Hidden Gems of CNY: 60 wide-open acres where you can unplug and grab a beer with retired zoo animals
Skaneateles, N.Y. — A hidden gem doesn’t necessarily have to be a bar or a restaurant; it can be a place that gives your mind and body some time off, even for just a few minutes.
That’s exactly what you’ll experience once you walk under the cast-iron “Welcome to the Farm” sign that serves as a gateway to Willowdale Bend. Buy a bottle of wine, grab a mug of local beer to have with the homemade snacks and sit back in one of the overstuff chairs in the backyard patio that overlooks the 60 acres of farmland.
It won’t be long before you’re greeted by a rooster or maybe one of the geese out for a walk.
“Don’t worry, he’s not going to bite you,” farmer Rick Frost yelled from the hay barn. “He’s just saying hi. He’ll be moving along soon.”
These birds roam free among the visitors at Willowdale Bend.Charlie Miller |
Willowdale Bend sits between Skaneateles and Otisco lakes in the town of Spafford. Rick and his wife, Joyce, bought the property 14 years ago, and she secured Willowdale’s business license. The farm is now home to dozens of rescue animals or retired residents of the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse. Rick is there throughout the day and night caring for the animals. Their daughter, 16-year-old Maria, still gets up at 5 a.m. every morning to help. She’s worked long hours to nurse the calves back to health, and she helps with the feeding chores.
Its newest residents are four bison who moved in last Tuesday. Two more bison from the zoo family will arrive within a few weeks.
An old farmhouse at the front of the property serves as a country store, a country store with six draft beer taps and a healthy selection of New York State wines. Because New Yorkers, by law, must get food with their alcohol, Willowdale Bend sells Amish baked goods, free-range eggs, cheese, beef sticks, homemade chicken, tuna and crab salad. They offer local cider and donuts as well.
The whole idea of turning an old farmhouse into a taproom came on a hot day last August. Two bicyclists stopped by and asked asked the Frosts where they could get a drink of water. The nearest tavern—Frank’s Moondance—is a few miles north, and they were thirsty. (The Moondance, by the way, is another Hidden Gem of CNY.)
“We gave them a drink, and they walked around,” Rick said. “We got to talking and thought, ‘Hey, we should make this into a place that everybody could enjoy.’ We’ve still got things we want to do, but people seem to like it.”
Dan Mathews, the owner of Local 315 brewery, and his wife frequently stop at Willowdale for a beer on the way home from their Otisco Lake camp. Dan gives the farm the brewery’s used grain for feed. He’s also donated a couple of his goats. Local 315 Brewery now has one of the taps here. Right now, it’s his raspberry wheat beer. A pint of beer here is $5.50, and it’s served in a frosty glass or mug.
“It’s the perfect place to end a weekend,” he said. “We’ll go there and have a beer, and then we’ll stop at The Moondance for some chicken wings. Rick’s really got it going on.”
The animals seem to love Rick Frost, who owns the farm with his wife.Charlie Miller |
That’s what people do at Willowdale: They have a drink and unwind. They visit the animals, soak up the scenery, soak up the sun while soaking up some local drinks. A barn on the right side of the property houses a flea market on weekends. Vendors sell anything from antique furniture and tools to toys, blankets, glassware and artwork.
The Frosts don’t charge vendors to set up shop. They figure they’ll bring more people to Willowdale, which means they’ll spend money in the store, which means they’ll raise more money for the animals.
Karen Southard, a 77-year-old former restaurateur, is among the many vendors the Frosts don’t charge. She cooks food for the weekend guests. Rick built her a shed to cook and serve from. Her hamburgers, by the way, are well worth the $5 ($6 with cheese). She uses an 80% lean ground beef mix for her 6-ounce patties, and she soaks the meat in au jus so they’re extra juicy.
“I’ve been around a long time,” Karen said while serving us a burger and fries. “I’m not giving up yet. I love it here. How can you not?”
Excellent point, Karen. It costs nothing to visit here. Any money the Frosts get from sales goes to feed the rescue animals. Rick is already stocking up on hay. He’ll need 200 700-pound bales of hay to feed his flock through the winter. His cousin owns Tim’s Pumpkin Patch up the road. Rick just bought dozens of pumpkins for the animals, and he’ll stock up once Halloween passes.
Their 1,800-pound bull Marshmellow enjoys pumpkins as part of his buffet. On Monday, Mellow seemed protective as Rick broke open a pumpkin to send across the electric fence. The 18-inch orange squash didn’t last long. And yes, that’s how Marshmellow spells his name. Perhaps it’s because he boasts a mellow personality.
It's dinner time for 'Marshmellow,' the 10-year-old bull.Charlie Miller |
The animals at Willowdale mostly came from auction houses, the zoo and nearby farms. Some were sick, and some were headed to the meat-rendering plant. Rick figures he’s adding a few years onto their lives by welcoming them here.
The bison were all born at the zoo. Ted Fox, the zoo’s director, lives down the road.
Rick created a new home for the bison family to roam behind the hay barn. It’s surrounded by an electric fence to keep them safely inside. While they don’t need shelter, he built a three-sided shed that’ll keep them dry when it rains or snows.
“The day they arrived and got off the wagon, they just took off running,” he said. “This much space was new. And they’d never seen cows before.”
The four bison and 16 cows get along fine, and all seem happy.
Two of the four bison from the Rosamond Gifford Zoo that now live at Willowdale Bend in Marietta.Charlie Miller |
Joyce joked that not only do they rescue animals, they also rescue people. Theresa Hamilton counts herself among them. She’s a three-time cancer survivor who came here to sell antiques in the flee market. She now tends bar on weekends and is taking on the role of executive. She also cooks a crockpot dish for visitors on Fridays.
Her 11-year-old daughter has become a fixture on the farm. She helps feed the animals every day, runs the cash register, raises money for the rescue animal fund and gives tours on weekends. If you ask nicely, she might play you a song on her clarinet.
“We call her The Chicken Whisperer because she’s so good with the animals,” Theresa said.
Emily Hamilton, 11, helps out around the farm, and she gives tours.Charlie Miller |
Willowdale is Joyce’s happy place. The “official logo” of the farm is a bright yellow sunflower. Her sister-in-law, Teri Gilbert Lathrop, is an artist in Hawaii. During her last visit to New York in 2018, she created the logo on the south-facing side of the property’s silo. She painted the sunflower from a lift with her husband, Marine Col. Daniel T. Lathrop, on a clear 90-plus-degree day.
“This place is about light. It’s about simplicity,” Joyce said. “There’s no negativity here. The vendors are all positive, the animals are happy and bring happiness to the visitors. And hopefully people will leave here happy and refreshed.”
Teri Gilbert Lathrop, an artist from Hawaii, painted the sunflower on this silo on a 90-plus degree day.Charlie Miller |
Willowdale is only open on weekends, but people tend to stop while driving by. During feeding time on Monday evening, four strangers from Syracuse pulled into the driveway because they saw the sign for cage-free eggs. Rick told them to have a look around. They stayed for nearly an hour. They laughed at Sarah the African goose and Drake the mallard. They had never seen mini ponies before.
“This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” the driver of the carful said as they pulled out of the gravel driveway and headed to Route 174 to return to the city. “It’s so close, but seems so far away. It’s paradise. We’ll be back this weekend.”
Willowdale Bend in Marietta.Charlie Miller |
Next year, visitors will be able to fish from one of the two ponds behind the backyard patio. Rick just had it stocked with smallmouth bass and some algae feeders.
“You’d be surprised at how many kids have never dropped a line to fish,” Rick said. “Kids need to unplug. They need to get away from their phones and video games, even for just a little while. They need to relax.”
Rick Frost, who owns Willowdale Bend in Spafford with his wife, tends to his cows during supper time.Charlie Miller |
Willowdale is open for parties and other gatherings. Call 315-415-8925 to schedule.
The venue: Willowdale Bend, 2080 Willowdale Road, Skaneateles, NY 13152, (315) 415-8925
Hours: Noon-7 p.m. Friday; 10 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Credit cards? Yes for drinks, not at food stand
Access to disabled? Yes