As we move deeper into the digital age, those of us who still appreciate a hard copy of our favorite newspaper in the morning find ourselves increasingly at odds with much of the population. And, while proclaiming allegiance to the printed page may expose me as a Luddite right out of 1811 Nottingham, I’ll go even further and express my true love for those chronicles that represent the faded past. The older the better. For when you actually sit with a newspaper of yesterday and turn each physical page, you are, it seems, drawn into a more intimate understanding of who and what we once were.
Certainly, there are the sepia-toned newspapers of yesteryear that we most recognize, those with headlines that shout “Japanese Attack Pearl Harbor,” or “Dewey Defeats Truman.” (In my household they also reflect the rare — very rare — triumphs of the New York Mets.) But beyond the famous headlines, copies of old, local newspapers serve as a gateway into days known only by those who went before. Much like reading someone’s personal diary, local newspapers offer an account of the twists and turns of our hometown long before any of us traveled along its neatly paved streets. Even the early advertisements hold a fascinating mirror to our changing needs, wants and vanities.
Such was the case when I recently came across the words of Bruce Herrick. Over the years, Herrick, who Alf Evers once described as “Woodstock’s hometown poet,” wrote about his beloved Woodstock for the Kingston Argus, the Catskill Morning Star, the Woodstock Press and the Kingston Freeman. In addition to his writing, he also maintained Herrick House, a boarding home along Tannery Brook begun by his father and, in later years, known as the Tannery Brook House.
Herrick seems to have reveled in stories that reflected Woodstock’s earlier years. Much in the same way Will Rose offered accounts of growing up in Woodstock during the early days of the art colony in The Vanishing Village, Herrick could take readers across time and distance, offering a sense of what an earlier Woodstock was — and wasn’t. The title for some of his articles, Fact & Fiction, seems to summarize his fascination for both the lore and reality of his hometown. Such is the case in one of his more enlightening articles, as Herrick offers his description of the tinker who gave Tinker Street its name.
While the naming of our town’s most recognized street has been steeped in both myth and conjecture over the years, Herrick attributes its genesis to one John Brandow who operated a “small nondescript tinker shop…with no approach other than the street itself” in the latter part of the 19th century. The shop (which was located on the current site of Apothecary) was announced to those passing by a simple sign that, today, reads like a 21st century tweet gone haywire, “Eny 1 wantin ena thing fixt kin got it dun t’ Brandows.” Brandow, according to Herrick, “boasted” that he could fix most anything. And, it seems, so he could — from the windmill that once operated at the end of Old Forge Road to baby buggies. Even your “mother’s stew kettle” found mending in his “cumbersome,” yet “effective hands.’
While Brandow’s skills as a tinker were without dispute, it appears his character was something else. As Herrick described him, “Brandow was a necessary evil. People by no means liked his manner, but had to employ him.” Brandow’s physical appearance also merited notice by those who encountered him. “The tinker himself was a figure once seen, never to be forgotten,” recalled Herrick. “He was a large man, dressed in whatever came handy. There were black whiskers too, of a sort. Like a remark made about a prominent politician some years ago, he had some whiskers, but they didn’t look as if he liked ‘em.”
Despite appearance and his gruff and sharp manner, Brandow was in high demand, not only for his “tinkering skills,” but also as a town chimney sweep and mender of roofs. In Herrick’s description of the tinker on the way to tackle yet another job, one can almost envision his physical form moving along the very same street to which his shop gave its name. “He was a weird combination of the pseudo mechanic and the medieval chimney sweep. With coattails flying, whiskers tilting in the breeze, fire pot in one hand ablaze and roaring and soldering iron in another, he was indeed a force ominous and formidable.”
Other “theories” exist as to the origins of the Tinker Street name, including one steeped in the very same lore Herrick admired. As attributed to Woodstock’s “teller of talltales,” Jim Twaddell, a traveling tinker passing through Woodstock one day encountered the springtime mud that was Woodstock’s main road. Slowly the horse, wagon and tinker began to sink. With cries for help unanswered, the tinker was lost beneath the very road we now travel. Twaddell would further claim that, “when conditions are right,” you can still hear the jingling of tin ware echoing from below. It’s a good story. Still, Herrick’s portrait of Brandow, the contrarian tinker of Tinker Street, adds a more authentic piece to the puzzle that is Woodstock’s story. Equally important, it also points to one more example of the important role the individual has played as architect of our town’s foundation. To tell you the truth, I kind of like the old guy.
Facts are Stubborn Things
As the Brandow story suggests, Woodstock has a rich history and is in no need of embellishment or over-commercialization. It speaks for itself. I am often contacted by newcomers to town for suggestions on how best to “read up” on that history. The suggestions are simple and easily made. Alf Evers’ Woodstock — History of an American Town remains the standard. Also on the suggestion list would be Anita Smith’s, Woodstock History and Hearsay. Smith’s text, recently reissued by WoodstockArts, was actually the first real history of our town. For Woodstock lore, including witches and the spells they cast, nothing beats the work of Neva Shultis and her small book, From Sunset to Cock’s Crow. As mentioned previously Will Rose’s book, The Vanishing Village, presents Woodstock at a time of transition as artists and townspeople tried to figure each other out. On a more specific, yet timely topic, Frances Rogers details the birth and growth of a key Woodstock institution in her excellent volume, The Story of a Small Town Library. And, finally, for a visual representation of faces and places that have gone before, Janine Mower’s Images of America collections, Woodstock and Woodstock Revisited are also widely available.
One thing is certain, there will always be enough Woodstock history to write about. But, as Bruce Herrick and the authors mentioned above understood, it is important to get the story right. Unfortunately such is not the case in a book recently published by Knopf, titled The Catskills. (Not to be confused with Alf Evers’ classic work.) While an impressive book by its cover, it stumbles badly when describing Woodstock history.
First, two images — a street scene and a purported photo of the Village Green (pages 333 & 354) are not our Woodstock. And, as serious as those errors are, it is the text that appears on page 353 that goes terribly off the tracks. In an effort to describe Woodstock “in the early 1950s” the reader is informed that, “manufacturing was represented by the Woodstock Typewriter Company on North Seminary Avenue, where it had existed since 1913. On Clay Street, Woodstock Tie and Die Casting, the town’s largest employer, was home to twenty-two hundred workers producing auto parts for Ford and Chrysler.” Okay, let’s pause there and absorb that information. First, neither manufacturing company every existed here. Second, no street in Woodstock (our Woodstock) ever bore such names. And, finally, unless they were well hidden in some mountain hollow somewhere, I think we would have notice “twenty-two hundred workers” laboring to produce auto parts for two major auto companies. It goes on. “A Montgomery Ward and a Woolworth’s anchored a small but solvent district in Town Square, along with ‘five food stores, two long-established banks, four meat markets…two bakeries, A Sears Roebuck order office, two hardware stores, three drug stores and Wes Pribla’s fur shop,’ according to the Woodstock Independent.” Sorry, none of this is true. Not even close. But, in that description, there is a clue where the research went wrong. The Woodstock Independent is a newspaper in Woodstock, Illinois and, sure enough, a quick (very quick) search of the paper’s archives turned up Wes Pribla’s fur shop on the “Square in Woodstock.”
I have written Knopf pointing out these major errors (there are others), as has Woodstock Supervisor, Jeremy Wilber. Neither of us has received a response. As an author, I can easily understand certain mistakes. I know I have made my share. But usually, such errors come in the form of a misspelled name or an incorrect date, not in totally mischaracterizing an important aspect of a town’s history. As for the remainder of the book, I can only hope the rest of the Catskills are treated with the accuracy they deserve. However, after some 25 years of grading research papers turned in by bleary-eyed college students, I can only offer that which my red pen scribbled more than once across a paper’s title page, “If there is a major factual error, how am I to believe there aren’t others.” I only can hope that Knopf and the authors will correct the mistakes within and return what could be a fine book to the shelves.
Bruce Herrick has the final words:
How well we remember this town long ago
With its little old stone village school
And the old-fashioned stage coach that carried the mail,
As it rocked to and fro.
The old tannery ruin; the Overlook house,
And all in the realm of the past…
Richard Heppner is Woodstock Town Historian.