Students Experience the Saltbox


The Saltbox, a small house from the 19th century in Hillburn, N.Y., has been reconstructed and converted into a classroom, museum and research center. It was reconstructed right between a massive dirt-capped landfill and a Brownfield containing over 16 sites of toxic paint sludge left over from Ford Motor Company's old factory in the area.

In addition to being a historic museum, The Saltbox serves as a classroom for Ramapo students. The building is also an environmental research center, where tests are conducted to determine the environmental impact of the chemicals left by Ford in the soil.

 Walter "Chuck" Stead, a Ramapo environmental professor, saved the saltbox in the late 90s, only recently having it reconstructed for its new purposes.

 "It was going to be burned down," said Stead, who initially saved it for its historic value. The building itself contains numerous artifacts, including many of the original tools used by ironworker families 200 years ago.  The building itself was raised in its new location using most of the original 19th century materials. 

"It was kid built," said Stead, who brought in students and volunteers to do most of the work, giving them practical experience and a chance to help out the community and the environment.

Work began in 2011, with plans to continue into this coming spring of 2013.

The Saltbox is what Stead called an "Industrial Impact Home." As a classroom, Stead's students sometimes meet there instead of the more traditional locations on campus. The Saltbox offers a distinct advantage over learning about sustainability in a typical college classroom.

"It's about practicality," Stead said. "I'm not a theorist, I'm a practicist…It's important to see the damage that industry has done…it makes a big difference."

Students seem to find reasons to be excited about going to the Saltbox despite the extra commuting time.

"I like visiting it, it's cozy and I don't mind the drive," junior Alexandra Castiglia said. "I am really glad I got to find out about all the things that go on with the Saltbox. If I didn't take Chuck, I probably wouldn't know anything about it."    

The Saltbox is not quite finished yet. It will eventually hold a better research center in its attic. The research center will focus on examining the damage to local ecosystems, particularly how lead and other contaminates in the paint spread across the environment.

Currently, the site focuses on the rates of migration of the paint sludge in the area, and it seems to be moving.

"In some places 9 inches, and in others it can move as much as 9 feet," Stead said.

Students continue to track the paint as it moves, and have looked into the process of Phytoremediation, which is the rate that lead is drawn into plant roots. This is an important factor because contaminates from the paint can spread from plants to the animals that eat those plants, possibly causing more problems for the local environment. Some of the local plants being studied for this effect include the "Wild Carrot," "Phragmites" and "Russian Olive."

"It surprised me. I expected an environmental center to be in a beautiful place," said sophomore Donna Elazar. "It's a special place to come to learn…It breaks the disconnect."

Those who visit seem to agree that the Saltbox is a place worth going to.

"It seems to be about a recovery…something about the environment there, mostly put together by kids, stewarding the land, and people talking about their own stories. It's a house for stories," said Stead, who tells a story about how a veteran from the war in Afghanistan once visited, finding peace around a campfire at the Saltbox.

Taking one of Professor Chuck Stead's classes is a good way to experience the Saltbox, but it's not the only way. The site is only a few minutes away from the college campus and is open to visitors.

"It's important to see it. It encourages you to get out and see what you're learning. If you can, go there," sophomore Steven De Carlo said.