Thursday, April 26, 2018

Hudson Children's Book Festival May 5

I'll be there with my books. A fabulous event with about 5,000 visitors from all over...

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Land of Rip Van Winkle By Thomas J. Illari

2018 will celebrate the anniversary of the most prominent resident of the Catskills who actually never resided there. Rip Van Winkle. It was in June 1818 that Washington Irving penned the classic short story. It was published a year later in a book which is a collection of short stories called “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.”

Although the story is set in the Catskill Mountains, Irving later admitted, "When I wrote the story, I had never been on the Catskills”?Irving’s first trip up the Hudson wasn’t until 1832.

In the opening of the story of Rip Van Winkle, Irving makes reference that the tale was found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker. A fictional character made up by Irving as narrator of the story. The word Knickerbocker later became synonymous with Dutch Americans living in New York State.

The story of Rip Van Winkle itself is widely thought to have been based on Johann Karl Christophe Nachtigal’s German folktale "Peter Klaus”. This story, set in a German village, tells of a goat herder by the name of Peter who goes looking for a lost goat. Peter finds some men drinking in the woods and after drinking some of their wine he falls asleep. When he wakes back up, twenty years have passed. Sound familiar? Nonetheless it was a hit.

The story of Rip Van Winkle gripped the imagination of nineteenth century America and it seemed that no matter what part of the Catskills you visited, Rip Van Winkle had been there ahead of you.

Although Irving wished to keep the location a secret, it didn’t stop local towns from laying claims that they were the home of Rip Van Winkle. Palenville, at the base of Kaaterskill Clove, was a popular 19th century hamlet and taken as the village where Rip’s adventures began. But Irving himself wished to keep the exact location a mystery.

Another contender to Rip’s whereabouts was the old Mountain Turnpike leading up to the Catskill Mountain House. It had its own fame regarding Rip Van Winkle. Irving mentions a deep mountain glen in his story and, Sleepy Hollow; a horseshoe bend on the old Mountain Turnpike, took claim to fame as the exact location of Rip’s famous sleep. There was a boarding house at the horseshoe bend by the name of The Rip Van Winkle House and a boulder claiming to be the exact place that old Rip slept for twenty years.
When Irving himself was asked to help solve the exact location of Rip’s home he only made sure the mystery did not fade. In a letter dated February 5, 1858 Irving writes the following in response to a letter inquiring the location of Rip’s hometown:

I can give you no other information concerning the localities of the story Rip Van Winkle, than is to be gathered from the manuscript of Mr. Knickerbocker…perhaps he left this purposely in doubt. I would advise you to defer to the opinion of the very old gentlemen with whom you say you had an argument on the subject. I think it probable he is as accurately informed as anyone on the matter”

Some other fun “Rip” facts:
Route 23A leading from Catskill West was known as “The Rip Van Winkle Trail”
In 1930 Tannersville had their very own airport – the Rip Van Winkle Airways Airport

Actor Joseph Jefferson made a lifelong career acting as Rip Van Winkle and would continue acting in his show for 40 years. Jefferson was able to take an American play and characters to places like Australia and England with great success.  Jefferson also starred in a number of films as the Van Winkle character starting in the 1896 Awakening of Rip.  Jefferson's son Thomas followed in his father's footsteps and played the character in a number of early 20th century films. Joseph Jefferson made several recordings, all of material from "Rip Van Winkle". The success of Rip Van Winkle was so pronounced that he has often been called a one-part actor.

When Rip wakes from his twenty-year slumber his world has changed. Many of his friends are dead. The image of King George III over the tavern has been replaced by one of General Washington. Rip has missed out on the entire era of the American Revolution. Some critics have pointed to this as evidence that Rip Van Winkle is a symbol of America itself, baffled by rapid political change and freed from tyranny.

Rip Van Winkle is full of symbols. The most noteworthy is the relationship between he and his antagonistic wife, Dame Van Winkle. She symbolizes the relationship between America and Britain prior to the revolution.

In 1954 “Rips Retreat” opened in Haines Falls on the East side of North Lake. The retreat was essentially commercial but also based upon historical and educational features. Rip was always on hand to greet visitors. It operated through 1960 and the land was then sold to New York State.

There was a short-lived amusement park called Rip Van Winkle Park built in 1908 on Catskill Creek in Leeds. It was built to increase trolley ridership from Catskill Landing to help the financially troubled Catskill Electric Railway Company. Both ventures later failed.

Rip’s Lookout was a souvenir stand, a small building, just past the horseshoe turn on 23A as you drive up Kaaterskill Clove (on the Rip Van Winkle Tail). They had a viewing glass to see where Rip Van Winkle slept on the side of the mountain. There was a wishing in the front and the small building which operated as a refreshment stand and gas station. It was a popular motorist stop with spectacular views of the Clove. (This location is now the parking lot for those wishing to hike to the lower Kaaterskill falls.)

The infiltration of Rip Van Winkle on the Catskills is profound. Rip Van Winkle Tours once ran from NYC to Sullivan County, one may cross the Hudson at Catskill over the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, or fill your gas tank at the Rip van Winkle Gas Station, drive along the Rip Van Winkle Trail, sleep at the Rip Van Winkle Lodge on a mattress by the Rip Van Winkle Bedding Company or rest on a Rip Van Winkle Recliner.

So as we approach the 200thanniversary of Rip Van Winkle, let us not forget how this fictional resident of the Catskills has played a significant role in the identity of the region. To this day we see his name associated throughout the Catskills and even throughout the US. 
However, it is Greene County that remains identified as the Land of Rip Van Winkle.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Jesse Merwin and Ichabod Crane by Lisa LaMonica

Kinderhook is where America’s first ghost story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow with the Headless Horseman started to form. Sleepy Hollow main character Ichabod Crane, the school teacher from Connecticut was based on author Washington Irving’s Kinderhook close friend Jesse Merwin, also a teacher from Connecticut living in Kinderhook by 1808. The Headless Horseman from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was created during this time becoming a terrifying icon known the world over, giving this region and the Hudson Valley, practically ownership over Halloween. We know from  one important source, a letter exists certifying that Jesse Merwin was the prototype for Ichabod Crane. That letter came from former Pres. Martin Van Buren: “This is to certify that I have known J. Merwin of Kinderhook for about 3d of a century & believe him to be a man of honour & integrity; and that he is the same person celebrated in the writings of the Hon. 
Washington Irving under the character of Ichabod Crane in his famous Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Another former Kinderhook resident, Harold Van Santvoord in 1898 wrote an article for the New York Times with his point of view. Santvoord had known Jesse Merwin’s sons who shared their family’s history with him. While referring to Jesse Merwin as Ichabod Crane, he stated that: “I have taken great pains to look up the M e r w i n genealogy, and through c o u r t e s y of a son of Ichabod Crane, still living here and highly esteemed for his uprightness of character, have has access to a printed record tracing back this family of English and Welsh extraction on American soil to 1645, when the original immigrant became the owner of a large tract of land lying mostly in the town of Milford, Conn. Descendants of Ichabod asseverate that after migrating from Milford, CT, he lived continuously in Kinderhook”. How exciting to think about these real and imagined characters known the world over having their place then and now still in Kinderhook. 
“In the dark shadow of the grove, he beheld something huge, misshapen, black and towering. It stirred not, but 
seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveler.”

Friday, January 20, 2017

“Keep Hope Alive”

copyright 2017
canopy of lights, TSL entrance

For many on this gloomy day,
the community lunch at TSL Warehouse was just what was needed.
"Keep Hope Alive" was a chili and cornbread feast with discussion on our times at TSL Warehouse,  434 Columbia Street Hudson today with speakers  including Cheryl Roberts, filmed by Dan Udell. Roberts referenced a favorite poem, "When I Am Old"/Jenny Joseph, explaining her purple scarf encouraging all present to "Dig Deep. Find Hope."

TSL Warehouse was founded in 1973 and in its current location, continues to offer documentaries and independent films in its cinema. One of the most recent youth programs was the bench project where students learned to build benches; designing, measuring, and visiting Lowes for materials. A few examples currently reside there and also at the train station. You can pick up a red piggy bank at TSL and donate spare change to help keep programs alive.
Over this weekend, there will be many opportunities to get involved in community encouraging hope. 
All are welcome; all are valued.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Legend of St. Winifred

copyright 2017

The St. Winifred statue resides on Promenade Hill overlooking the Hudson River. Folklore has it that she was a noble British maiden in Flintshire Wales beheaded by Prince Caradoc, known as Caractacus by the Romans, when his advances toward her were dismissed. After her head rolled down a hill, a spring flushed forth where it stopped. The statue was presented to Hudson in 1896. She wears the martyr’s crown and holds the sword that beheaded her. In this image, she looks more victorious than victim.
Image courtesy Kevin Stein
More information, images can be found in Images of America: Hudson/Arcadia Publishing on as well as local bookstores.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Hudson's Mohicans in the StoneAge; November is Native American Heritage Month

copyright 2016, upcoming issue of Hudson Magazine.

Hudson, Greenport, Stockport and all of Columbia County, New York was Mohican territory. They also dominated the territory spreading west to Windham, north almost to Lake Champlain,  towards Stockbridge Massachusetts, and south almost to Manhattan. Their stories, and some of the local historians chronicling them, are almost lost to time. Their stories are still worth telling.  

 Mohicans should also still be remembered for their contributions to our  history during the period of the American Revolution; they were honored previously by George Washington as Friends of our Fathers. Mohicans served in George Washington' s Continental Army in battles that were not theirs. 
The stories and history of the Mohicans has never thoroughly been passed down to people living in Columbia County, both past and present. Pilgrims and our European ancestors weren't the first here as people often forget. 
 Generations of people have lost their link to the past along with their region's history. The Mohican language is also extinct; as with any language, there are a certain number of people needed to still be speaking it in order to pass it onwards. Apparently, they had no written language  surviving, although symbols such as turtles and chevrons have been found on artifacts. 
Mohicans were an ancient and powerful race of people; their tools show fine levels of craftsmanship for that time period.  The Delawares and the Lenni Lenape tribe from the west near present-day New Paltz are believed to be who the Mohicans are descended from. The Delawares claim to be the breeding stock from which most eastern Algonquin tribes, including the Mohicans, sprang from.  By 1609, the 1000 or more Mohicans in the Hudson River Valley commanded respect; their main villages and chief occupied the Hudson River' s eastern banks and islands. In the Fall of 1609, a Mohican walked out from one of the main villages and saw a strange sight on the river. Thinking it was some sort of great fish, he ran back to the village to tell the others. Returning to the scene with two more Mohicans, they encountered the coming of Henry Hudson and his crew aboard the Half Moon.

Within twenty years of the time of Henry Hudson's ship entering possibly at Hudson or Stockport, their numbers had started to decline. Whether it was in part or in whole due to warring with neighboring Mohawks or the coming of the Dutch, their stronghold on the region would soon not last. When Henry Hudson and subsequent Dutch visitors arrived somewhat later, Mohicans were extremely hospitable to the outsiders. Hosting the newcomers, Mohicans readily showed Henry Hudson and his crew the Mohican way of life, their tools, their cooking and hunting techniques, along with their food supplies. Meals made by them for the visitors included wild game and the meat of a dog. We know also from journals kept at that time, that Henry Hudson and his crew entertained Mohicans aboard their ship; a gesture involving remarkable trust on  both sides.  Through the 1500s, European sea captains along the East Coast began collecting natives to take home as slaves; lower Hudson Valley Wappingers were hostile to Hudson for this reason.
Vastrick Island, later called Ten Pounds and then Roger' s Island, was named for Garret Vastrick, a merchant of New Netherlands and a friend of  then Governor Peter Stuyvesant. Wishing to wipe out all Mohawks  remaining, Mohicans landed on the island late night. What appeared to be Mohawks sleeping by their fires, was actually logs wrapped in blankets and a disappointment to Mohicans wishing to use their tomahawks to wipe them out. More importantly, Mohicans were now surrounded by Mohawks who fired shots from the woods with guns from the Dutch that Mohicans did not know they had been provided with. The few surviving Mohicans were marched as slaves the next morning by victorious Mohawks. Some Mohicans were burned at the stake. Some Mohican surviving families had previously started to retreat over the mountains into Massachusetts. 
Around 1736, the Mohicans left Claverack and New York for Stockbridge, Massachussetts then settled in Wisconsin where today they exist as Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Tribe. They currently maintain a connection to their homeland and now have opened the historic preservation office located in Troy. Bonney Hartley is the tribal member sent to the Northeast now representing Mohicans; she and my friend Stephen Kent Comer are enrolled tribal members. 
 Comer noted, "I can say that when I came to this area thirty years ago, I was amazed to find virtually nothing about my people in their native land. It was as though we were a ghost people. "
Donald Shriver, president emeritus of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, and Stephen Kent Comer, added a historical marker alongside the already-existing History of Columbia County marker at the northernmost overlook of the Taconic Parkway. The original marker tells of Hudson' s arrival in 1609 with no mention of the Mohicans. After years of fundraising and work with a variety of state agencies, and with the help of St. Peters Presbyterian Church in Spencertown, New York the men decided it was necessary to commemorate the Mohicans who had greeted Hudson and his crew.
 Leaving the City of Hudson on State Route 23B,  turning right just past the Old Tollhouse, is Spook Rock Road. The road was originally a Mohican trail. Certain seasons of the year had the Mohicans living and hunting in the Windham, Greene County region, while the rest of the year they resided here in Columbia County. 
As professor at the University of Rochestor and member of the New York State Archeological Association, Ken Mynter completed an excavation of an Indian shelter in Claverack yielding evidence that the site was used 5,000 years ago. Carbon tests proved that cooking fires were used there as far back as 3,000 B.C. with remnants of meals eaten there; mussel shells and animal bones were found. In 1984 while writing for the Independent newspaper, he wrote: Indians were living here in this county before the building of the pyramids while our own ancestors were living in the New Stone Age in Europe. It is a staggering thought to have sink in. 
After spending thousands of years in a vast valley with no one  else but their own, it is  remarkable that the Mohicans let us in...
This Thanksgiving, as you recall stories from your childhood about the Pilgrims and our nation's first Thanksgiving, consider and give pause to think about the Mohicans and what our region's Native Americans  were doing at that time.
Edward Moran 1898 painting of Sir Henry Hudson entering New York Bay on September 11, 1609 with Indian family watching from shore. Library of Congress Image.

Dart used before invention of bow and arrow; Late Archaic Period, appraised NYState Museum, Albany.
4,000 years old. Courtesy Lisa LaMonica.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Hudson Fortnightly Club, est 1888, bids Farewell

copyright 2016,

I met the current members of The Hudson
Fortnightly Club 3 years ago this month on a stunning sunny Fall day. I was asked to speak about my book Haunted Catskills at one of their bi-monthly meetings, and became fascinated with this literary club from the start.
Writing a book is a journey and I'm continually amazed at how many new people are met along the way, and the doors that open.
Becoming a member, is where I met the  late Kevin Novak, a local expert on the Titanic and Hudson's Titanic survivor Gretchen Fiske Longley.
The Hudson Social Reading Club was organized on January 22, 1879, with 50 members. It was created for social purposes at the height of the 19th-century social club era. The club reconvened the following autumn, on the evening of November 10, 1879. In her 1909 book History of the City of Hudson, Anna R. Bradbury wrote, “The literary menu was prepared by a committee who announced the fortnightly feast of reason and flow of soul.” Bradbury stated that the club’s formation was at the mention of “Miss Mary Gifford.” On November 5, 1888, the club was reorganized and renamed the Hudson Fortnightly Club. There were a few changes, most notably the omission of gentlemen, as well as the decision to hold meetings in the afternoon versus in the evening. A membership in these clubs was considered at the time to be a necessary and proper part of a well-rounded middle- and upper-class lifestyle. Original meetings were held in the homes of its members, in the parlors of prominent families’ mansions in the neighborhoods of Allen Street and Willard Place. A high tea followed the business meeting, with all the required silver service, bone china, linens, floral decorations, and fine cuisine and a dress code that included hats and gloves. Today, the meetings are given to a more casual attire and meeting place, in the central location of a church hall. Some traditions of the club are still retained today, however, with a formal business meeting followed by a receiving line, where the hostess and the committee greet members and the day’s guest speaker. A tea still follows, poured in the formal style, while sandwiches and sweets are passed by the hostess and the committee. This club is one of a small group of social clubs having made the transition from the 19th century into the 20th and 21st. The club’s ability to transcend three centuries was due to growth and change with the times and the needs of its members.
Sadly, a final decision was made to discontinue the club
and a final lunch was held yesterday at Yianni's in Chatham.
The club's artifacts are held at both the Hudson Area Library History Room and the DAR, 113 Warren Street.
Hudson's Titanic survivor, courtesy the late Kevin Novak
 The Inn at Hudson where past Fortnightly Club meetings took place. Courtesy Windle Davis