to come to the hill towns. They could be cleaned up and signed and there could be maps. They could be a major attraction for out-of-state descendants of people who had lived in the hill towns, while at same time giving an added incentive to clean them up. Markers should be place to honor veterans of the Revolution and Civil War.


Trails could be touted as a major reason for visitors to come to the hill towns.

The towns should encourage the planning and construction of scenic trails for use by hikers, bikers, horseback riders, fisherman, photographers, cross country runners. In the fall they might be used by hunters; in the winter by cross country skiers.

There are many opportunities for expanding the existing system of trails to connect existing natural areas and reserves.

Click here for more on Hilltown Trails.

Driving Tours

Develop a series of drive-in-yourself tour maps such as the Helderbergs Fall Tour Map with routes and destinations that traverse the area in this way take advantage of many interesting places that someone may want to go as a final destination simply by being a stop on the route.

Guest Houses

If the hill towns want to encourage more that just day-visitors, travelers will need places to stay overnight. Zoning in all hill towns should be changed so as to allow Guest Houses in all Districts. Guest Houses would be defined as home owners taking in guests in the bedrooms of their homes. Guest Houses would not be treated as businesses, but rather as an occasional source of welcome extra income for the home owner.


  • Altamont Enterprise Editorial - Put tourism back on track in the Hilltowns. Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor
  • Altamont Enterprise Article - Frozen assets: Will tourist dollars flow to the Hilltowns once again?, by Zack Simeone
  • Barbara Husek (Rensselaerville): Agro-tourism, historic, architectural and garden tours are all *naturals* for our Hilltowns.
  • Karen Clayton: The historical, architectural and even cultural heritage of the Hilltowns is a valuable resource, right at your fingertips.
  • Barbara Thompson (Arizona): Part of what I love so much about the area when I can come back is how it hasn't changed much! I would rather it stayed nice and quiet as it is now. Progress will hit the area soon enough as more and more developments head out that way. I only get back every other year or so. I was back in 2006 and returned this July. I was amazed to see the development that has happened since my last visit. I am for the historical preservation...but don't turn it into a tourist attraction...just keep it pristine...just my humble opinion..from an "outsider" who doesn't live there..
  • James E. Kaufman: I truly enjoy your opinion Barbara. nothing wrong with opinions and people being humble. I have spent 56 years in the noise and pollution. I want to live peacefully in the hilltowns."
  • Donna Lynn Merrell: Just found this site. Was wanting to know more about history of Rensselaerville, thinking of moving to the area...I am in Hospitality/Tourism Industry. Very intrigued by this vision of yours!
  • Marita Gladson: I think that is an amazing idea.
  • Don Rittner: Great idea, and as people are affected by the economy many are turning to local activities to spend their money.
  • Jim Thompson Jones: I think it's a great idea..I always hear how the village of Middleburgh and Schoharie are so special because they have things like that going on around town....I would even like to see a Community Center put in for the surrounding communities.
  • Karen DeAngelo: The library here belongs to the Burnt Hills Ballston Lake Business and Professional Association and they're a very active group, involved in everything from parades to a tree lighting to town beautification projects, as well as promoting tourism, etc. Is there such a thing in Berne, and if not, perhaps that should be the first step (and no, I'm not volunteering for anything, I'm just offering a thought!)
  • Sarah Woden (East Berne): I wish we could. It would be awesome to revitalize the hilltowns.
  • Cheryl Frantzen (President, Knox Historical Society; Knox Town Historian, Frantzen Scenic Acres A very ambitious initiative Hal. And, please allow me to say that as a 30 plus year resident an impossible initiative - very unrealistic. Perhaps one step at a time we could achieve some of these projects but they would very small baby steps and years to success for them.
  • Roy Lamberton (East Berne) Onesquethaw Coeyman's Watershed/ NYS Council, Trout Unlimited - Promoting healthy outdoor recreation like hiking and the natural resources of the Hilltowns is also very beneficial. But there is another side of tourism I don't like. Just look at Lake George Village on a hot 4th of July. Tourists can bring litter and an aggressive culture if they're from dense populations. Click here to read all of Roy Lamberton's response.
  • Helen Lounsbury (East Berne) - BKW Board of Education - [Hilltowns Farmers and Business Association]... is a great idea. I have long thought a farmer's market would be a good thing. I believe R'ville currently does this. I see the Helderberg Hilltowns as a unit and like that you are treating it this way.
  • Otti Hamili-Hanses (France) - German Exchange Student in Berne in 1955 (?) and graduated from BKW. She now lives with her husband in France and on occasion returns to Berne to visit friends and her host family. In order to attract more people you should create lots of long paths and hiking trails to move around. There aren't any. Last time I was there, we wanted to go for a loooong walk, but one hour later there were no paths.... In my region in Germany they created hiking trails and guest-houses all over and you can ramble now for days and for days. It draws in many hiking people even from other countries! I wish your project to become a smash!
  • Lorraine Donovan - I'd tent & fish along there [the Foxenkill] and pay for it, and I live here! I had a wretched experience at Thompsons lake & will NEVER go there again, and the closest place thats not elbow to elbow with your neighbor is way up by exit 28. I was planning on investigating "devils tombstone" this summer as an alternative, but if i could go here! Are there fish in fox creek?
    Answer on this page: Foxenkill and Switzkill Watershed Study.
  • Amy Lauterbach Pokorny (Knox) - My husband, Russ, and I have been part of a citizens group called Friends of the Helderbergs, that has organized a Hilltown Market program to promote products and services from the Helderbergs for the past several years. We believe we can make it possible for people to live in the Hilltowns on sustainable incomes in livelihoods that don’t require commuting off the Hill. And the more adults we have spending their days on the Hill, the more safe and supportive the community will be for raising children, and the more attractive it will be for retaining our grown children in viable vocations. We are especially interested in support for agricultural businesses that preserve the open space we all cherish.