Richard Heppner has what you’d call a passion for history – specifically local history: the common events and gathered lore that make up a sense of place. In our time, a sense of place is not easy to come by, what with the ever-increasing mobility of the population and intrepid social alienation serving to keep us from putting down deep roots and simply relating to each other. It’s refreshing to know that somebody is keeping track, maybe even helping us to stay on track by understanding where we’ve been.
As Woodstock town historian since 2001, Heppner has written extensively on life in and around the village, in the published titles Women of the Catskills and Legendary Locals of Woodstock (co-authored with Janine Fallon-Mower). He contributes regularly to area publications and has compiled a series of essays originally written for Woodstock Times. In this new book, Woodstock – Everyday History, are pieces that zero in on the human-sized details of village happenings.
Eighteen entries detail life in the Catskills village, some honoring its founders with their reasons for settling there, others commenting on how world events affected the local citizenry. None are the oft-repeated stories of the bigger-known dealings for which Woodstock has made its name; rather, Heppner reports of the perhaps less “newsworthy” things that regular people have engaged in, such as ice skating on the Millstream and swimming in the Sawkill against Kingston Water Board orders. Readers will find out about a controversial CETA-funded snowman that was built on the Green and summarily demolished in outrage and a quiet murder with To Kill a Mockingbird overtones that took place in Zena.
It seems that Woodstock was always occupied by citizens who had minds of their own and who reacted to worldly events with their own sometimes-controversial flair. And everybody has always had their opinions and were willing to voice them: what to do about traffic or why, in 1907, the town voted to go “dry” well ahead of the 18th Amendment forcing the nation into Prohibition.
In a chapter about the late Alf Evers and his classic works, Woodstock: History of an American Town and The Catskills from Wilderness to Woodstock, Heppner writes of his own self-effacing embarrassment at having his name even mentioned in the same sentence as the icon. His admiration for the elder historian’s astute command of history – indeed, the vast amount of research that Evers managed to accomplish before digital archiving of information was common – is boundless. He remarks on the importance of such a body of knowledge being built on “years of curiosity and a thorough exploration of individual pieces that ultimately shape and form the whole.”
Originally born in Kingston, Heppner was relocated in the mid-’60s as a “kicking and screaming teenager.” His mother was an artist who wanted to live in Woodstock, where he would soon meet his future wife whose family has much deeper roots in the village. “In my college years, I worked for my future father-in-law as a plumber. I think I’ve been in every house in Woodstock. Every basement, every crawlspace. You get to know a town that way,” he says. He outlines two purposes for doing the book: one, to highlight the common folk and their lives. “There’s that mystical connection to a concert that never happened here,” he says. “Woodstock has a great history. It doesn’t need to invent anything.”
And the second, perhaps more important reason: to let people know how they can bring their own everyday history forward – their ancestry, photographs, diaries and all the stuff that has been collecting in attics for years. “It’s important to get that out there through the library, the local historical society or to self-publish or transcribe a diary – so that we know about the everyday people who lived here. To be an effective member of the community, you need to know where you’ve been. Where did we come from? How did we get here? If you watch the evolution of things over time, you understand them better. So if something new comes along – we don’t want to build this or we don’t want that in our back yard – you have a basis for argument for or against something if you know your history.”
Heppner loves all aspects of research, especially when he’s forced to pore through old newspaper records and library microfilm entries. Digging for stories always leads him to other curious incidents, just as a visit to his grandmother’s attic might have done. He’s avidly supportive of the Historical Society’s mission: to archive the day-to-day happenings alongside the larger backdrop of society. In taking command of our own histories, he maintains, we “raise the truth about our past above nostalgia and manipulation by commercial interests.”
“Our approach to authority goes way back,” he says. “In light of the recent Niagara bottling issue, for example, Woodstock’s been fighting Kingston forever over the water supplies. Kingston owns the water rights and property access. One day Woodstockers decided en masse to go down and bathe in the Sawkill!”
When asked what kinds of changes he has seen over the years, he says, “Things change, and they sort of remain the same. For example, at one point Woodstock gave up what they would take from the land – in its quarries and tanneries – and realized they could make money by what people saw in the land. It’s all happening again: We’re debating how you can control things a little bit better, such as the Airbnb thing.”
Heppner holds the rank of professor emeritus at Orange County Community College where, for 25 years, he served as a faculty member, chair of the Arts and Communication Department, associate vice president of Liberal Arts and vice president of Academic Affairs. As a Board member of the Historical Society of Woodstock and the Woodstock Memorial Society (Artists’ Cemetery), Heppner continues to support the community that he holds dear.
Woodstock – Everyday History: author appearance, Saturday, December 12, 4 p.m., Golden Notebook, 29 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-8000, www.goldennotebook.com.
Book-signing/discussion, Saturday, December 19, 1-3 p.m., Maurice Hinchey Catskill Interpretive Center, 5096 Route 28, Mt. Tremper; www.catskillinterpretivecenter.org/cic-events.