When Robert Andrew “Bob” Larsen passed away on May 3 at age 93, he left behind a legacy as a trailblazer, in the most literal and figurative sense of the word. The dictionary tells us that a trailblazer is “a person who makes a new track through wild country.” Check; in a 40-year career at Mohonk Preserve, Larsen designed and created many of its best-known trails. But a trailblazer is also defined as “a pioneer, an innovator; one who blazes a trail to guide others.” Check that box, too: in his commitment to the preservation of open space, Larsen formed Friends of the Shawangunks in the 1970s and led the charge to protect Lake Minnewaska from corporate development. And by the time he retired from the Preserve in 2014, Larsen’s legacy as a cultural historian included documenting and preserving the formerly-unknown Trapps Mountain Hamlet, securing its designation on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, and co-authoring a book about the area and its people.
Larsen first came to the area as an avid rock climber and hiker. He discovered the Gunks in the 1950s and eventually moved to the Clove with his longtime life-partner, Barbara Lee Rubin. He began working for the Mohonk Trust in 1974 — it would become Mohonk Preserve in 1978 — as their second ranger, joining the Trust’s first employee, ranger Thom Scheuer.
Working with a surveyor, Larsen located and marked more than 50 miles of Preserve boundary lines. Over the years that followed, he designed, cut, and maintained many of the best-known trails on the Preserve, including the Millbrook Ridge Trail, High Peters Kill Trail, Northeast Trail, Enderly Path, Undivided Lot Trail and Bonticou Crag Trail.
In the process of surveying the land, Larsen became intrigued with an area that showed signs of former inhabitance; old stone walls, building foundations and a dilapidated cabin in the woods. His initial interest in the site became a lifelong passion, eventually spending 30 years researching the history and life of the Trapps Mountain Hamlet.
In the Preserve’s orientation video, Larsen is seen introducing visitors to the onetime subsistence community of huckleberry-pickers and stonecutters. The hamlet housed some 40-50 families by the time of the Civil War, who lived a hardscrabble life; “living on the edge,” as Larsen notes.
Their stories were preserved through dozens of interviews Larsen conducted over the years with the last descendants of the community. “Bob interviewed ‘his people,’ as he called them,” Rubin says, “collecting their memories and stories with dignity and respect.”
Larsen oversaw the restoration of the last vernacular structure in the hamlet, the Van Leuven Cabin, and he designed and developed an interpretive trail to the cabin.
(Larsen’s “Walk Back in Time” interpretive trail recording may be heard on the Preserve’s website at http://www.mohonkpreserve.org/visit/activities/the-trapps-mountain-hamlet-path-audio-tour/trapps-mountain-hamlet.html.)
Larsen was also instrumental in securing the listing of the Trapps Hamlet on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, the only such subsistence community of its type to be listed on the historic register in New York.
And the culmination of his commitment to the Trapps Hamlet, says Rubin, was to coauthor a book incorporating his research, teaming up with local historian Robi Josephson to produce a detailed history of a lost hamlet and its people.
In the forward to An Unforgiving Land: Hardscrabble Life in the Trapps, a Vanished Shawangunk Mountain Hamlet (Black Dome Press, 2013), Preserve executive director Glenn Hoagland writes that “no one has done more than Bob Larsen” to preserve the hamlet.
According to Rubin, much of the research Larsen did was through the historical collections at the Elting Memorial Library in New Paltz. “He spent hours there poring through the materials. He truly appreciated, but more than that, he really treasured the resources there. Carol Johnson and Marion Ryan helped him and were very interested in his research. When he was exploring family lines and that kind of history, he found the collections so valuable in bringing that community in its heyday to life.”
As a proponent of open space and with a commitment to protecting the land, Larsen was the first to give Mohonk Preserve a conservation easement on the property he shared with Rubin in the Clove. And Larsen was the catalyst in developing Friends of the Shawangunks into an effective activist organization in the 1970s. As Rubin explains, when the threat of a massive development loomed in the Shawangunks — the Marriott Corporation’s plan for Lake Minnewaska — Larsen assembled a small group of friends and other concerned individuals to take action. Friends of the Shawangunks (FOS) was formed as an advocacy group to fight the development. “Bob’s quiet, unobtrusive leadership helped convince New York State, more than ten years later, to acquire both Lake Minnewaska and the Sam’s Point properties for inclusion in the New York State park system,” Rubin says. “He was proud of the success of that effort, and FOS always remained dear to his heart.”
In the 55 years the couple shared, Rubin remembers Bob Larsen as “a man who knew how to live life to the fullest.” As a young man, he joined the U.S. Merchant Marine, shipping out during World War II to deliver troops, supplies and ammunition. After the war, he worked as an x-ray technician in New York City, serving homeless men at a shelter in the Bowery. He married his first wife, Ann Leiter, and their son, Erik, was born.
A champion of the disenfranchised, Larsen worked for civil rights, participating in lunch counter sit-ins as a form of nonviolent civil disobedience. He opposed nuclear armament, became an anti-war activist and was arrested for nonviolent protests a number of times. He was a world traveler, an ardent rock climber and a jazz music enthusiast.
A natural teacher and master storyteller, he was known for his inspiring and entertaining nature walks, Rubin adds. An avid birder, Larsen did the first scientific “bird list” for the Preserve, and was the recipient of the Mohonk Consultations 2008 Environmental Achievement Award as a “trailblazer, educator and protector of the Ridge.”
“Bob reinvented his life numerous times,” says Rubin; “each time with conviction, passion, energy and commitment.”