A place to breathe

The past seems uncomplicated. Go back a hundred years, and it looks like life was easier than it is today. Sure, they didn’t have our conveniences, but life moved slower. People didn’t have the stress we associate with modern life. Or did they?

In 1909, a businessman named John Seamon donated a parcel of land to the Village of Saugerties with the admonition that it was “for use as a park, a breathing place, open and free at all times to every person.”

“A breathing place.” That sounds like someone who understood what it would be like to not have one.

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John Seamon, along with his brother, George, ran a family-owned funeral home in Saugerties, founded by their father, Henry, in 1873. The brothers expanded the business with a funeral-furniture operation, building the structure that today houses the Saugerties Furniture Mart. That aspect of the business remained in operation through 1904.

The land that John Seamon bequeathed to the village was purchased by him in 1907 at a cost of $10,000. The former property of Egbert Cooper, directly adjacent to the Martin Terwilliger grist mill, also included the present-day custodian’s home.

The family’s commitment to quality of life in Saugerties is evidenced not only by what John did in deeding land to the village for a park, but in what his sister Henrietta did in 1922: she established a memorial fund for Seamon Park that year, which continues to this day to help maintain and enhance the park. Seamon Park in the 21st century lives up to the family’s aspirations for it: a small gem in the northeast corner of the village, hilly and beautifully landscaped, it’s a place to draw a deep breath – open and free.

 

Pretty as a picture

Seamon Park has a bit of something for everyone. The lush landscape is lovely enough to attract those taking prom or wedding photos, yet the environment is casual enough to bring the kids or dogs to play there. Flowering shrubs and trees alternate with artfully arranged and well-tended flower beds, the blooms changing by the rules of the season. Playground equipment claims its place – a swing set, a slide, and travelling bars. A picturesque pond is filled with violet-tinged lily pads, and a swarm of orange goldfish, hovering just under the surface of the water, swooping together en masse at the prospect of being fed.

Remnants of the grist mill that once adjoined the property remain, the foundation still standing amidst the rushing waters in the creek below, a reminder of a day when Ulster County had mills everywhere there was moving water. A massive gear from the mill has been hauled up and displayed in the landscape, its form starkly elegant in that way that industrial machinery is when seen in contrast with nature.

Seamon Park is the kind of place that reveals itself slowly. The undulating landscape rises and falls, and around each turn or top of a hill is something unseen from a previous vantage point.

It’s also the kind of park that takes on its character a little bit at a time. This is not an “HGTV” landscape professionally laid out all at once by the sensibilities of a design team. One gets the sense here that it’s a place formed by the hearts and characters of the people who have used it and loved it over the last century, each adding their own idiosyncratic bit that contributes to the whole.

Benches are inscribed in memory of loved ones, people who contributed something to Saugerties in their lifetime. Several Boy Scouts have built a small pergola near the gazebo in a high point on the landscape against the backdrop of the Catskills, the finishing touch of benches just waiting to be added. A tree from the old library site finds a new home at the park – a familiar friend, perhaps, for those who once admired it as they lugged an armful of books into and out of the library. The cast-bronze “Children’s Statue” stands guard in front of the park, purchased long ago with pennies collected by local children. A trio of stone fireplaces in the picnic area still stand in triangle formation, built in 1929, a gift of the Camp Fire Girls and their mentor, Maude Washburn. There’s even a time capsule started by a later group of scouts, in 1987, waiting to be opened in 2012.

Village Superintendant of Buildings and Grounds George Terpening is caretaker of Seamon Park, responsible for its upkeep as well as that of the Lions Club Playground at Washington Avenue, the Saugerties Village Beach, and Tina Chorvas Waterfront Park. It’s enjoyable work, but as anyone who has ever attempted to tame nature knows, it takes a lot of work. Terpening has the assistance of a staff of two full-timers, Rich Rhoades and Bob Fanneli, as well as a crew of seven part-time seasonal staffers. Terpening says that some of the part-timers, students when they first worked for the park, have gone on to jobs as teachers, but they enjoy the work so much that they still come back and work in the summer part-time at Seamon Park.

The crew also cares for the hanging baskets planted in the village by the Society of Little Gardens. Even with a rainy spring like we’ve had this year, the need to keep things watered is constant and time-consuming, and the rain adds its own complications to the work, like making mowing at the park a difficult proposition.

The genial Terpening has been at his post for ten years. He previously worked in the insurance business with his dad for 25 years, and is a native Saugertesian, a graduate of Saugerties High School class of 1969. Terpening says the main event of the year at Seamon Park is the Chrysanthemum Festival held on the first Sunday in October each year, which follows closely on the heels of the Garlic Festival.

They begin planting the mums around the middle of August, taking care with the timing so that the plants won’t bloom too soon. By the end of September, Terpening says, the mums have all basically bloomed and they can then tweak the arrangements for color selection and move them around for better effect. Sometimes the mums are planted according to themes – a giant peace sign made up of white mums on the hillside one year, another time a series of heart shapes (those turned out to be very popular with the brides who come to the park to take their wedding photos).

Chrysanthemums, closely related to the common daisy, are one of the earliest cultivated perennials on record, groomed for beauty as early as the 15th century by Asian gardeners before being introduced to Europe in the 17th century. There are over 1,000 varieties of mums available in a rainbow of colors, some of which will be experienced at the 46th annual Mum Festival this fall.

The park is open year-round. The Christmas lighting in December, another production assisted by the Kiwanis Club, is one reason to come out to Seamon Park in the winter. Terpening says they begin testing the lights Thanksgiving week, and as you may imagine, it takes quite some time to do that given all the lights involved. The final effect is worth it, though, transforming the park into a glowing ice-scape until the lights come down in mid-January.

 

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