Tucked away, north of Route 299 in Highland, is a quiet, 100-acre lake with a long and colorful history. Shaped like a spade on a playing card, Chodikee Lake has been home to religious cultists, wild men, farmers, bootleggers, an all-boys school, a fancy hotel, a summer camp, a lovable tramp, orthodox Jews and juvenile offenders.
But to most who drive through Lloyd to get to New Paltz — other than fishermen, kayakers or those who live in the sleepy neighborhoods nearby — the lake remains elusive.
Chodikee from the start has been known for its good fishing. Hillbillies living off the land, and the native Esopus tribesmen before them, enjoyed the bounty of the bass, panfish and pickerel that live in the lake itself or the eels in Black Creek, which feeds the lake.
Lloyd, New Paltz and Esopus’s town lines all touch in the region around Chodikee Lake, which has had fertile farmland for generations.
Vivian Yess Wadlin grew up in the area on her family’s farm. During her lifetime, she saw huge changes. Once the Chodikee Lake area had an economy based around farming and orchards, people doing odd jobs like cutting barrel staves. People used to take in boarders up until about the 1950s.
Those farms are mostly gone — turned into developments. The grist, wool and knitting mills are gone. And what had once been farmland near Plutarch and Elting Corners roads has reverted to wetlands because of the work of beavers building a dam.
To Wadlin, the area’s population has morphed. “The biggest change, I think, is that I can go into New Paltz and hardly run into anyone I know,” she said.
Wadlin is the daughter-in-law of one of Lloyd’s former historians, Beatrice Wadlin. She publishes the free “About Town” guide available in racks at local grocery stores. Vivian’s love of Highland and New Paltz history leaks into her articles, many of which recount local history. She remembers growing up that for most people in Highland, religion came only in three flavors: Methodist, Catholic and Jewish.
Over the years, as the industry and landscape has changed, she’s noticed Highland become more secular. Fewer young people are going to church. Wadlin said she feels for students living in Highland and New Paltz today.
“Certainly, the opportunities we had growing up were in some ways brighter. The kids nowadays have it less bright.”
Behind the name
According to one of Lloyd’s earliest historians, Warren G. Sherwood, Chodikee is an Anglicized spelling of an Algonkian phrase “shadakee,” meaning the place of the signal fire. It’s speculated that light-colored rock cliff visible from Camp Stuts Road was used by the Esopus to build fires visible from Mohonk.
There had been a misconception among locals at one time that the name came from a chief or tribe’s name. But local historians ruled that out years ago.
Chodikee Lake also went by a slew of names. At various times, it has been called Black Pond and the Old Grote Binnewater. The spelling “Chodikee” itself wasn’t standardized until the 1860s.
After the Huguenots bought 39,000 acres from the Esopus in the 1610s, Chodikee Lake became a part of the original land patent for New Paltz. It stayed that way until 1845, when Lloyd split off to become its own town.
Cultists and hillbillies
Chodikee’s first group of settlers who arrived en masse happen to be a controversial religious group, the Pang Yang — followers of a woman named Jemima Wilkinson. Wilkinson was a former Quaker from Rhode Island who had a brush with death during the Revolutionary War.
She contracted the plague, was presumed dead and was set to be buried by her family. Wilkinson surprised mourners by sitting up in her coffin during the wake. Her miraculous recovery she attributed to an entity called the “Publick Universal Friend.” She took this second chance at life to start a new religion — one which preached simple living in a shared commune. She preached equality between men, women and people of other races.
Mainstream Quakers found her message too unorthodox — perhaps even no longer Christian, because of her claims to be inhabited by the spirit of the genderless “Universal Friend” — and they shunned her.
Wilkinson’s Society of Universal Friends moved out of Rhode Island, gathering followers in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts before venturing into New York. Penn Yan and Jerusalem, both in Yates County up in the Finger Lakes, are other settlements made by the group.
Pang Yang and Penn Yan are both shortenings of the phrase “Pennsylvania Yankee.”
The religious settlement in Highland, our local Pang Yang, started in about 1800. They rented the land from Henry Elting and Thomas Rogers. Outsiders seem to have been suspicious of them, deriding them as witches or Satanists.
Sometimes, the term “Pang Yanger” seems to have been misapplied to people living in the Chodikee Lake area during the 1800s who weren’t related to the religious group.
A New Paltz Times article from 1860 talks about the Pang Yang settlement lobbying Ulster County to succeed from the Union, because they felt upset by local wins for the “Black Republican Party.” That slur “Black Republican” was usually leveled at the GOP from people who did not want to fight a Civil War on behalf of slaves.
Pang Yanger also seems to have been used as a term for hillbillies living off the land in the area. Articles in the New Paltz Independent and New York Times capture a time when the Chodikee Lake region became home to wild men and women.
“In the summer, they pick berries on the mountains and sell the fruit to speculators. In winter they live by begging in the neighboring towns and villages. The language spoken is a dialect of Holland Dutch mixed with the Indian Tongue as spoken by the Mohican or Delaware before the Revolutionary War,” an 1888 New Paltz Independent article reads.
Newsmen of the day seem shocked by these simple folk living off the land — partly because of their mixed ancestry of black, white and Native American, which did not conform to racial attitudes of the past.
On May 31, 1897, the New York Times wrote about the same group of people, only calling them the “Binnewaters.” These people tended to live around lakes throughout Ulster County from here to Kingston.
“About the shores of these lakes lives a peculiar people, utterly different from the other white stock of Ulster County — so different, in fact, that their origin has been lost in obscurity,” the New York Times article reads. “The majority have names which lead to the idea that they are of Holland stock originally.”
Both papers paint the Binnewaters or Pang Yangers as savages, criminals, degenerates and outcasts living in shanties and hovels. Readers sensitive to matters of race should be aware that the next paragraph uses some rough, insensitive language.
“Whole families, running through several generations, have not only the taint of African blood in them, but Mohican Indian was well, and this mixture of races has been so worked, over and over again, that whole groups of families have become as swarthy as the darkest Italians,” the article states.
For the members of this group, when they did run afoul of the law, Chodikee Lake seems to have been a refuge.
“In Ulster County, when a Binnewater wanted for the commission of any crime has fled, the first place in which the officers look for him is at Pang Yang in the Paltz Mountains,” the New York Times wrote.
Boys’ school era
By about 1901, the traces of the Universal Friends seem to have died out. The area near the lake became known more and more as Hawley’s Corners or just Chodikee.
On the west of the lake, the Stuts family started a summer camp. The eastern shore of the lake became home to a hotel and school run by Raymond Riordon. Called the Riordon School, the all-boys academy made a name for itself for its fiercely competitive basketball, football and baseball teams.
In 1915, tragedy struck at the hotel next to the Riordon School. On New Year’s Eve in 1915, a fire started at the hotel in the servant’s quarters after a stove exploded. Guests stood shivering in the snow and Riordon lost $150,000. Inflated to 2013 dollars, that’s roughly $3.5 million in damages.
But the school stayed strong. As one of the “prominent Mid-Hudson preparatory institutions,” the boys’ school drew students from surprising lengths. Students from Michigan, Illinois, Texas, Montreal and Ohio attended classes there.
During this period, Chodikee Lake became known statewide as a scenic getaway — especially for people in New York City.
In 1940, low enrollment finally caught up with the Riordon School — as did the beginning of World War II. It closed its doors for the last time that year. Raymond and his brother J. Allen Riordon had positioned the academy as an alternative to public schools in the area.
Federal agents got a lucky break in January 1941, when they discovered an illegal alcohol bootlegging operation at a farm on Chodikee Lake Road. Prohibition was already over at this time, but the operation was not paying alcohol taxes.
The raid shut down a 1,000-gallon still and the feds hauled away 700 gallons of booze — along with other ingredients like mash and grains.
The operation was a larger part of a huge bootlegging operation — which used farms in rural New York to make alcohol — that supplied the Atlantic Seaboard and Canada with illicit booze. Vito “Brewster Bill” Giallo, the leader of the operation, was eventually sentenced in 1943, according to an Associated Press story from February of that year.
In nine years, Giallo’s operation defrauded the government of $3.5 million in taxes — about $55.6 million in today’s dollars — and distributed illegal booze as far as Texas and Arizona.
A number of higher-ups got huge fines and jail time, but some Ulster County locals lower on the totem pole were found culpable as well. Frank Orlando of Highland, and Herbert Litts of Highland, Frank Verdirame of Esopus and Ciro Sinagra of New Paltz, were all fined in connection to the scheme.
Litts owned the farm the bootleggers used in Highland.
During the mid-1970s, the idea that a nuclear power plant would be built somewhere on Black Creek troubled a lot of people in Highland. It caused significant community outrage into 1976. The potential plant didn’t stop being an issue until state legislators in Albany used their power to protect Black Creek.
Eventually, the Department of Environmental declared it a protected trout stream, which shut down the project at that location.
One of Lloyd’s most well-remembered characters, Levi Calhoun, made his stomping grounds out by Chodikee Lake. Remembered for his eccentric ways, Calhoun lived off the land and knew herbal medicine and edible plants. He trapped raccoons, rabbits, foxes and muskrats. He hunted for eels in the Black Creek. He lived in a house sided with flattened one-gallon tomato cans.
Most people of a certain age in Highland have stories about their encounters with Calhoun. He’d pop out of the forest to offer jewel weed as a remedy to someone with poison ivy. He’d be seen pulling a heavy cart and pretending to be a horse. They remember his kindness, his piercing blue eyes and his virtually toothless smile.
Born on Jan. 20, 1890 (or 1889), Calhoun had 17 other siblings. He fought in World War I, but left the service after an honorable discharge. He helped build the old grape juice factory and the town’s first reservoir on top of Illinois Mountain.
Calhoun died in 1976 after being hit by a car while riding his bike on Kisor Road. But he left such an impression with locals that the Lloyd Historical Society has held exhibits in his honor and they even raised money in 2006 to get him a proper headstone.
Before he died, he’d carved his own simple stone that read only “Levi.”
The modern day
Today Chodikee Lake is still a haven for kayakers and fishermen. Driving to Camp Stuts Road to find the DEC boat launch is like a trip through the jungle. Thick trees are wrapped roots-to-branches in ivy. The shoreline is forest of cattails populated by dragonflies and buzzing insects.
Chodikee again harbors another religious community. The orthodox Jews have used the old site of Camp Stuts. It is now known as Camp Karlin Stolin.
The old Riordon School eventually became a juvenile detention center. In 1981, the Division for Youth facility opened up to help rehabilitate juveniles convicted of serious crimes. When first announced, residents of the Chodikee Lake area didn’t much like the idea of young offenders so close to their home.
Escapes have occurred, but neighbors are quickly notified.
No longer the DFY, the juvenile prison is now called the Highland Residential Center. The population skews toward people coming from New York City.
In 2009, the management of the Highland Residential Center came under fire. “A state task force concluded last year that the entire system — currently holding more than 800 youths — was fundamentally broken,” the New York Times wrote in 2010.
Legal Aid Society sued the state, claiming that guards denied kids medical treatment and subjected them to violent restraint. The U.S. Department of Justice also threatened to take over the state juvenile centers back then.
The state’s treatment of juvenile offenders is still a topic of criticism to this day.