A Catskill Catalog: August 12, 2009

Everywhere I go in the Catskills, I pick up brochures, pamphlets, and those shiny rack-cards that seem to be everywhere promoting tourism in our mountains. I picked up a bunch just the other day, on a jeep-ride tour of nearby mountain attractions: new construction, old houses, some ruins, the Hunter bookstore, with lunch at Brio’s.
I picked-up “August at the Catskill Mountain Foundation,” “The Catskill Mountain Region Guide,” “Hunter, NY Visitors’ Guide,” “Mountaintop Map and Guide,” and “Eateries: A Food Reference Guide - Greene County 2009.”
A good friend, now gone, used to say, “Someday that stuff will be worth a lot of money,” and, of course, he was right. Keep travel brochures and other printed material long enough and they become collectors’ items, valuable relics from another time. If, in their useful life as travel brochures, they are well-written and interesting, attractively illustrated and laid-out, they can, when they pass into collectibles, become windows into another era.
Such a window is R. Lionel De Lisser’s Picturesque Ulster, printed in six parts in 1894 as pioneering travel promotion material, a series of beautifully illustrated books, with scores of terrific photographs accompanied by text aimed at attracting the dollars of middle-class vacationers. Recently, I bought a battered copy of Picturesque Ulster, Part 6 Township of Shandaken from another friend, a dealer in postcards and ephemera – the term for miscellaneous collectible printed material.
The Township of Shandaken: The Artist’s Rambles in Ulster County, is the title of De Lisser’s opening essay in the 11 by 14 inch book, with another author providing text on The Passing of the Hemlock, followed by a long, rambling, fake Native tale The Legend of Blossom Falls, with notes by the editor.” All three texts are designed to provide the mountain township a romantic, misty atmosphere, a primitive, natural, and simple world to wash the ravished cares of late-nineteenth century living.
It’s the photographs that are worth the price of admission – and, by the way, Hope Farm Press advertises, on its Web site, a $35 reprint of the full-length, 300-page, more-than-just Shandaken Picturesque Ulster. De Lisser was a talented photographer and had a great eye for what photographs to take.
The first photo you see in the Shandaken book is the narrow, high-sided bridge over the small stream that separates Shandaken from the town of Olive on the one-lane dirt road that is, today, Route 28. You might recognize the old Winnie house, just below present-day Winnie Road, then the Beechford Post Office. First time I ever heard of Beechford!
Turns out, place name are a kind of crap-shoot in the late 1800s, with post offices, railroad stops, and bends-in-the-road all likely to adopt their own. So, the rail stop, Cold Spring, served the post office, Beechford, and Mount Pleasant rail depot served the hamlet, The Corner, which I guess would be Mount Tremper today.
Encouragingly, De Lisser’s bank-level photos of the Esopus look very much like the same views today. The rocks and rapids are palpable. The mountains seem forested to about the same degree. The many small hotels and boarding houses pictured are pleasantly shaded in Victorian groves, as inviting today as they were intended to be then. 1890s Shandaken looks really nice.
But then, 2009s Shandaken is still a beautiful part of the earth. Not so many hotels, certainly, but lots of second homes, and a great state recreation center open to anyone with the price of a lift ticket, and a little public lake and picnic ground, and The Shandaken Wild Forest, not to mention the Big Indian Wilderness Area. Open to us all.
The town was struggling economically back in the 1890s, just as it is today. Pretty much all Catskill Mountain towns and villages struggle economically today.
De Lisser’s book had an economic motive. It was an entrepreneurial attempt to sell books that would, in turn, sell more hotel stays, more weeklong residences in boarding houses.
Lionel De Lisser himself was an American artist, an easel painter who worked his representational subjects – he was best known for his figures and interiors – in oil paint. His Herd Crossing, a sentiment-filled print idealizing rural life, is presently for sale on the web with a starting bid of $150. Tea Time, oil on canvas, will sell for much more, its warm interior inviting the viewer to join the two well-dressed women pictured at tea.
An accomplished painter, De Lisser’s photographs of the Catskills are also among his best work. His high altitude, panoramic shots must have been pioneering in the history of photography, still in its infancy in 1894. His book has a great photograph of the Big Indian Valley from on high, and another of the Pine Hill Valley from Monka Hill. Both pretty awe-inspiring in the comfort of your parlor chair!
I’ll be collecting travel brochures from other tourist towns as August turns to autumn, and will return with a fresh Catskill Catalog in September.