June 18, 2008
Homer family’s ‘farm camp’ coming to a close
Sheep farmers selling their land, ending tradition of weeklong family reunion on their farm
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
From left, William Wright, Peter Wright, Phyllis Jackson, Betty Anne Wright, Leslie Wright, Eugene Wright, Marion Dabroski, Alfred Wright, and Edward Wright during the Wright family reunion Tuesday atop Brake Hill in Homer.
HOMER — For the last seven years Eugene and Leslie Wright’s seven children have brought their families back to the couple’s Homer sheep farm for a reunion they’ve dubbed “farm camp.”
The family’s grandchildren spend a week helping out and playing on their grandfather’s sheep farm — but this year may be farm camp’s last.
Eugene, now 80, and Leslie, 78, are ready to sell their 375-acre plot on Brake Hill Road and plan to move just up the road, into a log cabin that Eugene plans to build.
The couple raised their seven children on the farm, and over the years the children grew up, married, and scattered across the country.
This year, the family gathered at the farm June 14, and most plan to stay through Saturday.
As the Wrights’ children began having children of their own, one daughter, Phyllis, decided her children should get to know their grandparents.
In 2002, Phyllis Jackson and her family — which now includes four children, Trevor, 16; Camille, 14; Jill, 13; and Olivia, 10 — traveled from their home in California to spend a week at the sheep farm.
The family soon established the yearly tradition, at which the Wrights’ sons and daughters bring their families to their parents’ farm for a week of camping, outdoor fun and a well-planned regimen of farm chores.
“If it wasn’t for this, I don’t think we’d be connecting as a family as much,” daughter Barbara Anne Wright said Monday at the annual farm camp.
The farm is home to about 700 sheep, which take up most of the couple’s time. The Wrights first raised dairy cows and then moved into sheep farming after a government herd buyout in 1986.
“Whenever I start counting them, I fall asleep,” Eugene joked.
For farm camp, the visiting families set up tarps, campers and tents to live and sleep in.
That was part of the deal when Phyllis pitched the idea to her mother in 2002, since having six people suddenly descend on a house tends to be somewhat overwhelming.
“I asked her (Leslie), ‘What if we come and camp out?’” Phyllis said. “And she said, ‘OK.’”
Daughter Marion Dabroski and her husband, Joe, joined in the following summer, driving their five children up from Sayre, Pa., in 2003. After that, farm camp developed into a full-fledged family reunion.
Family members take turns handling cooking and cleaning, and the children have a rotating schedule of chores to help their grandfather with on the farm. Throughout the day, though, there’s plenty of time for walks and hikes around the Wright farm, which overlooks the valley between Brake Hill and Houghton Hill.
There are also animals to get to know, including a barn full of sheep, a host of uncounted cats, a “guard donkey” named Rosie and a border collie, Gypsy.
Each spring, there are baby lambs and kittens to take care of, and the occasional family of opossums or raccoons will sometimes take up residence in the Wrights’ spacious barn.
“This is so rich for my kids, who live in suburbia,” Phyllis said.
A highlight each year is the family bonfire, which Leslie said is large enough for her to have to call ahead to the fire department so firefighters know it’s under control.
Family members collect firewood throughout the week and build up the pile to more than waist height. The following morning, the embers are still hot enough to heat a pancake griddle.
The camp breakfast, in fact, is another perennial favorite — at least according to the farm camp newsletter, which is written and produced by 15-year-old editor Ruth Dabroski and 14-year-old assistant editor and chief reporter Camille Jackson, who writes articles under the pen name “Cammy J.” The newsletter features upcoming menus and events, and is published on a home computer with the tagline, “All the news to help you snooze.”
This year, the family was also celebrating Barbara Wright’s ordination Sunday as a minister in the United Church of Christ.
Eugene and Leslie, who studied agriculture at Cornell University, raise their sheep for meat, but Eugene has designed a special table to make shearing sheep easier.
Sheep are backed up to the contraption and secured using braces for front and back legs. As an air-powered set of clippers is used to shear the animal’s fleece, a foot pedal controls the surface of the table, moving it laterally like a conveyor belt, rotating the animal.
The table also easily tilts forward when it’s time to unload one sheep and strap on another. Eugene said he’s designed several shearing table prototypes for Cornell.
Most of the Wrights’ yearly crop of lambs goes to New York City, but about 70 to 100 lambs per year are sold to families —usually recent immigrants to the area from places such as Bosnia, Turkey and Greece — who traditionally mark holidays by eating lamb.
But this will be the last year the Wright family gathers for farm camp — at least, in its current incarnation. Eugene said he is prepared to sell the farm this year and move to an 8-acre plot farther up Brake Hill Road.
However, family members agreed that this wouldn’t be their final gathering, even if the farm is changing hands.
“We’re not ready to give up yet,” said Barbara Anne Wright. “We’ll figure out something for next year.”
Eugene said he will miss farming sheep, but that he’s looking forward to the next phase of life.
“You have to look forward, don’t you?” he said. “But I’ve been doing this for so many years, there are things about it I’ll miss.”
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