“It’s been a long time coming,” says New Paltz town historian Susan Stessin-Cohn of a project dear to her heart that is nearing fruition: a permanent memorial at the Ulster County Fairgrounds complex preserving the memory of the 2,300 or so indigent people who lived at the Ulster County Poorhouse and were buried nearby. A fundraising campaign is underway that will enable the casting in bronze of a life-sized statue by sculptor Trina Greene of an Aging Woman, meant to symbolize all the Poorhouse’s residents over its 148-year history: construction workers unemployed after the completion of the Catskill Aqueduct and D & H Canal, recent immigrants, the sick, the elderly, unwed mothers, abandoned wives, babies and children, the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.
Stessin-Cohn has made the site and its forgotten residents her personal crusade for the past 15 years, doing research and trying to secure funding to ensure that all these marginalized people would not be lost to history. Aghast when she found out that hundreds of unmarked graves had been dug up to excavate the Ulster County Pool, the historian roamed the property after rainstorms, collecting human bone fragments that had eroded out of the soil. “People were parking their trucks on top of a graveyard,” she says, still appalled at this disrespect for so many people who had led such miserable lives at the Poorhouse. “To me this is hallowed ground.”
Eventually Stessin-Cohn was able to locate a single collapsed headstone from the grave of a Poorhouse resident: a 30-year-old woman named Rebekah Maclang Brower who had been sent to the facility for “insanity.” She calls Rebekah “the soul of the poorhouse,” noting that the poem inscribed on the tombstone, “Who’ll Weep for Me?’ was “what kept me going” during the years when support for the project was slim.
But momentum has slowly built for a more visible monument than the headstone, which has been more sturdily re-erected — not at Rebekah’s original burial site, on an embankment that has subsequently eroded away, but in a rarely visited nook behind the barns at the rear of the Fairgrounds. A sculpture titled Rebekah was also installed, but quickly succumbed to the elements. Last month, a committee was formed at the county level to conduct a capital campaign to raise a statue, accompanied by an educational kiosk and landscaping, in a place where it will be more easily seen by the general public: on a little rise between the County Pool’s front parking lot and the pool itself. About $20,000 have already been raised, according to Stessin-Cohn.
“Help us turn clay into bronze” is the tagline of the promotional poster for the project, which can be seen on the committee’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ulster-county-poorhouse-memorial-project-1065049120187023/timeline. A native of the Philadelphia area who studied painting at the Boston Museum School and is “essentially self-taught as a sculptor,” Greene made local headlines when Isabella, her statue of the 11-year-old Sojourner Truth, was unveiled in a public park in Port Ewen. Greene had a home and studio on Old Ford Circle in Gardiner for decades, but in recent years has been a resident at Woodland Pond in New Paltz, where she first heard Stessin-Cohn give a lecture about the Poorhouse. She quickly signed on to design the sculpture, on spec.
“I told her ‘I’d love to — I can really see it!’” she recalls. “No funds were in place, but I worked on it in good faith. My vision was strong of this tragic and unknown history in Ulster County. I increasingly felt the hopelessness of all these people over 150 years.”
Greene began work on her clay model for the sculpture about two years ago. It has now reached the rubber mold stage, awaiting casting in bronze — probably at the Polich Tallix Fine Art Foundry in Rock Tavern. “I’m in touching distance of finishing it,” she says. “The process to completion should take “not more than three months, once you get the money.” So if all goes well, Aging Woman could be installed before the end of 2016.
Modeled after Woodland Pond’s oldest resident, 99-year-old Annette Finestone, the figure a is powerful and dramatic depiction of a woman draped in a shroud, patterned in butterflies, dragonflies and grasses to suggest the Potter’s Field in which she will soon be buried. One side of the face and figure is highly detailed, while the other is blurred, as if already turning toward the oblivion of the grave. “If I get the gesture right, the process just reveals itself,” says Greene. “Her pose suggests strength, compassion and resignation. One hand is out to ward off what is coming her way, which is death.”
“My dream has always been to have a sculptor of Trina’s caliber to make this statue,” says Stessin-Cohn, who will be giving a series of talks and fundraising presentations about the Poorhouse Memorial Project over the next few months. To make a contribution to the fund, mail your check to UC United Way/Poorhouse Memorial, 450 Albany Avenue, Kingston NY 12401. For much more detail on the fascinating history of the Ulster County Poorhouse, visit http://ulstercountyny.gov/poorhouse.