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Summer work (and some play) at the Catskill Mountain House 1925

By Bob Gildersleeve

Look at the banner at the top of the page. You can probably recognize that the young women who are in the picture to the left are also in the banner shot. Some of them are in the lower left of the group shot of the workers above. We imagine that that formal group photo was taken early in the summer. By the time this shot was taken, five young women had formed a group of friends and, on off-hours, explored the Kaaterskill Region. They climbed North Mountain by way of Jacob’s Ladder, canoed on South Lake, and may have danced with the fellows in the band that played at the Boat House Pavilion. The young man in the center of this photo may be a band member. All of these photos came from Gracie Guthmann’s 1925 photo album a very unusual donation from Scott Koster. We just don’t know which lady is Gracie. — Is that her holding a camera in a leather case? Yes! photos from her previous summer in Texas identify her. The photos below are also from the 1925 album. We’ll continue to add as we experiment with the tools available in this website format.

couple on boardwalk
The couple is standing on a boardwalk that we believe is near the South Lake boat house and pavilion. The man is most likely a member of the band that played for dances at the pavilion. The woman is Marian Louise Snyder, a friend of Gracie, who took the photo. Thanks to her granddaughter for identifying her. Some of Gracie’s friends were from places in the Hudson Valley including Lake Katrine, Mount Marion and Saugerties. w.
Here’s Gracie with a very engaging smile that her companion seems to have caught. Her friends are not far away; we’ll leave it to you to find them.

Gracie and her roomate (is this Leora Shiels?) get the laundry ready to begin work

Looks like Summer 1925 is just starting and these two new summer hires are dressed for work. They will have some time for play as the photos from Gracie’s 1925 album show us.

Gracie’s Friends:

We don’t know who the friends are in the photos that Gracie saved in her 1924-25 photograph album, but she gave us a hint. Two pages in the album contain the names and home town of several of them. Perhaps someone may recognize the names and may be able to pick out their face in one of the photos from Gracie’s album. (It’s working. As we get definite identification we will boldface the names we can link to the photos.

Here is a list of all those who dated their autograph in 1925:

Rachel A. Merritt — Dunkirk, New York June 3, 1925
Reva L. Morse — 36 Hollister Street, Dundie, New York June 3, 1925
Mildred Strong — South Side, Owego, New York June 4, 1925
Freda J. Randall — Pittsford, Vermont June 5, 1925
Leora B. Shiels — Lake Katrine, New York [Undated Summer 1925] wrote: “Your roommate at Catskill mt. House wishes you best of luck throughout life.”
Beverly M. Schmidt — Mount Marion, New York Sept. 5, 1925
Marian Louise Snyder Saugerties, N.Y. Sept. 5, 1925

The friends explore the trails and sites on South Mountain.
Including the site of the recently destroyed Hotel Kaaterskill which burned in September 1924.

Our adventuresome friends are in Puddingstone Hall on the Circuit of South Mountain trail. The Circuit of South Mountain was a popular trail to the west of the modern trail up South Mountain. It started on the grounds of the Mountain House. Traces of it can still be found. Puddingstone Hall is a crevice through a conglomerate layer similar to the one at Bear’s Den on North Mountain. In many ways, these young ladies are not at all unlike the many hikers who have accompanied us on MTHS hikes.

Climbing Boulder Rock, on South Mountain and also in the photo to the left Gracie, who clings to the side of the rock, Louise Snyder, standing against the rock, and all her friends from elsewhere in time show us that they were an adventuring group. Our hikers can relate to that. Boulder Rock sits on the cliff at the edge of the Catskill Escarpment. MTHS offers hikes in the Kaaterskill region and beyond. Look to our events and hikes page to see the schedule of planned hikes.

Four of our group are at Layman’s Monument on South Mountain above what is now Route 23A near Bastion Falls. Twenty-five years before their visit, and at least five years before any one of these ladies was, born a large forest fire threatened two nearby hotels and several homes in Haines Falls and Twilight Park. The monument recognizes the efforts of a the firemen who saved those businesses and homes including one man who died on August 10 1900 while fighting the fire.

The firefighter who lost his life was Frank D. Layman of Haines Falls. A newspaper report of Mr. Layman’s tragic death using what today we may consider somewhat callus phrases can be seen by clicking Frank Layman tragedy. The link will open in a new tab.

We are in Haines Falls. The placard on the left is advertising the attractions at the Wawanda theater. Until I check other photos to verify where this is I’ll say we are on the north side of the main street looking east toward the top of Kaaterskill Clove. The shadows show that is in the afternoon. We have reason to believe that the girl in the middle is Beverly Schmidt. If so, in 1925 and at about 16 years old she is the youngest of the group of friends. That may explain why in many pictures she seems be apart from the older girls who are about 19. Regardless, Beverly had great success in high school sports and theater at Kingston NY and graduated in 1928.

Click the photo below to read the post.

Carpet from the Catskill Mountain House C. 1900.

Donated by Mrs. R. Kingsland Hay, New York, 1989.

“Dear Justine –

Is this what you were interested in? Carpet from the Mountain House! I was able to salvage enough for 6 dining room chair seats, plus this piece. The rest was too badly worn or stained to use for anything. I think it is very handsome. I also have sentiment for it because my New York grandmother spent her summers there for many years. later she became a widow and loved the place! Love to you & Hillard. Alice H.”

Summer Camps of the Mountain Top

CLICK HERE
to visit the digital exhibit.

left: A group of campers from Camp Meadowbrook, once located in Hunter. Circa 1954.

Throughout the 20th century, the Mountain Top community welcomed campers of all backgrounds, races, religions, capabilities and interests. Rather than a simple story of campfires and bunk beds, the history of summer camps on the Mountain Top reflects the great creativity of diverse children, adults and organizations who fostered new opportunities, social growth and expressions that have extended far beyond the mountains of our area.

This exhibit was installed in the MTHS Visitor’s Center in 2022. It was made possible by a generous grant from The Wayne C. Speenburgh Greene County Legislature Grant Program.

We extend our deepest thanks to former campers and counselors
who graciously offered their stories, photos and ephemera.

A “tribal war” scene from Camp Loyaltown. Photo by Marc Berlinsky. Circa 1960s.

On October 2, 2021, the MTHS played a role in helping to memorialize Camp Jened and its historical contributions to the disability rights movement through the erection of a historical marker on Ski Bowl Road in Hunter where Camp Jened was located.

[At Camp Jened] we were able to envision a world that didn’t have to be set up in a way that excluded us.”
-Judith Heumann, disability rights activist and Camp Jened counselor

“I Never Objected to the Sapping”

By Alexandra Prince

Author’s Note: Roberta Christman turned 100 not long after this interview. She was honored by Senator Hinchey for this milestone. Roberta passed a few months later in October 2022. It was a true honor to meet and spend time with her.

Above: Roberta Christman tapping in February 1981. Photo from the Christman Family.

Despite the cold we now experience, soon the days will be warm enough and the nights appropriately cool to signal the maple trees to start moving the sap inside the channels of their large trunks. It will be maple sugaring season on the mountain top. The process of turning maple tree sap into syrup is both labor intensive and time consuming, but according to Roberta Christman, the only woman in New York State who boiled maple sap into syrup for 62 years straight (unless someone wants to contest it), making maple syrup or “sapping” was never work.

As anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting her knows, Roberta is quick-witted and strong. She is 99 years young and maintains a mental clarity and aptitude that many even decades younger are immediately dwarfed by. Early in January, in the middle of a mild storm that blanketed our mountain roads with snow, Cyndi LaPierre and I sat down with Roberta at her dining room table in her home along Rt. 23 in Windham. Her house sits above the main road with views of the mountains and is adjacent to Christman’s Windham House, the hospitality business Roberta ran with her husband Stanley.

We started our conversation with an explanation of an old black spiral bound notebook sitting on the dining table. This was the “Syrup Bible,” the book in which Roberta kept track of all the gallons of sap collected, syrup made, and all the people that sweet syrup was sold to.

The Syrup Bible. Photo by author.

When Roberta and her husband purchased the boarding house that would become Christman’s Windham House in 1951 a maple syruping operation came with it. At the time, Roberta had limited experience with making syrup. As the “middle Thompson girl,” one of the five daughters of the Thompson House in Windham, Roberta had helped boil sap as a child outside on an arch (the base of an evaporator) made by her father. She and her sisters let the sap cook down until it was the consistency of “blackstrap molasses.” The previous owners of the boarding house didn’t have time to teach Roberta the ins and outs of making maple syrup so she had to find out for herself. She was referred to Florence Osborne of East Windham, a woman who was well-versed in the sapping arts. She taught Roberta what equipment to buy and how to strain the finished syrup through woolen filters. Stanley also sent away to Cornell for a sugaring how-to booklet to supplement their knowledge.

Soon making maple syrup became a family affair at Christman’s Windham House. Stanley and Roberta’s four children would all assist. “I can remember well. The kids and I would climb over the snowbank and go along the creek and collect it [the sap] and bring the buckets over to the wall…Stanley would collect it and dump it in a container and take it to the sap house.” Originally the sap was transported to the sap house by horse but later a tractor was used. Sap is precious and Roberta warned the children not to spill a drop, even if they slipped, as they often did, in their little plastic red boots.

Naturally, the process of making maple syrup begins at the tree. Roberta used a bit and brace hand drill to tap the holes in the sugar maples; she knew exactly the correct depth to drill. Spiles were then tapped in and metal buckets hung. The sap was collected regularly as the buckets filled. Once enough sap was collected the process of boiling the sap down into syrup was overseen by Roberta. She used a big hickory stick to open the large wood-fired evaporator and threw logs in to keep the sap boiling at a consistent rate.

Nights boiling in the sap house were long. Sometimes Roberta would be in the sap house until 2 in the morning and would go to bed with splinters in her hands. The night before her son Brian was born Roberta was boiling sap in the saphouse. The level of sap in the pans had gotten dangerously low and threatened to burn the pans. To avoid this, Roberta ran to the nearby creek and hauled buckets of creek water over to the sap house to add into the pan. “I didn’t ever burn the pans,” Roberta said confidently.

In total, Roberta put in 700 taps. She and her family greatly extended the original maple sugaring operation they inherited and tapped all along the creek and back up the mountain where the golf course now is. They developed six routes to collect sap from, including the large maple trees that once lined Route 23. “I would try to get three routes done before the children were home from school, then I could start boiling while they collected the rest.” Even as a child, her young daughter Karen would make supper for the family so Roberta could stay in the sap house boiling late into the night. In their best and most productive year, Roberta and her family made 375 gallons of maple syrup. On average, it takes 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup. If this was the case, then the year the Christman Family made 375 gallons they collected 15,000 gallons of sap–no simple feat.

Even with all the duties one must attend to in a sugar house – feeding the evaporator fire with wood, maintaining a good level of boil, checking the sap levels in the pan, occasionally running out to the creek to add water if it got too low, there is also a bit of downtime. “Sitting in a sap house, you’re sitting there for hours,” remarked Roberta, “So I started reading. But the only thing I could read were paperback books–good books you can’t read in a sap house because the steam will destroy them. So I started reading and I probably read two books every winter from the time I was 30 until I was 90. It just consumed me, the idea that I could sit there and read and it was alright to do. So I did. I did a lot of reading in the sap house.” Eventually her family installed a television in the sap house and Roberta enjoyed watching basketball as she boiled.

Making maple syrup was a good fit for those in the boarding house business, Roberta told us. “It’s the two months in the winter when you’re not otherwise busy on the farm, except for milking the cows.” Then the minute the maple syruping season was over, Roberta was busy with the boarding business–cleaning rooms and teaching herself how to cook from Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking.

As her children went to college, and there were less hands to help, the Christman family replaced more buckets with modern plastic sap lines to make the work easier. Her son Brian continues the maple sugaring operation to this day. Roberta once mentioned to him that he should give it up considering all the other work he has to manage. But Brian responded that it was “his heritage.” This response made Roberta laugh. Maple sapping hadn’t been her heritage, but with all the time she and her family spent making maple syrup, it had truly become theirs.

Roberta will celebrate her 100th birthday in May. She wouldn’t tell us the exact day. If she could she says she would go up to the sap house and sit and boil today. “I’m probably the only woman in New York State that boiled from 1952 until 2014. There may be other women. And I did enjoy it, really, it was not work. I did enjoy it.”

Above: Roberta Christman filtering maple syrup, 1981. Photo from the Christman Family.

Author’s Note: Thank you to Roberta Christman for her generous time and Cyndi LaPierre for her partnership on the Oral History project.

Note: This article was published in the Winter 2022 Issue of The Hemlock. Visit the MTHS Oral History page to listen to the full oral history interview with Roberta.

Haines Falls Cemetery Tour & The Twilight Inn Fire (1926)

Thank you for the outstanding turnout to our “If These Stones Could Talk” Cemetery Tour last Saturday morning! More than 40 people joined Joanne Ainsworth and Dede Terns-Thorpe to explore the histories behind the gravestones in the Haines Falls Cemetery and the Haines Family Cemetery.

One of the stops along the tour was a large stone memorial to those who lost their lives in the Twilight Inn Fire in Haines Falls, which occurred the evening of July 14, 1926. I’ve shared here some images taken during the aftermath of the tragedy that claimed at least 19 lives and detailed some of the tidbits from the events of the fire as reported by the New York Times below. The images are from the MTHS Archives. The last photo shows the memorial to the victims of the fire at the Haines Falls Cemetery.

During the cemetery tour, we listened to the story of how Susan Tressler’s grandmother’s body was exhumed in the Haines Falls Cemetery for reasons that are still not entirely clear. You can revisit the story or listen to it for the first time on our Soundcloud at: http://tinyurl.com/2p98s9fe You can also listen to an oral history interview conducted with a survivor of the fire conducted by Justine Hommel in 1982 at: http://tinyurl.com/mr3s4uw5

Details about the Twilight Inn Fire, July 14, 1926

The fire began just before one in the morning in the male workers’ quarters after most guests and employees had gone to sleep for the night. Carl Stryker, the night watchman, worked to alert everyone in the building of the fire’s threat and guide them safely outside. Stryker entered the building six times to locate and recover folks. Tragically, the last time he entered the building the floor collapsed, and Stryker’s life was taken.

Tannersville residents Harold and Leon Terns were the first locals to arrive on the scene of the fire. They went in and out of the burning building three times to rescue people. Miss Hannah Hyatt, a guest, led twelve other guests to safety through a trapdoor. She suffered two broken ribs in the process. One mother was forced to throw her six-year-old child out a second story window to a man standing below. She managed to jump out of the window after him. Another guest reentered the building to find her husband, not knowing that he had already managed to make it safely outside. She died in the effort.

Despite later reports of the inn’s lack of fire safety infrastructure, the Inn was properly equipped with fire extinguishers and guide ropes, as well as a wooden fire escape. Despite these safety implements, which were in line with the code for the time, many were not able to find their way out through the smoke and flames as it rapidly consumer the wooden Inn.

Reports said that the blaze developed so rapidly that it could be seen for miles. By the time the local fire companies arrived, the fire had so fully engulfed the building that the opportunity to stop its path had passed. Screams were reportedly heard on the upper floors where guests remained trapped. Once the water from the firetruck was exhausted, water was pumped out of the creek to help extinguish the flames and an evening rain helped the process along.

The number of wounded people overwhelmed the nurse and available beds at the Red Cross Hospital in nearby Tannersville. Locals were rallied to provide additional cots and care for the wounded.

The New York Times reported that the bodies recovered from the inn were so badly burned they were beyond identification. One means that was developed to identify the dead was to monitor what mail remained uncollected in the days following the fire.

A monument dedicated to the victims of the fire was erected in the nearby Haines Falls Cemetery behind the Methodist Church. Interestingly, the year of the fire is listed as 1925 not 1926.

The monument reads:

“In memory of those who lost their lives in Twilight Inn Fire July 14, 1925

Herbert E. Beardsley

His Mother

Henrietta L. Beardsley

Charlotte Brinton

Herman Engle

His Wife

Adelaide S. Engle

Mary Erdelin

Julia H. Hennesey

Anne E. Milbank

Ernest Poetzsch

Isabel Chapman Brooks

Florence Chapman Monroe

Little Billy Deyarmon

Carl Stryker

Kate E. Thomas”

Post by Alexandra Prince

Twain on the Mountain

By Alexandra Prince

Recently we were pleased to offer research support to two staff members from the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut who are putting together an exhibit on Samuel Clemens’ summer vacation experiences, including his time on the Mountain Top.

Samuel Clemens on the porch of the Wake Robin at Onteora Park in 1890.

During the summer of 1890, Samuel Clemens (pen name Mark Twain) and his family rented The Balsam cottage at Onteora Park, a private community and mountain retreat for writers, artists and wealthy families in Tannersville. After his stay, Clemens wrote his host and Park founder Candace Wheeler: “Dear Mrs. Wheeler,–It was the perfection of a visit: just enough rain, just enough sunshine; just enough people, & just the right kind; just enough exercise, just enough lazying around; just enough of everything desirable, & no lack of anything usual to the details of a lark away from home…If any should ask me if we had a good time there, I should answer that it was just a model case of ‘Oh hellyes!’”

Samuel Clemens on the porch of the Wake Robin at Onteora Park in 1890

Clemens’ visit to the Mountain Top in many ways overlapped with a golden period of his life. He was among the “who’s who” in America as a nationally celebrated author having recently published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its famous sequel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Not long after his stay at Onteora, Clemens would experience a devastating series of financial misfortunes and the untimely deaths of his two young daughters and wife. 

A portrait of Samuel Clemens by Carroll Beckwith, painted at Onteora Park in 1890.

While Clemens did not manage to finish any writing at Onteora Park, he delighted Park members with readings, enjoyed meals accompanied by a live orchestra, partook in evening dances, staged impromptu plays with his young daughters, and sat for a portrait by Carroll Beckwith (see above). Clemens also joined in on a gentleman’s bear hunt, a popular thrill for wealthy summer residents. Doris West Brooks recounted the story of Clemens and the bear hunt in a 1986 edition of The Hemlock:

“It wasn’t unusual for a hunting party to come down from Onteora Park to Uncle David’s home in the East Kill Valley. A bear would be released from the cage down by the creek for the gentlemen hunters to shoot. It was at the height of Twain’s popularity that he decided to join just such a party. A friend of Twain’s, with a new invention, a movie camera, accompanied him. By the time the hunting party was underway, there were numerous ladies and men in the entourage. 

The ladies were attired in their white gowns and carried pastel parasols. The man with his movie camera and numerous gentlemen with rifles all descended on David and Etta, his wife. The ladies were given chairs aligned along the back of the house. Aunt Etta served them lemonade. The men stood down by the creek with guns ready. Mark Twain’s friend stood by to capture this moment for posterity. He would have a memorable news reel indeed! Uncle David opened the cage door and prodded the bear to leave. The bear came charging out. He was supposed to go running across the creek so the men could get a good shot at him, but instead came charging directly into the group of men, scattering them in all directions. The cameraman dropped his wonderful new toy. The ladies were all very satisfactorily hysterical.”

The exhibit at the Mark Twain House detailing Clemens’ time on the Mountain Top is slated to open in 2023. We look forward to visiting.

Inside the Archives: A Q&A with Bob Gildersleeve & John Curran

From the Spring 2022 edition of The Hemlock

Every Wednesday, MTHS board members Bob Gildersleeve and John Curran volunteer their time to manage and digitize the extensive collections held in the MTHS Archives. After a year-long hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Bob and John have been back in the archives working diligently all winter to make up for lost time. The following Q&A provides a closer look at the important work they are engaged in.

Q: What is your connection to the Mountain Top?

John: I have lived on the Mountain Top my entire life. Growing up on Osborne Road in Haines Falls, the North-South Lake recreation area was close enough to walk or bicycle to. I spent a lot of time there as I was growing up and learned to appreciate the beauty of the mountains and nature. It is still one of my favorite places. I have been on the MTHS Board since 2009 when I retired from the New York State Office of General Services. Bob Gildersleeve started teaching me the workings of the Archives shortly thereafter and I have been enjoying it ever since.

Bob: Even though my roots go back eleven generations in New York State, I’m not a native to the Catskills. I was born in Newburgh, NY and came here to teach at Hunter Tannersville Central in the 1970s. I immediately became interested in the region. I’ve been working with the Archives since it was established from materials collected by Justine Hommel and others.

Q: How would you describe the MTHS Archives?

John: Our archives are comprised mostly of documents and photographs related to our local history. The items are cataloged, scanned and the pertinent searchable data is entered into our Past Perfect database. The items are then stored in archival-grade containers in our climate-controlled, fire-resistant Archives. Many items are used in temporary displays and as learning aids during programs. All items are available for public viewing upon request.


Bob: The collection is almost exclusively paper items including photographs, postcards, books, brochures, deeds, letters from the 19th and early 20th centuries, a diary or two, and business papers. There are also a few fabric items.

Q: Why are the Archives important?

John: Historical documents are continually aging. If not stored properly, they will deteriorate. Our climate-controlled, highly fire-resistant archives provide a safe place to store documents. We only use archival grade storage materials. Documents not stored properly are also subject to loss and or damage.

Bob: Preserving the history of any community is important to its residents, and certainly our Mountain Top is no exception. Some communities, however, have more than local significance. In many ways, our Mountain Top has national and even international importance. The Society gets frequent requests for information from around the US and occasionally from abroad. The reasons are many: the importance of the Greene County Catskills in American art and literature, the area’s impact on tourism, and its recreation history.

Q: Every week you volunteer your time working in the Archives. What draws you to this work?


John: Learning local history and sharing what I have learned. I can’t just enter an item into our database without reading or studying it. If it is something I am familiar with, I share what I know about it. If it is something I am not familiar with, I ask questions and research. Yes, it can slow the process, but it keeps our work interesting and keeps us coming back.

Q: What are some of the tasks you perform in the Archives?

John: Mostly I enter items into our searchable Past Perfect database, which includes assigning an Accession and Object number, scanning the item and entering the pertinent data. I also do research to identify people, places and things; respond to inquiries; provide material for MTHS displays and programs; and eventually store the items.

Q: What is your favorite collection or item the Archives hold?

John: Oddly, one of my favorite items is something we do not physically have. We only have a high-resolution image of it. This is the 1883 Hexamer Survey of the Hotel Kaaterskill. The Hexamer Survey is a fire safety survey of the Hotel Kaaterkill performed by Hexamer & Sons of Philidelphia. It has detailed drawings of the layout of the hotel and descriptions of its various infrastructures. Having had a career in construction, I found this item not only fascinating, but invaluable to our research on the Hotel Kaaterskill. It has been used on hikes to the site and has enabled us to make sense of the layout of the huge hotel. We are indebted to our friend Scott Koster for sharing his finding with us, and The Philadelphia Free Library for providing a high-resolution scan of the document.

Bob: In particular, I like a beautiful photo-realistic painting by Robert Skiba that shows both the Catskill and Tannersville and the Ulster and Delaware Railroads. Skiba started with a Detroit Photographic Company image of Haines Falls in the collection of the Library of Congress. Through careful research and with great skill, he added details including the Coal and Hay company, the siding and stone wall and trains. 

Q: What projects are you working on currently?

John: I have been working on the Joan Wright and Doug Griffin Collections. Mrs. Wright is a descendent of the Haines and Dunn families and provided us with a large collection of family photographs, writings, and family history; most are labeled with names and dates. Mr. Griffin’s collection consists of about 260 postcards of local and nearby places. There are several rare and unusual postcards, many are unused and all are in excellent condition.

Q: What is your future vision for the Archives and how they will be used by the public?

John: I would eventually like to see our database available to the public online. This would be a monumental task to accomplish, but it is my hope that someday it will come to pass.

Bob: We’d like to make better use of the Joan Brower collection and genealogical information. Neither of us are genealogists, and, except for dabbling into our personal family histories, are not equipped to round out the collection.

Q: What are some of the Archives’ more significant collections?

John: Two that stand out to me are the Joan Brower Collection and the Bob Mazon Collection. The Joan Brower Collection traces the Brower family history, but it is much more than that. Mrs. Brower traces the family history of the Brower spouses and the history of the professions and trades the Brower family occupied. It was all done pre-internet and consists of many large organized and indexed binders filled with letters, photos, newspaper clippings and much more. The Bob Mazon Collection is a huge mainly digital collection of photographs. Bob Mazon was a local photographer who through his photography, documented many local events, news stories, local landscapes, local places and much more from the 1980s up through his death in 2014. The collection will be an extremely valuable resource to future generations. We are grateful that both of these people entrusted their collections to us.

Contact Bob and John at archivist@mths.org to inquire about volunteer opportunities in the Archives

“The Lord and the Devil and the Bleu Mountains”

A folk tale about the origins of the Catskills and why digging a hole in your spring garden can perhaps more accurately be called excavating. Excerpted from Doris West Brooks’s Short Stories and Tall Tale of the Catskills.

“As the area around the Catskill Mountains was being settled, not only did the name of the mountains change from time to time, but the spelling of the names varied widely. Both the names “Catskill” and “Blue Mountains” were used interchangeably to designate this region. There is no doubt as to how the name Blue (Bleu, Blew) Mountains came into being; the mountains have a very definite blue color to them especially when seen from a distance… The early Dutch settlers knew the Devil flew about the Bleu Mountains. This is one of the reasons why the Dutch preferred settling in the fertile Hudson River Valley and the foothills of the mountains. Folklore tells us that there were two versions of how the Catskills were formed. Here is the story combining the two tales. (The Lord’s creation and the Devil’s)…

All the while the Devil flew about on his devious way, wreaking havoc and causing mischief, he carried a sack of rocks on his back. One day, way back when the Lord was just finishing up the world, the Devil was called to California on urgent business. This was way back when the continents were still flat, the waters just receding, and time was measured in epochs, not years. The Devil stayed on the west coast for a long while for he had a lot to attend to there. His sack, containing the rocks, became tattered and worn. Well, the Devil heard that there were fresh pickings back east and off he flew, not knowing his sack had a rent in it. He wouldn’t have cared anyway. As the devil flew over Arizona, one of his medium-sized rocks fell through the rip in his bag. The rock landed with such impact that it bounced, splintering into hundreds of fragments. The hole the rock left in Arizona was later referred to as The Grand Canyon. The many fragmented pieces of the stone landed all in a row, creating the Rocky Mountains.

…Just as he got directly over where we’re standing now, the rip in the Devil’s sack gave out completely and what was left of his rocks was dumped right here, forming the Catskill Mountains. Now it hadn’t taken the Lord nearly as much time to finish His work as it had the Devil, and He didn’t have much of anything left over to hide that pile of bare rocks, and, anyway, He was busy. The Lord has just created the rainbow and because the rainbow was made on the bias, He had a lot of color left over. The Lord was making extra birds and flowers out of the left-over scraps of color and, out of the tiniest bits of yellows and blues, He was fashioning butterflies. He figured the world couldn’t have enough butterflies, and, besides, He was enjoying Himself. Heaven knows, he needed a vacation after all that work creating the world and after all the problems He’d encountered with one of His latest experiments. It had been all down hill ever since the Garden of Eden. You can imagine how annoying it was at this point to be told that there was a heap of rocks in upper New York State that needed His immediate attention. The Lord just took up a handful of dirt left over from another job and flung it in the general direction of the Catskill Mountains. And that is how the Catskills were made and why to this very day there is only “one dirt to every three stones.”

Shirley Wiltse Dunn,  1929-2022

A farewell tribute to a Mountain Top native and keeper of local history in the various places where she lived

By Cyndi LaPierre

Shirley Wiltse Dunn was born in Tannersville, NY, graduated from Tannersville High School in 1946, and from New York State College for Teachers in Albany in 1950. She earned Master’s degrees in English and History from the same college, now known as SUNY Albany. Mrs. Dunn worked as a teacher, a museum interpreter, editor, and historic preservationist.

After her graduation from the College for Teachers, Shirley taught school in Delmar, NY and Baltimore, MD for four years while her husband pursued his education. Then she took on the role of devoted mother to her four children. Once her children graduated from college, she returned to the labor market following her passions in History and English as a teacher, writer, supporter of local history groups, and historic preservation consultant. She worked for the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation until retiring in 1992.

Shirley wrote or edited seven books including three well-respected studies of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation. She was a co-author of Dutch Architecture near Albany; authored a children’s book about the Mohicans; and left a legacy to her mother and a gift to all Mountain Top residents by writing a popular book of her mother’s stories of the people and events in the Tannersville area titled Pioneer Days in the Catskill High Peaks. Her last book, on Fort Crailo and the Van Rensselaer families who lived there, was published in 2016.

Shirley Wiltse Dunn was generous with her knowledge, sharing through her writing, sharing a collection of glass plate negatives (which can be seen on the MTHS website), and donating volumes from her own library to the Mountain Top Historical Society.

She could certainly be added to the MTHS’ newly minted list of extraordinary ordinary women and will be fondly remembered by her friends, neighbors, colleagues, students and local historians.