“York state’s richest men wagered their principles
while her poorest hacked life from a hillside farm.”
I had lunch with Bill Birns, literally and literally: last week in person and today with a selection of his written works. A Catskill Catalog, borrowed from my local library, is an anthology of literary history, giving details of the stories behind local roads and place names, many of which are named after families and individuals who have lived in the area over the last two or three hundred years, or still do. For example, I didn’t know that the man after whom a nearby road was named, Basil Todd, was a short-form memoirist.
Catskills evenings are magical on a clear night with a few planets in alignment and an inky sky bursting with stars. They’re even more magical when viewed from a fire tower of which there are five in the Catskills. Fire towers are equipped with cabins at their apex and these cabins were manned (can we say personned now?) to watch for fires in the Catskills that are common around May when the grass, having been covered and deadened during winter, hasn’t yet sprung to life. The foliage is also still very dry and wildfires are common.
On Friday September 2nd, witness the 3rd Annual Lighting of the Fire Towers when from 9 to 9.30pm, we are invited to find a place with a view of a fire tower (or towers) on the horizon and watch their cabin light up the night sky.
“[Paul] Revere was a renowned silversmith and a courier for the Massachusetts Assembly carrying messages to the Continental Congress, a man in his forties riding 12 miles of well-traveled country roads near Boston. Sybil was 16 years old, and her path led 40 miles through dense woods that harbored ‘cowboys’ and ‘skinners’. The Cowboys were pro-British marauders who roamed in and around Westchester County plundering farmhouses and stealing cattle they later sold to the British…”
Purple Mountain Press in Fleischmanns, New York publishes hugely popular books of local New York State literature and history including John Burroughs’ book of essays In The Catskills. The office is a smaller structure adjacent to the building that houses the press on Main Street in Fleischmanns. I sat down with publisher Wray Rominger, who is now semi-retired, about the storied publishing house’s achievements and the life of a printer.
JN: How long have you lived in the Catskills?
WR: Since 1973.
What brought you here?
We lived in a school bus and came to Woodstock.
Where did you live in a school bus?
We came from Austin Texas, where I was a graduate student from Austin University. We were on the road for two months and I knew a fella in Woodstock that offered us a cabin. He didn’t tell me that the former tenant had had a fire and that there was a hole in the roof. So we had to live in the school bus for another four months until the roof was repaired.
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.
For Veterans’ Day in the US and Remembrance Day in England: a shelf full of history in the Skene Memorial Library in Fleischmanns, New York. When I’m trudging through the rain in New York City today, I will remember those who trudged much longer and in far worse conditions.
BH: I was actually born here and then I moved away for college. I lived in New York City for a while and Boston for a while. I came back here and practiced law for a bit and then moved to the Finger Lakes area when our first child was born. I lived in Dutchess County for a while and came back about four years ago, right after Hurricane Irene.
So you like to travel?
No, I actually don’t like to travel, but my first wife was a navy brat and she did like to travel, so we did.
I was having a conversation with somebody else about that, about how young people are moving away and how we can keep young people in the region.
And that’s been an issue ever since I went to school here. I can remember the Rotary Club had about eight of us come down from my class in 1976 and asking us what would it take for [us] to come back here, but in being 18 years old, we didn’t really have an answer at the time.
Lake Switzerland was built in 1907 for boating and ice harvesting by damming the Bushkill stream. It was later removed and thereafter Lake Switzerland drained considerably. The St Regis, which was originally on the banks of Lake Switzerland, now faces a valley, the original stream, and houses that have since been built on the stream banks. Trees have since grown back and the same view as the old postcard is not really possible from Breezy Hill Road (bottom).
John Hoeko, a lifelong fly fisherman, owns Fur, Feathers and Steel in Fleischmanns. He’s writing a book about his life and times and his work with the Catskills waterways.
How long have you lived in the Catskills?
My whole life, except for one day. I was born in Jamaica, Queens. My grandfather was Chief of Radiology in a hospital in Queens. He thought that the local hospital here in Margaretville, the old one, was too provincial. So he insisted I be born in New York City.
So you’ve lived here in Fleischmanns ever since?
Yes, my parents originally lived off Ellsworth Avenue, while they were building our house.