If you were to design a country store and roadhouse, Henry Wilgus’s store in the little Saugerties hamlet of High Woods, on the corner of Dutchtown Rd. and Glasco Tpke., would be the perfect model. You walked into a square room with a counter and a cash register, but Henry Wilgus didn’t use the cash register for totaling up a bill. A pencil and a paper bag worked just fine for that. There were counters and cabinets and a refrigerated section. If you were a small boy, you were mostly aware of the candy counter, where a nickel would buy you Necco Wafers or Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy or Topps bubble gum with a pack of baseball cards, which would, if you were lucky, contain a Brooklyn Dodger, even if that Dodger was Wayne Terwilliger or Phil Haugstad or some other guy who was never going to quite crack the starting lineup or the starting rotation—someone like minor league pitcher Tommy Lasorda.
Behind the store area was the kitchen, where hot dogs, sausage and sauerkraut were cooked on a huge black stove, and beer was dispensed from kegs in the cellar under the store, brought up to the main floor by an ingenious homemade system of pipes. Henry had opened his general store in 1922, but Wilgus’s was never a speakeasy. He didn’t start serving beer until after Prohibition had ended.
But the door to the right was the one that led to the magic area. This was a large maple dance floor, with a jukebox in the corner. The jukebox played 78 rpm records, identified by hand-lettered labels, all in capital letters, with the words separated by dashes: mockingbird-hill, shrimp-boats, the-ballad-of-davy-crockett. Henry never exactly made his peace with rock and roll. And on Saturday night, there was live music, most often by Percy Hill, and square dancing. I still remember, now six decades later, the words to one of those square dance calls:
The first two ladies cross over, and by the gentlemen stand,
The second two ladies cross over, and you all join hands
You bow to your corner lady, and honor your partners all,
You swing your corner lady, and you promenade the hall.
If I had a girl, and she wouldn’t dance, I tell you what I’d do,
I’d hire a boat, and set her afloat, and paddle my own canoe.
In an L shape, around two sides of the dance floor, and separated by a low partition, were tables and chairs — some 30 tables in all. They were picked up here and there by Henry. Not at antique shops; there were none such in Saugerties in those days. They were all, as Henry’s granddaughter D. J. Boggs recalls, “painted a cheerful shade of Chinese Red, so, in a way, they matched.”
On a Saturday night in the summer, every one of those tables was filled, except when couples were out on the floor square dancing. During the week, they would frequently be occupied by folks enjoying a beer and a sandwich and a game of euchre, and blackboards on the stanchions faithfully recorded who had skunked who, and the date.
In the winter, heating costs would necessitate the closing of the back area, but it would be opened again for New Year’s Eve.
From DJ Boggs’s reminiscence: “The dance hall was opened, and two large stoves were lit… the maple dance floor was polished with kerosene and corn meal until the wood shone and the dimples caused by ladies dancing in high heels were diminished.
“People put on their best party clothes for New Year’s Eve. Men wore sports coats and ties, washed and combed their hair and smooth shaved their cheeks followed by a good splash of Old Spice or Bay Rum. Women chose their outfits with great care. There were stockings with seams that had to be straight, high heels (some with open toes), upswept hair, wool jersey dresses highlighted with dazzling brooches and clip-on earrings and a signature of Shalimar, Chanel Number Five or even Tabu.
“The joint started jumping around eight. Cars were parked all across the back lawn and up and down Dutch Town Rd. People streamed into the little dance hall, pushed tables together in long lines, ordered beer and soda (some for the kids, some to mix with the whiskey many men carried in flasks in their jacket pockets). “Yes, We Have No Bananas” blasted out of the jukebox, and the first brave couples fox-trotted around the floor. There were local High Woods neighbors, Saugerties people and a healthy dose of fun-loving artists; some lived in High Woods, some in Woodstock.”
One of the dances would be a “moonlight dance,” ending with the refrain “and you kiss her in the moonlight if you dare.” There were a lot of bashful dancers who didn’t dare, but New Year’s Eve brought out much more bravado.
One of those couples who may have kissed on New Year’s Eve, in the early 1940s, would have been the young sculptor and new High Woods resident Harvey Fite, not long removed from the dusty roadhouses and square dance halls of his native Texas, and his new girlfriend Barbara Fairbanks, formerly a fashion model and actress in Rome, from a socially prominent family. Was this a girl you’d court by taking her square dancing at Wilgus’s general store? As it turned out, yes indeed. She loved it. Harvey married the girl, and they became a firm part of the local society that congregated around Wilgus’s. He later built Opus 40.
Henry Wilgus wanted to enlist in the Navy for World War II, but he was too old, and even faked papers wouldn’t do it, so he joined the Merchant Marine. After the war, and for many years, a memorial across the street from Wilgus’s paid tribute to the High Woods residents who had served their country in war. I wish it were still there.
I wish Wilgus’s were still there, too. It closed its doors in the mid-1960s. The building became the Viking Lounge for a while, but now nothing on the small house that sits on that lot suggests that it was once the nerve center of a small but proud community.