Gardiner town historian Carleton Mabee dies one week short of his 100th birthday

Carleton Mabee in front of his Gardiner home. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Carleton Mabee in front of his Gardiner home. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Gardiner is in mourning this week, when it had intended to be celebrating the 100th birthday of one of its most illustrious residents. And this correspondent must sadly rework a profile of that resident that had been meant to mark a happy occasion, but now must pay tribute to his legacy instead. Eminent historian Carleton Mabee would have turned centenarian on Christmas Day, but died one week too soon, on the morning of December 18, from injuries sustained in a fall two days earlier. His two children, Susan and Tim, were with him at his passing.

One might think that, by the time he or she reaches the age of 100, a person is entitled to sit back on his or laurels and relax — especially if those laurels include a Pulitzer Prize in history earned 70 years ago. But right up until his accident, Mabee seemed far from done yet with his busy career. He was working on two books, had recently completed another and was about to be reappointed as Gardiner’s town historian. Had he made it through 2015, he would have lived in the town for half his long life, having moved to Gardiner with his late wife Norma in 1965 to take up a post in the history department at SUNY New Paltz.

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“I keep mobile by exercising at home and at the gym. I read newspapers daily and weekly. I write regularly at my computer,” Mabee wrote in a very recent e-mail to the New Paltz Times. The multi-award-winning historian remained mentally sharp and energetic right up to the end and was a weekly visitor to Town Hall, said town supervisor Carl Zatz, collecting the week’s newspapers to pore over and add to his vast store of information.

“He’s insatiable when it comes to knowledge,” said Zatz prior to Mabee’s passing. “Carleton was just born to write, research and archive, which is an extraordinary talent. His 100 years have been filled with adventure and scholarship. And I’ve just invited him to continue as town historian for 2015,” a post that Mabee had held since 1990.

In fact, one of the writing projects that Mabee was working on was a history of Gardiner. And his new book slated to be published by Black Dome Press this spring is an account of past battles over open space preservation in the region. It focuses on the Marriott Corporation’s plan to build a huge hotel and condos atop the Shawangunk Ridge at Lake Minnewaska in the 1970s, as well as John Bradley’s more recent attempt to carve a luxury housing development out of a large parcel of land near Palmaghatt Falls called the Awosting Reserve. “Carleton was very involved with conservation and zoning in the ‘70s and ‘80s, before it was in vogue,” Zatz recalled.

The other book that Mabee had been working on for a long time was an autobiography, and he had plenty of material to cover, having witnessed ten eventful decades of history personally and traveled widely. In fact, he was born in Shanghai in 1914 and spent his first nine years living in China, the offspring of missionaries. He got his baccalaureate at Bates College in Maine, where his parents taught, and later earned his Ph.D. in history at Columbia University. He went on to teach, research and write at several different universities around the country, winning his Pulitzer in 1944 at the age of 30 for The American Leonardo: A Life of Samuel F. B. Morse before finally settling down to work at SUNY New Paltz and live in a 1790s Gardiner farmhouse that once belonged to the Deyo family.

He was already writing about the 19th-century Abolition movement in 1970 with Black Freedom; but it was a 1995 biography of another famous mid-Hudson resident that truly cemented Mabee’s reputation as a proponent of the late-20th-century trend among historians to chronicle the lives of people of color, social revolutionaries, the poor and disenfranchised, rather than just kings, presidents and tycoons. His Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend (NYU Press) is still considered the definitive biography of our region’s great anti-slavery champion. By an odd coincidence, his daughter Susan Mabee Newhouse, whom he credited as coauthor of the Sojourner Truth volume, was born in Battle Creek, Michigan, where Truth spent the last years of her life and is buried.

“Don’t be afraid to write about ordinary people,” Mabee responded when asked what advice he would offer to a young person just entering the history field today. “Everybody has a life and we all can learn from it.” Asked whose work he particularly admired among his colleagues in the field today, he cited another retired SUNY New Paltz professor, Bill Rhoads, “for his writing on the architecture of this region.”

Much of Mabee’s own work in recent decades focused on local history of the mid-Hudson, with railroads an area of special interest. He wrote one book about the Wallkill Valley Railroad, another about the mighty railroad bridge that has recently been transformed into the Walkway Over the Hudson and a history of the Ulster County communes established by controversial celebrity preacher Father Divine. No subject, it seemed, was too big or too small to come under the microscope of his “insatiable” curiosity.

In a century of living and observing our world, Mabee said, he had learned “not to be surprised by anything,” but added that he wished he had realized earlier in life “how reluctant people are to change.” Nevertheless, he concluded that today, “The world is a better place, because we know more about ourselves and the universe.” In addition to getting his current writing projects completed, this man who was born before American women had the right to vote hoped to live long enough to witness the election of a woman as president of the US. Alas, that he did not get his wishes!

Having so accomplished a local resident turn 100 was deemed a big deal indeed by his adopted hometown, and Gardiner was planning to mark the milestone by holding a belated birthday reception for Mabee in the Gardiner Library on Saturday, December 27. Colleagues from the SUNY New Paltz history department and Mabee’s local publishers had been invited to speak. Instead, a funeral service was held on Saturday, December 20 at the New Paltz United Methodist Church, where he was a longtime member.

There was also a campaign being organized by Vivian Wadlin to have Mabee receive at least 100 birthday cards, “each a testament to his influence in keeping history not just alive, but incredibly interesting,” to mark the centennial of his birth. Perhaps enough of them arrived early to put a few smiles on this local treasure’s face before we lost him.

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