Yankeetown Pond bought for a dollar! (Part 1)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Part I

Rumors proliferate in Woodstock like botulism in an ancient can of tuna fish. So until it failed to go away, I paid little mind to the one in the headline. A single visit to the town offices, however, and the gossip was at least partially substantiated. Someone named Erin Moran had indeed purchased 24 acres of land under and around one of Woodstock’s less advertised treasures (which occupies approximately 125 acres) for a dollar.

Now suddenly “No Trespassing” signs and huge tree trunks block the traditional parking spots for non-resident, long-time lovers of Yankeetown Pond. The change seems ominous and to have come from out of nowhere. But on closer inspection neither is true, though the situation — like the history it caps — is complex, to say the least.

 

“Yankeetown” was what a portion of present-day Woodstock was called before the American Revolution. All that remains of the tradition is the lake called Yankeetown Pond on Glenford-Wittenberg Road. It contains a tiny island into which (according to our Historical Society’s 1951 article by Ruth Oxhandler) a civil war veteran once dug the home he was later buried in after his wife deserted him for, shall we say, better digs. Next called “South Woodstock,” the region finally became known as Wittenberg in 1893.

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It’s said that local hunters centuries ago dammed the Little Beaverkill to create Yankeetown Pond. This explains an original water-course which would indeed have been pond sized. Then, circa the1920s, a certain Tom Shultis compensated owners for lands bordering YTP, which he then flooded with a new berm atop a steep set of rapids. Down this slope he built a wooden sluiceway beneath a wooden bridge (today replaced with a giant culvert.) By such means Shultis contained a sufficient volume of water to power his new sawmill and — I suggest — create a mile long lake which never changed its name from Yankeetown Pond. The original Little Beaverkill remained a deep channel through the middle of it, cleared by strong current every time the sluiceway was opened to power the mill. From this point forward, whoever owned the mill — or the land it then dominated — also controlled the fate of Yankeetown Pond.

In 1932 the Wittenberg Sportsmen’s Club was formed and an impressive budget grew from “square dancing on Saturday nights, the sale of soft drinks and sandwiches, a 25 cents admission and local talent playing for nothing.” Oxhandler further explains, “In 1937, about 20 men, giving all their spare hours built a 30 by 40 clubhouse facing Yankeetown Pond.” With the club’s gradual purchase of additional lands (and another facility built below Snake Rocks), a robust hunting, trapping, and fishing culture rooted itself around YTP which all but held the modern world at bay. According to old-time local Kenny May (in the extensive video by Keiko Sono) YTP contained the most extensive fish population in the region and as late as the 1950’s was as deep as 15 feet. Motorboats, water-skiers, even demolition derbies on the thick ice, add to the pond legend.

Walter Haeker bought the front and south side of YTP in 1953, probably at the moment the sawmill ceased to function. A successful baker in New York City, Haeker was a much-loved local character who evidently assumed fastidious care of Yankeetown Pond (where he happened to host the Marx Brothers on several occasions, according to Lenny “B” Busciglio.) Lenny, for instance, recalls as a boy helping Walter clear the central channel near the island which gradually filled after the sawmill closed down.

 

In 1966 Bearsville-born Howard Shultis was working for Bob Holsapple, plumber and excavator. That was the year Millens Steel of Kingston removed all metals (but the brass turbine) from YTP’s defunct sawmill. Howard and the Holsapple crew then tore down the wooden sluiceway and burned it along with the old mill. Then, using two ten-wheeler trucks, they removed enough clay from Frank Busciglio’s rear meadow to create a sizable pond. The crew then dumped — and Howard personally bulldozed — untold tons of clay into what had once been the sluiceway’s steep descent, leaving the mills’ run-off ramp (vaguely visible still near the beginning of Pond Road) as the sole and unchecked egress for Yankeetown Pond. “And no sir,” the 78 year old Shultis recently assured me, “that clay hasn’t moved since.”

Whether these actions were ordered by a developer buying up such lands or by the Town of Woodstock in cooperation with such development, is not known. They were certainly not ordered by Haeker. The 66 year old Lenny Busciglio today recalls fishing on the sluiceway-bearing berm at 14 years of age — that is 52 years ago — which would have been 1966.

On this particular summer afternoon, Lenny is certain he overheard his pal Walter telling a man, “You lower the gate so the snow-melt off doesn’t flood the pond in the spring, and then you raise it back up and keep the water high in the summer so the lily pads don’t take over.” In fact, it seems to have been almost immediately after this chance encounter that the mill and sluiceway were destroyed, and the old rapids were filled with clay. Thus, if it had not been for local beaver hearing the sound they dreaded most, namely, fast-moving water rushing — in this case out of the YTP mill’s run-off ramp — it almost certainly would have been reduced to a fetid swamp 50 years ago. Instead that distinct possibility confronts us today.

 

Located a mile south of the old Wittenberg Store on Glenford-Wittenberg Road, Pond Road proceeds north leaving YTP to the right where it is quickly joined by two side roads branching off to either side. To the right Charlie Spanhanke Lane commemorates the colorful local who lived and died at its end; to the left Elting Lane proceeds through thick woods towards to Wittenberg Road. During the destruction of the mill back in ‘66 Howard Shultis remembers Elting Lane (called “the commons” through his childhood) as nothing but a mud track. Bob Cross Jr., however, recalls that at about this time his father (Bob Cross Sr.) surveyed lots for Riverby Inc. on Elting Lane. Jerry Wapner, who headed Riverby, better remembers brief development by a sister company, Rivka Estates, which took over earlier Riverby development. Both Rivka and Riverby faltered and/or failed in the mid-seventies after the OPEC oil embargo brought local real estate to a screeching halt for almost two years.

Fifty years ago the late Jimmy Cousins was as expert an earth-mover as any found in Woodstock. For much of the sixties and seventies he was employed almost constantly by Jerry Wapner. At Wapner’s order, circa 1970, Cousins created Pond Road and cleared the sub-division named “Yankeetown Pond Associates.” But first Cousins had to deal with the front of YTP, itself.

Cousins would have removed the beaver dam at the original mill overflow paralleling Glenford-Wittenberg Road while leaving intact the first bridge spanning the stream. He then bulldozed into place the existing berm, destroyed the main bridge, lowered and sealed into place the gigantic culvert  (rumored to have been a railroad tank car torched to fit). He then constructed a spillway of boulders at what was perceived to be an ideal height for YTP (in the same location of today’s beaver dam — at the northern most corner of the lake), then finally he sealed off the old overflow, removed its bridge, and filled in the old egress. The arrangement seems to have worked admirably until the deep ice of 1980s winter was flooded with a January thaw rain. The berm was broached and tons of ice choked the spillway eventually functioning as a plow, knocking the spillway’s boulders down the stream.

The DEC next constructed a dam of heavy plastic mesh-encased boulders, complete with “beaver deceivers” (masking the location of out-rushing water).

 

In the late seventies Ed and Kathy Moran moved to the area with their children. Ed hunted locally until a buck directly met his gaze, rendering him incapable of pulling the trigger. He used to take his daughter Erin up Pond Road to practice for her Onteora track meets, although they ended up fishing together in YTP more often than Erin ran. By that time the lily pads were not yet on the march. But since the pond had never been dredged since the sawmill’s demise, a silt-filled basin was raised up by beavers, who, to many residents seemed more an annoyance than a rescuer. Every spring the newly reinforced beaver dam would push the spring melt-off ever higher until the flooding of the Pond Road became an annual event. But with the absence of Haecker and the disappearance Rivka no one knew who owned or controlled Yankeetown Pond anymore. And as it turns out — neither did the owners, themselves.

When Jerry Wapner developed the area he created a “Yankeetown Pond Association,” in which 29 neighbors were deeded authority over the front of YTP through a covenant which read: “Each lot owner shall…receive an undivided 1/29 interest in right of use… and shall have the full use and enjoyment of the pond area.” But both a title attorney and real estate attorney have recently stated that the word “interest” in this case translates in legal terms as an interest in the right of use, not an interest in ownership. So actually it was only recently that the 29 YTP associates were informed that they did not collectively own the front of the lake. Whereupon the foremost question in everyone’s mind became: “So who does?”

 

All that non-resident Woodstockers knew was that a strong west wind would sweep YTP’s ice clear of snow, clear back to its swampy beginnings  a mile to the East. So throughout our childhoods the ice skating was dreamlike. Bonfires often burned through the night to keep the ice-fishers warm. Among the many locals who drove out on the pond in January, Roger Shultis dragged his son Lonnie and a gaggle of pals at thrilling speeds on a long rope behind his Jeep. One of those boys, by the name of Mike Reynolds, would grow up to become Woodstock’s Highway Superintendent.

Eventually it was Reynolds who received desperate calls from Pond Road residents; it was Reynolds who sent out “a few of the guys,” to clear a streamlet the beavers invariably jammed with debris, and it was Reynolds who first took the heat when the old world met the new.

Over the last century New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection [DEP], has become watchdog over one of the largest sources of New York City’s drinking water: The Ashokan Reservoir and its watershed. Indeed the DEP owns or controls vast lands as well as hundreds of streams, rivers, ponds and lakes including more than half of YTP (acquired from the Weissman family in the 1990s.) DEP territory begins at the island and proceeds east, containing roughly a hundred acres of water. Add that to its 750 or so acres of surrounding watershed and the result is the  851 acres known as the “Yankeetown Pond Unit.” But it is the front 24 acres recently conveyed to Erin Moran which is where most “outsiders” get onto YTP — that 24 acres being the obvious hotspot inspiring this inquiry.

In 2015, Mike Reynolds’ crew misunderstood his instructions to clear the riverlet flooding Pond Road, and instead removed eighteen inches of the main beaver dam. Downstream at Wilson State Park the DEC happened to be testing for bacteria. Tracing the sudden influx of filthy water back to the efforts of the Woodstock Highway Department at YTP, Mike Reynolds was slapped with fines (eventually dropped). So began the yearly permit taken out by the Town of Woodstock to clear the beaver’s clogged riverlet, while leaving the main dam alone. Over the years this “debris removal” has been undertaken by 42-year Pond Road resident Steve Morris — he being one of the 29 who thought they owned Yankeetown Pond.

Read Part 2.

There are 2 comments

  1. Phil

    I live about 1500 feet from YTP, and have long wheeled my kayak to the dam for a pleasant paddle. Now I’m confronted by No Trespassing signs and a new fence (possibly illegally built, as I never saw a permit). There was a sign suggesting that we use the DEP access point… but where is it? I’ve driven up and down that section of G-W Road and have not seen a parking area, sign, or trail head. Anyway, the dam is a traditional public access point, so summarily and arbitrarily denying access is probably illegal, as there is now no way to legally get to the water. DEP refuses to say anything about it, and WEC says it’s not their area of concern.

    The best solution would be for the town (or DEP) to take the land (dam and everything south of the north shore) by eminent domain and preserve public access. The land around and under the pond is useless for building, so Moran would be ahead by not having to pay taxes on this useless land. Whoever controls the dam is also legally bound to maintain a reasonable pond water level that doesn’t damage surrounding roads, present a danger to motorists who flip their cars off the road (no guardrails), or flood septic fields.

  2. shawn

    Our land is about 200 yards from the dam at Yankeetown Pond. We are about to start construction. This is very very concerning – eagerly awaiting Part 2.

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