“I need colleagues,” says Susan Stessin-Cohn. “I’m always working on different stuff, but I need people to work with; kindred spirits that just love history and want to get excited with me about it.”
The New Paltz town historian is launching a New Paltz Historical Society. The inaugural meeting will be held on Thursday, October 8 at 7 p.m. at the New Paltz Community Center.
“I’ve thought about doing this for 15 years,” Stessin-Cohn says. “I kept thinking, ‘This is New Paltz, and we’re the only town that doesn’t have a historical society!’ Huguenot Street puts on presentations, but it’s not a monthly meeting place for people to discuss history. And look at the history we have here.”
Becoming town historian was the impetus for her to get a group started, she says. The focus will be on whatever issues in which people who join the new group are interested. “I’m trying not to have expectations. I’m chairing it to start, but I want everybody to be equally part of this. I have my areas of expertise — slavery, black history and the [Ulster County] Poorhouse, which has been my big project recently, but until people come and tell me what they are interested in, and what they want out of the group, I want to leave it open. I don’t want to start off saying ‘This is what we’re going to do.’”
She says, however, that people joining the new group might wish to work with her on two projects on which Stessin-Cohn has been working. One is the monument project to memorialize the unmarked graves at the former Ulster County Poorhouse on Libertyville Road. Many indigent residents of New Paltz were buried there without benefit of even a coffin, let alone a grave marker.
The county has committed to paying $15,000 toward a bronze work by New Paltz-based sculptor Trina Greene to commemorate the spot. An additional $20,000 still remains to be raised, says Stessin-Cohn. “And that’s with Trina doing the work pro-bono. That’s with no one being paid for anything except the people who are making the monument.”
If additional funds could be raised, she adds, “I’d love to pay [Trina] for her work. The piece is incredibly gorgeous; it makes you cry when you look at it.” Greene used a local woman as her model to represent an aging woman holding onto her shawl with one hand, her expression a mix of strength and helplessness at the same time as she contemplates her certain fate to be buried in a potter’s field. (To see images of the work, visit “Ulster County Poorhouse Memorial Project” on Facebook.)
The other project that members of the new historical society might wish to get involved with has to do with documenting recently rediscovered historical material about New Paltz. “There are 19 boxes of incredible material that belongs to our town that’s been in storage at Huguenot Street, and people just kind of didn’t remember it was there,” says Stessin-Cohn. “I brought it to the town board’s attention and said I’d like to start working with it.”
Beginning with an 1805 ledger from the overseer of the poor at the poorhouse. She’s been working with interns from SUNY New Paltz on transcribing it and creating an exhibit for HRVH.org. The website of the Hudson River Valley Heritage functions as a digital library that provides free access to search and browse the collections of more than 35 cultural and educational institutions in the Hudson Valley. Stessin-Cohn has already created many themed exhibits on the site.
“Now I’m looking at the records that are pre-poorhouse, what led up to it, and seeing that a lot of these people ended up in public auctions, which were really sad. They would put someone up and say, ‘Okay, who can take care of this person — food, shelter, clothing — for the lowest price?’”
Stessin-Cohn hopes to get people excited about working on the project with her. “These 19 boxes of records have been just sitting there. The manumission ledger, which is so important; I may develop a whole exhibit around that. The Civil-War draft book. Things like that. We have the 1677 Indian deed for the property here. That all belongs to the town, and it’s exciting to have all these incredible documents to work with.”
The proposed New Paltz Historical Society will start out without outside funding. Noting that most guest speakers at such meetings receive an honorarium for their participation, Stessin-Cohn says this group won’t be able to pay for speakers at first. She is hoping to get together with other town historians and nearby historical societies to find out how they go about fundraising. “Maybe we could combine some of our efforts,” she suggested. “I have my local people with expertise in certain areas that can come in and get people excited, and hopefully other people will offer their expertise.”