Long before income inequality entered the political discourse, feudallike property rents on the huge tracts of land owned by the old Dutch “patroon” families were the cause of a great Catskills political uprising known as the “Anti-Rent” and “Down Rent” wars in the 1830s and 1840s.
According to members of the cultural consortium Mainly Greene, which is spearheading a celebration of this chapter of local history, the ruckus began in Helderbergs in 1839, when residents got “tired of paying rent on land they would never own and donned frighteningly decorated burlap masks, dressed themselves in colorful costumes made from their wives’ calico dresses, took up their dinner horns as if they were clarions” to rise up against “the landlords who oppressed them. Disguised as Indians, they formed tribes, appointed chiefs and held secret meetings. The class “war” of poor-versus-rich lasted until 1845 when, in the Catskills’ town of Andes, someone shot the sheriff and there was hell to pay.”
The conflict eventually led to big changes in Albany and the formation of a new political party in the Midwest that elected Abraham Lincoln as its candidate for president.
The Zadock Pratt Museum in Prattsville is currently hosting “American Masquerade: Revolution in the Catskills,” an exhibition with rarely seen artifacts and a sense of how the Anti-Rent wars relate to today’s post-Occupy world. On view are also several lpaintings of the events by the late Thomas Locker and examples of a Calico Indian costume and mask. The museum was the site of a heroes’ welcome, brass-band-serenaded party for the arrested anti-renters back in Pratt’s day. For a contemporary take on that history, head down the street to the show at the Prattsville Arts Center.
A related series of flash-mob events, called the Calico Indian Showdown, will occur throughout the summer, starting with the Village of Catskill’s July 4 celebration down at Dutchman’s Landing at 8 p.m. on Independence Day, just before the fireworks. Choreographed by former professional dancer Todd Whitley (who runs the annual Hudson Valley Dance Festival each October), the flash-mob event will involve as many who want to participate as possible – in costume! Dance steps are available online.
Calico Indian Showdown will also be performed at 2 p.m. on Saturday, August 15 at the Mountaintop Historical Society’s Local History Day in Haines Falls, as well as on Saturday, August 29 as part of the annual Prattsville Mudfest.
“American Masquerade” exhibits & dance events throughout Greene County: History show, Fridays-Sundays, 1-5 p.m., $5, Zadock Pratt Museum, Route 23, Prattsville, (518) 299-3258; art show, weekends, Prattsville Arts Center, 14562 Main Street, Prattsville, see Facebook; Calico Indian Showdown premiere, July 4, 8 p.m., Dutchman’s Landing, Hudson River, Catskill; www.greenearts.org/american-masquerade.