Old-timer Sam Boyce was walking down West Saugerties Rd. (now West Saugerties–Woodstock Rd.) on a late spring day some 20-plus years ago. Passing a house about a mile past his driveway that until recently had been unoccupied, he stopped to talk with the new neighbor. “Now, are you folks weekenders,” he inquired, “or are you… real people?”
This assumption of the importance of rootedness runs deep in the hamlet, and indeed is part of the culture of the town of Saugerties itself. (Some people interviewed for this article and others about West Saugerties history and education/religion spoke of being considered “foreigners” although their families had lived in Saugerties for decades.)
But much of the culture of West Saugerties was created and shaped by those who passed through, or indeed, who never went there at all. Think of all the references to Rip Van Winkle — from the bridge across the Hudson River north of town to the campground in Centerville — based on the famous 1819 tale by Washington Irving, who “had never set foot on any part of the Catskills when he wrote Rip’s story,” according to Alf Evers in his comprehensive “The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock.” (Nonetheless, the Greene County community of Palenville, once considered part of West Saugerties, erected a sign years ago announcing the hamlet as “The Home of Rip Van Winkle,” Evers recalls.)
Another enshrined West Saugerties institution, Pine Orchard, above Palenville, became Catskill Mountain House, a famed 19th-century destination for the fashionable. James Fenimore Cooper described it (as well as Kaaterskill Falls) in “The Pioneers” (1823). The 1824 “Gazetteer of the State of New York” described “an awful precipice” at the place, “from which the view is as awe-inspiring as it is extensive.”
Artists took note. “Soon, the Hudson became comparable to the great rivers of Europe due to the sublime scenery visible from the Catskill Mountain House” (www.hudsonvalleyruins.org). The area was “an artists’ hangout in the 1840s and ’50s,” according to Saugerties historian Vernon Benjamin, for the magnificent likes of Thomas Cole and Frederic Church of the aptly named Hudson River School of painting. According to notebooks belonging to the artist, Benjamin says, Thomas Cole came through West Saugerties on his way to vistas that led to paintings such as Catskill Creek (1845).
“The viewsheds were appreciated,” Benjamin says. “West Saugerties had its own art colony, like Byrdcliffe, at the bottom of the [Platte] Clove. It was the kick-off point to go paint and recreate.”
The natural beauty of the place had other charms as well; as Evers put it, “The painters who were attracted to the Catskills by Thomas Cole’s success took to traveling the mountains with a paintbrush in one hand and a trout rod in the other.”
In the years preceding the Civil War, Saugerties was visited (as were other parts of Ulster and Greene counties) by the man known as the Saugerties Bard. Henry S. Backus, who gave himself the moniker, was “eccentric” and “impulsive,” with “a faculty for impromptu rhyming, a sweet, sympathetic voice, and skill sufficient to draw the sweetest sounds from violin or flute,” according to Benjamin Myer Brink in his 1902 “Early History of Saugerties.” Backus would improvise songs based on popular tunes of the day, and had the words to the most well-liked ditties printed. In the 1840s and ’50s, he would travel “along country roads or village streets, accompanied by his troop of dogs, singing, playing and selling his ballads.” When noteworthy events occurred, he “often retired into the room in the rear of the store of his friend John Swart, in the village of Saugerties, and reduced the account to rhyme,” then sold these “penny ballads” on his minstrel tours.
Music continued to mark the artistic and cultural life of the vicinity. Ernest Williams, cornet and trumpet player extraordinaire — as well as conductor, composer, and teacher — in 1929 founded the famous Band Camp (more officially, the Ithaca Military Band School or Williams Music Camp) off West Saugerties Rd. Williams located the site for the school by walking the property with a “cherry divining stick” until he found a water source, according to former student Craig McHenry. The camp included “an auditorium with good-sized stage, kitchen and dining areas, lounge, and second-floor dormitory,” according to McHenry. Williams personally supervised construction of the buildings.
Williams started his career as a 16-year-old in a regimental band during the Spanish-American War, then became cornet soloist in John Philip Sousa’s ensemble. Proving his versatility, he also played first trumpet in the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski for six seasons.
As a teacher, Williams was renowned. His students came from around the world and some became well-known horn players. After World War II, approximately 25 faculty taught at the summer camp, which was limited to 200 students. The novice musicians tell of half-hour lessons that lasted more than twice as long, and of waiting their turn for sessions scheduled for afternoon that didn’t take place until late at night.
Sadly, the compound’s buildings burned to the ground in 1948, the year after Williams died. The camp never reopened, but the road it was located on is still known as Band Camp Rd.
Shokan resident Ron Westervelt, 73, studied trumpet from fifth grade through high school in New Jersey with Vernon R. Miller, a former Band Camp student. Westervelt recalls the “focus on trumpet technique” that Miller had learned from Williams, and the use of Williams’s “Modern Method for Trumpet and Cornet,” an instruction manual that is still highly regarded. “Williams was a true trumpet virtuoso and my exposure to his teaching through his student was Williams’s legacy, passed along,” Westervelt recalls.