by Katie Navarra
There is not a road in Columbia County, New York that 82 year-old George Atkinson of Livingston, NY, hasn’t delivered a horse, picked up a cow or transported sheep and pigs to or from.
Dubbed the “Critter Carrier”, Atkinson transported livestock, mostly cattle, sheep and hogs, for Empire Livestock Marketing, a livestock auction house, until his retirement in August 2014. “Our three daughters had been after him for years to slow down a little bit,” Atkinson’s wife, Cynthia said.
While he’s retiring from the hauling business, he’s not really retiring. He’s hoping to pick up an additional day at the Health Care Consortium where he transports senior citizens on non-emergency, medically related outings. “This is the sweetest job I’ve ever had,” he said, “after talking to cows for 50 years it’s kind of nice to have people to talk to!”
Raised in Connecticut, Atkinson’s father was a plumber. “He would tell me I don’t care what you do in life, but find something you love in life and then you’ll never have to go to work,” Atkinson reminisced. He found that love at a young age and that love was farming. He frequently visited the family farm in Ballston Spa, NY. “I was shoveling manure and helping with chores,” he said, “I couldn’t get enough of it.”
By the time he reached 8th grade, he was asking his parents for a horse. “My father told me he didn’t have the money to buy a horse,” Atkinson said, “so I didn’t think I would get one.” The morning of his 8th grade graduation, a pebble hitting his bedroom window woke him from a sound sleep. Looking out the window, he saw a horse and saddle standing below. “I just about jumped out of the second story window I was so excited,” he said. He and the horse delivered newspapers to earn $7 a week, just enough to pay the horse’s board. “I’d sling the sack with newspapers over the saddle horn and off we’d ride,” he reminisced.
After high school he attended the University of Connecticut and enlisted in the Army as the Korean War was coming to a close. “I always wanted to be a solider. I got into the motor pool at Fort Dix,” he said. When his tour of duty was up, he headed to the first bank he could find to lend him money. With a $1,500 loan he purchased land in Livingston, NY, bought 20 cows and established Locust Corner Grove Dairy.
For more than 40 years, he was as committed to the farm as was his wife. “When we got married, he told me he would be married to the cows too,” she explained, “and he was. There were many wedding receptions or gatherings we had to leave early to get back and milk the cows.”
The herd topped out at 80 Holsteins, which he milked twice a day in his stanchion style dairy barn. “There wasn’t much I didn’t like to do on the farm, but I loved mowing hay,” he said, “ I had a John Deere 4000 hay bine and I’d go out in the evening to mow hay and I loved that.”
In 2001, Atkinson knew it was time to sell the cows and most of the land that went with the farm. “My stomach started bothering me, but I figured it was the nerves,” he said. Doctors informed him, it was more than nerves, it was pancreatic cancer. When he called friend, Dean Zapp to break the news, Dean instructed Atkinson to wait before making any treatment decisions. Zapp’s sister worked at Sloan Kettering and arranged for Atkinson to meet with doctors there. “That doctor was something, I thought I was talking to the Lord. He told me he thought he could get it all with surgery,” Atkinson said. He underwent five surgeries to remove tumors. “I got down to 112 pounds during that time, but here I am today,” he said.
Though he’s no longer doing farm chores or hauling livestock, he remains connected to agriculture with his newest enterprise, Stanchion Lamp by George. Beginning with 10 stanchions from his dairy barn, he built standing lamps for himself and his three daughters. “When you milk cows for 50 years and you see these things (stanchions) twice a day every day, you start thinking there’s got to be something you can do with them,” he said. The wood naturally worn from the innumerable times that a cow entered and exited her stanchions boast natural wood grain that ranges from oak to pine and other wood available at the time each stanchion was manufactured.
He first removes the wooden inserts from the stanchion and polyurethanes each piece three to four times. The metal is sandblasted, the base is welded and depending on the customer, is left in its natural state or painted to match a customer’s decor. Each lamp is topped with a shade handcrafted in New Jersey and finished with a decorative lamp topper. “A lot of farmers will bring the stanchions from their barn and I make custom lamps for them,” he added. To date, he’s made 150 with lamps found in each of the county’s veterinarian offices and private homes. He is currently in the process of creating four for Nancy Fuller, host of Farmhouse Rules, which airs on television’s Food Network channel.
For more information about the Stanchion Lamp, contact George at 518-537-6873.
by Katie Navarra