History of Berkshire Farm Center

More than 131 years of changing lives, creating futures!

Beginning: The vision of Frederick and Catharine Burnham


Frederick G. Burnham and his wife Catharine had a vision for helping troubled youth in 1886. On 580 acres in Canaan, New York -- purchased from a local Shaker community and originally intended for use as a breeding farm for fine cattle -- the Burnham's created a refuge for what were then called “wayward boys”.


How Baseball great, Jackie Robinson inspired boys at Berkshire Farm Center - then AND now.
Berkshire's grand history featured in  The Chatham Press -- includes archival photos from 1800's and 1900's!

The Burnham's believed that a stable, loving environment, contact with nature and emphasis on a strong work ethic could help these boys overcome their past problems and start them on the road to better lives.

The Burnhams' vision and their personal commitment to making a difference in children's lives led to what is known today as Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth, one of New York State's largest and most successful agencies serving troubled children and their families.

The idea that the Farm represented a family, rather than an institution, was a major factor in its success and its powerful influence on the boys' lives. Mrs. Burnham, who is credited with suggesting the initial idea for the Farm to her husband, was the presence behind this idea of family. She got to know the boys well, and often corresponded with them after they had left the Farm and embarked on new lives.

Vision becomes reality

The Burnham's came from Morristown, New Jersey, where they were very active in the church as Sunday school teachers and in nearby communities in Newark and New York City.

Mr. Burnham operated a law practice in New York, in partnership with John Van Buren, son of Martin Van Buren, the eighth President of the United States. President Van Buren had a home in Kinderhook, New York, not far from Canaan, and it was through this association that the Burnham's most likely became acquainted with the area.

The Burnham's had many wealthy and socially prominent friends whom were interested in the work and its success. At first there were only 20 boys, then for many years 80, and then up to 100 boys. In the 32 years from the birth of Berkshire Farm to the death of Mr. Burnham in 1918, the Farm served over 1,000 boys and reported that four-fifths of them went on to a better way of life as productive members of their communities.

Building on success

From its start as a small residential facility for boys from New York City, Berkshire Farm grew as it began to serve youngsters from elsewhere in New York and from other states. In 1956, an aftercare division was established in the New York City office and, a decade later, this program was expanded to become the community services department. Also in 1966, Berkshire opened an office in Buffalo, and another in Schenectady to serve the Capital District and the Hudson Valley. Soon afterward, additional offices were opened in Rochester, Syracuse and Long Island.

Today, Berkshire's programs can be found throughout 45 counties across New York State. From foster care to placement prevention programs, group homes to treatment centers, Berkshire is strengthening children and families to live safely, independently, and productively in their home communities.

Changing names for changing times

imageUntil the 1960s, young men worked on the large farm that was a part of the Berkshire campus and provided much of the food served to the students. For years, some of the boys helped in the farm's dairy, as in the photo at right.

Economic factors and new regulations made the farming operation increasingly impractical, and it was ultimately discontinued.

As the work of Berkshire evolved, the name of the organization changed as well:

  • 1886-1894 -- Burnham Industrial Farm

  • 1894-1959 -- Berkshire Industrial Farm

  • 1959-1974 -- Berkshire Farm for Boys

  • 1974-present -- Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth

Berkshire Farm Center today

Once known as a residential program for boys in Canaan, NY, Berkshire now offers more than 100 programs in 45 counties across New York State!

Why did we change? Because we listened.

We know many families across the state are struggling. Some communities are faced with higher incidents of violent crime, causing children and families to feel unsafe even in their own homes. We know from experience that when children and families are consistently exposed to trauma and stress, other problems including domestic violence, child abuse, and neglect can surface. Mental health deteriorates and families can be thrown into a downward spiral of crisis.

Today, Berkshire has answered this call to action by establishing programs in 19 of New York State's 20 most dangerous communities. We are partnering with families to provide multiple levels of service: family preservation, crisis intervention, foster care & adoption, group home and residential treatment, respite support, detention, mental health counseling, and substance abuse counseling.

We are seeing results!

For example, in Niagara Falls, Berkshire's Home Run Program supports 45 children and families each year and has achieved a 99.6% success rate of keeping families together. All of this is only possible with the commitment of our partners, foster parents, donors, volunteers, and dedicated staff.

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