When the Reformed Church of New Paltz first organized Old New Paltz Stone House Day in 1950, the historic houses on Huguenot Street were still privately owned. Residents dressed in Colonial costumes for the occasion and invited visitors to tour their homes. The day also included pageants, reenactments, performances, crafts and games; a celebration that Historic Huguenot Street continued after they eventually acquired the historic houses. But after 59 years, in 2009, the last such event was held.
The 2018 revival of Old New Paltz Stone House Day, held on September 8, would likely have seemed familiar to attendees of those past events. Historic Huguenot Street became an immersive experience in history as dozens of reenactors and costumed interpreters offered demonstrations and performances throughout the day. The young members of the 4-H Club brought a petting zoo and demonstrated old-time crafts and games, and docents dressed in period garb welcomed visitors into the old stone houses for self-guided tours.
The Freer House had never been open to the public before, and the LeFevre House and Bevier-Elting House seldom open their doors due to preservation issues. The 1799 LeFevre House has been used primarily as a storehouse for Historic Huguenot Street collections such as the portraits on view on its walls during Old New Paltz Stone House Day, works depicting Huguenot patentee descendants and their spouses.
Visitors to the 1698 Bevier-Elting House were welcomed by a costumed interpreter who came by her handmade lace cap and petticoat honestly, as a Huguenot patentee descendant. Dina DuBois displayed a photograph of herself in the house taken 65 years ago, when her grandmother lived there. Dina offered visitors a firsthand glimpse into Huguenot Street history, including a lively story about the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to the home in his Packard to return some borrowed documents. Family members told her grandmother, who was making preserves in the kitchen when Roosevelt arrived, that “the President came to see you.” Thinking it an attempt at humor, grandmother DuBois said “if he brought Churchill and Stalin with him, tell him I’ll be right out.”
In celebrating the 340th anniversary of the settling of New Paltz by the original 12 patentees, the festivities were designed to focus on the diversity of regional history, highlighting the many cultures who impacted New Paltz and Ulster County, including African, Dutch, French, English, and Esopus Munsee.
Culinary historian and cooking teacher Lavada Nahon offered an interesting open-fire cooking demonstration, speaking to the life and culture of the enslaved Africans in the Hudson Valley in the mid-18th century. The sugar cookie we know today, made with vanilla, would have been made with rosewater at the time, she noted, as vanilla was a rarity. And garlic had no place in cooking, as it was considered a medicinal plant then.
Bonney Hartley, tribal historic preservation officer for the Stockbridge-Munsee community in Bowler, Wisconsin, shared information about the tribe and their preservation work in their Hudson Valley homelands. Beadwork and books by tribal members were available for purchase. And the recently constructed Wigwam outside the DuBois Fort Visitor Center served as the starting point for three nature walks that took visitors on a tour of the Nyquist-Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary.
An American Revolution-era encampment offered quite a number of reenactors from the 5th New York Regiment and the 1st Ulster County Militia demonstrating period craftsmanship and skills, set up under tents on the lawn across from the DuBois Fort.
Father and son duo James Burr and James Burr, Jr., represented the spectrum of metalworking activities in the era. One of the four founders of the 5th NY Regiment 17 years ago, Burr senior has been a reenactor since 1975. He showed visitors how musket balls were molded from lead heated on a brazier; asked what a brazier was, he said, “basically, a Colonial hibachi.” His is handmade by himself of 40 pieces of metal held together with 25 handmade rivets, similar in design to one on view at Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh. The grill-like device could be used to melt lead bullets, heat the tent and make coffee. Burr, Jr., is a blacksmith of some 20 years experience; a reenactor for 17 of those.
And Tom Johannessen, a mechanic by trade and member of the 5th NY Regiment for eight years, demonstrated woodworking skills. The bench he was working on was handmade by himself to authentic specifications of the Colonial era. Asked how a mechanic came to be working on wood, he noted that both his father and grandfather had been carpenters.
The Crispell Memorial French Church hosted the duo known as “Ministers of Apollo,” Erik Lichack and Eliza Vincz, musicians, artists and historians who presented several programs of live music from the mid-18th century. On the lawn outside the church, under a tent, several concerts by the 77th NY Regimental Balladeers brought the Antebellum and Civil War eras to life with spirited renditions of period music performed on fiddle, guitar, banjo, harmonica, tin whistles, harp, bodhran, bones, bass, trumpet and dulcimer.
The most notable thing about Old New Paltz Stone House Day was its inclusion of multiple eras in history. No matter where one wandered on Huguenot Street last Saturday, one could have a chat with historic interpreter Larry Maxwell one minute, who represented the Dutch militia of the early 17th century, dressed in authentic garb tailored by himself, and then moments later step back into the 21st century, with artist Kevin Cook, whose studio and circa-1820 home on Huguenot Street are opposite the Crispell Church burial ground. Cook held an open house, welcoming visitors on to his porch and inside his home to view his luminous oils, watercolors and prints painted in the traditions of the Hudson River School painters.
And in the backdrop was the distinctive sound of music from the 1910s and 1920s, recorded on cylinders or discs, being played on gramophones. Hurley Heritage Society board member Dan Zalewski brought a collection of his early 20th century gramophones and phonographs, and set up outside of the Deyo House, sharing a tent with fellow board member Raleigh Green, on hand at the event to offer information about the Hurley Heritage Society, which holds its own Stone House Day every year.
Green said he was also there to support the reenactors who also participate in the Hurley Stone House Day. “We’re interested in doing more collaboration with Historic Huguenot Street,” he said, “because pooling our resources creates more engaging programs for the public. These weren’t isolated hamlets in their time, and there was interaction between them historically. Collaborating on events such as this one allows those visitors interested in heritage events a more complete understanding and experience, and makes them want to learn more about both places.”
The emphasis at Old New Paltz Stone House Day on more than one era of Huguenot Street history brought home the point, he noted, that Huguenot Street existed across four centuries of history, not just the Colonial times or in the 17th century, when the Huguenots founded New Paltz. “I think this is a great exhibit here today, expressing the many dynamic changes to the street over time.”
Note to organizers, however, from this reporter: a full day of events requires a full day’s sustenance. The only refreshments available to purchase were bottled water, hard cider and beer, and the promised pretzels ran out early in the day. The availability of lunch or snacks would go a long way toward maximum visitor enjoyment of the festivities.