House of stories

“A guy killed himself here.”

“If you come across a skeleton while digging out back, don’t freak out. It’s a horse.”

“A biker gang rented here in the Sixties. Trashed the place.”

An old house comes with stories. Although we’ve lived in Big Blue, our 1910 Victorian in Phoenicia, for 18 years, we’ve only just begun musing deeply on the tales herein. Now we want more.

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Since the pandemic, we’ve sunk even deeper into this property, and it has sunk into us. I now know that the bird who sings Beethoven’s Fifth is a Baird’s sparrow. The one nesting on the porch, raising fledglings with her peak-capped mate, is a phoebe. The wingtips of the creature circling the creek indicate it’s not an eagle or heron, but a vulture. That’s a sugar maple. That’s a Norway maple, actually an invasive species. Those are dead ash trees. That’s a hemlock. The tanning industry nearly wiped them out, ruining the landscape, until Mother Nature healed it to its present, lush, tourist-friendly state.

This information did not come from the news cycle. It’s of this land we call home, land on which we’ve raised a child, joined a community to which we happily pay taxes, and from which we’ve found meaningful work. Like inverse echoes, these stories and factoids resonate ever louder, whetting our appetite for extra detail. Just where, exactly, have we been sheltering – largely in front of screens – all these years? Time has slowed, and tales we would have previously zoomed past now loom larger.

What we know: the McGrath family built Big Blue and occupied it for a little over 60 years. As with many houses of the era, carpenters used a lot of then-plentiful American chestnut for doors, molding, and trim. It was the first house on this street. The McGraths were dairy farmers then, and owned a general store in town. House was heated by coal and a wood stove. It was erected on a rise, with a seven-foot basement because builders knew the Esopus would occasionally flood, and the water would need to go somewhere. (They were so right.)

Over the 20th century, as Phoenicia morphed from dairy land and tanneries to a tourist economy, the McGraths sold off the plots that would become our neighborhood. Our street now features trailers, bungalows, A-frames, cabins, shacks, our Victorian. The Esopus runs alongside the blacktop. The long-abandoned Ulster & Delaware railroad tracks – which enabled the transition to tourism – follow that flow. Because we are of the New York City watershed, development is restricted. This, I hope, means no McDonald’s or some such monstrosity anywhere near here. Hooray.

The McGraths sold their last 4.5 acres in 1974 to Parry Teasdale and his wife, social worker Carol Vontobel. They raised three daughters here. All attended Onteora and matriculated to universities and into the world. The Teasdale-Vontobels bred chickens, geese, ducks, and owned a horse and a pony. The barn still stands. I used the vestiges of their garden to create my own. One of those equine animals is buried somewhere in the backyard.

Parry Teasdale was Woodstock Times editor for a while. He wrote the acclaimed book Videofreex in our attic, about the group of the same name, with whom he produced then-novel video. They pioneered the first low-power television station out of nearby Lanesville. Programs paired counterculture folk and Lanesville residents – hippies and conservative, rural people having fun – and were broadcast locally. (Just one aspect of the fascinating Videofreex story.) Parry documented the last run of the Ulster & Delaware, passing across the street from Big Blue soon after they settled here. End of one era, beginning of another.

In 2016, we attended a screening of the excellent documentary Here Come theVideofreex at Upstate Films on Tinker Street. (Buy or rent it on iTunes or YouTube.)

Carol and Parry, now residents of Chatham, were there. They asked about the house as though it were a living being. Because, like any repository of stories, it is.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.