High Woods is an unincorporated hamlet in the town of Saugerties, which means it has no real basis for existing, except that it does, and proudly. Unlike its neighboring Mount Marion, it has no school, no post office, no housing development. It does have Opus 40, the Wrolsen family, the memory of the legendary Wilgus’s General Store (and in those days, a sign put up by Henry Wilgus on a ship’s life preserver, proclaiming “High Woods: High and Healthy”). And always, at the center of High Woods, and serving as the beacon for its community, the High Woods Reformed Church.
Rudderless for a couple of years, when its last pastor left, the church is once again a going concern with new pastor Steve Hanson, who came up from Toms River, New Jersey, last November to take over the stewardship of the classic frame building on Church Road and a congregation more than glad to welcome him.
Hanson, white-haired, ruddy-cheeked, warm and good-natured, turns out to be no stranger to Saugerties. For 25 years, he pursued a first career as a banker in Ulster County, but says he grew more and more disenchanted with the “ethical challenges” that were starting to overtake the banking business – “and that was even before it got to be the way it is now,” he says.
For many of us, our concept of the banking business comes largely from “It’s a Wonderful Life”(“I watch it every year,” Hanson says), and it has to be hard to be a George Bailey in institutions run by the likes of Mr. Potter.
So he left banking, studied at the New Brunswick Seminary for three years while his wife, Elizabeth, supported the family, then remained in New Jersey for 15 years as pastor to a congregation in a senior citizens’ center before returning to Saugerties. His parents live locally, and his wife’s mother is in New Jersey, so they divide their time between the two locations.
High Woods, then known as the Upper Neighborhood (upper to Mount Marion, which has had a Reformed Church since the early 19th century) first assembled a congregation in the one-room schoolhouse across from the present church in 1850. The cornerstone for a real church building was laid in 1868.
The church had over 100 years of life until shifting demographics and a different era forced it to close its doors in 1971. But there were those in High Woods who still cared. Jean Wrolsen, in a history of the church, wrote that “the mission of keeping some flame alive was accomplished through the dedicated efforts of the only remaining segment of the church — the Ladies Aide Society. Although services had been suspended, the Ladies Aide continued to meet once a week in the schoolhouse… by selling their [quilting and weaving] handiwork, they remained sufficiently solvent to keep the church, the church hall, and the schoolhouse from deterioration… then, as now, their sense of the appropriate was seemly, and their experience in the ways of faith, long and practical.”
The church reopened in 1974, and in 1976, the Reverend Arthur Oudemool, who had first preached to the High Woods faithful as a young seminarian in 1933, returned to take over the ministry in 1976.
Arthur Oudemool, with a mane of wavy white hair, piercing eyes, and the rich voice of an old-fashioned orator, made an indelible impression on anyone who met him. He officiated at countless weddings, including many at Opus 40, where his ceremonies were as noteworthy for their digressions as for the official content: “They say marriage is the tie that binds, but I believe marriage should be a liberating experience. Liberating… that’s the same root as liberal, and what’s wrong with that? I’m a liberal. And I think what our government is doing in Nicaragua…”
Pat and I were married by Dr. Oudemool, and it is, of course, one of my treasured memories. But many treasured memories of the High Woods Church revolve around its Labor Day Fair, and — from the 1890s until heavier traffic patterns forced them to end in the 1960s — the annual Labor Day parade.
This was a gloriously disorganized event. In the morning, pretty nearly everyone in High Woods would turn out at the corner of Glasco Tpke. and High Woods Rd. in homemade costumes. Then they would march, strut and straggle down High Woods Rd., along Wrolsen Dr. to where it met Glasco Tpke. again at Dutchtown Rd. — where a new contingent from Wilgus’s General Store would join in — and from there to Church Rd., where the parade would end at the church grounds, and the fair would start, with food, games, a flea market, and — a tradition that continues to this day — weaving, quilting and needlework by the Ladies Aide Society in the little schoolhouse. In the 1950s, when Opus 40 sculptor Harvey Fite acquired a Model A fire engine from Bard College and painted it a gleaming red, with “High Woods #1” across the door, he became the unofficial grand marshal of the parade.
In 1979, the church began a new tradition: the Easter sunrise service at Opus 40. That continues to this day. In recent years, the service has been co-officiated by the pastors of the High Woods Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in Woodstock. This year, Pastor Hanson and Pastor Josh Bode of the Woodstock Church will be joined by Pastor Terry O’Brien of the Saugerties Reformed Church.
The service begins at 7 a.m., April 20, and all are welcome. Opus 40 is located at 50 Fite Rd.