Susan Stessin-Cohn helps Haunted Huguenot Street rise from the dead

Photo of historian Susan Stessin-Cohn at work in the field by Lauren Thomas

As one of the earliest settlements in Ulster County, with almost 400 years of history, Huguenot Street in New Paltz has a lot of stories to tell. Ten of the most grisly tales, related to the deaths of early inhabitants, will be told by a crew of 50 or so costumed volunteers on October 28, 29 and 30 during the Haunted Huguenot Street Tour (attendance by children under 12 not recommended). Most have never been told to the public before, according to Susan Stessin-Cohn, director of exhibits, educational and public programs at Historic Huguenot Street, who organized the tour with Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) staff member Rebecca Mackey. They include the fate of Sally Hamilton, a young girl from the early 1800s who left her sister’s house with a crowd of people, met up with two elderly women who left her near a shop in town and was never seen again.

Tours will leave every 15 minutes between 7 and 11 p.m. on October 28 and 29 and between 6:30 and 9 p.m. on October 30. Tickets cost $10 in advance and $15 at the door (students get in for $10), and reservations are strongly recommended; visit www.huguenotstreet.org for more info. A special craft activity will be available for younger children, for a fee of $5.

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One of the county’s premier sites for Halloween ghost tours no longer exists: the Ulster County Poorhouse, formerly located at the site of the Ulster County Fairgrounds, where many an indigent immigrant was sent to die. Prior to joining HHS, Stessin-Cohn learned about the institution, which was operated from 1828 until the 1970s, while doing research for a class that she was teaching at SUNY-New Paltz and became fascinated.

Fortunately, former county clerk Al Spada had rescued about 25 “books of admission” from the structure when it was demolished in the 1970s, which provided invaluable information. Stessin-Cohn turned her research into a curriculum called Who’ll Weep for Me? A Teachers’ Guide to the Rise of the Poorhouse System in Ulster County, which won an award from the New York State Board of Regents and the State Archives in 2004. It paved the way for her next project, titled The Builders of Ulster County: A Curriculum on the History of Immigration, which won the 2006 Lower Hudson Conference Award for Excellence.

Reading old newspapers and referring to the historical archives, Stessin-Cohn found that the Poorhouse was where a poor immigrant who was sick or injured was sent, usually to die. One name that has stuck in her head is Carmen Lack, a European immigrant (probably from Germany) who, after being injured on the job in a Rosendale cement mine, was sent to the Poorhouse. “They said he was a drunk, but it’s because they were giving him liquor because he was in such pain,” she said. “He died there.”

She also learned from the records that many of the young men who immigrated to America around 1850 developed “ship’s fever” on the way over. “When they’d land in Kingston, there was a two-week incubation period. They’d be sent to the Poorhouse to be treated, where they often died.” Early in the 20th century, a lot of the immigrants who worked on the Ashokan Reservoir and became ill or were injured suffered the same fate.

Stessin-Cohn wrote another curriculum about the Esopus people, in response to demand from teachers who complained that the state curriculum for Native history is limited mostly to the Iroquois, who weren’t in this area. Stessin-Cohn based her program on artifacts preserved by the county, including clay pottery and tools, and focused primarily on the Contact Period, as reflected in the title, When Cultures Collide: The Story of the Esopus Natives and Their Encounter with European Colonization in Ulster County.

All of these programs were funded by grants from the Ulster County Clerk’s Office and are posted online at www.co.ulster.ny.us/archives/educators.html. They are free, and they have also been distributed to the area’s public schools, organizations such as the Girl Scouts and summer camps, as well as interested teachers from outside the area using them as a prototype.

Stessin-Cohn is thrilled with her new post at HHS, which is where “for me, it all starts,” she said. “I can say to one of my interns, ‘Open up any box,’ and there will be something spectacular.”

Stessin-Cohn has a team of two volunteers and six interns, one of whom is researching local African-American history: a long-neglected subject that’s of particular importance, given that the majority of the slaves in the area came from Huguenot Street, she said. The HHS archives include the bounty records listing all the escaped slaves in the county, dating from 1799 until slavery ended in the state in the mid-19th century. “We’re trying to track people from slavery and find out what happened afterwards. It’s not easy.”

For more information on Susan Stessin-Cohn or her work at Historic Huguenot Street, call (845) 255-1660, extension 104, or log onto www.huguenotstreet.org.

 

 

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