Shandaken Historical Museum celebrates 25 years

Shandaken Museum by Dion Ogust

Shandaken Museum by Dion Ogust

A dog-powered treadmill for running butter churns and corn shellers. A plaster cast of the Rosetta Stone. A 1918 issue of the Pine Hill Optic, one of two newspapers published in the village around the turn of the century. These artifacts are among the many curiosities on view at the Shandaken Historical Museum, which held a celebration for its 25th anniversary on August 16 at its location in a former school building in Pine Hill.

Museum board president Bob Kalb was on hand, showing off newly acquired and rediscovered artifacts, including a stove from the Smithville School, once located next to the building that is now the Peekamoose Restaurant. The Rosetta Stone cast was found in the archives when Rusty Mae Moore was researching the namesake of Pine Hill’s Morton Library for an event at the hamlet’s Steampunk Festival.

It turns out that Henry Jackson Morton, Ph.D., the first president of Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, was a student at the University of Pennsylvania in 1856, when the university was presented with a copy of the Rosetta Stone. Morton and fellow students made the first complete English translation of the parallel Greek, Demotic, and hieroglyphic texts. He hand-engraved the translation and his own illustrations on stone to print lithographic copies, one of which is housed in the Shandaken Museum. In later life, Morton, a New York City resident, owned a summer cottage on Birch Creek Road and endowed several local projects, including the library.


At Saturday’s celebration, town historian Nancy Smith was out back, serving anniversary cake to a stream of cheerful visitors. She founded the museum after interviewing old-timers in order to write a history of Pine Hill for the nation’s bicentennial in 1976. The people she interviewed offered her their artifacts, “and it just mushroomed,” she said. “They filled up my sewing room.” The following decade, when the village of Pine Hill unincorporated due to lack of funds, a 1920s schoolhouse, owned by the village, was designated to house Smith’s collection. Pine Hill became part of the Town of Shandaken, which took over responsibility for the museum.

Shandaken stepchild

In recent years, town budget cuts have included a 25 percent reduction in funding for the museum, which now gets by on $6800 a year. “We’re the town’s stepchild,” said Kalb, who often agitates in favor of the museum at town council meetings. “The Morton Library gets $30,000 a year, and the Phoenicia Library gets $90,000. The artifact room’s in bad shape, and things in there need protection. What’s in his building can’t be replaced.”

A recent windfall came from Big Indian resident John Mickelotti, member of metal detecting club that applied to search the grounds around the museum. Coins from the 1920s were found, along with bullets, shotgun cases, and a lead toy soldier believed to be from the Spanish-American War. Club members paid to participate, and donated $1000 to the museum.

Museum director Kathleen Myers, who receives a small salary to keep the building open to the public on weekends, said one of the most popular features is the collection of class photographs. Ranging from 1895 to the 1950s, pictures show children gathered with their teachers, usually in front of one of the many elementary school buildings established in the far-flung township before there were school buses. Most of the photos are labeled with the names of the students.

“People come in to find themselves in the school pictures,” said Myers. “It makes them so happy. Mike Ennist, a local police officer, found his father in a 1949 picture. When the Grants had a family reunion, they stopped by to find themselves and their relatives.”

Hamlets of Shandaken

Museum board members June LaMarca and Evie Bennett, who helped Smith open the museum in 1989, are among the volunteers who perform much of the work of maintaining the exhibits. “We try to get schools to bring their students here on field trips instead of taking them to Manhattan,” said LaMarca, who ran Aley’s General Store, now the Big Indian Market, for 20 years with her husband, Pat. But are kids interested in the past? She thinks they will be, “if you show them — ‘Hey, where do you live? Big Indian? Come look at this.’”

The upstairs room features exhibits of photographs and paraphernalia relating to each of the twelve Shandaken hamlets, including the once thriving Allaben, Smithville, and Bushnellsville. There are views of the Chichester furniture factory and company houses, many of which still stand. Relics from old boarding houses and hotels include pictures, handbills, and menus. Photos of world-renowned soprano Amelita Galli-Curci and her Highmount estate in the 1930s remind us that the Phoenicia opera singers of today are following a local operatic tradition.

The museum files contain genealogical information, census data, election lists, records of births, marriages, and deaths, plus material on subjects such as floods, wars, and local personalities. Anyone can make an appointment to search through the files.

“There’s a past here,” said Kalb. “Without the museum, the past is lost. People have to know about these things.” ++