Harbes patriarch passes

07/29/2010 12:00 AM |

Edward Harbes Jr. was known as a man who could fix anything. Family members said he got more use out of farm machinery because of his mechanical ability.


Hear the word “agritainment” spoken on the North Fork today and most will immediately think of the Harbes family, widely credited with developing the concept that has brought hordes of visitors to farm stands for more than just the fruits and vegetables.

But long before there was agritainment — including everything from hayrides to corn mazes — there was a lone farmer, Edward Harbes Jr., and his wife, May, who moved their family from Huntington to Mattituck and worked the fields of his potato farm.

Mr. Harbes died last Thursday at the age of 84 of complications from diabetes. He left behind three children — Edward Harbes III, Peter Harbes and Patricia Divello, all involved in farming — and 14 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, many of whom are also involved in the family business. Edward III and Ms. Divello live in Mattituck while Peter Harbes is nearby in Riverhead.

In a 2001 profile of the Harbes family, when its members were named Suffolk Times Business People of the Year, Cornell Cooperative Extension agent Bill Sanok of Mattituck attributed the Harbes’ success to the family unit.

“You can tell there’s a structure there, built on a lot of love,” Mr. Sanok said.

Starting with 120 acres of farmland in Mattituck, Mr. Harbes and his wife established the base for what would eventually include farms in Jamesport and Riverhead. Son Peter branched off to grow cabbages while Edward III and his wife, Monica, went into the retail end of the business with farm stands. Daughter Patricia operates Patty’s Berries and Bunches in that hamlet.

“It was a true family farm,” Edward Harbes III said. Everyone worked and no one was allowed to shirk, he said. His parents had spent 20 years farming in Huntington before “retiring” to Mattituck, where they spent another 20 years building the family farm here before the next generation took over.

Mattituck was “the new promised land out east,” Mr. Harbes said.

“He wasn’t handled with kid gloves and he didn’t handle us with kid gloves either,” his son said. If one of the siblings complained about the difficulty of work on the farm, their father was quick to say, “Don’t tell me what you can’t do; tell me what you can do.”

“It was real life training,” his Mr. Harbes said. “You were very reluctant to make the same mistake twice.”

When other potato farmers encountered hard times in the 1980s, Mr. Harbes, who had carefully managed the business and its resources, was able to weather the storm, his son said.

“He was like a father to me,” Monica Harbes said of her father-in-law. “I miss him terribly. The farm seems to have a big void in it.” Customers have been coming in this week expressing their own grief at his loss, she said.

She described her father-in-law as a man of few words, but he spoke through his actions, she said.

Noting that May Harbes had died only four months earlier, Ms. Harbes said the couple was so devoted to one another through their many years of marriage that it wasn’t surprising that Mr. Harbes would live only a short time after losing her.

She recalled that when she married Edward Harbes III more than 30 years ago, she had a lot to learn about working on a farm. Her father-in-law would scold her because she kept getting the truck stuck in the mud until her husband showed her how to maneuver it.

“He was the best father-in-law a woman could ever want,” Ms. Harbes said.

Mr. Harbes could “fix anything,” his daughter-in-law said. His resourcefulness meant vehicles and farm implements lasted well beyond their expected lifetimes, she said.

Her husband noted that with scarce resources, his father had to learn and to teach his children to get the most out of every tool and vehicle.

While he didn’t talk a lot about his faith, it ran deep, Ms. Harbes said.

“By the sweat of thy brow shall thee earn thy bread,” was a Bible verse he loved, she said.

According to the family’s tribute to Mr. Harbes, which appears on page 14, he spent six days a week farming and devoted the seventh to church, family and fishing. Fishing was something May Harbes didn’t share her husband’s passion for, Ms. Harbes said. But she went along frequently for companionship. He named his boat Maisy after his wife.

Mr. Harbes also leaves behind his sister, Dorothy Schmitt of Dix Hills. Another sister, Maria Borella of St. James, predeceased him.

Private services were held on Monday.

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