Catskills Conversations: Bill Birns

© J.N. Urbanski

© J.N. Urbanski

JN: How long have you lived in the Catskills?

BB: 44 years, I came here in August of 1971.

What brought you here?

Funny story, actually. I went to Union college in Schenectady New York and became fast friends with a fella who grew up and lived in Margaretville. He used to get the Catskill Mountain News and in those days, much of it was a local and personal column where local correspondents would call people in the community and find out just the social notes. So we sophisticated suburban kids, as I was, we would all be chuckling and having fun, “oh look, Mabel Smith had chicken dinner with so and so”, etc. So he’s telling me a story one day. We’re sophomores in college and I knew that his father was a physician, a doctor. He was telling me about an automobile accident. He said his father is best friends with a truck driver and I said, “what? Stop. What? Your father’s a doctor and his best friend is a truck driver? I’ve got to see this place”.

That was really the beginning of my fascination with the Catskills and the Margaretville area. I grew up in the suburbs of Westchester County in post-World War II prosperity years – the Eisenhower years – really before the world kind of changed in the 1960s. I grew up in the high suburbs in New Rochelle, New York. My father died when I was seven years old. My brothers were ten and eleven and my mother was a widow who had paid off the house. So we grew up in this prosperous, upscale kind of thing. She went back to work as a secretary in a school district, making $7,000 a year, raising three kids on her own, in a world where everything is kind of rarified. It was a big suburban Tudor house. It kind of gives you an outsider’s observational point of view because you’re in the middle of a whole way of life, but you don’t feel like you’re really part of it. For one thing – and this wouldn’t be true for younger people today – but I was the only kid in the class who didn’t have a father. There was no divorce. So I had that outsider perspective.

It’s also 1968, 1969 and 1970 and “back to the country, back to nature” was very much in the air at that time. I had friends who came back to live here in hippy communes.

There was an ashram in Big Indian.

Yes, and I was – I like to call – a refugee from the suburbs. Having had that sort of jaundiced eye of the whole thing. It had struck me in an adolescently Holden Caulfield kind of way as pretty phony, the whole suburban thing. Men would go to work in the morning and they were gone. It was women and their children and most of the people in the neighborhood had domestic help. Most of them were African-American women from the south who had moved up north as part of the great migration. It was just a little bit too much.

I liked growing up in the city because it meant you could walk everywhere, or you could take a train or a bus locally. Now, I have to drive everywhere and that’s the downside of living here.

Very much so, you know, when I came here I came here to teach school at Margaretville. There were a lot of young people around at that time, just as there a number of young people around today. Most of the young people who became my friends loved the Catskills for the mountains; loved the Catskills for the outdoors and the hiking. I loved the Catskills for the people, because it was completely different from anything I knew.

Shortly after that story that I mentioned earlier, I wanted to see this place for myself. It was a Sunday, my mother was away in Ireland and I had just had a fight with my girlfriend who later became my wife. I was about 20 years old. I was angry, so I got in the car was just driving and I was heading north, so I decided that I would go up and see my friend.

Where were you living at that time?

I was living in New Rochelle in Westchester County, so it was a three-hour drive. I drive to where my friend lives and I knock on the door and my friend’s father answered. He said, “Pete’s not here, but come with us. We’re going to a wedding”. I said, “what”? He said, “yeah, we’re going to a wedding, come on”! It was at the Margaretville Pavilion.

There was a three-piece country band. This is 1971 where the whole culture is kind of saturated with rock and roll and there’s still a country and western band playing.

What do you think of Country music?

It was great because it was so different from what I was used to. I met my friend Pete’s uncles and we later became great friends. I knew they were dressed for the wedding because they were wearing their good high-top, black converse.

What were you wearing?

I probably had a pair of jeans and a shirt on. I don’t know, but I was just coming up to see my friends and his parents were going to a wedding and they said, “come on, come with us”. I tried to resist, but I went and had a heck of a time.

When we first got there, the country store was still in operation: four guys in full Dickie’s green or blue uniforms, with Red Man chewing tobacco in the top pocket, sitting around the country store talking. It was like something out of a William Faulkner novel without the racism. To me it was just an incredible new world. There were more cows than people for the first 15 years that I lived here. It was highly agricultural and I lived there from 1972 to 1990 and we had eight working farms at that point in New Kingston. I used to take my two sons. We worked throwing hay bales for a friend who was a farmer and used to get raw milk from the Taylor farm.

Did your kids decide to stay here?

No, but my younger son is back living here again. He had gone off and gotten into banking and so forth outside the county, but is now living in Arkville. My other son is a physical education teacher and soccer coach in a high school down in PA.

There used to be a sign that was put up by the folks pushing the resort when the battle was going on and it read: “you live here, don’t you wish your kids did”. The fact of the matter is that the guy who fixes my furnace I knew when he was a kid. He went to Roxbury. The guy that sells me gas, I taught at Margaretville. Your kids can live here, but if they have a college education then they’re probably not going to live here. It’s a hard place to make a living.

You have to bring something with you, if you move here. Or you have to work a few jobs.

Now, today the teachers don’t live in town.

Where do the teachers live?

When people decided that it would be really nice to have a place in the mountains, real estate values just skyrocketed. Before that happened, your kids could stay here because housing was very cheap. When I first arrived here in 1971, my wife and I had the pick of several apartments that were often rented by teachers and my rent was $100 a month. The first home I bought from Farmer’s Home Administration, which helped rural people to buy houses by providing 100% financing, was $14,600 in 1973. I might also point out that in 1973 that was the most money ever spent for a house in New Kingston, New York in history. I remember going to the guy who was the mayor or the postmaster of the town and saying – do you think I should pay that much? He said, why don’t you go ahead and pay it. I think you’ll be fine. [Laughs]

Once the housing market took an upturn, teachers were priced out. The Highmount cut off for teachers’ salaries is just huge. There was just an article in the Middletown Record about teachers making about $100,000 a year and it’s quite a considerable number in the Hudson Valley, Orange County, Ulster County region, but once you get over Highmount, those salaries are dramatically different. We’re talking maybe 50%.

Now teachers are out of the market to buy a home here, so they tend to buy a home someplace more affordable and just commute in and out. That’s not necessarily advantageous to the school, but it’s not like anybody can be blamed. It’s just the market.

So you’re a writer too?

Well, I’m struggling at it.

If you’re not struggling, you’re not a writer.

I’ve always been interested in writing. I’ve always tried to write. I’ve always written. When I retired, there was what I thought was a very nasty advertisement in the Catskill Mountain News. It was during this fight over the resort, from people who were opposed the resort. They said gee, if the resort produces this many jobs, who’s going to mow your lawn? Who’s going to deliver your pizza? I thought that was a really elitist and condescending approach to those of us who make our lives here. So I wrote a letter to the editor of the paper. Even though I find myself in the paper occasionally, I’m really not comfortable with it. So I showed it to Dick Sanford and asked is this OK? Am I going to be getting myself into a controversy I don’t want? And he said it was great. He put it aside to publish and he said you ought to write for us, but not in education, you’re too close to it. I had just retired from teaching. He thought I would be too pro-teacher maybe. Education is a sticky wicket because you’ve got many different stakeholders in education and my view is that presently the one stakeholder who is being completely ignored is the student, but that’s neither here not there.

Dick said, “now Brian over here” – who also writes for the paper and was also my student – “he’s able to sustain a column because he has a sense of humor and he has a sense of humor wherever he goes”. So I was thinking, what do I have wherever I go?

You like people.

I’m interested in stuff around here. I like the people. I like the place. I like the whole thing. So I went home and I said, maybe I’ll write a column about the Catskills. So I pumped out three 800-word essays. The first one was about Armstrong Park, where I live. A book I read from the 1880s told me that the oldest house in Griffins Corners (latterly Fleischmanns) was General Armstrong’s house in 1842. I’m in Armstrong Park. It’s got to be here.

Who’s General Armstrong?

Well, that’s an interesting story. [Laughs]

Have you published any of your stories?

Yes, I published a book called Catskill Catalog, which is published by Purple Mountain Press in Fleischmanns. I self-publish with an imprint, called Mountain Media, a poetry sequence called The Myth in the Mountain, which I had written in the 1980s when I was writing my doctoral dissertation on the dialect of the Catskills. I was so focused on the language of the Catskills in an analytic way that I needed some outlet that allowed just the music to play. So I wrote this cycle. It’s a three-part cycle. Much of it is in the voice that I believe is the authentic voice of the Catskills. I gave it to a student to read after we got to be friends. Later I had written this other thing that I gave her and she said, “you can’t publish this, you have to publish The Myth in the Mountain”. Knowing that generally my students know more than you do, I said, yes ma’am.

I would like to read that.

I usually have a box in my car, but I took it out. So, one day when you’re out, when you come back, you will find this book propped up against your door.

I love that.

Good.

So how long have you been writing for the CMN?

I started in 2007. I wrote something like 285 essays of which about 120 have been published in this volume. I do have a second volume that another student of mine is supposedly copy editing at the moment, but she fell in love and that gets in the way.

You haven’t seen her since.

No. I’m presently trying to work on something else, so I’m writing. When I’m writing I like it. For me the process is most important. I used to say to a colleague of mine who is also considering retirement and who also is fascinated by writing: if you write a 1,000 words a day, you’re living a literary life. I’ve since reduced it to 200. What do you think?

I think to be a writer, you have to have more rejections than anyone else.

I’m with you. I’ll take that.

I’m trying to build up my pile of rejections.

I went to graduate school in the teaching of writing. It was a program that was put together in 1976 for college instructors who were confronted with open admissions in the early 1970s.

What was Open Admissions?

Open admissions means that anyone with a high school diploma could be admitted to college or most of the public colleges: city and community colleges that had always served the working class in this country. These colleges were serving the middle class, and the black and Latino working class was being neglected. Public schooling was in such disarray the kids were not ready for college. So one of the solutions was this graduate program with Indiana University in Pennsylvania, one of the first programs designed to train teachers, mostly in community colleges, how to teach writing.

When I was in school, nobody taught writing. What they did was demand papers and you sank or swam.

So they couldn’t write?

I’m talking about composition. They could write, and they could read but poorly. There wasn’t a lot of teaching intervention. That’s when remedial education came into America at college level and teaching remedial reading – there was a background to that. There was also a background to teaching and writing that had almost been forgotten since the turn of the 20th century. In the 18th century there was a lot of talk about it. They used to call it Rhetoric. It was a subject. So you would study Literature – what other people had written – but you would also study Rhetoric, which was figuring out how to compose yourself.

So this program was in rhetoric and linguistics and ended up drawing four-year college teachers who had never finished their doctorate and a couple of public school teachers like myself. I was the only one who would admit that he was a public school teacher. I had a colleague, who later became a friend, who was a public school teacher, but she also had an adjunct gig at a local university and that’s the only thing she mentioned in the class. You’re in higher education, the snobbery thing works and everybody was refining their language in class. So I decided that every time I would speak during graduate school I would use the word stuff. Like, I would say, “where can I find that, and stuff“? And “stuff like it“? [Laughs] That was my own little battle against academic snobbery.

So then I ended up getting this doctorate degree in 1986 writing my dissertation on the dialect of the Catskills.

What is the dialect of the Catskills?

When I started looking into it, it was determined to be a Hudson Valley dialect that was influenced by the Dutch origins of the region and I knew that was wrong, because I lived here and I went to Kingston and people sounded different than they sounded in Kingston. The first thing I worked on was double prepositioning.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but if you’re at the mechanic, he might say that the car needs a new carburetor into it. Not in it, but into it. I found a lot of that and explained it by the fact of where we live. People would give me directions and say, “well, you go up over here and come down there”. Well, the phrase up over has a purpose. You are going up over in a place like these mountains that are so rolling that you need more than one directional. So you need more than one preposition. So I wrote a paper on that that I read at the American Dialect Society in 1984 and then went on to use tapes that had been made for a local history project and discovered the northern most example of double prepositioning in the American dialect.

I have a book coming out, hopefully next year called John Burroughs, John Hewitt and Mountain Culture. One of my big things is the idea that everything was so different, in the way people dressed, talked, interacted with each other, entertained and walked in an out of each other’s homes. It was a fairly isolated rural community in the early 1970s.

Were the farms generally serving their local area then?

Yes, one of the farmers up in Millbrook told a friend of mine that his feed bill for the farm was $80,000 a year and he didn’t have a lot of cows – about 40 or 50 cows. So if he’s putting out $80,000 a year for feed, imagine what he’s taking in and nobody made big money in farming. When we lost the 18 or 20 farms – whatever the number is – in the town of Middletown and this area, we lost 18 or 20 small businesses that today would be considered small to medium sized businesses in this area. That is several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of financial transactions every year that are no longer occurring, so that was a huge, huge hit.

Why did the farms suffer?

Farming has always been a marginal occupation. The margins are thin. The milk price in the 1970s had not gone up appreciably in maybe a decade and when President Ronald Reagan came into office, he came in with a view called supply side economics. On the agricultural side, this assumed the reason why the price of milk had not risen to a decent level, so that farmers can make a living, is because there’s too much milk, so let’s reduce the supply. They instituted a program to buy out cows. We always thought – and I hope this is true – that they were then being sent to developing countries in Africa or India, whatever. It was also the time that McDonald’s was just burgeoning so the demand for beef made the price of beef on the hoof very attractive. So many farmers sold out, even young people.

But the farms really established a way of life for us. When my kids were young, it was not unusual for there to be a cow in the back yard that had wandered off. And we would go down to the Taylor Farm with a jug, open the spigot, fill the milk and leave the money. It was a much more rural lifestyle and I loved it. The people were incredible. It didn’t matter what people did for a living. There was a wonderful woman you would love called Harriet Smith, a Skidmore grad, from Roxbury, dead now ten years. She told me that when Mrs Farley lived here, who was Jay Gould’s granddaughter, it was not unusual for a man to appear in his Dickie’s work clothes at the back door of the Kirkside Home delivering coal or chickens or whatever it might be, and later at 8 o’clock at night, show up in his best suit with his wife in her best dress for dinner.

By the way, the doctor I was talking about earlier was a Gould, so that makes it even cooler.

What’s your favorite story that you have written about for the Catskill Mountain News?

Actually, the story stretches the idea of the Catskills a little bit. We’re up a little bit north of the Catskills, just outside the Catskills heading up to Cooperstown, New York. It’s sometime in the 1950s and you’re probably aware of one of the great baseball players Joe DiMaggio who was the most fluid, the most graceful, the most beautiful baseball player that ever came along until Willie Mays. He married Marilyn Monroe in a great love affair and after she died, he put a rose on her grave every day. So you’re talking about the icon of everything that we admire. Well, anyway Joe DiMaggio is sitting in the passenger seat of a car and he’s being driven to the Hall of Fame up in Cooperstown and they get lost. So they see a typical Catskill Mountain farmer on his tractor, although we’re not really in the Catskills, we’re just north of there. They pull over the car to the side of the road and look over towards the guy. He sees that they’re looking for some help and he gets off his tractor. He comes over and he leans in through the passenger side window, right across Joe DiMaggio whose arm is on the window ledge, as he’s explaining to the driver, who was a friend of Joe’s not a recognizable person, how to get to Cooperstown. So he says, “I know how you get up there. You got off the road over here. Go back the way you came. Get to Millford and then, when you get to Millford, you’re going to see a stoplight” and he pats DiMaggio on the arm and he says, “I see you Joe. I see you. When you get to the stoplight, go right and you’ll be right there”. He backs off and gets on his tractor.

To me, that captures the Catskill Mountain ethic or the Catskill Mountain character. He wasn’t going to break into the private space of this wonderful celebrity by asking for an autograph or making a fuss or saying he saw him at Yankee Stadium in 1951. But he did want Joe to know that he noticed him. “I saw you Joe. I saw you,” and went about his business.

 

9 thoughts on “Catskills Conversations: Bill Birns

  1. Jack McShane

    Do you think Bill might come to our Scribbler meeting, listen, offer insight and critique? That would be a real gift to the Spillian Scribblers.

    Reply
  2. John Hoeko

    Jenny Neal, absolutely wonderful interview of my old friend, Bill Birns. When he lived in New Kingston, he was a good friend of my father’s 2nd wife, Rebecca Sloan Bowers Hoeko. Some stories to tell there. She was a gifted painter, violinist, and writer.

    Reply
  3. Roy Moses

    Wonderful story about a wonderful guy and an even better teacher. I have had nothing but admiration for Bill and the lucky students who were fortunate enough to be in one of his classes at MCS.

    Reply
  4. Anthony Melore

    Dr burns you and Mr palen and Mr mcwinnie. Are the best teachers I’ve ever come across and great people .you guys made my day every time I walked into your class rooms or just walking buy you . I wish there where more men of your stature. Very blessed to know you all. You have influenced my life greatly. I wish you all the best you never gave up that says something today.

    Reply
  5. Carole phillips

    Dr. Birns is such an inspiring person and an amazing writer. I had the pleasure of working with him in a high school classroom where I saw him perform his magic so passionately . He treated everyone with respect & dignity & I have never seen a group of high teens open up & work so hard.
    We read amazing stories & talked about life experiences.
    Everyone participated in Dr. Burns’ lessons
    applauding him & each other. The highlight was one day when a select mute person stood up & gave a Senior Summation speech to our whole class. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room!
    I had never seen such love & support inside a classroom . These students were taught for life,
    not just studying for mandated tests.
    We explored , we wrote, we kept journals,
    we shared, and everyone cared.
    Dr. Birns is an extraordinary man and I
    am honored to have worked with him.
    He taught me many things & I too felt like one of his students .
    In our world today, one doesn’t often meet a writer with so much imagination & passion & caring.
    Congratulations Doc & thanks for the inspiration!

    Reply
  6. Diana Watters

    Great read! Wonderful man! I had the absolute pleasure of bei n get one of his students. He pushed me to push my limits both in the novels I read and the papers I wrote. Truly one of a select few teachers with the ability to inspire!

    Reply
  7. Robert A. Rowe

    I just stumbled onto (how’s that for a Catskill saying Bill?) this interview. Fascinating! I was born and bred in Margaretville and learned to speak Catskill Mountain talk, until one of my High School teachers told us the way we could learn to speak a universal American English was to listen carefully to the best radio (we didn’t have TV then) announcers and copy their speech. I did that and developed a way of speaking that those who prided themselves in being able to tell where an individual came from by the way they spoke could not tell where I came from. I joined the Navy after graduation and then went to college and graduate school and when I returned to Margaretville after being away for a number of years I could have been blindfolded and known where I was when I heard those I had grown-up with speak — at least those who did not follow what our school teacher recommended. But I still love the twang. I enjoy Bill’s writing in the Catskill Mountain News. I wish someone with his talent would write about the one (at least that I know of) hero of the American Revolution who served as a Patriot spy, and was killed by Patriot troops between Margaretville and Arkville; Harmonus Dumond.
    Happy New Year all.

    Reply

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