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Legacy of Merle Youngs celebrated at Zenda Farm Preserve in Clayton

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CLAYTON — In honor of the 75th anniversary of construction of 10 metal barns at Zenda Farm, the Thousand Islands Land Trust dedicated the buildings in memory of the farm’s founder, Merle L. Youngs.

“It’s truly special that we are gathering here on the 75th anniversary of the buildings that we stand amongst tonight. The uniqueness of the buildings and the collection truly is remarkable,” land trust Executive Director Jacob R. Tibbles said.

The formal dedication was marked by the unveiling of a commemorative bronze plaque for Mr. Youngs. The ceremony was held at the Zenda Farm Preserve on Route 12E.

Following the dedication, Mr. Tibbles announced a new award, the Merle Youngs Conservation Award, and named longtime Zenda volunteer Daniel F. Tack as the first recipient. The award was designed to acknowledge a person who has contributed significantly to the advancement of conservation at the Zenda Farm Preserve and who exhibits the positive values of Mr. Youngs, including innovation, industry, high standards and a regard for natural beauty.

“This individual has truly embodied everything that Merle Youngs stood for back in the day. He has put his heart and soul into this preserve and into the land trust,” Mr. Tibbles said. “We felt there was no other individual to carry on Mr. Merle Youngs’s legacy of conservation, innovation and just straight up commitment to ZPAC,” the Zenda Preserve Advisory Committee.

Mr. Tack has volunteered for the farm since 1998. Committee Secretary G. Theodore Mascott said Mr. Tack has been very active in the Clayton community and taken a specific interest in Zenda Farm.

Mr. Tack said he didn’t think he deserved the honor compared with all the other dedicated volunteers with the Zenda Preserve Advisory Committee and the Thousand Islands Land Trust,

“Frankly, I’m totally stunned. The ZPAC Committee has worked so hard and I know we’ve been a thorn in the side of the Thousand Islands Land Trust,” Mr. Tack said. “I know we have a lot of crazy ideas and we’ll get some of them, but I want to thank my fellow committee members. They deserve this more than I do.”

He said that when he first came to Clayton in 1946, the farm was a working farm. There wasn’t much that sparked his interest.

In 1970, when he and his family started looking for a summer home in Clayton, there was a noticeable dullness to the farm; the barns were rusted and the fields were overgrown.

“When I found out in 1995 that TILT had gotten the land, it piqued my interest,” Mr. Tack said. “It became apparent this place could really be something again.”

Over the past few years, the Zenda Preserve Advisory Committee has worked to restore the barns and preserve them. Mr. Tibbles said the metal barns were cleaned and painted so that drivers along Route 12E can barely miss the glimmering buildings in the sunlight. He said a few of the buildings also have had structural work done.

In 1939, Mr. Youngs purchased about 734 acres and built the collection of steel Jamesway buildings representing state-of-the-art dairy facilities. Mr. Tibbles said it’s the last complete standing collection of historic Jamesway buildings in the country. The 10 buildings each serve a specific purpose, including dairy shop, creamery, corn pit, manure pit, hay storage and full-size silo. Later, Mr. Youngs converted to a beef operation.

After Mr. Youngs’s death in 1958, much of the property was inherited by his business partner, John MacFarlane. In 1997, Lois Jean and Mr. MacFarlane donated much of the Zenda Farm to the Land Trust.

Mr. Mascott said the buildings and the grounds on the preserve have been updated, painted and restored.

“In my opinion the grounds haven’t looked better in 50 years,” Mr. Mascott said. He said the buildings and grounds at the education center will continue to be restored to keep the older buildings in working order for people to visit and use.

Mr. Tibbles said the Thousand Islands Land Trust has worked to reacquire many of the former properties of Zenda. The preserve now totals more than 400 of the original 800 acres.

Jefferson County Legislator Michael J. Docteur, R-Cape Vincent, said Mr. Youngs’s efforts were a great example for many farmers in the region who were not as financially capable of operating a modern farm.

“These buildings are not just a beautiful asset to Clayton but also a testament to the value of agriculture in Clayton and Jefferson County,” Mr. Docteur said.

Robert W. Kittle, the last farm manager for Zenda Farm before it was donated to TILT, said he did everything as the manager. He said he ran the farm and tried to expand 600 head of cattle to at least 1,000. Mr. Kittle said, “It’s about time Mr. Youngs’s work was acknowledged.”

Mr. Kittle said Mr. Youngs was a businessman first, and his success gave him the opportunity to build the innovative farm and pursue his dream of farming.

He said that when he worked for Mr. Youngs, Zenda Farm was a “show farm.”

“One of the first questions I asked Mr. Youngs was how do you want this place to look. He said don’t go overboard, but I knew what he wanted,” Mr. Kittle said. He said they kept the farm in a manicured state with the grass mowed along the roads and around the barns. “We just looked good.”

Mr. Kittle said that Mr. Youngs would drive around the farm every Sunday in his limousine, and Mr. Kittle would try to catch up with him to tell him about everything that was going on at the farm.

Mr. Tibbles said the Thousand Islands Land Trust and Zenda Preserve Advisory Committee are always working to provide more opportunities for people in the community. Mr. Tack said he has some more ideas but isn’t ready to talk about them yet. An embroidered shirt he wore that had on the back “Prisoner of Zenda Society” was the only clue he could give about what the group has in mind for its next project, he said. The committee will be discussing a 10-year plan to include a viewing area on the land trust property and more.

Mr. Tibbles said, “The Zenda Farm Preserve has made a wonderful transition. The history behind it is truly remarkable.”

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