Secret in the stones

Photograph of the Duck Pond Cabin, taken by Dan Smiley in 1929, just about when it was completed.

Besides the abundant wonders of nature, among the many pleasures of exploring the Mohonk Preserve throughout the seasons is discovering the remnants of early human habitation. There are prehistoric rock shelters and hunting camps, remains of root cellars and livestock enclosures, natural stone walls marking boundaries and dividing pastureland, fragments of millstones that cracked and were abandoned in mid-manufacture, ruins of berrypickers’ dwellings in the Trapps Hamlet and beyond. The era and use of the rockpile you find is not always immediately apparent, however – even once you’re somewhat familiar with the history of Shawangunk settlements.

One intriguing site is a house foundation featuring a beautiful fieldstone chimney with elaborate multileveled hearths, visible only when the leaves fall, in the vicinity of Duck Pond. According to Paul Huth, director of research emeritus at the Preserve, the building in question was a log cabin constructed in the 1920s that burned down in the 1960s.

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The Duck Pond Cabin was one of at least half a dozen wooden huts built by students enrolled at the Mohonk School, a college preparatory institution for boys founded on the Mohonk Mountain House property by Mabel Craven Smiley in 1920. The school relocated to Cragsmoor in 1958 and closed permanently in 1977. About 40 boys aged 10 and up attended the school at any given time, with five teachers.

Photo of the Duck Pond Cabin chimney and foundation today.

Part of the Mohonk School’s mission was to “build strong rugged health into its students.” Accordingly, they were assigned to heavy physical tasks that included building log cabins from local materials at various sites on property belonging to the Mountain House or what is now the Mohonk Preserve. Among the students were Mabel’s two sons, Daniel and Keith Smiley, and Keith is known to have been among those who worked on the Duck Pond Cabin, completed in 1929.

The hut-building program was entirely phased out by the 1940s, and none of the wooden structures have survived. But you can still stop and admire a handsome foundation or chimney here and there.

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