A Catskill Catalog: April 14, 2010
How can a brook be dry? Isn’t a brook, by its very nature, wet. A drive up Dry Brook in the August heat of a dry summer day will reveal long stretches of baked gravel in the streambed, but, still, there is water in the brook – it’s just, temporally, a narrow brook. So how come we call that stream Dry Brook?
Drei Brooken, the old-timers tell us, was the old Dutch name for the three brooks that merge up the valley we call, today, Dry Brook. The name has to do with the waterway’s number of joining streams – drei, three - not the condition of the streambed in drought.
Used to be we listened to the old-timers more intently. Least seems that way to me. Why, back in the 70s, the “Foxfire” series of books and movies championed old-timers’ homespun skills, skills people in the southern Appalachians feared losing. Alex Haley’s book, “Roots,” fathered a whole new genre of television, the mini-series. The whole enterprise was based on a single phrase, Kunta Kinte, which had been passed down to the author by the old-timers. The old-timers mattered!
Sometime in the 80s or 90s, or the first years of this century, the old-timers became senior citizens, and senior citizens became a demographic, and a demographic identified an interest group, and we stopped paying attention to the old-timers, at least we stopped paying attention in the same way.
The old-timers are the ones who remember that the earliest Dutch settlers up Dry Brook were practical folk given to referring to their watercourse by number, drei, meaning three.
The old-timers can tell you that the Hotel Washington in Fleischmanns burned down 77 years ago. An old-timer told me so. She knows because she remembers standing with her stepdad watching the fire, just as I remember standing in Margaretville in 1978 watching Kelly’s Hotel burn down. My fire-fighter friends tell me there is no way, today, we’d be allowed to watch a fire from the sidewalk across from a blazing block of buildings.
When you remember things as natural and normal that today are considered unthinkable – like allowing a crowd to gather across the street from a blazing hotel – well, then, you’ve entered the world of the old-timer.
The late Nina Haynes was a respected old timer back in the day when old timers were particularly respected. In the late 70s, Nina was interviewed on tape, creating an oral history of her memories of Haynes Hollow, off Dry Brook, of life in the backcountry.
I identified, in Nina’s speech, her use of a specific grammatical feature of Mountain Speech, the dialect of native speakers throughout Appalachia. That feature, a-prefixing, connotes a continuity of action. “They’d keep right on a-diggin’ ahead of you”, Nina said, the a-prefixing indicating digging before you got there, digging now, and digging in the future, after you leave. I bet Nina’s a-prefixing is the northernmost documented example of that Mountain Speech pattern in the entire Appalachian range.
Today’s old-timers remember Nina Haynes fondly. She was a formidable lady who raised three daughters on the farm she worked with her husband, Orson. Nina was a crack shot with a deer rifle, often from the front porch. People, back then, never thought of themselves as poor. Today, the old-timers remind us that venison, even porch-shot, was vital, in those days, to the prosperity of the table.
“Nina Haynes,” one old timer remembered, “killed flies with her left hand, stirred potato salad with her right, and she told you the way it was!” That’s the way it’s supposed to be with the old-timers. We just got to listen.
If we do, we’ll hear that Helen Keller stayed in a Main Street hotel in Fleischmanns one summer, that she’d sit on the lawn with her two collie dogs each day. The butcher who delivered meat to the lodge would often bring bones for Miss Keller’s dogs, and, at the end of the season, received an autographed copy of her book, “My Life.”
And the old timers can tell us how the school lunch program was invented in the little hamlet of Seagar, up Dry Brook. Well, maybe not quite invented, but Seagar was one of, probably, many places in early 20th century America where the inherent goodness of people led to providing a hot lunch.
In the Seagar school, it started with milk. The farmers had extra. Why not bring it over to the schoolhouse for the kids? Soon, women were adding a few potatoes to that milk and making soup, and potato soup led to vegetable soup, and, pretty soon, Seagar’s young scholars were getting a hot lunch every day.
Postmaster Roy Todd ran for school trustee and made provision for a daily hot lunch in the school budget, thus cementing the Seagar school’s claim to lunch program pioneering.
The old-timers told me so.