A Catskill Catalog: April 29, 2009
Write down your memories today. Tomorrow they become the stuff of history.
In February and March of 1971, Basil Todd, then living in Arkville, wrote two long letters to the Catskill Mountain News detailing his memories growing up in and around Fleischmanns. My friend, Jackie Grocholl, always interested in the history of her hometown, cut those letters from the paper, carefully pressed them into photo-album pages, and preserved them in her scrapbook of local history for, now, 38 years.
I love local history because I love the Catskills, but I think, if I lived in Chicago I’d find myself fascinated with the history of Chicago. Local history is the most democratic branch of historical study. It is the history of everyday life, of social, cultural, economic, and political life at their most immediate, individual, personal level. Local history is democratic history, as well, because its practice is open to all of us: we are each capable of writing down our memories of the people, places, and things that fill our days, or, perhaps, talking them into a recording device. Those memories, sometime in the future, provide raw material for people looking to recall that past.
And memory goes back even beyond our living memory. Basil Todd (pronounced Bay-sil, like the spice, not Baa-sil like the Rathbone) was born in 1891 on Sunset View Farm, located on the east Redkill Ridge, looking west over the Redkill Valley. Today, the road leading to that boyhood farm bears Basil Todd’s name.
The memories in his letters include memories from before his birth, from his grandmother’s time. A doctor’s bill, for example, found among her papers reveals the price of two days of medical care provided by Dr. John M. Banker in May 1873 – four dollars!
There were four doctors in Fleischmanns in Basil Todd’s day, three drug stores, four grocery stores, two barbershops and 32 hotels and boarding houses. As a 16-year-old, Basil helped build the dam that created Lake Switzerland. Just a couple of years ago, the State of New York demolished that dam and returned that artificial lake, located across from the St. Regis Hotel, to the Vly Creek streambed.
Lake Switzerland was built by Charles Vermilyea in 1907 for summer recreation – boating and swimming – and winter ice harvest. The dam was destroyed in the early 21st century to prevent catastrophic failure and the destructive flooding such failure would bring.
Basil Todd experienced catastrophe himself when he and his young wife went away for a few days in October 1912. At that time, they lived in a house on the road to the Fleischmanns train depot, near today’s Hasay Realty office. Their house burned to the ground while the young couple was out of town, destroying all their earthly goods. Just a few weeks back, quick work by the Fleischmanns Volunteer Fire Department on a Sunday night, prevented another fire in the same neighborhood from becoming such a catastrophe.
Signing his letters, B.C. Todd, Basil seemed to revel in the fact that he and Bill Morrison were the “oldest surviving ‘Natives’ of Griffin Corners and Fleischmanns and vicinity.” His memory went back all the way to Matthew Griffin, pioneer founder of that settlement, who was a 95-year-old dealer in wool and hides when Basil Todd was a boy. Matthew Griffin was also a “pettifogger,” our letter-writer’s term for one who practiced law without any formal legal training. Griffin’s son, DeWitt, was a trained lawyer who practiced his profession out of an office in today’s Valkyrian Motel on Fleischmanns’ Main Street.
Basil Todd’s granddaughter remembers him as a highly social and gregarious man, well liked in his community, who was always interested in politics and current events. His extroverted nature is perhaps suggested by his own memory of a suit of clothes he bought one Easter season in Halpern’s Department Store on the main drag in Fleischmanns. That store “carried a very complete line of merchandise, such as Hart, Schaffner & Marx men’s suits, Crosset patent leather shoes and other popular brands of the times and a complete line of women’s wear.”
That particular Easter, Basil Todd walked out of the store in “a green suit of clothes, green shoes and a green derby hat with a red feather in it, all purchased from Halpern’s.” An extrovert’s outfit if I ever heard of one!
Basil Todd left his father’s Redkill Ridge farm at the age of 17 to go to college to learn to be a telegraph operator and bookkeeper. He operated the telegraph at the Fleischmanns Railroad station where the aforementioned Charles Vermilyea was the station agent. Basil also worked during his long life as a carpenter, tax assessor, door-to-door vegetable salesman, and caretaker of the Emery Estate up in Highmount.
It is fitting that a road is named after him. He operated a steamroller one summer when the Redkill Road was first built for automobile traffic.
Basil Todd died in 1973 just before his 83rd birthday. The historical letters he wrote two years earlier left some of what he remembered to the rest of us. We can all learn from that example.
© William Birns