A look at mid-century country life in the Catskills

Laura Aley, 1928-1994

In the early 1980s, when Laura Aley of Big Indian was in her 60s, she had a stroke that paralyzed her right side. Not one to sit around and do nothing, she promptly saved up money for a word processor and began writing accounts of country life, describing local families, homes, and businesses, including the many tourist resorts in the Oliverea Valley.

Her daughter, Mary Lou Stapleton, has published the 93 one-page stories in a book entitled Laurels by Laura, which begins with the author’s arrival in the hamlet in the 1940s, when she was “only married a year” and was “as the bible says ‘heavy with child.’” Although she was only moving from the hamlet of Shandaken, less than a dozen miles to the east, distances were much farther in those days, and she was afraid of being lonely. In her introduction, she wrote that she needn’t have worried:

It took me a while to get everyone in the community attached to a name, but when I did, it was like one big household, where everyone knew everyone else, their trade and even their children’s ages. There were picnics and gatherings in the soft dusk of evening, and maybe someone would bring out their accordion for a bit of music. I look back on those days and thank God I had the opportunity to enjoy the togetherness and the warmth.

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Beyond her arrival in the community, Laura tells us almost nothing about herself. A few details of her life were filled in for this article by Mary Lou, who formerly ran the Big Indian Trading Post with her husband, Frank. The Stapletons are lifetime members of the fire company and founders of both the Catskill Mountain Classic Car Club and the Big Indian Native American Cultural Center. Mary Lou now chairs the board of the Shandaken Museum, which is selling copies of the book and will benefit from the $10 purchase price. 

Laura’s husband, Archie, was the son of Archie and Theresa Aley, owners of Aley’s General Store, at the intersection of Route 28 and Oliverea Road. When his parents died, Archie, Jr., took over the store, which later became Morra’s Market and is currently closed, awaiting further development. Laura, mother of two children, occasionally worked in the shop, had a job for years at Heick’s meat market on Route 42, and served as secretary to several town supervisors. She was also a part-time postal clerk.

When she began writing her book, Laura called up neighbors and invited them over to answer questions, so she was able to trace histories of people and places stretching back before her own time. The Oliverea School, for example, was built in 1886 but was not opened until 1935, for reasons she was not able to discover. She lists some of the students who attended the one-room school, including Archie and Tom Aley, Ralph Combe (Sr.), Virgil Winne, and others. As she reports, “The state provided the children with honey and peanut butter and they used to scoop this up by the spoonful, then sit by the potbelly stove to keep warm.” 

The text is replete with quirky stories such as the time Tom (Aley, presumably) took a city girl to a square dance at Sid Levine’s tavern. Each time he swung her, a button popped off the long row of buttons down the back of her dress. When she got home, breathless from the swinging, she found only two buttons remaining.

There are tales about Laney Burnham’s Crystal Spring House, where water from the backyard spring was so cold, it was used to supply a little reservoir that served as a refrigerator for the milk and butter served to boarders. Young folk were once allowed to hold a dance in the dining room — but only if they took off their shoes. “Can you imagine doing the do-si-do on a highly polished floor in your socks?” comments Laura. “Her floor was a bit more polished when the dance was over!”

Other resorts are described: the Valley View, which is now the Full Moon Lodge; Casimir’s Lodge, which by the time of Laura’s writing had become “an Ash-Ram, run by its devotees” (although she doesn’t mention the 1960s guru, Rudrananda); the Weyside Inn, where logs from an old tannery were found when the pond, still visible today from Route 28, was dug to attract more guests; and many other hotels.

She tells the history of local families, including the Cruickshanks, Hughsons, Bedells, Mabens, Bennetts. Many Germans settled in the valley, such as the Osterhoudts, the Stienborns, and a health faddist named Max Von Stoltzenberg, who habitually lectured people on their diets. 

Specific buildings also get attention. Pardee Jocelyn’s cabin on Little Peck Hollow benefitted from his fondness for beer when he succeeded in insulating the building against the winter cold by lining the walls with sand-filled beer cans. A big gray building next to the firehouse had three apartments, and Laura has something to say about each of the tenants. The woman in the middle unit, Maria Conte, “put the fear of God in all the children by saying such things as ‘You better be good or the faucets will run with blood!’”

Laura reveals flaws in the tight-knit community — the occasional suicide, the “town inebriate,” who was the good-natured butt of many practical jokes and spent most winters cozy in the county jail. But she is mostly nostalgic for days gone by, when everyone had time for “the neighborly coffee and cake. Maybe if you have a little time to read these anacdotes [sic], you will get the warm and  humorous feeling that we all had then.”

Laurels by Laura is available at the Shandaken Historical Museum, 26 Academy Street, Pine Hill. The book costs $10, with proceeds benefiting the museum, which is open Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The museum offers exhibits on town history, with vintage photographs, tools, furniture, and many other artifacts. The files also contain abundant information on local families and former boarding houses. 

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