The release of the gripping and provocative nonfiction book An Unforgiving Land, by local authors Bob Larsen and Robi Josephson (Black Dome Press), positions a hardscrabble, subsistence post-Civil War mountain community in stark contrast to today’s thousands of acres of breathtaking land under the protection of the Mohonk Preserve and Minnewaska State Park for modern-day conservation, recreation and one of the “Earth’s last great places.”
What has become a rich environmental and recreational resource for hikers, bikers, climbers and nature-lovers, in the belly of the Shawangunk Mountain Ridge, was at one time, for more than 150 years, the lifeblood, home and community of 50 families who foraged the unforgiving mountainside for food. Although they called themselves “farmers,” there was little to farm save their main harvest: huckleberries, which were unique and plentiful within the Shawangunks.
“There was a village store, similar to an old-time country store, in the Trapps Hamlet, where community members would come in, buy what they needed; the owner would write down their name, what they owed and that sum would be paid back once the huckleberry crop was harvested,” said Larsen, a veteran Mohonk Preserve ranger who became a cultural researcher of the rich and little-known life of the Trapps community families that settled in the Shawangunks on the western side of the ridge shortly after the Revolutionary War.
Walking through the remains of the now-vanished community along Clove and Trapps Roads, Larsen explained why they came. “They were the poor Dutch immigrants,” he said. “All of the good farming land on both sides of the Ridge was already taken. This was the only land they could afford, and it was poor, very poor farming land.”
So the Trapps family settlers became stonecutters, charcoal-burners, hoopmakers for barrels and of course, huckleberry-pickers. “They owned a cow or two, some goats and chickens to be able to produce milk, cheese and poultry; but other than that, they survived on what they could forage in this wilderness.”
He and Josephson pointed to the ever-popular Mohonk Preserve watering hole Split Rock and noted that the Trapps community utilized this perfectly formed wedge between two rock formations and a waterfall to build a sawmill. “It was a sawmill powered by the water that they dammed, but it only allowed for a down-cut, which resulted in one log a day,” said Josephson. “It was a labor of love and of need.” The timber that they harvested and cut was used to build their homes and barns, which never had any utilities, even into the 1950s when the last of the families remained.
They had no electricity, running water, plumbing or fertile soil. These were old-time, hard-laboring immigrants just trying to produce enough to survive off. They had their own store, a one-room schoolhouse and a chapel where they would rotate between a Methodist and a Reformed minister. While most families had their own personal burial ground in their backyards, there was also a common cemetery, just at the base of the High Peterskill Trail, which was established in 1845.
A perfect marriage was formed when the Smiley family began to buy up land and open their hotels at Minnewaska and at Mohonk. “This was the first time that the Trapps hamlet community had steady income to rely on,” said Larsen, “and the hotels needed their skills. They needed stonecutters for the Mohonk Tower; they needed carpenters and laborers to build the hotels and the auxiliary buildings; they needed staff for the laundry, maintenance and restaurants. The Trapps families were right here and had the skills necessary, and also would simply walk to work each day on the carriage roads.”
A foreshadowing of the journey on which Larsen and then Josephson would embark with their groundbreaking research and long-awaited book on this colorful cast of characters who inhabited the mountain for a century-and-a-half came when Larsen, then of New York City, was camping near Split Rock as he was part of the vagabond climbing community that was blazing new routes on the Trapps cliffs. “We were camping just down the road [by Split Rock, off Clove Valley Road] and sitting around the campfire when Irvin Van Leuven stopped by,” one of the last remaining inhabitants of the Trapps hamlet community. “It was fascinating to talk with him, learn about his life on the Ridge. He was an old-time person, someone a bit outside of time and we loved listening to his stories.”
Little did Larsen know at the time that, along with Josephson, he would unearth not one but dozens of stories and interviews of this remarkable community from those who lived there and their descendants, filled with so many intriguing tales, history and of course folklore that led to this book, and also a place on the State and National Historic Registers. In New York it is the only landmarked subsistence community on record — and what a fascinating record of life it is.
The book, which includes incredible photos from the families themselves, can be purchased at Inquiring Minds in downtown New Paltz, as well as Barner Books across the street, Rock and Snow, Handmade and More and Dedrick’s Pharmacy or online at www.blackdomepress.com, at Josephson’s website, www.robijosephson.com, and the Trapps Mountain Hamlet Facebook page.
The two said that they are indebted to the last surviving generation of Trapps Hamlet family members, who opened their homes and hearts to them, as well as their descendants. “They’ve become treasured friends of ours and this book could not have been written without their invaluable contributions,” said Johansen.
The book hit the stands this October to rave reviews. Larsen and Josephson, who are cultural resources in and of themselves, will be doing a book reading, signing and question-and-answer session at Inquiring Minds on Sunday, Dec. 8 at 4 p.m.