Olive Free Library exhibit recalls reservoir construction era

west-shokan-pc-HZTLike many other Town of Olive residents, Rejoice Scherry grew up hearing stories about the towns that were uprooted to make way for the Ashokan Reservoir, built to provide New York City residents with drinking water. Now equipped with degrees in museum studies and library science, Scherry has curated an exhibit in the basement of the Olive Free Library, breathing life into local artifacts of that traumatic era, from 1905 to 1914, when the reservoir was built.

At the library, the young archivist, who attended Onteora High School, points to a few bits of rusted metal in a display case, items retrieved from the mud of the reservoir during a drought. “Those are the tender and locomotive from a toy train,” says Scherry. “A child might have lost it while packing up and moving out to make way for the reservoir. That’s the piece in this room that really gets to me.”

The toy train had been tucked away in a corner, and she didn’t notice it when she first visited the basement room, which had become a repository for historical items local residents thought should be displayed, along with overflow from the archives of the Olive Historical Society. For decades, the artifacts have been jumbled together with no story lines or themes to give them coherence.


Earlier this year, Ulster County Clerk Nina Postupack put out a call to area librarians to find a way to make documents from the county archives more accessible to the public. Among the county’s files are the transcripts of court cases related to the reservoir. Katie Scott-Childress, director of the Olive library, felt her museum room would be the ideal venue, and her new library assistant, hired in September, turned out to have the archivist skills to organize an exhibit.

Scherry’s first task was to make an annotated inventory of every object in the room, which she did with the help of Onteora High School senior Dan Bily. Then she perused the library’s collection, the county materials, and archives at the town hall to select items that would illuminate the lives of local people, as well as the workers who came to build the reservoir.

A portrait of Jacob Bishop, the blind miller, hangs on one wall. The prosperity of his mill, says Scherry, was due to his ability to keep it active around the clock. He didn’t need light to do his work, so his employees would run the business during the day, and he would work at night. The mill and covered bridge at Bishop’s Falls were replaced by the reservoir dike.

Attorney Alphonse T. Clearwater represented many displaced families and businesses, helping them to demand fair remuneration for their property from the city, which often undervalued the land. One of the court transcripts on display details Clearwater’s efforts to establish the monetary loss entailed by a ginseng farmer. According to Scherry’s research, in the early 1900s, China purchased $1 million worth of ginseng a year from the Catskills.


Brown’s Station, Samsonville…

An extensive post card collection shows the pre-reservoir landscape and the towns that no longer exist — Brown’s Station, for instance, and the busy centers of such hamlets as West Shokan and Samsonville. Photos document residents of the towns — Winchells, Browns, Bishops — and the workers who came to build the infrastructure, including the aqueduct that still conveys water to New York City. In 1908, almost 2500 workers and their wives and children were housed in a camp of 152 four-room cottages, with its own bakery, hospital, barracks, and later a post office, school, and bank. By the end of the construction period in 1914, the population of workers and families had grown to 25,000.

“We focus a lot on the negative aspects, but there were also positives,” notes Scherry. “Some farmers were happy to move to new, fertile land and get a fresh start. And immigrants who came to work on the reservoir got to have a new life in America — a lot of them stayed in this area.”

Scherry’s next project is to try to assemble the library’s other artifacts into meaningful collections that will contribute to our understanding of the town’s history and genealogy. At the opening of the exhibit on December 6, Postupack and Congressman Chris Gibson were in attendance. During the event, several town residents approached Scherry with photographs and historical information. She hopes to meet with them and include their materials in the collection.

The Olive Free Library is located at 4033 Route 28A, in West Shokan. For hours and other library information, see https://olivefreelibrary.org.

There is one comment

  1. Catskillblue

    Interesting article. Ms. Sherry might be interested in a map I found in renovating an old building from the 1800’s. The map depicts those hamlets prior to the flooding of the valley. She can contact me at the email below:

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