Richard Heppner: History’s pages

Detail of the sign at S.S. Seahorse Tavern. (photo by Dion Ogust)

Detail of the sign at S.S. Seahorse Tavern. (photo by Dion Ogust)

In the true spirit of everyday history comes a new book by Wallace Sife, Tales from the Sea Horse. The Sea Horse, for those new to town or unfamiliar with our legendary drinking establishments, was located on Rock City Road in Woodstock and, in Sife’s own words, “was a funky, scruffy, smoky, dimly-lit meeting place, with strong character and special magic to it.” In short, this was a serious drinking bar, which its proprietor, Dick Stillwell, had purchased following his discharge from the navy during Word War II. In keeping with his nautical background — and to offer further evidence that the Sea Horse wasn’t some swanky establishment catering to a fancy clientele — Stillwell strung a series of nautical semaphore letter flags from wall to wall. As Sife recounts, “To most everyone they looked like an attractive part of the decor. But to any former navy man, or the enlightened they spelled out F**k You.”

As you might expect, the Sea Horse produced its fair share of characters and Sife offers up a colorful cast of Wodstockers who run the gamut from “postwar artists, writers, and independent thinkers as well as a variety of pretenders and wannabes.” And, though last names are seldom used, the reader is introduced to a merry band of revelers who find a certain degree of liberation in postwar Woodstock. There is, of course, ongoing partying combined with skinny-dipping in Cooper Lake, the Sawkill and most any other place Sife and his cohorts found water. Various romantic trysts also fill the pages including the evening “Lance and Naomi” inadvertently parked their car beneath the glow of the Sea Horse’s neon sign, presenting the voyeurs inside with a front row seat to the couple’s ensuing “conversation.” Indeed, Sife himself is not shy about offering up the numerous times he fell both in love and out of love during his tenure at the Sea Horse.


Part memoir, part local history — including a chapter each on two of Woodstock’s more enduring figures, Holley Cantine and Father Francis — Sife presents the reader with a human look at a town in transition. As Woodstock began to inch towards the sixties and all that would follow, Tales from the Sea Horse reveals a portion of the foundation upon which the coming change would rest. And, while no one can say precisely when the door to a new era opens and the old one closes, Sife, with humor and an obvious affection for Woodstock, returns us to a period of changing times in an ever-changing town. (Tales from the Sea Horse is available at


Woodstock by the numbers

I’m not a great fan of numbers and, in particular, this subject they call “math.” No doubt it all stems from a deep seeded grudge I’ve held ever since I spent the better part of my ninth grade summer retaking algebra. Still, I will concede, when looking back at the rambling road Woodstock has followed over the years, numbers can provide a certain degree of context when it comes to deciphering our past.

For example, not too long ago, I wrote about the vote for women’s suffrage in 1917. In particular I noted that, though the amendment to grant women the right to vote in New York State passed state-wide, Ulster County managed to run counter to the majority by a tally of 1,628-838. Recently, I was able to locate the actual vote for Woodstock. Here, unfortunately, the news is not much better. As reported on the day following the election, Woodstock voters (all men, of course), sided with the rest of the county. The final tally in Woodstock was 116 against granting the vote to women with 53 in favor. In looking further at the tally from around the county, it appears that in only one election district, Warwarsing’s 6th, did voters favor giving women access to the ballot box, 68-45. The only other district in which the vote was close was Kingston’s sixth where the vote tied 100 to 100. Ninety-nine years later, as Hillary Clinton has become the first woman to secure the Presidential nomination of a major political party, will today’s Woodstockers reverse the preferences of our fore bearers? Since Democrats easily out number Republicans these days — numbers that were quite the opposite a century ago — we would appear ready to do so. Then again, when it comes to numbers and my track record, you might want to avoid laying any bets.

A numbers side note: Despite the need for new glasses, I recently made my way through a small print listing of professions in Woodstock for the years 1870-1871. Were you a resident of our fair town some 145 years ago, chances are high that you would have labored to extract vegetables and grains from Woodstock’s rocky soil. More specifically, the census (again, in which only men are counted) shows 196 Woodstockers claiming farming as their primary occupation. While far distant in numbers, but also involving the task of taking from the land, 15 Woodstockers cited operating a bluestone quarry as their primary profession. Rounding out the list were 11 hotel operators, 11 sawmill operators, 9 blacksmiths, 7 carpenters, 4 clergy, 4 merchants, 4 teamster operators, 3 butchers and 2 physicians. And, as other professions such as harness maker, wood turner, shoemaker and a wagon maker are also noted, there is little doubt in the mind of the reader that, in 2016, we are a far cry from where we started.


Trouble in Utopia

Finding my way back to some old newspapers, I recently stumbled across a story that peels back the curtain a bit on Ralph Whitehead and his Byrdcliffe colony. Always somewhat enigmatic, the story portrays Whitehead in a slightly more personal light while also demonstrating how human frailty can intrude on even the best of intentions.

At the early age of 17, Robert Johnston was considered by those who new him in Chicago as an artist with “considerable ability.” Recognizing that talent, according to a September, 1907 article in the Kingston Freeman, friends arranged to provide Johnston with an introduction to Ralph Whitehead not long after Whitehead had launched his Byrdcliffe enterprise. Also impressed by the young artist, Whitehead took an interest in the artist’s education and invited him to pursue his talents along the slopes of Overlook. For almost four years, Johnston explored his art at Byrdcliffe during the summer months and, when winter was upon Woodstock, enrolled in art classes in Philadelphia and New York at Whitehead’s expense.

It was early in 1907, however, that things began to change. According to the Freeman, Johnston, after a number of summers at Byrdcliffe, “began acting strangely and was not allowed to sleep at the houses of members of the colony.” Taking up residence in a small cottage nearby and “securing meals at whatever house he applied,” Johnston refused to do any work and began to harass others for money. When those in the colony refused his demands, Johnston, according the Freeman, “began making threats and some of the artists became frightened.”

Despite a concerned intervention by Whitehead, the young artist continued his refusal to undertake any work. In addition, he appears to have been furthered troubled when a young woman working at the colony as a “servant” rejected his advances.

The situation at Byrdcliffe escalated one Sunday evening when Johnston took to pounding on the doors and windows of colony residents in the middle of the night. Realizing that the young man’s condition was moving beyond his power to control, Whitehead sent Johnston to Kingston the following day to meet with a doctor. Finding the doctor out of the office, however, Johnston returned to Byrdcliffe where, into the night, Whitehead’s coachman sat with him. Becoming alarmed at Johnston’s increasingly erratic behavior as the night wore on, the coachman, at about 1 a.m., left to seek help. Finding the colony’s foreman, the two returned only to find Johnston missing. According to the Freeman, “They searched for him for nearly an hour, but finally when the moon emerged from behind a cloud bank they saw him at the top of a high chestnut tree, more than twenty feet from the ground, and when he descended, his pockets were found to be full with rocks.”

The following day, understanding that the young man had become both a threat to himself and to those within the colony, Whitehead arranged to have Johnston undergo a “sanity” examination in Kingston. Arriving at the courthouse in Kingston late in the day, Johnston, with Whitehead at his side, was examined by a collection of doctors who agreed on the need for institutionalization. Accordingly, following application by Whitehead, Judge Cantine committed the once promising artist to the asylum in Middletown, N.Y. Unfortunately, the situation escalated when, ordered into a jail cell to await the arrival of attendants from Middletown, Johnston became highly agitated and refused to enter the cell willingly. According to the Freeman, “he yelled and fought and four men had all they could do to carry him from the corridor to the jail, where Johnston begged to be allowed his liberty on the grounds that he was to be married in the evening.” Such was the state of mental health treatment in 1907.

And so, our everyday history goes on. As might be obvious from the above, it is not always a perfect history. Still, as the years pass — as we continue to fill in the days of the calendar with our all-too-human experiences — it is a past that reflects on, as the late singer John Stewart once offered, “a bunch of people just doing the best they could.”


Richard Heppner is Woodstock Town Historian


(Note: With thanks to Tom Ocker for contributing the occupation census from 1870-1871. Tom is the master when it comes to delving into the depths of