It was a life-changing experience for me to work closely with Alf Evers for seven years, typing for him his history of Kingston, and helping with research. He was a beautiful prose stylist. In a few sentences Alf could go to the texture of a time, capture its feel and its currents. He was very adroit in his books at drawing forth the lives of regular folk from the darkness of old letters and documents and let them strut in life again in the lucent glow of his prose. He constantly asked questions of local people to learn their intimate tales of struggle and family history, and they trusted him to hold onto their family albums and scrapbooks.
I had taken part in several of Alf’s birthday celebrations, as he entered his 90s. I realized in 1996 that Alf could use some clerical help when I noticed his failing eyesight and increasing frailty. I began by typing an article he was writing on Hudson Valley painters, and then by typing some letters for him. He was having trouble writing his history of Kingston, using a word processor at his home. With such bad eyesight, he couldn’t locate the file, for instance, of the chapter he was currently writing on, and therefore would create a new file for the same chapter and try to retype the text. So I started typing his book on Kingston both from his dictation and by adding his hand written inserts, learning to decipher his very difficult handwriting, visiting him sometimes three or four days a week for the next six years. With his eyesight in such decline, I printed out the manuscript in 18 point bold type, double spaced, which he could read with a hand held magnifier while jotting changes and inserts in between the lines. That made his already lengthy history of Kingston expand to five three-ring binders of text. During those years, I printed out at least 25,000 pages of drafts of the manuscript, probably more than that.
I worked closely with Alf’s friend Fred Steuding. As Alf researched and created new drafts, he made thousands of notes listing sources which Fred dutifully alphabetized and placed in small wooden filing cabinets. Steuding also organized the Kingston book’s alphabetical files, and did a good amount of library research, locating many 19th century sources for Alf. Alf’s son Kit (Christopher) also found historic material for the Kingston project, as did Ulster County Historian Karlyn Knaust Elia.
During visits to his house on Hutchin Hill Road to work on his book, I discovered Alf’s remarkable paintings, many of which were stored in his attic, most of them painted from the 1920s to the 1950s. (Alf had studied at the Art Students League during the mid-1920s.) Since he was very low on money, I organized several successful exhibitions of his paintings and drawings and organized a benefit concert to raise money for his expenses. My wife Miriam cleaned the paintings, and Alf signed them on the back of each. Beginning in 1997 Alf had a live-in caregiver named Tom O’Brien who tended to his needs around the clock. O’Brien was a godsend, and no doubt extended Alf’s life a good number of years.
In 1989, publisher (and Woodstocker) Peter Mayer had suggested that Alf write a history of Kingston. During the early 1990s, Alf was able to pay for the around-the-clock care thanks to an inheritance from his older sister Elizabeth. Finally, however, the money ran out. Both Maurice Hinchey and Kevin Cahill took personal interest in trying to locate ways of helping Alf, but the Medicare system is very imperfect, and things looked terribly bleak. Tom O’Brien was utterly determined that Alf not be moved to a nursing home, an event which Alf dreaded more than dying, and which would have ended his writing.
A nurse who lives in Woodstock, Louanne Macco, helped Alf get enough assistance through Medicaid, with the additional help of Woodstocker Rose Dittus, in order to remain at home with Tom’s unceasing care. I won’t tarry too long bemoaning the utter injustice of an economic system where a hardworking senior with health problems has to turn over his house to the government for the right to live at home.
During his late 90s Alf completed his book against incredible odds — he had progressive diabetes and shot up insulin. He’d had a colostomy and colon cancer, suffered from congestive heart failure, was blind in one eye, and with very poor hearing, plus during his final years he could get around only with a walker. He took 14 pills a day for his various afflictions, yet kept up his energy and friendly outlook. He was much loved by Woodstockers of all ages and persuasions, who would visit him and savor his brilliant mind and total recall of the previous 70 years of our past. His door was never locked, and hundreds visited his house on Hutchin Hill Road in Shady, just up the road from the barn that once had housed the 1805 glass factory.
Around his desk, the world seemed to swirl. He and Tom would listen to the NPR weekend opera broadcasts and Alf kept abreast of world events. Television crews, reporters, students writing reports, people researching their ancestors, and many others came to Alf. He accommodated them all, even those writing to seek information on “ancestors who lived in Mink Hollow” as one letter stated.
In 2000, Alf placed his archives dealing with the Byrdcliffe Colony with the Woodstock Guild. Then in 2001, he decided to place his entire historical and writing archives, including his remarkable and priceless collection of books on local, county, regional and national history, with the Guild where they will be housed in a special library at White Pines.
Part of the Woodstock Intellectual Milieu, and Awakening to History
As I worked with Alf, I learned more and more about his remarkable life. He was born during a blizzard on February 2, 1905 near the Bronx Zoo, when the Bronx was a lot more rural than it is now. His mother, Ann Lukas Evers, was of Hungarian descent, and his father Ivar was Swedish. He had three sisters, Elizabeth, Barbara and Jeanne.
It was ironic that someone who would live a hundred years (if you count the months inside his mother) was born sick and suffered so many illnesses as a child. In fact, Alf told me several times, “I was born with malaria.” He also said, “I had one ailment after another for years — every childhood ailment known.”
His father was a painter and architect and possessed some of the restless creativity of his son. He designed greenhouses for the White House in D.C., Alf once told me, and designed the curving glass and metal palm house at the Bronx Botanical Garden. Alf recalled that his dad liked to paint in the park near the Bronx Zoo. The family lived in a number of what had once been large old country houses, with their formal gardens faded with age, along the lower Hudson River. “I had one big old house,” he said, “with a tower from which we could look down the river and you got to know all the boats.”
Coming up the River
There was an economic downturn in architectural work, at least for Ivar and Ann Evers, just before World War I, and so the family moved to a farm in Tillson. Alf later recalled “the day in August 1914 when I walked down the gangplank of the Hudson River nightboat, Benjamin B. O’Dell and from there was driven in a horse-drawn surrey to the small Ulster County farm near Kingston on which my parents hoped to bring up their children close to nature.” It was his first view of the Rondout, which he would study so closely 80 years later.
Six years after moving to the farm in Tillson, the family moved to New Paltz so that Alf and his older sister Elizabeth could attend high school. “We considered Kingston,” Alf said, “but chose the New Paltz school as somewhat closer, so my parents gave up the farming venture and bought an old stone house on Huguenot Street in New Paltz known then as the Abraham Hasbrouck house, built in the early 1700’s, and began the first stage of its restoration.”
Alf’s father Ivar had an extensive library. “A good deal of his library was in French,” Alf told me in 2004. “I’d sit on his lap and he’d read from these big illustrated French histories. He’d read in French first, then translate, which gave me a start in French.”
Eleanor Roosevelt Visits Alf’s Mother in New Paltz
Alf recalled that Franklin Roosevelt once visited his childhood house in New Paltz, and was interested in the kitchen cellar where cock fights were conducted in the 1700s according to local lore, and so made his way down to the cellar to check for himself. When Alf’s mother Ann was older, she suffered from diabetes to the point where one of her lower legs had to be removed. This put her into a big depression, and she retired to an upper bedroom at the stone house in New Paltz, refusing to come down, and not wanting to use the prosthetic leg with which she had been outfitted. Eleanor Roosevelt at that time came to visit the famous old house, and inquired of the woman of the house. Roosevelt went up to Ann’s room, stayed for about an hour, then came back down the steps. Shortly thereafter Ann Evers, heartened, made her way downstairs. It was an anecdote Alf liked to share.