Woodstock is a town with a well-earned reputation for being the sort of place where one might run into famous or semi-famous people at the health food store, pharmacy or post office without anyone doing a double-take. If you don’t want to be mistaken for a day-tripper from the ‘burbs, you quickly learn to stay blasé about it all. The people who get off the Trailways bus asking for directions to Dylan’s house (or worse, the festival site) have been targets for instant scorn for decades.
One of those celebrities who have become highly familiar faces is poet/author/musician/activist Ed Sanders. If you’re of a certain age and weren’t a regular visitor to his Peace Eye Bookstore on the Lower East Side in the ‘60s, or a fan of his transgressive proto-punk/folk band the Fugs, or an admirer of his attempt to exorcise the White House during the Vietnam War, you must certainly have been aware of his 1971 monster best-seller about the Hollywood Hills murder spree by Charles Manson and his followers, The Family. A genre-straddling apostle for what he calls “investigative poetry,” Sanders has subsequently won an American Book Award, a Guggenheim and a slew of other prestigious literary honors.
Around Woodstock, his home since 1974, Sanders is known as simply another civic-minded resident who makes his living through the arts while keeping a finger on hot-button issues both local and global. He and his wife Miriam have long been publishers of an alternative magazine called the Woodstock Journal, first in print and now online. His most recent book, a history in epic verse titled Broken Glory: The Final Years of Robert F. Kennedy, was published in 2018.
But for some seven years, from 1996 to 2004, Ed Sanders dedicated much of his time to being an amanuensis to another legendary Woodstock-based author: Alf Evers (1905-2004), a self-taught historian whose tomes The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock (1972), Woodstock: History of an American Town (1987) and Kingston: City on the Hudson (2004) form the backbone of any serious regional history buff’s home library. Evers’ eyesight was failing when he took on the Kingston book project, so Sanders volunteered to do his typing for him.
Their close collaboration in the final years of Evers’ century-long life, which afforded Sanders deep access to the historian’s voluminous research files, poised Sanders as the perfect candidate to write his biography. Alf Evers: An American Genius is now complete, and being readied for publication by the Historical Society of Woodstock (HSW), where Evers served as president for a number of years, as well as Woodstock’s first official town historian.
An interview with Sanders about the new book, conducted by current town historian Richard Heppner and HSW president Janine Fallon-Mower, was presented via Zoom on February 18. If you missed it, you can now catch it on HSW’s YouTube channel. Information about how to obtain copies of the book will be posted on HSW’s website as soon as they become available.
“Working in the years before the dawn of the Internet, Evers’ research efforts were remarkable by any standard. Through interviews, oral histories and a meticulous review of printed records, Evers maintained a lifelong curiosity in all areas of our local story – from folklore, to cultural and social change, to the everyday struggles of carving a life from the Catskill wilderness,” says the HSW press release for this presentation.
Sanders clearly shares this sense of awe for Evers’ “encyclopedic mind,” photographic memory and boundless appetite for details about the lives of ordinary people. “Alf was the ultimate nosy guy. He would always ask questions,” he recalls fondly. “He was the most intelligent guy I think I ever met – him and Allen Ginsberg. Both had first-class minds.”
Evers had no formal training as a historian; his one year at Hamilton College is notable mainly for his friendship with B. F. Skinner, who went on to become the standard-bearer of the behaviorist school of psychology. It was his work as an insurance investigator during the Great Depression that taught him how to do meticulous research, according to Sanders: “That’s how he learned his great practice of writing notes on three-by-five cards.” By the time of his death, he had amassed thousands of them, now kept for posterity by the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild as part of a publicly accessible archive stored in 120 boxes. Evers was interested in anything and everything, and had already begun work on his next book, a biography of Hervey White, when he passed less than two months short of his 100th birthday.
A true Renaissance man, Evers’ first big success as an author was in the field of children’s books, illustrated by his wife, Helen Bryant Baker. Together they published some 50 of them over a 23-year period, which came to an end in the early 1950s with the advent of the mass-produced (and much cheaper) Little Golden Books. By then Evers, who first moved to Woodstock in 1931, had begun writing articles on historical subjects on a regular basis for local newspapers and the New York Folklore Society, which eventually caught the attention of Ellin Roberts, a senior editor at Doubleday. It was she who recruited him to write a comprehensive history of the Catskills. It ended up taking him nine years, but the legwork paid off: The book is still considered the go-to source on its subject.
There was a lot more to Alf Evers than writing kid-lit and history, though. He was a poet, a painter and a photographer, an organizer of folk music festivals, a radical activist with a strong interest in environmental preservation, an amateur naturalist who was fascinated by rattlesnakes and would go mushroom-hunting with John Cage. He built a writing cabin and planted a hedge labyrinth in which to meditate behind his house on Hutchin Hill Road in Shady. He stayed active, splitting his own wood into his 90s, despite a plethora of chronic health problems. “Alf would walk up to the top of Overlook when he was almost crippled and participate in the Save Overlook rallies,” Sanders recalls.
It’s no wonder he was drawn to this project. If Hudson River School painter Asher Durand were alive today, and wanted to produce another spectacular view of the Catskills with a couple of cultural giants in the foreground – a Kindred Spirits II – he could do worse than to depict Alf Evers and Ed Sanders standing together. Check out the video of this fascinating talk about a local treasure at www.youtube.com/watch?v=DE_nmpjqv_s, and stay tuned at www.historicalsocietyofwoodstock.org for updates on how to order Alf Evers: An American Genius.