Finding the funding to create a permanent memorial to the approximately 2300 unfortunates who lived and died at the Ulster County Poorhouse has been an epic quest for New Paltz town historian Susan Stessin-Cohn. “Sixteen years ago, the county said they would find the money,” she recalls.
Even while she worked to document and interpret the lives of the poorhouse residents, fragments of their bones would erode out of the old burial ground at the Ulster County Pool site on Libertyville Road every time there was a heavy rain. “People come here for the Ribfest, for the County Fair, for the fireworks, for car shows,” reflected Stessin-Cohn, “but no one ever pays homage to this site.”
At long last, the funds have materialized to make a wax mold and bronze casting from the life-sized clay maquette that sculptor Trina Greene has already created. “She started that statue two years ago, before we had a penny,” Stessin-Cohn recalls. County executive Mike Hein promised $15,000 in seed money for the project, and an organizing committee that includes Stessin-Cohn, county clerk Nina Postupack, former county legislator Fawn Tantillo and other volunteers set out to raise the balance.
Lectures and other fundraising events were organized. An individual donor who wishes to remain anonymous contributed $5000.
At the end of July, the final piece clicked into place. “I got a call from [New Paltz town board member] Dan Torres,” says Stessin-Cohn. “[New York State assemblyman] Kevin Cahill’s office is giving us $25,000!” The member-item funding will be funneled through the town government. “Assemblyman Cahill’s office has been incredible.”
The bronze sculpture, titled Aging Woman, will be mounted on a granite pedestal on a hilly area of lawn between the county pool and its parking lot, not far from the Potter’s Field where indigent Ulster County residents were long buried. The plan is for the statue to remain lit up after dark.
Greene’s artist’s statement describes the figure thus: “An aging and stooped woman, holding together a thin shawl with one hand, looks into a future that is devoid of hope. Her expression shows strength, compassion and helplessness at the same time. Her other arm and hand seem to ward off an uncertain fate. Details of features and shawl become blurred, melting into the mists of the past.”
Greene used a live model for Aging Woman: At 99, Annette Finestone is the oldest resident of the Woodland Pond retirement community, and still very active. “She posed in the raw at 97,” says Stessin-Cohn admiringly.
The official description of the statue envisions it as a monument that will “serve to teach and remind viewers about the time in Ulster County and the rest of the nation during which there were no safety nets at all for the poor and disenfranchised – from the elderly to infants.” The county poorhouse, the only refuge for indigent residents whose families could not care for them, was in operation for 148 years. It housed construction workers unemployed after the completion of the Catskill Aqueduct and D & H Canal, former slaves, recent immigrants, the sick and maimed, the elderly, unwed mothers, abandoned wives, babies and children, the mentally ill and the physically and developmentally disabled.
“The poorhouse was a horrible place,” says the town historian, who through her years of research knows more about the conditions that people endured there than anyone else alive today. While she admits that “we have come a long way” in terms of providing a social safety net for those who cannot fend for themselves, Stessin-Cohen reminds us that many Americans still live in destitute circumstances. She hopes that the monument will “give insight on how we treat people who are homeless right now.” The statue will be accompanied by an educational kiosk explaining the history of the poorhouse and the desperate plight of its residents.
According to Greene, the bronze casting of Aging Woman will probably take place at the Polich Tallix Fine Art Foundry in Rock Tavern. She estimated that it would take about three months to schedule the casting, complete the statue and install it on the site once full funding had been secured. Greene is the sculptor who created Isabella, a statue of Sojourner Truth at age eleven, which now stands in a small public park in Port Ewen.
For more information about the Ulster County Poorhouse Memorial Project, visit www.facebook.com/ulster-county-poorhouse-memorial-project-1065049120187023/timeline.