Enjoying the luxury of time at the Ryan Family Farm
By Brian P.J. Cronin
Photographed by dKol Photography
Richie Ryan makes building a lake sound easy. “You start digging out 10-foot lifts,” he explained. “When you can’t dig anymore, stop.” Okay, but after you build a lake, don’t you need to do some things to it in order to maintain it? “Absolutely nothing! It’s an ecosystem! It takes care of itself. Look how clean the water is and how big the fish are. Biggest one I caught was an eight-pound bass.”
Richie said this as he pointed into the depths of Lake Marjorie, named after his grandmother, because when you build yourself a lake, obviously you also get to name it. And yet the most surprising thing about Lake Marjorie, even more surprising than the fact that Richie just up and dug himself a lake one day, is the 40-foot water slide that shoots over its surface. If it looks like the kind of slide that one might swipe from an amusement park that’s going out of business, well, guess what.
“It’s from a Great Escape park in New Jersey that closed down,” he said. “Somebody put it up for free on Craigslist, first come, first served.” The day after he saw the listing, Richie called the guy at 5:30 a.m. so that he could claim it first. When the guy asked when Richie could come by to get the slide, Richie told him to look out his back window. He was already there with a truck.
Look, maybe you or I would not sit outside of a stranger’s house in the wee hours of the Jersey dawn to get a free water slide the size of a studio apartment. Perhaps we will never dig our own lake. Perhaps this sounds crazy.
But if, like Richie, you are at the tail end of a 40-year project to reclaim all the land in your hometown that your family used to own, restore multiple buildings that are at least as old as the Civil War while constructing new ones that also look like they’re from the 19th century, turn it all into a top-notch full-scale event venue, and you’re trying to do this in what little free time you have while running an excavation business and raising a family with four kids, and suddenly opportunities come up to get a free water slide or, let’s say, a pile of beams that came off of the Brooklyn Bridge, you’d be crazy not to grab these things when the opportunity arises.
“He was just going to get rid of them!” Richie said in regards to the client of his who had the Brooklyn Bridge beams. “I asked him what he was going to do with them, and he told me, ‘Just bury them somewhere.’” Richie recounted this with a shocked and pained expression, as if the guy had asked him to flush the Mona Lisa down the toilet.
Needless to say, the beams did not get buried. Richie used them to build the pavilion that overlooks the lake.
“No one else is as eccentric as he is, to collect all of this stuff and do all of his own work for cost,” said Richie’s cousin Tommy Ryan, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who left the hospitality industry a few years ago to join the Ryan Family Farm project. “But he loves it here.”
Richie heard this and laughed, not disagreeing with any of it.
In the late 1800s, Richie and Tommy’s great-grandparents bought 90 acres here in the area outside of Poughkeepsie that would soon be called Billings. Their grandfather died young, so their grandmother sold off the choicest 18 acres of the property—the ones with the houses and the barn—and was given the job of Billings postmaster by the legendary New York State governor Hamilton Fish, then moved onto a road which would, like the lake, be named after her: Marjorie Lane.
Richie made it his dream to buy back the land his grandmother had to sell, and he started in on this dream early. From the time he was 16 years old, he would ask the now deceased, elderly couple who had bought the land from his grandmother if he could buy it back. “Every time I saw them, I’d ask, ‘Hey can I buy it yet? Can I buy it?’ Finally, the husband turned to his wife and said, ‘Look, just sell it to Richie.’”
Now Richie had the land, but he needed to find a way to make it economically sustainable so that it would remain in his family forever. That’s where the event-space idea came in. Richie, however, was in no rush. So he just started collecting materials that he came across in the course of his excavation work. He collected wood for eight years, storing it in the barn to let it fully dry out. Then he milled it himself to make new floors. He found the perfect docks for the lake at a nearby summer camp, docks that the camp wasn’t using anymore. Richie asked if he could have the docks. They said no. He kept asking for 10 years, until finally the camp hired someone new and Richie asked the new guy if he could have the docks in exchange for grading the camp’s roads for free.
When Tommy came on board, the two of them started checking out other rustic venues in the area for the sake of comparison. Tommy soon realized what an advantage they had as a result of all of the work Richie had done to their family property. Renting a rustic barn for a wedding sounds like a good idea until your aunt passes out from the July heat because the barn isn’t climate controlled, and ladies get sick of having to squat in an outhouse while wearing a bridesmaid dress. The Ryan barn, which now has HVAC and indoor plumbing while still looking like the 19th-century barn that it is, stood out.
“People like rustic,” said Tommy. “They just don’t want to actually be rustic.”
The Ryans brought the same level of care to the house on the property, keeping the aesthetic choices they liked (wallpaper from the 1930s, for instance) while fixing the ones they didn’t (such as wooden floors that had been painted battleship gray). Richie brought in a floor guy to restore the floors to their original condition. The guy took one look at how bad they were and walked out. Richie did the floors himself. They redid the basement, where the Ryans found copies of the Poughkeepsie Journal from 1862 plastered to the wall. And Richie built six beds for the bedrooms and an enormous hickory table for the dining room.
The idea, Tommy explained, is that a couple can now rent the entire property for a weekend wedding. Fifty people can have a rehearsal and a rehearsal-dinner barbecue by the lake on Friday and a ceremony there on Saturday, followed by a 175- to 200-person reception in the barn, and brunch back at the lake on Sunday. Immediate family can rent the big house to stay together, talking around the hickory table all night, while the Ryans have friends within walking distance who have offered to make extra houses available for guests as well.
But the Ryans don’t want their beloved family farm to be a wedding factory and have been hosting charity community events at the property for the past few years to see how things work. Richie himself held his own 50th birthday party at the lake, with 300 guests.
“The importance of this property is that it’s historical, it’s groundbreaking; the materials and construction are second to none, and it’s really changing the way things are going to be done in this area for a really long time,” said Tommy. “There’s not anyone around doing something like this.”
And if the Ryans need to add new features, they won’t be hurting for materials. Tucked away in a corner of the property, behind massive dirt hills, sits a fleet of white truck trailers, filled with the cast-off building materials that Richie’s collected but hasn’t found a use for yet.
“I call this part of the land Richie’s Treasures,” Richie said.
“And the rest of us call it Junk Valley,” Tommy deadpanned.
Richie considered this for a second and then laughed.
For more information visit, www.theryanfamilyfarm.com. █