Volunteers Make Ambler Farm Day Magical

This Sunday, Sept. 28 is the 14th Annual Ambler Farm Day, a signature Wilton community event at Ambler Farm from 12-4 p.m.. The event offers so many family-friendly activities and attractions highlighting the fun of Wilton’s agrarian heritage–hayrides, a hay maze, apple slingshots, pumpkin patch, scarecrow making, children’s crafts, Wilton Historical Society spinning and weaving, Pony Club, apple peeling, trebuchet (pumpkin chunking’), live music, bake sale, pie sale, farm stand, garden market, and much more. Attracting thousands of visitors each year, the day requires the help of hundreds of volunteers, committee chairs and apprentices.

GOOD Morning Wilton is spotlighting the contributions of a few loyal Ambler Farm volunteers who make the day a beloved institution. (After reading the article, please consider signing up to help Ambler Farm by volunteering at the event. Here’s a link to sign up to volunteer.)

Home-baked Sweetness at the Heart of the Day
AFD Priscilla Thors
Ambler Farm Day volunteer Priscilla Thors is a dedicated fan of the farm.

Priscilla Thors oversees the bake sale, one of the Ambler Farm Day’s most important areas.

Not only does it make so many people happy–who wouldn’t be happy eating delicious, home-baked pies, cookies and treats–but it also requires the help and involvement of so many people. It’s Thors’ first year overseeing the bake sale, but she knows it’s a beloved tradition for many people to bake something homemade for Ambler Farm Day.

“One volunteer said she has such fun baking for Ambler Farm Day because these days you can’t really bake with sprinkles or make fun sugary things like that to bring into school. We want a good variety of items to sell, everything from cookies, cupcakes, brownies, caramel and candied apples, muffins, anything like that,” she says. This year there will be an assortment of gluten free items. Bakers must put a list of ingredients on every item they prepare and donate to the bake sale, to make sure there are no food allergy snafus.

For Thors it’s an especially meaningful to volunteer as bake sale chief.

“When we were younger, my mother always baked great apple pies and homemade chocolate chip cookies. I’ve always had a fondness for baked goods. This seemed to be fun for everyone–you get to see so many people, because who doesn’t like baked goods? It will be a very popular spot. I’m actually going to bring my mom with me to work at the table.”

Thors’ mom will also be with her on an important prep day, this Friday, Sept. 26, when about two dozen people come to the farm to do a bake-a-thon in the White Barn’s kitchen from 9 a.m.-2 p.m.. “We’ll be baking pies for the pie sale–we’ll be peeling apples, making pies, and if anyone wants to bake other goods there, they can as well. The more that gets made, the more that gets sold.” Every bit helps Ambler Farm with its most pressing current mission to refurbish the Ambler Farmhouse.

Her commitment to Ambler extends beyond just the one day a year.

“My mother grew up in the South, and we had a garden growing up. She moved in with us here in Wilton and she planted tomato plants. Farming has always been a big part of my life growing up. Hearing about the fresh fruits and vegetables. My kids have always been the same–we send them to farm camp, and it’s been a natural transition that Max, my youngest son, is an apprentice at Ambler Farm. He’s making friendships there, he’s worked at the farm stand, he loves it there.”

As an active volunteer for both Ambler Farm and the Wilton Library, Thors says it’s important for newer members of the Wilton community to become involved.

“It a great way to connect to the community and meet other people when you’re new to the town. The kids make friends as well, and you see them at Ambler Farm Day or at Maple Syruping day. It was great to see so many younger couples from Wilton Newcomers come to the Art, Food + Wine event.”

Thors has volunteered for Ambler Farm in other capacities and she says it’s always made her feel good and given her a deeper connection to the community.

“I remember volunteering to play the role of Harriet Tubman at Ambler for the simulation of the road to freedom for slaves through the Underground Railroad. I recall seeing kids at Cider Mill looking at me and whispering, ‘There’s Harriet Tubman.’ Some children would say, ‘Hi Mrs. Tubman!’ for some time after. Though I don’t feel that I have a strong resemblance to Harriet Tubman, I was glad that they recognized me partly because it made me feel a bigger part of the community as well as knowing that the children understood a little more about the indignity and oppression of the early African-American experience. Bottom line is that it made me feel good.”

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Making Hay While the Sun Shines
AFD Gillian Kaeyer 2
Ambler Farm Day volunteer Gillian Kaeyer (in red apron) welcomes visitors to the Hay Maze

For Gillian Kaeyer, running the Ambler Farm Day hay maze is a natural fit.

“I was recruited four or five years ago, they asked me if I’d like to do the hay maze. For me, as an engineer, I was like, ‘Oh my God! Yes!'” she laughs.

Before she took over as chair of the hay maze, it was something geared toward younger children. Kaeyer redesigned it to make it much more fun and challenging.

“I had to figure out how to make it larger, and how big it would have to be to be interesting enough, but not too gigantic and beyond the scope. It’s around 280 bales of hay now, and that isn’t cheap–it wound up being about $1,000 worth of hay.”

Kaeyer says that the farm gets its money’s worth, however. “The farm uses more than half of it on the farm after the event, and in previous years they’ve been able to export the maze to the New Canaan Nature Center, so I think it gets reused, which helps.”

Kaeyer changes up the design each year, making it square some years and round others. “You maximize the trickiness with a square design.” She says she always has to design a lot of inner sections so that it’s structurally more sound and stronger. Plus they use stakes through the hay bales to help strengthen the walls. It usually takes about 2 hours to plan.

The hay gets delivered on Friday night, and Kaeyer and her team of volunteers and apprentices will build it on Saturday. “I lay it out with pegs and string, and then we lay the first course and make tweaks. Then the apprentices stack it all up–three bales high–and we have to drive these posts in so the walls don’t fall down,” she explains, adding it takes at least eight people to finish it over the course of 6-8 hours.

They’ve added a one-tier row around the maze’s perimeter for parents to stand on in order to keep an eye on their children as they navigate the maze. “We’ve never lost a kid,” Kaeyer reassures.

Her family is devoted to Ambler Farm and it’s a big reason that Kaeyer says she feels it’s important to support it as a volunteer.

“We’ve done the camps, we go to Ambler Farm for the Fourth of July fireworks, my daughter has done the Apprentice program. It has so much to offer, that it’s important to make sure it succeeds and you want to give back. It gives the town so much, and it’s important everyone supports it. There’s not a lot of things that are quaint, special and educational at the same time. In this area, not much is small and home-grown anymore, and I like that aspect of it.”

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Ordering Something for Everyone, on a Day that has Something for Everyone
AFD annabelle reid
AFD volunteer Annabelle Reid at Ambler Farm

Annabelle Reid has been volunteering for Ambler Farm Day for at least the last six or seven years. Her role is something that impacts the success of the day in many ways– she is responsible for ordering all of the pumpkins, apples, hay and straw bales and sundry other fall items.

Reflecting the popularity of the day, and the numbers of people who attend, the quantities Reid has to order are pretty large, starting with the hay. Ambler Farm Day requires 400 bales of hay and straw, for scarecrow stuffing fun and the hay ride, as well for the hay maze. There is a big need for a variety apples, which Reid estimates at well over 1,000:  for Friday’s pie baking, she has to order Macintosh, Cortland, and Empire; she asks for 600 cider apples alone for the apple slingshot. Then here’s also figuring out how many pumpkins of which size are needed for both the trebuchet and the pumpkin patch; “We move about 500-plus pumpkins on that day.”

Sometimes it takes a little more creativity to source her materials. “I was picking pine cones all over the forest today, for the arts and crafts area.”

Just as there’s a variety of areas her role touches upon, she gets to work with a lot of different volunteers who make Ambler Farm Day happen, from the chairs who head up each area to Farmer Jonathan Kirschner to Program Director Kevin Meehan, to the apprentices.

“When the hay gets delivered to the farm, the apprentices have to unload the 400 bales, it’s lots of fun to see the high schoolers all over the truck, they have a blast. Every aspect is very appealing to all the age groups. That’s what I find so appealing. You have the little ones that really enjoy the day, the high schoolers who are in charge of certain areas and all the volunteers who bring the whole community together on that day,” Reid says.

That’s just one reason she says she stays committed to supporting Ambler Farm. It’s what the farm gives to the community that keeps her passionate about helping.

“In today’s era where children are spending so much time inside with their computer games, this is a day that invites them outside, that makes it so interesting to connect with nature. There’s so much going on–hens, ponies, a fire truck, the whole aspect of farming and teaching them what it was like in years past. All the programs for them to learn–organic farming, what it takes to grow the food that one eats. Generations of children just go to the supermarket and see everything shrink wrapped and cut to size. It’s great to see their faces when they see what it takes to grow the different vegetables. And just how the whole community comes together on this particular day, how much effort to bring the farm back to what it used to be like to teach–so we don’t lose the history and our farming heritage.”

Remembering what it felt like on her first Ambler Farm Day, Reid marveled at how “the whole town was there! I was seeing everybody. Every familiar face seemed to be there. The middle schoolers and high schoolers were so empowered where they were volunteering. The little ones were in awe over the hens. I thought it was so charming, and saw how much can be done and continue to add value to keep making it better.”

She hopes that as younger families move to Wilton, that new people will join her in giving time to volunteer there. “It’s such a beautiful way to connect to the community. It really is a place that makes you feel welcome. The more you give, the more you get–in terms of getting woven into the fabric of the community. It’s a wonderful place to not only see the history and heritage of Wilton, but also the whole town as it is today–how many people come together in four hours. They’ll find it’s a magical day. Ambler Farm Day brings that beauty all together and you get a great sense of what the community really is. There’s a little something for everyone.”

Ambler Farm is located at 257 Hurlbutt St..  Admission is $20 per family, and $10 for senior citizens. There is limited parking on-site  the day of the event, but there is a shuttle bus from the Cannondale train station. For more information, visit the Ambler Farm website.