Remembering Shandaken, remembering Shandaken

I’m becoming a history junkie — but not just any history. If it’s about my family or the place where I live, I am riveted by the past. There’s something about superimposing what I know about the present over the way things used to be — it’s like a shot of adrenaline.

My latest fix comes from a booklet of historical narratives put together in 1976 by the Town of Shandaken for the celebration of the American Revolution bicentennial. For $5, you can get a copy too. Town clerk Joyce Grant found a stash of them while cleaning out archival space at the town hall.

To assemble the booklet, town history experts delved into the past of each of Shandaken’s hamlets, and local old-timers reminisced about their youth or told stories they had heard about their forebears. While I’ve read a few of the tales in the late Lonnie Gale’s Shandaken, New York: A Pictorial History (Purple Mountain Press, 1999) and Mary Hermann’s Shandaken (Arcadia Publishing, 2010) from the “Images of America” series, there’s much here that was new to me.

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Richard Knight wrote about Fort Shandaken, built in 1779 to protect Kingston from Indian attacks. The site is now bisected by Route 28, approximately where the Mount Tremper cemetery is located.

The Longyears, early settlers of the region, owned the forested land that became the hamlet of Phoenicia. Around 1803, Andrew Longyear built his house where the Catholic Parish house stands and operated an inn at the site. James Simpson came from Scotland in 1820 and built a tannery on the Esopus. In 1850, Andrew’s son William laid out 11 building lots between the tannery and his father’s house on the hill. This area became Main Street.

Simpson’s granddaughter, Minnie Reilly, tells how James couldn’t resist the bargains that result from buying in quantity. When he bought a gross of chamber pots,

          his wagons returning from Kingston brought back chamber pots as space allowed, 1728 of them. It is safe to say that James A. Simpson potted the whole town of Shandaken…Years later, when his grandson took over the store, there were still dozens of them found. These sold quickly, not for their original purpose, for by this time they were collector’s items.

The township was founded when Shandaken separated from Woodstock in 1804. The following year, the first town meeting was held at the home of William Rogers, and the board considered how to fund care of the poor. For instance, in 1813,

          Elias D. Eighmey agreed to keep Polly Port for the ensuing year for the sum of $16.00, this being the lowest bid.

The toll house that was recently renovated (and is now for sale) on the Plank Road gets a chapter, written by Clifford Segelken. In 1841, Benjamin Longyear married, and his father gave him a section of the family farm, where Terrace Farm’s goats now graze. Benjamin built his house near the road, which became a toll collection point when the toll road between Rondout and Delhi was established. A four-horse stagecoach made the trip between the two endpoints every day, covering 70 miles in 16 hours.

Amelia White remembers hearing the tale of her grandfather and his father riding home from Kingston on horseback when they were surrounded, in Mount Tremper, by a pack of wolves. Her great-grandfather yanked a bag of black pepper from his saddlebag.

          Handing his son some, they discharged it into the eyes and noses of the wolves whereupon they proceeded to sneeze themselves to death.

It’s also fascinating to get a sense of 1976, when the text was compiled. Only 36 years ago, our world was startlingly different.

A four-page calendar in the middle of the booklet lists community events from April through December, some of them related to the bicentennial (a costume ball, a bicentennial arts and crafts contest, spinning and blacksmithing workshops at the Phoenicia Forge), some of them not (a Republican Club card party at the parish hall; a Methodist-sponsored food sale on Gormley’s porch).

Prominently featured is the presentation of “Happiness is Shandaken,” the musical written and directed by local residents Elaine Balcolm and Gary Cramer as part of the celebration. This performance led directly to the founding of the Shandaken Theatrical Society, which has come a long way in 36 years.

The elders still living at that time remembered customs from their childhood that sound like ancient history.

Vera Winne recalled frosty mornings when the kitchen stove, the only source of heat in her parents’ house, would burn out long before dawn. Prompted by the smell of eggs and buckwheat cakes cooking, she and her sisters would grab their “long drawers, flannel petticoats, dark dresses, heavy black stockings and high button shoes” and run to the kitchen to dress by the stove.

Bess Johnston lived in one of the company houses owned by William Schwarzwaelder’s furniture factory in Chichester, where “water was carried by pail from the fountain in the village square.”

Frances Hill describes walking to Chichester on Friday nights to see silent films at the Legion Hall. Her friend Helen Gulnick played the piano accompaniment. Frances remarks, “Through snow drifts, rain or good weather, we wouldn’t miss a Friday night at the movies.”

Copies of the Town of Shandaken’s bicentennial booklet are available for $5 each. Visit the town hall or call town clerk Joyce Grant at 688-5004.

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