A Catskill Catalog: Feb. 11, 2009

In the late 1800s, “the best known and most reliable guide” in the Catskills, was James W. Dutcher of the Big Indian-Oliverea Valley. So stated the Commemerative Biographical Record of Ulster County, published in 1896.
Jim Dutcher was born in 1838 up in Prattsville. Like many in that part of the northern Catskills, Dutcher family prosperity was tied to the tanning business. Zadock Pratt’s huge tannery closed in 1845. Young Jim’s father died a few years later. When his mother remarried, young Jimmy, just 13 years old, decided it was time to move on. So he walked to Shandaken.
Tanning in those days was dependent on an abundant supply of hemlock trees, the bark of which contains tannins that, when mixed with water, produces a strong, reliable tanning agent. Hides soaked in hemlock-bark-solution became tough, durable leather, a major Catskill Mountain product right up through the Civil War.
But it took a lot of trees, a devastating number of trees. Bark-peelers would take to the woods in spring when the sap started running. That sap-run produces a slime just below the bark that makes efficient bark-removal feasible. Teams of bark-peelers would cut hatchet gashes around a hemlock trunk, twice scoring the bark deeply the entire circumference of the tree, the two gashes about four feet apart. They would pull that four-foot section of bark off the standing tree, then cut the tree down. The felled trunk was stripped of bark in four-foot sections, the bark piled into cords for sale to the tanneries, the stripped hemlock wood often left to rot on the forest floor.
Bark peeling destroyed the hemlock forest. Today, stands of first growth hemlock are prized. Forestry expert Michael Kudish identifies only 16 such stands throughout the Catskills, all but two located above 2,400 feet, elevations that made them difficult access for bark-peelers. Several are on the shoulder spurs of Slide Mountain, a couple on Giant Ledge, one up Rider Hollow, and one up McKinley Hollow. All areas Jim Dutcher knew well.
Jim Dutcher walked to Shandaken because he knew he could find work there. Tanning and bark peeling was a moveable beast, the life span of a tannery about 30 years. When the hemlock was depleted in one part of the Catskills, the industry moved to another. Young Jim knew where he was going. As 25 tanneries closed up on the Schoharie Creek, 17 operated along the Esopus.
He got work as a bark-peeler, tough, dirty work that went 15 hours a day from first sap-run to the Fourth of July. Soon, his pluck and energy and natural intelligence facilitated his rise, at age 17, to contract agent, the guy who hired and housed a team of peelers, arranged the transport and sale of the bark, and worked for profit rather than wage.
In 1860, Jim Dutcher married Mary Andrews. They had 11 children, fostering a family line that still today brightens the Esopus Valley. Sometime in the 1870s, Jim and Mary Dutcher built the Panther Mountain House, a summer boarding house and hostelry at the head of the Oliverea Valley. The building is gone now, but I understand, it stood on a side hill up behind today’s Full Moon Resort where the road begins its climb up to Giant Ledge and Winnisook.
It was through his hotel business that Jim became a celebrated Catskill Mountain guide, well-known for his intimate knowledge of Slide Mountain, where he blazed one of the first trails up that tallest Catskill Mountain, and built a stone step way and an observation tower to make his guests’ mountain hike easier and their views more imposing. Through his activity in the Republican Party, Jim became postmaster, a position akin to mayor-in-chief in many Catskill hamlets, right up to the re-organization of the Post Office Department in the 1960s.
Bob Steuding’s wonderful book The Heart of the Catskills (Purple Mountain Press, 2008) contains several photographs of Jim Dutcher, who seemed equally at home on the trail leading a party of well-dressed female hikers or, swilling a drink, shotgun in hand, sitting by a rock ledge with a trying-to-be-hard-boiled group of male hunters. He seems to have had the gift of easy company.
Jim Dutcher left the Catskills after the death of his wife, following two of his sons to the far west, where he died in 1913 in Washington State. Several of his descendants continued to reside in Shandaken. One, the late Hooper Dutcher, had a gift for horticulture, creating, along with his wife, Lisa, a lush garden and nursery on the banks of the Esopus, on land that had stood fallow and unproductive for years.
A hundred years ago, Jim Dutcher, postmaster, hotelier, mountain guide, was called Slide Mountain’s “guardian spirit.” I like to think he still is.