Chester Hartwell is from Watermill, Long Island and has lived in Saugerties since 2003. He is married and has two children. His background is in theatre but he has a voracious appetite for history and regional history specifically. He is the founder of the popular I Like Saugerties Facebook page.
He greets me with a CD containing historical information about the property where I live, which I’d mentioned when setting up the interview. He corrects me when I call him a historian, saying he is an “amateur” historian at best.
He said he was always interested in local history, that he “grew up asking why; I drove my teachers crazy.” He said he loves “the way a story reveals itself, the many facets of a story, the way something totally different connects to that story, and how everything is ultimately connected.”
When Chester was a young man his father introduced him to a PBS series called “Connections” with James Burke, whose interdisciplinary approach helped him see things in a new way. The series synthesized history, discoveries, and scientific achievements, showing how all contributed to the development of the world we know today.
Hartwell’s local history hobby began with collecting images; he found old photographs and maps and would follow the thread wherever it led. He found these threads in the most unlikely places; for example, he made a reproduction of a bird’s eye view map of a historic map of Saugerties.
He’s become acquainted with others in the local history community, like Historic Preservation Commission member Michael Sullivan Smith, whose field is calligraphy, paper manufacturing and invention, and town historian Audrey Klinkenberg, whose specialty is genealogy. They each bring their own special knowledge to the mix, and Hartwell says, “When the three of us get together we feed each other.” He also connected with village historian Marjorie Block, who shares her wealth of knowledge of local history.
He tells a story of a visit he made to the trolley museum in Kingston shortly after moving to the Hudson Valley. On a trolley ride to Kingston Point he met the conductor, who happened to be the chief librarian for the Kingston City Schools, who told him that “the coal that fed the entire Eastern seaboard during the industrial revolution came down that river (by way of the D&H Canal].” He is fascinated by these chance encounters.
His photo collection grew. “It was really cool,” he said. “There were pieces of the story everywhere.” He’d clean the photos up, restoring the color and making montages. He put the photos together in binders and whenever someone wanted a copy he would make one. It was, he said, “costing hundreds of dollars which I didn’t have.” The Facebook page offers a free way for him to share.
The page has been in existence for over a year now and with 879 fans, Hartwell thinks it’s doing well. He experiments with different photographs to see what is successful; for example, an aerial photograph got significantly fewer hits than one taken at the corner of Main St. He believes people respond most to what is familiar. He especially likes to juxtapose old and new images.
Hartwell believes there is so much history in Saugerties that we just sort of trip over it each day without noticing. As an example, looking at the photo he copied for me, he points out a marker on the property where I live that I’ve never noticed. He notices, and he wants to share it for the pure pleasure of sharing those connections. Listening to him share these stories with so much enthusiasm, he strikes me as a sort of historical Sherlock Holmes, and with that thought, he says, “I’m just following my nose.”