When chill November’s surly blast make fields and forest bare...
— Robert Burns
November is a strange month. I can assure you of that for, as one who was born in this, the eleventh month, I am a bit of an expert on its arrival and passing. For some, whose thoughts begin to turn to the holidays, it is time to line up at the starting gate as the mad dash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is about to begin. For others, such as myself, our yards mocks us in direct proportion to the amount of leaves that still remain, seemingly nestled in for a long winter’s nap lest we remember where we put the rake.
November always begins much the same way, with an election of sorts. This year, despite the prevalence of Trump, Carson, Bernie and Hillary on our screens (and in high-definition no less) Woodstockers went about the task of selecting those who would guide us locally. Typically, we tend to think of local elections as quiet affairs in which we end up having to vote for or against one of our neighbors. And yet, there was a time in our history when the simple act of walking to the village to cast your vote might have been hazardous to your health.
In the days of the bluestone quarries that once lined the banks of Overlook, Irish stonecutters lived, predominantly, in an area known as Irish Village, near Lewis Hollow. According to the story that has been passed down through the years, Election Day would see the quarry workers finish their day’s work, “relax” a little and head to town en mass to vote. Now, in bygone days, it should be remembered, Election Day, no matter your profession or ancestry, was not only an exercise in democracy but also a day, for some, in which the right elbow was also exercised on behalf of that all-American tradition known as getting soused. So it was, as the quarrymen approached the center of town via Rock City Road, they would have occasion to meet a collection of young locals who had also been “enjoying” the day. As the two groups faced off by the Village Green, the “spirits” of democracy had their way as the solid Republican locals took on the equally committed Irish Democrats in a round of impressive brawling.
Glad to say, nothing like that happened in Woodstock this Election Day — not that this year’s election didn’t have its quirks, from a universally condemned, not so “anonymous” advertisement to a misprinted ballot that had early voters — as well as election officials — scratching their heads. That said, the 2015 election did see some Woodstock history made. With his victory as Supervisor, Jeremy Wilber will, upon taking the oath of office on January 1, surpass the twelve years served as Supervisor by Albert Cashdollar and become the second longest serving Supervisor in Woodstock history. And, assuming he isn’t carted off to the loony bin over the course of the next year, he will eventually eclipse the 13 years of service provided by Isaac Elting, who served from 1810-1822. While Supervisor Wilber’s reign has not been consecutive (thus making him the Grover Cleveland of Woodstock history) an interesting fact revealed itself when comparing the Wilber-Elting connection and the possibility that they might share a similar strand of political DNA. Turns out both politicians once practiced the noble profession of bartender. Wilber, of course, served up many a cocktail in establishments such as the Sled Hill Cafe and other iconic Woodstock watering holes, while Elting worked the other side of town in the early years of our history as a tavern keeper near Yankeetown Pond. Coincidence? Better yet, perhaps a prerequisite for those destined to sit through longwinded board meetings.
One other, related election note… A trailer for the recently released film, Suffragette, got me curious regarding the election that granted the right to vote to women in New York State. While many assume that right came with the passage of the 19th amendment, New Yorkers actually granted the franchise through a statewide referendum in November 1917. In finally locating the vote totals for that year, there is both good news and bad news to report. Statewide, the measure passed by more than 100,000 votes. Locally, however, Ulster County voters (only men, of course) went against the measure 1,628-838.
As was the case last week, November is also the month in which we honor our veterans. Originally established in 1926 as Armistice Day to commemorate the end of World War I (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month), President Eisenhower signed legislation in 1954 changing the day to one that honored veterans of all wars. Located in a corner of the Woodstock Cemetery, the Woodstock Veterans’ Memorial serves as a reminder of the sacrifice offered by Woodstockers throughout the years. On the flag pole at the center of the memorial is a plaque that also honors those Woodstockers who, since the Civil War, gave their life in battle. Not included on the plaque, which was originally crafted following World War II, is the name of Richard Quinn. If, however, you follow to the base of the flagpole, you will see a stone marking his service and the painful reminder that, killed in Vietnam in 1970, he is the last of our town’s youth to have been lost in war. His heroic story bears repeating and is summarized best through the words found in the citation that honored him posthumously with the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross — “Specialist Fourth Class Quinn distinguished himself while serving as a medical aidman during ground combat operations in Phuoc Long Province. Specialist Quinn’s company had just departed its night defensive position and was advancing down a narrow jungle trail when the allied lead element contacted an enemy force of unknown size. Several allied casualties were sustained in the initial fighting and Specialist Quinn immediately moved forward to treat the casualties. Ignoring the intense enemy fire that swept the area, he moved from one position to another to treat the wounded allies and assist them to positions of relative safety. When a series of incoming enemy rockets exploded to Specialist Quinn’s front, he immediately went to the aid of two seriously wounded soldiers. Although exposed in a forward position, the specialist skillfully administered aid to his comrades. As he prepared to evacuate them to rear positions, he was mortally wounded by the hostile fire. Specialist Quinn’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty, at the cost of his life, were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States.”
What else can one say?
Finally, we can’t talk about November without some thoughts about Thanksgiving. It doesn’t seem possible but this year’s Family of Woodstock’s Thanksgiving dinner will be its 40th. Over the course of more than four decades Family has long outlasted the early critics they encountered during those post-Festival days as more and more young people made their journey to Woodstock seeking much but possessing little.
In thinking about dinner of the turkey kind, I am also reminded of a wonderful story Michael Perkins wrote a few years back that recreated, in dramatic form, the Thanksgiving poet Hart Crane spent in Woodstock in 1923. Crane, who had arrived at the rented home of Slater Brown on Plochmann Lane in the beginning of November following a stay at the home of Eugene O’Neill, would describe, in a letter to his grandmother, the dinner he took charge of that Thanksgiving day as he celebrated with guests that included, among others, novelist John Dos Passos and sculptor Gaston Lachaise. Writing on December 5, 1923, Crane offered to his grandmother: “The people we bought the turkey from had already cleaned it and plucked it, and had promised to make the stuffing. But at the last moment they went back on the stuffing, and so it was left to me entirely. You should have seen me going at it, sewing it up tight afterward and everything! Everyone said the stuffing was great, and I liked it myself. I rubbed the outside all over with salt and butter, and then the ten pound bird was put into a wonderful roasting machine that Lachaise brought out from New York…You put the bird on a long spit which had a crank and catches. One side of the cage was entirely open and that was turned toward the fire in the big studio. I never ate more luscious turkey than this process produced…The meal began with potato and onion soup…then turkey with mash potatoes, cranberry sauce, squash and gravy. Celery too…Dessert was composed of pumpkin pie and mince pie and the marvelous fruit cake. We had cider in abundance, Marsala wine and red wine as well as some fine cherry cordial. Nuts, raisins, etc. Quite a dinner, you see…We had all the walls hung with candles as well as the table. Sat down at five and didn’t get up to dance until eight.”
Still a number of years away from publication of The Bridge and approximately nine years from his untimely death, Crane seemed to have found something restorative in both the tradition of the Thanksgiving menu as well as the slight demands of rural life. As he wrote both his mother and grandmother, also that November, “Felling trees and piecing them up for warmth is a new sport for me, but I have taken to it with something like real enthusiasm. This is my fourth day here in the mountains, but already I feel like a new person. My muscles are swelling and blood simply glowing.”
Woodstock will do that to you. And, whether you have been here forever or are just arriving, it is a lesson that is easily learned. Perhaps something to remember as we offer thanks again this year. Enjoy.
Richard Heppner is Woodstock Town Historian.