Sculpture honoring Ulster County Poorhouse residents unveiled at pool site

Susan Stessin-Cohn and Trina Greene with Greene’s bronze statue memorializing the County Poorhouse which formerly occupied the site of what is now the Ulster County Fairgrounds. (Photos by Lauren Thomas)

Aging Woman, a life-sized bronze statue by sculptor Trina Greene, was unveiled amidst much pomp and ceremony last Wednesday, May 15 on the front lawn of the Ulster County Pool on Libertyville Road. Long in the making, the statue is intended to symbolize all the residents of the Ulster County Poorhouse over its 148-year history: construction workers unemployed after the completion of the Catskill Aqueduct and D & H Canal, former slaves, recent immigrants, the sick and maimed, the elderly, unwed mothers, abandoned wives, babies and children, alcoholics, the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

Greene’s artist’s statement describes the figure thus: “An aging and stooped woman, holding together a thin shawl with one hand, looks into a future that is devoid of hope. Her expression shows strength, compassion and helplessness at the same time. Her other arm and hand seem to ward off an uncertain fate. Details of features and shawl become blurred, melting into the mists of the past.” Greene is the same sculptor who created Isabella, a statue of Sojourner Truth at age 11, which now stands in a public park in Port Ewen.

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The event began with a slide presentation and talk in the 4-H Building on the County Fairgrounds by New Paltz town historian Susan Stessin-Cohn, who has been intensively researching the Poorhouse and its residents since 2000. It’s a hair-raising narrative of horrific living conditions, corrupt administrators and thousands of humans who fell on hard times and whose stories have been all but forgotten. Stessin-Cohn displayed images from 19th-century admission books for the poorhouse that showed entire families being admitted and most of them dying of one disease or another within a matter of months. An 1857 investigation classified 12 of the poorhouse’s inmates as “idiots” and another 15 as “lunatics,” one of whom was restrained with chains. Following the Children’s Act of 1875, all youth aged 2 to 16 were removed from New York State’s poorhouses, separated from their families and sent away, many of them aboard the notorious “orphan trains. “A Special Census for Defective, Delinquent and Deformed Classes conducted in 1880 spurred a national interest in “eugenics” that later traveled to Germany and influenced the thinking of the nascent Nazi Party.

Stessin-Cohn’s work documenting and interpreting the poorhouse’s history was largely inspired by her discovery at the site of a single collapsed headstone from the grave of a Poorhouse resident: a 30-year-old woman named Rebekah Maclang Brower who had been sent to the facility for “insanity.” The remains of more than 2,000 others who died while in residence there were laid in unmarked graves, their bones often working their way to the surface following rainstorms. Many were disinterred in the 1970s for the construction of the County Pool, Stessin-Cohn said.

Trina Greene with her recently unveiled statue dedicated to the memory of the residents of the County Poorhouse which formerly existed on the site of the Ulster County Fairgrounds.

Delicately inscribed with weeping willows, a chalice and a poem titled “Who’ll Weep for Me?” Brower’s headstone has now found a permanent home alongside the Aging Woman statue. They are set in a heptagonal plaza of grey paving stones in a herringbone pattern, with low brick walls, suitable for seated contemplation, on two rear sides. Opposite the headstone are interpretive panels with scannable codes that link the visitor to additional historical materials to be found on the Ulster County website. Teachers can also find curriculum resources on the site, developed by Stessin-Cohn, for study units on the history of the poorhouse. Flowerbeds planted with annuals and lilac bushes surround the plaza, and the sculpture itself is illuminated by night with footlights.

The lecture and unveiling event were packed with dignitaries, history buffs and a large turnout from the Woodland Pond retirement community, where the sculptor is currently a resident. So was Annette Finestone, who died on April 14 at the age of 102; she had been Greene’s nude model, five years earlier, for the Aging Woman statue. “I’m so grateful for the many friends who turned out, and for the depth and care given this project,” said Greene following the unveiling. “This has been one of the most meaningful days of my life. I hadn’t seen the sculpture mounted and patinaed before. It turned out just as I’d hoped.”

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