As the founder of the annual International Pickle Festival, which has been running continuously since 1998, Bill Brooks has already assured his own personal place in Rosendale’s history. But now, as the officially designated town historian, he has a new mission: to communicate to his fellow townspeople “the importance of the saving of history…I just want to save as much as I can.”
Brooks was named to the post after the demise in January 2013 of Ann LeFevre Gilchrist, who had been town historian for over 25 years. But Gilchrist didn’t leave her successor much beyond the honorific title. “She wasn’t much of a collector,” Brooks explains. “She wrote books,” one of them a well-regarded history of the Rosendale cement industry titled Footsteps across Cement. Gilchrist’s personal papers and research materials were not willed to the town or any local historical society, so Brooks, although he says that he “worked with the previous town historian quite a bit,” is more or less starting from scratch.
“When you’re starting from zero, you know what you’ve got,” he says as he shows the New Paltz Times some of his Rosendale artifacts and memorabilia in the room set aside since last autumn for his work at the Rondout Municipal Center in Cottekill. “No town historian has ever had an office before in Rosendale…. Ninety percent of the stuff in here was mine, and I donated it.” Part of his collection — more than 30 pieces — currently resides at the Century House Historical Society on the Snyder Estate.
But now Brooks is putting out a call to his fellow Rosendalers to step forward with donations of local antiques and collectibles that might be of some historical interest, rather than put them out on a table at a yard sale. “A lot of people might not even realize that they have history in their home,” he says. Even old family photos may have historical value, he points out, if they show something in the background that illustrates how times have changed. For example, wooded hillsides around the town might show up as denuded of trees in a photograph from around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, when stands of easily accessible timber were being clear-cut.
Brooks also emphasizes that artifacts need not always be old enough to qualify as antiques in order to be of interest to the town’s collection. “History is yesterday,” he says. “I’ve been collecting a lot of recent history. Thirty years from now, people will be saying, ‘Look, there’s the election of 2013!’”
Objects and documents from cement-mining days are of course of great interest. Brooks still has 500 or 600 old cement sacks that he obtained some 40 years ago from what was then the New York Underground Facilities, for example. “They said, ‘Take all you want, we’re burning them,” he recalls. Perhaps the most unusual bag in his collection, showing the worldwide interest in Rosendale cement in its heyday, has an imprint showing that the cement that it was intended to contain would be headed for a dam construction project at Apapa, Nigeria.
But collecting, identifying, storing, conserving and studying historical artifacts cost money, and the budget line for the Rosendale town historian’s work only amounts to $400 per year. “It costs $450 just to frame three cement bags” for mounting in the hallways of the Municipal Center, he laments. The office space, a former classroom with kitchen area, does not yet have air conditioning; “You could see when summer came, some of the books started to curl a little bit.”
His department doesn’t even own a scanner for making electronic copies of important documents, so donors of other things besides historical artifacts are needed as well. “There’s a lot to do,” Brooks says. At the town historian’s office, where he is working three days per week, he proudly displays some of his more recent acquisitions, like a massive, “heavy as blazes” 100-year-old mail sorting desk from one of Rosendale’s post offices, or the jigsaw-cut wooden road sign of the Sunrise Hillcrest Lodge that once stood on Mountain Road.
Besides accepting donations, Brooks haunts local auctions and yard sales. At the pre-demolition auction at the Williams Lake Hotel, he bought some period furniture and also “a giant pedestal fan” in hopes of cooling down the office space somewhat. “I turned it on and was afraid it was going to take off, like an airboat!” he says.
One of Brooks’s longtime local history dreams has been to commission local artist Maria Reidelbach — who created the giant garden gnome, Gnome Chomsky, for Kelder Farms in Kerhonkson — to sculpt a 15-foot-high statue of a cement miner to be set at one of the entrances to “downtown” Rosendale. The site that Brooks has proposed, at the foot of Mount Rutsen, has proven somewhat controversial with town planners due to poorly documented property lines; but “in a spare moment, I might resurrect that again and reintroduce it to the town. It would be an attraction, and I don’t think it would be a problem to raise money for it.”
So if you’ve got some interesting old Rosendale memorabilia in your barn or attic, Bill Brooks would really like to hear from you. To donate objects, allow documents or photos to be copied or make yourself available as a volunteer, leave a message for him with Rosendale Town Clerk Mandy Constable at (845) 658-3159.