Winter’s past

Traveling on Tinker Street, 1912.

Traveling on Tinker Street, 1912.

In March of 1888, Sarah MacDaniel Cashdollar was a young girl growing up on Overlook Mountain. She would live most of her life — as a wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother — attached to the mountain. On the evening of March 11, 1888 a young Sarah headed down the mountain she knew so well to attend a function at the Methodist Church, fully expecting to return to her family later in the evening. It would be a full week before that expectation could be realized. Upon exiting the church later that evening she found that eight inches of snow had already fallen and it “was coming down in sheets.” The Blizzard of ‘88 had come to Woodstock.

Following a week-long stay at a friend’s house on Tinker Street, Sarah would eventually make her way back up the mountain. Arriving by horse-drawn sleigh the first glimpse of her home shocked her. The only visible features were the upstairs windows and the roof. The snow, whipped by the blizzard’s winds, had drifted up against the face of the house, covering the entire first floor. Access to the house was achieved by way of a tunnel carved through the drifts to the front floor.

And yet, even in situations that might seem perilous to most adults, young people have a way of finding moments of opportunity. As Sarah later recalled in a conversation with her granddaughter, Jean White, “We went upstairs and took mother’s ironing board out. We put it out through the second floor window and slid down on it right on top of the drifted snow.”


The long winter

For many of us — and I will include myself here — there is something about the middle of February that makes one yearn for spring. Maybe it’s an age thing. Sure, it’s nice to see snow around the holidays and there is always a certain level of excitement that goes hand-in-hand with the arrival of that first big storm (or the disappointment when a media-hyped snowmageddon fails to materialize). Still, the pain the emanates from an L4-L5 disk following a stint behind a snow shovel, the cold that numbs you as you as you attempt to pump gas on a below zero morning, or the wonderful experience of navigating Route 28 following a storm can, eventually, begin to exact a toll on both mind and spirit. As a result, I find myself in full agreement with the novelist, Willa Cather, who once offered, “winter lies too long in country towns; hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen.”

Cather’s — and my own — bellyaching notwithstanding, Woodstockers such as Sarah Cashdollar, have, throughout the years, managed to take on whatever winter has handed them — whether it be out of necessity to insure mere survival or simply finding pleasure in the conditions and ice-tinted gifts nature delivered

For those who have gone before us, the arrival of winter meant preparation and hard work. Wood, and the cutting of wood, became vital as farmers harnessed horses or oxen to haul felled trees from deep within Woodstock’s forests. For those in need of purchasing wood, a cord of wood in the late 1800s would cost between $2 and $3 dollars. On the practical side, transportation had to also be considered as those with horse-drawn sleighs made their way to the blacksmith to have runners sharpened. With the advent of the automobile, and in an era long before four wheel drive or even snow tires, one had to learn how to put chains on tires should you wish to navigate Woodstock’s hills. In the days before refrigeration, winter was also the time when ice had to be cut from area ponds and lakes. Stored in local barns beneath a blanket of sawdust, the ice would last long enough to carry a family’s icebox through the warmer months while also insuring your drink of choice might still be served chilled come summer. Not knowing if or when you might be able to travel to village again during the winter also meant that supplies needed to be brought in and stored on the shelves that also contained the fruits and vegetables already patiently canned following a late summer harvest. In some instances, those who lived atop Overlook or Ohayo would secure their home for the winter and retreat to the relative comfort of a rented house in the village.

Once winter arrived, however, and preparations were made, Woodstockers often turned to other pursuits to see them through the long months that stretched ahead. As the days grew shorter, the irony for many farmers — and those who also made their living out-of-doors — was that the inactivity forced by the season seemed to add hours to the day. As a result, many would wander into town looking for conversation or news. Towards the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, they would find that need fulfilled at Rose’s General Merchandise store, once standing where the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum is today. In his wonderful book, The Vanishing Village, Will Rose, son of the store’s proprietor, described a typical winter’s scene inside his father’s store. “On the ground floor and along the middle from the front door, there is a big open space with a big, white-bellied stove in the middle. A long bench and a lot of chairs are around the stove and the men come in and sit there. They smoke and knock their pipes out in the spittoons, and, in winter they spit against the hot sides of the white-bellied stove, where it sizzles. This has been going on from before when I was born because the white belly of the stove is all stained and spotted with burned tobacco juice.”

If sitting and spitting tobacco juice wasn’t your way of passing time during the winter, lifting a jug of hard cider was yet another way to make it through the day. Charlie Herrick, long a favorite handyman to many of Woodstock’s early artists, as well as a favorite of historian Alf Evers, once related to the author his economically inspired remedy for making it through the winter, “A man can get through the winter cheap on hard cider,” Herrick told Evers. “He fills his jug down the cellar early in the morning and then he sets by the stove emptying it. When his wife has breakfast ready he’s feeling so good he don’t want any. After a while he gets in his wife’s way and she chases him out of the house. He goes to his neighbor’s with his jug and the two of them work at cider all day. When night comes a man goes home so full of cider he gets right into bed without needing any dinner. Yessir, a man can get through the winter cheap on hard cider.” While Herrick was recognized as one of Woodstock’s finer craftsman, he was not alone when it came to singing the praises of local apples and their transformation into winter inspiration. As Evers also recounted, “Twenty barrels a year was the amount many old-time Woodstock farmers stowed away in their cellars each fall.”


Ice Capades

Finding diversion during Woodstock’s long winters, of course, didn’t always require altering the state of one’s consciousness. If you were a member of the Vosburgh family, for example, and owned the turning mill in Shady, you found excitement in horse racing on Cooper Lake. (Yes, on the lake, not around it.) Before the city of Kingston began to lay claim to the lake and its water, Woodstockers would gather to watch — and participate — in a winter’s version of “a day at the races.” James Vosburgh, it seems, was recognized as the local champion when it came to claiming the fastest horse on the lake. According to Evers, Vosburghs “French-Canadian” horse could do a mile on the ice in “two minutes and fifty seconds.”

Assuming you could avoid the galloping equines, ice skating on Cooper Lake was also a major component of winter recreation in Woodstock. In fact, next to sledding, ice skating served to meet the requirements of fulfilling both one’s social and recreational needs during the long winter months. Wherever ice could be found, whether it be Cooper Lake, Yankeetown Pond, or even town streams when the weather was cold enough to freeze the deeper pools, Woodstockers were eager to take to the ice. As Byron “Bide” Snyder would recall in the early newspaper, Woodstock Weekly (which began publishing in 1924), “Our skates were nothing like the modern ones. They were made of wood with a steel runner. In the heel of each skate was a screw. You bored a hole in the heel of your boot (we only wore shoes on Sundays) with a gimlet and then turned the skate around several times until it was screwed up. Then it was fastened more or less securely with straps.” Recalling some of his favorite sites, Snyder offered, “There were two fine ponds. They are gone now. Just back of Herrick’s (the mansard-roof building later the Tannery Brook Motel) was Delameter’s pond and sawmill…The other pond began at a dam near Larry Elwyn’s (just above the Tannery Brook waterfall)…It reached up back of the Art Gallery (of the Woodstock Art Association.)”

In Remembering Woodstock, a book I put together a while back for The History Press, Tinker Twine noted other skating sites favored by Woodstockers in later years — including the town’s own flooded rink at Andy Lee Field “where a kerosene heated cabin offered respite and hot cocoa.” Twine also recalled “Peter’s Pond” on Glasco Turnpike (after Peter Whitehead, son of Byrdcliffe founder Ralph Whitehead) where a bonfire and more hot chocolate awaited future Peggy Flemmings. Remembered also was “Fairyland,” located on land between Woodstock Estates and John Pike’s property. There, where skaters wove between trees (both dead and alive), saplings, bushes and over roots you were, seemingly, engulfed in a mystical air where, as Twine noted, “tree trunks with green moss evoked a delicacy that rebuffed human interference.”


Not Quite Lake Placid, but…

Surprisingly, when it comes to awareness of how Woodostockers once embraced the possibilities of winter recreation, few people are aware that Woodstock once laid claim to a ski slope and a toboggan run. Spurred on by the Lake Placid Olympics in 1932, the Catskills saw the rising popularity of winter sports as a means to increase tourism. As a result, in 1934, the Civilian Conservation Corp. went to work in Woodland Valley carving out the first ski slope in the area, named after Phoenicia resident, Jay Simpson. At about the same time, Konrad Kramer and Arnold Wiltz were at work in Woodstock, along with a number of other Woodstockers, forming the Winter Sports Association and initiating creation of a toboggan run near where the riding rink is today and a ski operation a little further on. For a brief time, operations in Woodstock more than met expectations. In 1936, for example, as noted in the Kingston Freeman, more than 5,000 visitors flocked to Ohayo Mountain to witness the first-ever Ulster County Toboggan Championship held on the half-mile course and featuring four-man teams from Woodstock, Kingston, Shokan, Phoenicia, West Hurley, Saugerties, Mink Hollow and Rosendale. History would record that the inaugural winners of the event, captained by Donald L. Jackson, represented the Woodstock Sports Association. The Woodstock team bested the competition with an “average time for the three runs of 26:33 seconds — better than a mile a minute.”

Access to the Woodstock and Phoenicia winter sites was enhanced by the establishment of “ski trains” and “ski buses,” as ski enthusiasts from the city became familiar with the recreational facilities offered by the Catskills during the pre-war years. Trains would carry eager skiers from New York to Kingston and then on to West Hurley or Phoenicia. For those wishing to reach Woodstock, buses would meet the trains in West Hurley and transport those seeking out the Ohayo Mountain slope to the center of town. As a result, at least for a few years, Woodstock pushed back against the effects of the Depression and became a hub of winter activity. As the threat of war began to loom ever larger, however, and as successive winters of lackluster snowfall befell the area, the initial excitement generated by the facilities began to fade. The Olympics, it seemed, would not be coming to Woodstock.


There is one comment

  1. E Sherman

    Thank you. Very evocative. I first saw your valley right after a night’s snowfall onto a sunny warm February day. The snow on the trees in this white fairyland cave gave off a zillion rainbows. It was love at first sight and there was nothing to be done about it. I skated in Chichester and recall having to choose between two unplowed paths on the return, 212 or the other way…actually stopped in the car visualizing the way to think if there were any places that forbade making that choice into a decision. And loosing control on ice is not a fun experience. Were horses safer? Is there an upside to bringing them back?

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