Ulster County Poorhouse sculpture unveiling set for May 15

Sculptor Trina Greene in the studio with Aging Woman. (Photo by Johanna Longbotham)

“Wher’ neath the cold damp earth lay, and sleep in quiet day by day, and have no more on earth to say, who’ll weep for me?”
– 1852 tombstone inscription,
Rebekah Brower

An 1824 law passed in New York State required that each county build a poorhouse. In a time of few (if any) safety nets, the poorhouses were tax-supported residential institutions established to improve treatment of the poor, to which people were required to go if they could not support themselves. The Ulster County Poorhouse opened in New Paltz in 1828, at the site on Libertyville Road where the Ulster County Fairgrounds and county pool complex are now located.

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The facility closed in 1976 after having housed thousands of people in the intervening years. Some were classified as “insane” or “intemperate,” but the records show just as many who were admitted because of old age, sickness or disability. There were unwed mothers, “debauched” women, abandoned wives, babies and children, former slaves and recent immigrants injured while employed building the Catskill Aqueduct and D & H Canal.

Was the Poorhouse a decent option for these individuals? According to New Paltz town historian Susan Stessin-Cohn, the records show a place with appalling living conditions, with residents denied access to bathing facilities, and the sane and insane cohabiting in the same buildings. Corruption was rampant at times, with administrators wining and dining those charged with inspection of the place in order to buy a good report. And a number of children who landed there were removed from their parents and put on the “orphan trains” of the times, sent off to new families, never to return.

After the facility closed in the ‘70s, and as time went on, there were few local residents left who had any awareness of what had transpired at the local Poorhouse, and even fewer with any interest in remembering: out of sight; out of mind. The buildings were demolished in 1985, though some of the original Poorhouse barns still remain on the Ulster County Fairgrounds. The land adjacent to where the building stood was excavated and the County Pool complex built.

But over the past two decades, we’ve learned a great deal more about this painful chapter of New Paltz history, thanks to the comprehensive research carried out by Stessin-Cohn. It has been nearly 20 years since her interest was piqued, first by repeated references in local death records to residents having been “buried at the Poorhouse” and later by encountering the tombstone of a former Poorhouse resident behind the barns on fairground property.

That discovery was made in the fall of 2000, in the company of colleagues Carol Johnson, coordinator of Elting Memorial Library’s Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection, and Brian McAdoo, a geophysicist and Vassar professor now teaching at Yale-Nus College in Singapore. They walked the grounds for hours searching for a burial ground, until a groundskeeper pointed them towards the location in the woods where he had noticed an old tombstone.

Finding the tombstone of Rebekah Brower, who died at the Poorhouse in 1852 at age 30, inspired Stessin-Cohn to want to learn more, she says, her interest fueled in part by the poignant words on the headstone: “Who’ll Weep for Me?” As it turned out, Brower’s was the only marked grave found at the site, and it’s still a mystery as to how the cost of a headstone for a Poorhouse resident was afforded, and by whom it was erected.

Stessin-Cohn eventually learned just how unique it was to find that one gravestone at the site. Further visits revealed evidence of mass graves in the manner of a “Potter’s Field.” Weather-created erosion in the land was bringing bones and skulls to the surface: somber objects that the historian says she picked up as one would seashells on a beach. Not knowing what to do with them at first, she stored several human skulls in her laundry room. Ultimately, Stessin-Cohn’s research revealed that more than 2,300 residents of the Ulster County Poorhouse had met this sad ending, buried without benefit of headstone or commemoration of any sort.

That will change on Wednesday, May 15 with the unveiling of a bronze memorial dedicated to those forgotten souls, erected outside the entrance to the Ulster County Pool complex. Aging Woman, a life-size statue by local sculptor Trina Greene, will now serve as a permanent tribute to the thousands of individuals who were buried anonymously on the land there, treated no better in death than they had been in their lifetimes. A placard on the spot notes that the memorial is intended to inspire us to aid and protect the needy and vulnerable among us.

Rebekah Brower’s tombstone, inscribed with the four moving stanzas of verse, each ending with the refrain, “Who’ll Weep for Me,” has been reinstalled adjacent to Aging Woman, on a landscaped patio with seating for contemplation. The slate-gray, five-foot-tall rectangular slab, several inches thick, has a worn surface with a design of weeping willows still visible: a symbol often seen in mourning tributes of the time. Lights have been installed to illuminate the memorial after dark.

The unveiling ceremony will begin at 5 p.m. at the 4-H Building on the Fairgrounds. Acting county executive Adele Reiter will introduce Stessin-Cohn, the driving force behind not only the research but also the fundraising efforts that, all these years later, have resulted in the memorial. Stessin-Cohn’s presentation about the Poorhouse residents, “Forsaken in Life, Forgotten in Death,” will be followed at 6 p.m. by the unveiling of the bronze.

The memorial was made through a number of private donations supplemented by county funding from former Ulster County executive Mike Hein, assemblyman Kevin Cahill and the Ulster County Legislature. The project was supported by Ulster County clerk Nina Postupack and the New Paltz Town Board.

“The whole point of doing this memorial is to bring information to people,” says Stessin-Cohn. “I want people to understand the site.” After years of trying to bring the project to fruition, she says she had “kind of given up all hope of anything ever happening.” But if people come out to the site, she adds, “They’ll understand why that monument needs to be there. This history can’t be forgotten. It just can’t be forgotten.”

During the course of the unveiling ceremony, the names of some of those buried at the site will be read aloud. “That name is a person,” says Stessin-Cohn. “That’s what I want people to think about: These people lived here, they died here, and most of them were people about whom nobody cared.”

And like all historical knowledge, its resonance in current affairs demands our attention.

The treatment of Poorhouse residents, a number of whom were immigrants, echoes things people think now about immigration, notes Stessin-Cohn. “The attitude is, ‘We’re not taking care of those immigrants; we’re not paying for that. Why take care of these people… ’ Everything parallels. You look at the way the Poorhouse residents were treated, and you say, ‘How horrible,’ but that’s what some people want to go back to now. That, to me, is a big part of this. We need to look at not only how we treated people in the past, but how we still treat people who are homeless or in need in our country. And that’s why the monument needed to go up.”

Stessin-Cohn also finds disturbing parallels with the way children were removed from their parents at the Poorhouse and the current situation with immigrants at the Mexican border, where parents and children are routinely separated. A law was passed in New York State after 1875, she notes, that required all children between the ages of 3 and 14 to be removed from the Poorhouse and placed in orphanages or asylums. Thirteen children were taken to the Susquehanna Valley Home in 1876, and some were placed in a Kingston public home (where their parents in the Poorhouse could presumably occasionally see them, with some hope of eventually reclaiming them), but others were bound out as indentured servants or sent away on the orphan trains.

Stessin-Cohn received a grant from New York State Archives to create a curriculum on the history of poverty for middle-to-high-school-age students. (That material is still available to teachers.) She has created websites for the county on the topic and frequently gives talks. It was during one of those talks, at Woodland Pond in New Paltz, when she encountered resident and artist Trina Greene in the audience.

Greene was moved by Stessin-Cohn’s presentation about the Ulster County Poorhouse, and inspired to design a monument. A native of the Philadelphia area who studied painting at the Boston Museum School, but considers herself a self-educated sculptor, Greene is best-known locally for Isabella, her statue of an 11-year-old Sojourner Truth that stands in Port Ewen. Greene told Stessin-Cohn that she had expected Isabella to be her last statue, but after hearing about the Poorhouse residents, she felt that she had to do something.

“I went to Trina’s studio a few times while she was working on this,” says Stessin-Cohn. “I’m not a sculptor, but it’s like she took my thoughts and combined them with hers to create this…” The historian’s words trail off in admiration as she tries to do justice to describing the sculpture that depicts an elderly woman draped in a shroud, with butterflies, dragonflies and grasses at her feet, suggesting all the things on the field in which she’ll soon be buried.

According to Greene, in an interview she gave several years ago, the woman’s pose suggests strength, compassion and resignation. “One hand is out to ward off what is coming her way, which is death.”

Stessin-Cohn notes that she’d really rather people come out to see the memorial for themselves, adding that there were many babies and young people buried there, too, but the memorial serves to honor all of them.

Greene will be present at the unveiling ceremony. Unfortunately, her model for the figure (who posed in the buff at age 97 to do so), will not be there, as she passed away recently. A fellow resident at Woodland Pond, Annette Finestone died April 14 at age 102. The native of Accord earned a degree in Political Science from the University of Washington, and in 1946, spent 18 months in Japan as part of the postwar reconciliation effort. Finestone documented Japanese life at that time with hundreds of photographs that were later exhibited in Ulster County, Washington DC and Japan. Her children are expected to attend the unveiling of Aging Woman in her place.

Stessin-Cohn has put together information about the Ulster County Poorhouse and its residents on a website accessible at https://ulstercountyny.gov/poorhouse. Click on the link “Forsaken in Life, Forgotten in Death” for a multimedia presentation created using Story Map, a platform that allows combining maps and images with narrative text in an easy-to-follow format that plays out like a scrolling slideshow.

Unveiling of Aging Woman Poorhouse memorial, Wednesday, May 15, 5 p.m., Ulster County Fairgrounds, 4-H Building, 249 Libertyville Road, New Paltz.

There is one comment

  1. Alexandra Baer

    As Director of Unison Arts Center I appreciate so much the acknowledgement of this period of history and the powerful sculpture by Trina Green. A welcome community piece…I must admit I really love the Unison t-shirt in the picture as well!

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