© J.N. Urbanski
“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.
© 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.