Greene County rolls up from the Hudson River, north of Kingston and south of Albany, to some of the highest peaks in the Catskills. Then it levels out, reaching for Delaware and Schoharie counties, once long ago the premier breadbaskets of America.
Green it is, but not named for its dense deciduous trees and pine forests, but for Nathanael Greene, second in command to George Washington. Zaddock Pratt built his tannery empire in 1824, using the bark of the plentiful hemlock trees and employing thousands of Irish immigrants. The Catskill Mountain House, perched on an escarpment on South Mountain, was the destination for the nation’s power elite and fashionable celebrities, who loved the view, the air and the water. They perceived the site as thrillingly close to the wilderness.
Private communities sprang up for that same reason, peopled by “free thinkers,” artists and writers. These communities — Twilight Park, Onteora Park and Elka Park — still thrive today. The Hudson River School of artists flocked here, gazing upon the landscape and composing work that depicts this place realistically but romantically, infusing in their paintings details suggesting that man and nature can co-exist in harmony. Thomas Cole, founder of this movement, lived in the town of Catskill; his house has been preserved, and is now the site of the Thomas Cole Museum.
Although the Catskill Mountain House went out of vogue in the early 1900s, the area remained attractive for its beautiful vistas and clean air and water. Joe Louis, beloved boxing champion and national hero, built the first resort for African Americans in Hunter.
In the years leading up to and through America’s great wars, life in Greene County quieted down considerably. It seemed to be receding into the wilderness from which it had sprung.
J.V.V. Vedder wrote of Greene County, in his book, Historic Catskill, “Its early history is that of the silence of the wilderness — an overabundance of fish in its waters, and game under the giant trees and tangled underbrush along its banks.”
This silence of the wilderness is what actress and designer Kay Stamer encountered when she moved from Manhattan to raise her daughter and renovate the Salisbury Manor in the early 1970s. This was before the Internet, of course. Communication, and knowing what was going on in the neighborhood, was hard to achieve. The neighborhood consisted of 660 square miles.
“Friends asked me to attend a theatrical event at the Lexington Conservatory Theater,” Stamer says, smiling at the memory. “They had to force me to go. I held out no hope of seeing anything worthwhile. I was so wrong! It was a dynamic, talented, brilliant ensemble doing original work, and I was blown away.”
Soon after, the Lexington Conservatory Theater moved, and became The Capital Repertory Theater Company in Albany. But Stamer was encouraged. She is now the director of the Greene County Council of the Arts, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
The Bridge Street Theater in Catskill is finishing work on its 84-seat theater. Bridge Street has mounted many notable productions on its temporary stage and in its art gallery. The American Dance Institute plans to open its door on Water Street in Catskill in 2018. Both these endeavors promise to attract large audience numbers.
ADI’s vision is to create an incubator for new work. It has identified the need for late-stage residency. Once a project takes form, and gets on its feet, it still needs space and time. There are details that can only be addressed in performance. Sadly, many dance and theater works can afford merely to create, learn, and mount the piece, perform in haste, and then move on. ADI intends to make a space where performers can absorb the work, and creators can tweak, safeguard and finish their art before sending it out. We locals will be able to see these pieces just before the New York premiere.
Bridge Street Theater hopes to offer educational opportunities for area youth, with many schools having curtailed their arts programming.
The Catskill Mountain Foundation, headquartered in Hunter, hosts many sterling events, like the Twyla Tharp concert scheduled for April 16 in the Orpheum Theater.
The ski industry emerged as a common-sense progression of economic growth for the area after World War II. Both Hunter Mountain Ski Resort and Windham Mountain opened in 1960. These ranges, with topography at 1600’ above sea level and summits more than 3200’, attract thousands of winter sports folk every year. Both resorts offer four-season delights. Hunter boasts the longest and highest zipline in North America. Windham is graced by an 18-hole golf course open to the public.
Hunter hosts the largest and longest running tap-brew festival in the country which kicks off April 23. Hunter also hosts major musical concerts. Mountain Jam will happen June 2 through 5, and Taste of Country June 10 through 12. The Celtic Festival is August 6, and the German Alps Festival August 13. October Fest is every weekend starting September 9 and ending October 16.
Windham, once the site of the World Cup Mountain Bike tour, this year welcomes the Pro-GRT Downhill Race. The World Cup is expected back next year. Windham offers a mountain-bike park that is lift-served. The Fly Fishing School is part of Hunter’s summer program. Both resorts offer hiking and lift rides in the warmer months.
Ah, the warmer months! The winter-sports enthusiasts love the rugged majesty of this place: the rocky cliffs, the great stalactites of ice that cling to the walls of stone that line the cloves, the many feet of snow that may come in October and stay until May. But in summer this is the land of fairy-tale forests, water falls, hidden lakes and sparkling creeks. On just about any hike you will find yourself in a cathedral of trees, walking on a thick carpet of pine needles or leaf litter.
There, on the forest floor, staring up at you, may be a newborn fawn, camouflaged by spots, waiting for mother’s return. Or you’ll hear the hammer of woodpeckers and the trill of a wood thrush. Just ahead perches a great horned owl (keep your cats inside). Maybe you’ll see a big black bear squatting near a wild blackberry bush. He is no more afraid of you than you of him. Do not try to take a selfie with him.
Some swear that mountain lions are here. I did hear a scream at dusk one night, though only once. It was loud and terrifying. They say the great cats pass through, looking for mates, each cat claiming a territory of 58 to 350 square miles. They are ambush predators and, like all cats, obligate carnivores, meaning that they need to feed exclusively on meat to survive. You are meat.
If you like being solitary, Greene County may suit you just fine. It is sparsely populated. The townsfolk are happy to leave you alone as long as you leave them alone. Much of civic life is devoted to school districts. Graduating classes in all the districts (Hunter-Tannersville, Windham, Catskill, Greeneville, Cairo-Durham, and Coxsackie-Athens) are small compared to more urban areas, and the buildings themselves are attractive and immaculate.
The volunteer rescue squads do admirable work, and their members actively pursue the necessary knowledge and skill to care for clients. The volunteer fire departments are equally devoted.
The social fabric in these small towns is tightly knit. No Angie’s List is necessary. If you need a good carpenter, and you ask around at any diner, you’ll get an answer. If you mention a name that has murky details attached to it, the response will be silent. Coffee mugs will be lifted to silent lips. Don’t press.
Maggie’s Krooked Cafe in Tannersville serves up tasty breakfast and brunch fare. The pancakes are rated one of Ten Best in America! Amy’s Take-Away in Lanesville provides delectable meals that you can pick up and take home. Her soups in winter are especially appreciated, when they make for an easy supper in front of the fire. Other recommendations include The Millrock in Windham, the Deer Mountain Inn in Tannersville, the Fernwood in Palenville, CrossRoads Brewery in Athens, and Wasana in Catskill.
Please make note of Story Farm in Catskill. Irene Story opens up her farm stand in late May or early June. Jim Story is the farmer, and he is helped by his strong sons. They grow lots of what you can buy at the stand, and whatever they don’t grow, they purchase from other nearby farms. They also sell flowers, eggs, bread, baked goods, and some packaged foods. They take great pride in everything they offer for sale, and stand behind their products. They are kind and honest. They embody everything one imagines a holesome life in the country ought to be.
This is ancient land shaped by shifting glaciers and creased by ceaseless waters that patiently carve into the rock. The Catskill Park is one of the oldest “forever-wild” preserves in the world. The name “Catskill,” applied to the county seat of Greene County, to a famous creek that runs throughout, is also applied to the gentler slopes to the south that incubated the careers of Morey Amsterdam, Jack Benny, George Jessel, Totie Fields, et.al. I was surprised to learn the name originates not from panthers or wildcats, but from Jacob Cats, a Dutch poet. In his book, The Catskills, T. Morris Streth writes, “But it must be remembered that, at first, one little stream was called Cats’ Kill, which was named in honor of the poet of Brouwershaven. In his day Jacob Cats cut considerable figure at the Dutch bar. He was made the Chief Magistrate of Middleburg and Dordrecht, the Grand Pensionary of West Friesland, and finally the Keeper of the Great Seal of Holland. He is found in our libraries today. At the very time that Hendrik Hudson was eating roast dog with his red-faced hosts near the outlet of the brook that was to be Cats’ Kill, Mr. Cats was penning amatory emblems behind his native dikes.”
So it started, and so it goes. Life here requires a stout heart and many cords of wood. But it also means waking up to beauty, and slipping into slumber beneath a blanket of stars. You may have to drive 20 or 30 miles to buy an iPhone, but it will be pretty all the way. And there will be little traffic.