Legendary Saugertesian is a fitting representative of the Greatest Generation

Cliff Snyder

Cliff Snyder

I knew Cliff Snyder from the early 1970s but hadn’t seen him in years. When we began organizing the collection at the Lamb Center, Bob Chapelle told Audrey and me that Cliff had known both Dan Lamb Sr. and Morris Rosenblum during those prime years of collecting in the Fifties and Sixties. After a half dozen sit-downs in Dan Lamb’s law library, I decided the saga of Cliff Snyder tied up the whole modern period of Saugerties history in a bow.

A few months ago Audrey asked if I would meet with Caleb Lang, a 20-year-old who had some questions about the mills. He found out that Cliff had worked in the Diamond Paper mill while in high school, and he wanted to meet him.

So began a new approach to these newspaper articles Audrey and I have been collaborating on since last summer. We will now be letting this youthful voice use the research opportunities he has grown up with along with the actual memories from Cliff’s 91 years of life in Saugerties to form a new series I expect will be remarkable.

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I’m kicking this off by familiarizing those of you that don’t know Cliff with what I know.

Cliff Snyder is an amazing resource for our understanding of twentieth-century Saugerties. He was born to a High Woods quarryman family in 1925 just as quarrying was declining. He vividly recalls when in 1938 Harvey Fite bought the neighboring property. His father had guided Harvey’s beginnings of the work that became Opus 40. When his father died in 1943, Cliff wanted to quite high school because his brothers were in the war and the family had no support. Harvey Fite discouraged that, and mentored him through to graduation. Cliff carried firewood and wash water for Harvey after school that winter of his senior year after Harvey broke a leg skiing. At that time, Cliff and his mother were there to be Harvey’s family.

These memories of Harvey Fite are priceless. They also provide a rare picture of these early years of Opus 40 and of High Woods at a time when neighbors looked after each other’s welfare.

 

Cliff had a hardship deferment from the draft between his graduation and his induction in May 1944. During this time he worked in the Diamond Paper mill. He is one of the few remaining souls who can give an accurate account of what is now only represented by faded pictures of that mill. Walking the site, he has located the beater operations where he compounded the pulp to make the slurry material for the paper, and the machine shop where he ran a metal lathe making parts work again for the then-ancient machinery. He has stories of the open waterworks that flowed through the mill’s wheel where he caught herring, thick alongside other spawning populations, migrating up the Esopus to its clear gravel banks in the mountains following the spring flow.

Cliff entered the service a few months after he turned nineteen. He was in the 83rd Thunderbolt division, saw his first fight in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge, and received a unit citation from general George Patton for the capture of Bihain, which proved critical in blocking the escape route of the Germans. He then saw action in the Rhineland and Central Europe before the war in Europe ended.

When the 83rd was returned home, Cliff was assigned to New York City’s 42nd Rainbow division and then immediately reassigned to military government duties in Linz, Austria. There he was in charge of an IBM Unit Record function that searched for those accused of committing war crimes in northern Austria, matching surveillance and intelligence to war crimes complaints, using a new punch-card memory with embedded microfilm technology. His experience with this unit record system later evolved into the career at IBM he would retire from in 1987, after 37 years, seven in New York City and 30 at Kingston.

 

When he came home from the war Cliff found work in the Woodstock Garage, where a specialized truck was being constructed. Paving was being laid on graded beds of what was the first section of the four-lane Thruway. This truck was an innovative cement hauler developed by Bill West of Woodstock designed to carry three batches at once to extend the time the truck could spend at a paving location.

Because Cliff understood the operation of this truck, he became its first driver-operator. He had the daily opportunity to observe the engineering and design decisions that were proving out the many different and novel processes that went into the first miles of the Thruway. After Cliff and this prototype were involved in laying a record amount of concrete for a single year of road paving, the truck was duplicated. Cliff’s memories of this short post-war period of his life are invaluable to a full understanding of the history of the Thruway in Saugerties.

In spring 1949 Cliff’s work on the Thruway interchange at the Malden Turnpike aroused great concern at a meeting of the Masonic Lodge. This resulted in the move of the interchange to Route 212 and the subsequent two-toll-booth design cloverleaf necessary in the constricted landscape at this site.

During a 1950 visit to his future wife, who was working at an advertising firm in New York City, Cliff became curious about what may be available at 590 Madison Avenue; the IBM headquarters. His experiences during the war with their technology brought reciprocal curiosity from IBM. Cliff was immediately hired. This was the beginning of a typewriter-repair career that had its high points in the maintenance of every IBM electric typewriter at the United Nations, and babying the machine given personally by Tom Watson to Eleanor Roosevelt. If it were not for his ambition to go up against the odds because he had no college degree, that would have remained the high point of his career.

But Cliff wanted to be part of the engineering side of IBM in Poughkeepsie, nearer to home, and he persisted. This found him in Poughkeepsie as a field customer engineer, and then, in 1957, after a brief time when IBM moved him to its typewriter manufacturing facilities in Kentucky, he ended up in the newly built plant in Kingston. This is when he bought the home he still resides in on Edith Avenue in the Dutch Settlement section of the Barclay Heights subdivisions in Saugerties. He was one of the earliest and now is the longest to continually reside there.

From Kingston IBM’s earliest incarnation as an expansion of the typewriter manufacturing in Poughkeepsie, Cliff saw most of the transformation of IBM to a computer technology manufacturer during his first half dozen years at the Kingston plant. With little preliminary education but his experience during the war with punch-card computing he became part of making this transition possible. Cliff saw the opportunity to retain his department of punch-card data transcribers, overstaffed after government contracts had dwindled, by converting their skills to design automation.

His skill was to align their work with the earliest efficiencies of the cumbersome magnetic memory, then technology for IBM’s internal manufacturing. This would provide the manufacturing and support data that would give application to the first commercial computers to be brought to market. The same grit and can-do spirit remained a part of the Kingston plant and contributed to IBM’s dominance in computer manufacturing up to Cliff’s retirement in 1987. Shortly thereafter, the Kingston plant closed.

As Cliff settled into his management position at IBM he was encouraged to share his skills on the political front. In 1967 he ran for the county legislature, won, and spent ten years there, one year as majority leader. After not running for election for a few years, when the work at IBM took his full concentration, he again took up the office and served another four years. He retired from IBM and the legislature at about the same time.

Cliff just turned 91. He is very active in the American Legion. He was invited to travel to Europe personally by the Belgium government for the commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge in January of 2015.

Cliff Snyder represents the Greatest Generation. He is philosophical about this. A modest man, he wonders what makes him deserve this honor as opposed to all the generations that have followed his. When he sits around the table once a month with other veterans of WWII at the legion post, their memories are on the best of what life has offered them. For Cliff it is his family, his service, his work, and his long life.

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After Cliff retired in 1987, he began to play golf with Morris Rosenblum and continued that weekly, every season, nearly up to when Morris died at the age of 95 in 2004. I was interested to know from Cliff if, in conversation, Morris had divulged any personal observations on the material he left behind. I count Cliff and Morris among our Leon Barritts, Henry Barclays, and any of the other storied characters of Saugerties that, by their presence, made this community great.

Cliff and Morris would never believe this of themselves or each other. Their motives for what they accomplished were personal and private. Questions were never asked, motives never offered. That personal sense of community is the Greatest Generation’s legacy to us, left with little fanfare.

To historians, taking stock of the community through the impressions individuals in their lifetime have recorded of each other is important. It’s a neat way to grasp the history of a place. We think it’s worth doing any moment we can.

We begin this series of articles specifically designed to capture the Saugerties our youth will grow us into in the twenty-first century. We have arranged to have Cliff Snyder and Caleb Lang in conversations that become articles. Caleb is 20, highly curious and experienced, like many of his generation, in navigating the information superhighway. What in the history of Saugerties will Cliff’s and Caleb’s curiosity about each other’s interests bring to light?

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