When I run into Ann Byer, usually outside the Phoenicia post office or the bank, she reels off a list of readings, concerts, films, benefits, or political events she’s been to or is thinking of going to. Usually I’m unaware of most of them, although I’m on Facebook and email, while Ann does not touch computers. When asked how she knows about everything going on in Shandaken and Woodstock, she replies, “I talk to people.”
Ann has lived her whole life in or near Shandaken, except for a year at the University of Utah, a few months in Manhattan, and trips to Puerto Rico. She recalls her son, Aaron, standing on a ladder to work on the façade of Sweet Sue’s, while Ann kept introducing him to Main Street passersby. By the end of the project, he told a friend, “She introduced me to 250 people, and there are only 50 people living in town.”
She comes from an old Shandaken family whose stories mirror the history of the town. Her grandfather, Lew Hallenbeck, was a lumberman who owned a sawmill and over 100 acres in Woodland Valley. “He knew John Burroughs,” said Ann. “His favorite book was Pilgrim’s Progress, and he read Aesop’s fables to me.” His wife was from New York City, a Hunter College graduate and a milliner. Helen Keller was one of her clients.
Their four sons all went off to World War II. The one who died was the one who never left the states. He tried to help another soldier whose gun had jammed, and it misfired. “Have you ever seen the totem pole in the back room at the Gilded Carriage in Woodstock?” Ann asked. “My uncle carved it. I remember it being up at the mill. He sold it for drinking money. Later it sold for $10,000. My grandfather wouldn’t tolerate artistic tendencies in his sons.”
The boys’ only sister, Ann’s mother, married a phone company lineman from Kingston who came to Shandaken to hunt deer. When Ann was four, they bought the house that became the Windy Ridge pre-school, along the former course of Route 28. She put up such a fuss about leaving the valley, they let her stay with her grandparents. Her memories of that time are vivid. “My grandfather got me a pony, and I fell off, so my mom got rid of the pony. Then he got me a mule, Jezebel. He dammed up the creek, and we had a fabulous swimming hole. I’m glad my children got the benefit of the swimming hole, but a flood came in 1989 that demolished it. My grandfather used to tell city people that cows had shorter legs on one side for grazing on the hillside, and they believed him.”
Ann’s mother was one of four in her graduating class at Margaretville High School. Ann started first grade in 1952, the opening year of the building that is now Onteora High School, where she had all her classes through twelfth grade. Then she attended Ulster County Community College for two years, followed by a year at the University of Utah, where, she said, “The only A I got was in skiing. There you were an immediate celebrity if you were from New York. Everyone said, ‘You have to meet the other girl from New York.’” Ann became close friends with the other New Yorker, a Manhattan debutante.
At SUNY New Paltz, Ann completed a bachelors in psychology, with teaching certification. She did her student teaching and subbed in the Onteora district until she was elected to the school board, where she served for one term. In the early 1970s, she started a nursery school in the barn at Windy Ridge, called Babes in the Woods. Her daughter was one of the first students.
Later, Ann taught at a Montessori school in Kingston but took a civil service job with benefits at the Kingston City Laboratory when her marriage was breaking up. She worked at the lab for 15 years. “We did all the bloodwork for the hospitals,” she recalled. “It was such a boon to the community.” Between the two jobs, she often worked seven days a week, 15 hours a day. Meanwhile, she was raising two children, pretty much on her own. “Their dad came home on weekends, and I split on weekends.”
Her daughter left town right after high school, moving to Colorado, where she earned a bachelors in art history, became a certified ski instructor, and opened an art gallery. Her two sons were born at 10,000 feet. Ann’s son now lives in Nashville and has three kids.
We’re standing under the eaves of the third-floor room of Ann’s house on the outskirts of Phoenicia, looking at the lamps she has been constructing out of wooden salad bowls. This room is one of four that are filled with items she has brought home from thrift shops and yard sales or been given by friends. We look over piles of boxes and shelves of objects: martini glasses, juicers, clothes. She hefts a hank of maybe 50 lanyards with laminated paper badges hanging from them, souvenirs of the volunteering that has gotten her into such events as the Woodstock Film Festival, the Phoenicia Festival of the Voice, and many others.
“I’ve been collecting ties for years,” she said. “It’s nothing I deliberately set out to do. I just couldn’t resist them.” She had accumulated perhaps 100,000 neckties, which she arranged by color and pattern. A few months ago, her sister swooped up from Long Island and took all the ties to a landfill when Ann was not home.
Visitors to Arts Upstairs, the former Phoenicia art gallery, might remember Ann’s mats woven out of ties, which hung on walls or adorned tables. Her tapestry of Christmas ties covered the top of a grand piano at a Best Western in Colorado. At the gallery, she also displayed assemblage art, including the tray adorned with watches, entitled “Serving Time.”
Ann pursued art actively from an early age. At the University of Utah, where the art department was housed in a former army barracks, she took classes in art history and painting. Years later in Woodstock, she studied with portraitist Franklin Alexander.
On visits to Puerto Rico, where she rented an apartment on a farm, she collected “literally tons” of beach glass and used it to make jewelry. She showed me a minimalist sketch of a man’s head, made in Puerto Rico, using makeup because she hadn’t brought art supplies.
Besides art and collecting, reading is Ann’s biggest pastime. “I read anything and everything. I don’t believe in fiction and nonfiction. I think they’re so commingled that when people ask me, ‘Do you read fiction?’, I say, ‘I don’t use that terminology.’ I just finished the Comey memoir and the Woodward book. I like female contemporary writers — Elizabeth George, Tana French, Maeve Binchy. I read some Zen and Buddhist books.” She attends a weekly meditation group at Woodstock Healing Arts in Bradley Meadows.
Ann has volunteered for the Family of Woodstock hotline since 2001. She helps out at the food pantry at the Methodist church in Phoenicia, and she works as an elections inspector. Her main paying job these days is home care. “It’s been very interesting. You’re not just dealing with one person. There’s a whole family dynamic, and it gets to be pretty intimate.” One of her clients was a young attorney. “We’d watch Jeopardy together, and he’d ask me, ‘How do you know this?’ I’d say, ‘Because I read. All you know about is the law.’”