A Catskill Catalog: December 30, 2009

by Bill Birns
“Off with the old year, on with the new!” So read the headline in the Catskill Mountain News 100 years ago this week, as the second decade of the 20th Century was about to begin. That exuberant line appeared below a pen and ink drawing featuring the exciting newness of the time – Old Man 1909 driving away in one of those new-fangled automobiles, and Baby 1910 arriving in an even newer-fangled bi-plane flying machine.
The second decade of the 21st century is about to begin. Let’s look back 100 years at the news in these mountains the last time a second decade beckoned.
A White Christmas was the big news in the Catskills, and in the entire northeastern United States, in that last week of 1909. Snow started falling just after noon on Christmas Day, and soon was falling and swirling in a big blizzard that “extended over all the states from Iowa to the eastern seaboard, south to the Potomac and northward to the Canadian border.” That’s how News Publisher-Editor Clarke Sanford described it.
While folk wisdom promised that a White Christmas would bring good health through the year to follow, this blizzard brought delayed trains and frozen springs. Eighteen inches were recorded in Margaretville, and many farmers worried their spring-fed water supplies would be shut down by the zero-degree weather that followed hard on the storm.
On the Wednesday between Christmas and New Year’s, a tragic middle-of-the-night barn fire killed 98 head of cattle at the farm of Robert Hume, on the main road between Hobart and Stamford, today’s Route 10. Barn fires are a nightmare in any largely agricultural community, which is what our Catskills were 100 years ago, so this was chilling news. Perhaps the cold and lack of available water contributed to the inability of neighbors to save the piteously bellowing cows suffering inside the blazing 100-foot long barn.
Kingston, too, suffered a major fire that last week of 1909. The day after the Christmas blizzard, fire destroyed a section of Wall Street, totaling a $50,000 loss, a veritable fortune at that time.
Heavy snow means clean up, and the exertion of snow shoveling is always a health risk. The sudden shoveling death of 41-year-old E.F. Tompkins, Union Grove storekeeper and postmaster, was front-page news locally. So too, were the near-miss accidents of two separate toilers in the logging and lumber trade, men who escaped with their bodies broken but their lives intact.
Of course, our Catskills are part of our larger world, and 100 years ago the railroads provided access for people and information in and out of the mountains. The “Daily Happenings” columns in the local paper tell us people rode the railroad home for the holidays from New York City and Montana, from Brooklyn and Poughkeepsie and Langhorne, Pennsylvania. The state and national news came home, too.
1909’s last issue of The New York Times reported the bitter cold in the East and South, so cold that the Ohio River had frozen from Pittsburgh to Louisville, shutting down the movement of coal, then America’s essential fossil fuel. The cruel weather sank five Navy battleship-launches in New York harbor, the ships sinking in the Hudson between 76th and 110th Streets, victims of the crush of ice floes jamming the river.
The Times also reported on the counting of the contents of the U.S. Treasury’s vault, a 40-person, two-month job required by the changeover from one treasurer of the United States to another. The hand counting ascertained that the U.S. Treasury vault contained one billion, 259 million, one thousand, 756 dollars and 37 and two-thirds cents. Wouldn’t bail out a small bank today.
John D. Rockefeller, of Tarrytown, may well have had more money than the Treasury Department. The Times reported that Mr. Rockefeller was enjoying the snow at his Pocantico Hills, Westchester County, estate. The Standard Oil baron expended his considerable energy “plowing through snow banks” on walks and sleigh rides around the grounds.
These days, old man Rockefeller’s great-grandson has been the driving force behind the conservation of the Beaverkill Valley. Larry Rockefeller began buying land in the Beaverkill in the early ’80s in order to maintain that historic fishing ground’s pristine rural character. Developers were bidding on the many farms and undeveloped tracts in the valley. Larry Rockefeller bought land, established development restrictions and standards, and resold the land with those standards in place. He also provided lifetime-use covenants, jobs, and affordable housing for valley locals.
John D. Rockefeller’s snow frolicking is joined on the last front page of 1909 by Mrs. George Westinghouse’s gift of snow-overshoes for horses in Pittsburgh, an arch and accusatory notice of a lost ring that had the all-women’s Martha Washington Hotel buzzing, and a missing Philadelphia heiress feared to be a suicide. Seems like in 100 years we merely changed our celebrity watching from wealthy industrialists and socialites to singers, actors and golfers.
Perhaps all that’s really changed are the farms and railroads, the money in the treasury, and the ice in the river.
Happy New Decade.
© William Birns