It only took 114 years, but Saugerties is finally getting a new hyperlocal history book. Local resident, artist and self-described “history enthusiast” Michael Sullivan Smith has recently published A Brief History of Saugerties, out now on the History Press.
Smith was born in Washington DC and raised in Pennsylvania, and studied art at the Pratt Institute and the Art Students League of Manhattan. He moved to Saugerties in 1969 because of his familiarity with the Byrdcliffe arts colony. He found much that was familiar to him, from the history down even to the names of places. “It’s all German Palatine,” he explains, “and those people moved on to where I grew up in Pennsylvania.”
Because Smith worked as a calligrapher, he had done his research on the history of paper-making in America, and he discovered an interesting fact: “Saugerties,” he says, “was the site of the first machine-made paper in the United States.” For people who worked with paper, Smith says, this was common knowledge. In Saugerties, however, no one seemed to know at all.
This, he would realize, formed a theme. The only written history of Saugerties, a 1902 book by Benjamin Myer Brink, The Early History of Saugerties, covered the town from 1660 to 1825. In the 1980s Smith spent time to the county archives, and he published a series of newspaper columns analyzing his findings.
Smith dug further into the history of Saugerties when he began an ongoing land-art project similar to Opus 40 in a bluestone quarry on Route 212, about halfway to Woodstock. He has been involved in the Saugerties Historic Preservation Committee as well as the Friends of Historic Saugerties. He has also expanded the presentation of his research into blogs, videos, and maps.
In the last few years Smith has done much research at the Lamb Center, a collection of papers and publications pertaining to Hudson Valley and New York State history housed upstairs from the law offices of Rosenblum and Lamb. Though the collection, assembled over time by Daniel Lamb and Morris Rosenblum, is currently private, the owners hope to register as a non-profit and make the materials opened to the public for research.
Compared to his decades of research, the conception and publication for A Brief History of Saugerties came about very quickly. In October 2015, Smith pitched the idea to Arcadia Publishing, whose books on local history will be familiar to anyone with an interest in the subject. After a move to its sister History Press, he rewrote approximately 40,000 words worth of essays, guides and other research in “about one month and one week.” It’s the fastest he’s ever worked, he says.
In 160 pages full of illustrations, the book succinctly summarizes the history of Saugerties from its founding in 1609 to the present. He updates Brink’s work and covers important and historic places that will be familiar to Saugerties residents, tourists and arts aficionados.
He wants to reinstate Saugerties as an important town in the history of New York State. Though it has been marginalized in popular narratives about Hudson, Kingston and Woodstock, Saugerties was for a time, by Smith’s telling, much more prominent than any of them.
Besides the origination of machine-made paper production, Saugerties, says Smith was home to the first-ever illustrated magazine, which had individually glued-in pictures. It was the starting point for many of the Hudson River School of painters, who had to trek overland to get to artistic hotspots. Thanks to Henry Barclay and his compatriots, Saugerties became one of the first truly industrialized cities in the US, comparable at the time, Smith believes, only to Lowell in Massachusetts.
“No one here understands the history of the period,” Smith claims. He has been promoting the book at a series of public lectures, most recently in a talk to the Woodstock Historical Society on the arts and crafts movement in Saugerties and its relationship to Byrdcliffe. He will be speaking next from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, August 6 at the Saugerties Public Library. His talk will focus on the town’s artistic history.
A Brief History of Saugerties is prominently featured at the Inquiring Minds Bookstore on Partition Street, and it is also on sale at the Kingston location of Barnes and Noble. Anyone who can’t find a copy can order one online at Amazon and other major retailers. It is also for sale at rest stops on the Thruway.