Here to return to
ON THE BORDERS OF THE CATSKILLS
FROM Kingston a railroad runs back into the southern Catskills, a region of noble wooded heights with trout streams in every glen; and when you get beyond its wilder portion the mountains descend into vast billowy hills with much open pasture land, and with farm fields clinging to the lofty slopes. The name Catskill is of Dutch origin and means Wildcat Creek. The creek which won this particular title by the old-time prevalence of catamounts in its valley joins the Hudson about a score of miles above Kingston, and near its mouth is a town bearing the same name. Here is another entrance to the famous group of mountains and hills, and a railroad winds back into the tangled valleys. But a more agreeable method of journeying thither is by driving. It was thus I chose to go one day about the first of June, and as the horse jogged along I had plenty of opportunity to look about and see the country. The road rambled in and out of the hollows and over the hills, and was full of pleasant and unexpected changes. It followed the line of least resistance. Straight lines and angles are only suited to city thoroughfares, and a region where a direct highway is almost impossible gives genuine satisfaction. Each time I mounted a ridge I had a glorious view of the blue mountains ever looming higher into the sky as I drew nearer; and there was many a delectable spot in the vales — meadows golden with dandelions that imparted a glow of color delightful to behold, an abundance of trees tenderly green with new leafage, and swift streams sparkling in the sunshine. The birds were singing, and occasionally I heard the tapping of a woodpecker, or saw a hawk soaring far aloft.
Now and then I passed a farmhouse. The dwellings remote from the villages were apt to look neglected and often were vacant. Evidently farming was not so attractive a calling as in years past. But the rustic homes that had been transformed into summer hotels and boarding places looked prosperous enough to make up. The opening of the vacation season was near at hand and the women were busy about the woodwork and windows with their scrubbing cloths and brushes, and the men were making needed repairs or improvements and touching up the dwellings and fences with gay paint. The painters were bound to have something striking to satisfy their own sense of the beautiful and please the city people. I suppose a quiet simplicity as compared with giddy streaks and patches seems hopelessly tame to rustic dwellers and perhaps is uninteresting to many townspeople as well — more’s the pity.
During my drive I went up the famous Kaaterskill Clove — a charming wilderness valley that opens back between two mountains. A steep, narrow road, abounding with thank-you-m’ams, crept up one side of the bordering ridges, and a noisy stream worried down the rocky depths of the hollow with many a rapid and foaming leap. But what I especially wanted to see was the portion of the mountains most closely associated with Rip Van Winkle. I doubt if Irving had any definite spot in mind when he wrote the story, yet the public long ago decided that Van Winkle’s house and the place where he slept were high on the Hudson slope of South Mountain. An old road zigzags up to a summit house, but is reputed to be so precipitous and rough that I left my horse in the valley and climbed on foot. By and by I came to a little hut by the roadside snugged into a wild hollow with wooded cliffs rising around on three sides, and a deep gorge dropping away on the fourth side. This hut is known as the Rip Van Winkle house. It is said to have been there for at least fifty years, and no one knows its origin. Close to it is a ruinous hotel, and both are much marked and scribbled with names of idling sightseers. A rude path leads up the declivity to the left, and a short scramble brings one to a great boulder inscribed “Rip’s Rock” — the supposed place where he had his long sleep.
When I returned to Catskill I lodged with a family that had originally lived in the mountains and they gave me a good deal of entertaining information not only about the Catskills but about other matters of local interest. “Yes,” said the man, “that little house was where Rip lived, and the rock was where he slept. Him and his dog Snider went up to that rock, and he tied the dog to a sapling and lay down for a nap. When he woke up he looked for his dog Snider, and he couldn’t see anything of him, and he called to him but got no answer. After a while he happened to cast his eyes up in a tree and saw his dog’s bones hanging there. The sapling had grown to be a big tree in twenty years and as it increased in height had carried the dog up into the air.
“There’s a wonderful lot of people come to the mountains now compared with what came when I was a boy. Why, gracious goodness! in the district where I was raised there was only scattered farms, and a schoolhouse no bigger than my kitchen, but now the place is quite a town with stores, hotels, churches and everything else. The people in that region have about given up farming. We used to have some awful crops where at present they only grow a little garden stuff. My father cut good timothy hay on land that today is grown up to woods as big as my arm; but he and the other farmers could hardly make a fair living. They just managed to keep the interest on their mortgages paid up, and that was about all. Every Saturday we’d drive to Catskill with butter and eggs, poultry, pork and other produce. We had some regular customers, but mostly we’d sell to the stores and trade out what was due us. A good deal of work was done with oxen. My father had a yoke. Once they ran away when they was hitched to a dumpcart. Father and I were in the cart, and to stop ‘em he guided ‘em into a swamp hole. That did the trick, but they got mired so deep we had to have help to haul ‘em out.
“My mother died, and then my father swapped his farm for a place down here and went into the milk business. He had to have some one to keep house, so he married again, and as his second wife had a little cash they made a good start and did very well, though they bought everything that went into the cows’ mouths.
“With prices what they are now any man back in the hills who wants to take care of his farm can make money hand over fist. But most of ‘em think farming is too hard work and prefer to get their profit from city boarders. Gee! Some of ‘em charge to beat the band. They’re robbers! But then lots of these city people have money to burn. I took a city man with his wife and two children in my team to one of the hotels last summer; and, by golly, ‘ boy, he’d brought along two trunks full of playthings for those kids, and he hired a big room at fifteen dollars a week to turn the kids and their playthings loose in.
“I’ve been surprised to notice how little some city people knowed about the country. They’re supposed to be up to snuff on everything in New York, but land alive! they do ask you the dumbdest questions that ever was imagined. One day a fellow in a party I was taking for a drive pointed and said, ‘There’s a flock of cows over there. Now will you tell me which of ‘em give the buttermilk?’
“He was kind of a fresh duck but I led him on till I made sure he was sincere and innocent, and then I said, ‘You see that cow with the white face — well, that’s the one that gives the buttermilk.’
“‘But how do you get it out of her?’ he says. “ ‘Well,’ says I, ‘we set a pail under her bag and take hold of her tail and pump.’ “He believed me all right.”
We had shad for breakfast, which the lady of the house said they did not indulge in nowadays very often. “They’re getting to be a luxury,” she said, “and so are most other river fish. I can remember when the farmers used to come and get herring by the cartload to use for fertilizer. Carp are about the only fish that are reasonable in price, and I don’t care for them. They taste too muddy. The first one we had was bought for us by a neighbor. He couldn’t get shad and said it was claimed this was just as nice. If he’d been here when I’d got it cooked I could have throwed it at him, I was so mad. Over the river they have a carp net three thousand feet long and they pull in tons of those carp. The more they catch the more there seems to be. A sheeny from New York comes around and buys the fish at from six to nine cents a pound. The fishing is very profitable for the man that owns the net, and yet to look at his buildings you wouldn’t think he was worth a dollar. Why, his barn is so full of holes you can throw a cat through anywhere.”
Catskill’s early history was comparatively tranquil. No serious conflicts occurred with the Indians, but there is a tradition that near by on Wanton Island a fierce battle was fought between the Mohawks and the Mohicans. The former at last retired to another island where they built fires and pretended to encamp. But after arranging sticks and stones near the fires and spreading blankets over them to give a semblance of seated men they retired to the forest and waited in ambush till the Mohicans appeared to complete their victory. At length, in the dead of night, the Mohicans came and, tomahawks in hand, made a sudden rush and assailed the blankets with great fury. This at once exposed them to the glow of the fires, and in the confusion of their mistaken attack they fell a ready prey to the arrows of the crafty Mohawks.
A little to the north of Catskill, across the river, is the city of Hudson. The place was settled in 1784 by thirty New Englanders, mostly Quakers. They were men mighty in the handling of the harpoon who had sailed on many seas, and though Hudson is over a hundred miles inland they proposed to establish here a town devoted to whaling and kindred industries. Strangely enough, they made a success on just these lines, and not only whalers but other vessels brought their spoils to the town from the ends of the earth. The growth of the place was phenomenal and the proprietors waxed wealthy. But when steam navigation became a certainty, Hudson as a seaport was doomed; yet not till 1845 was the last ship sold that had engaged in the whaling business.
The city is built on a bluff which rises abruptly from the river, and the brow of the bluff affords a very attractive view of the river. Clinging to the verge of this height is a weatherworn, big-chimneyed house, evidently one of the oldest in the place. I got acquainted with its occupant — a negro, and ancient like his dwelling. He had always made his home in the vicinity, and so had his father before him. The latter had been somewhat noted as a violinist. “He made that his business,” said my acquaintance, “and travelled around with a horse and wagon to play at balls and parties. There was quite a circuit he went over. He seemed to have a natural mother-wit gift for giving people a good time. It was born into him and he could make jokes so as to kill everyone laughing. His company was superior and it was appreciated. Once he went to Pennsylvania and they offered him a present of a house and lot worth six hundred dollars if he’d come there to live; but money was no object to him and he wouldn’t go. Our family was all musical, and I’ve played the violin a good deal in my day; but its worldly you know, and I’ve given it up. I try to serve the Lord now.”
In early life my informant was for some time a porter on a steamboat, and as a result of his experience had concluded there was “just as much difference between New Englanders and the people of the Middle States as between day and night.” “On the boats where I worked,” said he, “if a passenger didn’t tip you for carrying his bag you’d refuse to give it to him and tell him you’d lock it up. That would fetch the money from most of them, but not from a New Englander. He’d get mad and say, ‘Where’s the cap’n?’ No, you couldn’t work an Eastern man, but you could git the New York and New Jersey men on skin games every time.”
While we talked a boy passed carrying some eels. “Those would suit me pretty well,” remarked my friend. “I’ll eat eel before I will any other fish. Down on the Mississippi they have an eel that’s very much like our eels only somewhat darker, and it has little legs, or perhaps you might say each leg was a little hand with a claw into it. In the spring of the year those eels are blind and bite everything that touches ‘em. I saw one in the water once close to a scow I was on, and I took an oar and squeezed him against the side of the boat. He squealed just like a rat and, by George! you ought to see him bite at the oar. If you get bitten by one, whatever you are going to do you want to do in five minutes. The only thing that’ll save you is to ketch a live chicken and cut it open and clap it onto the bitten place.
“Down in South America they have a galvanic eel, and if he hits you you’re paralized and can’t move hand or foot. That’s the reason the people don’t go in swimming there. I had a cat once on shipboard that was a thieving sort of a creature, and I said, ‘Mr. Cat, when we git near land where you can swim ashore, over you go.’ Well, we got to Para, right under the equator in the middle of the globe, and I threw the cat overboard from near the bow. The tide was setting toward shore and I walked aft to see what became of the animal, but, my king! he wasn’t to be seen. One of those galvanic eels must have struck him.”
I asked the old negro about the various legends of the Hudson, hoping to get new versions, but he said, “These people along the river are superstitious and believe in lots of things, but I don’t take any stock in such stories myself.”
Down at the steamboat landing, while waiting to continue my journey, I had a chat with another local resident. Everything with him seemed to date from 1866, the year in which he married. “I paid five dollars a month rent then for two rooms,” he said, “but a family ain’t content now to live in that way, and the rent takes all a man earns. I seen the time here in ‘66 when coal was fifteen dollars a ton; and the first barrel of flour we bought cost eighteen dollars. But it was a poor week I couldn’t make thirty-five or forty dollars around the wharves, and this was a hundred per cent better town then than now.”
I remarked on the frequency of the big icehouses we could see across the river. “Yes,” he responded, “they stand so thick all the way from Kingston to Albany that you can throw a stone from one to another the whole distance. Men drive here from nine miles back in the country in the winter to work icing, and they go home every night. They bring dinner pails bigger’n that post in front of us, and they get two dollars a day and freeze to death. They have to be up at three in the morning in order to arrive here ready to begin at seven, and they freeze coming and they freeze again going home. It’s no job I’d care for.”