A Catskill Catalog: July 27, 2011

Don Bouton has a new book out. His second book, and he’s only 90.
If you don’t know Don, he’s a Halcott Center native who has spent his entire life in that beautiful valley, much of it with cows. Don was a dairy farmer for many years, working, first, with his father, Marshall, later, with his brother, Carson, and finally with his wife, Shirley, and children, Dennis and Mary.

Ten years ago, Don’s family arranged the publication of By the Light of the Kerosene Lantern, a privately printed collection of stories from Don’s youth, in the days before electricity and modernity came to the Halcott Valley. It’s a beautifully written book.

Now Cow Tales and Farm Life in the Catskills presents 30 stories from Don’s working life, many centered on the cow, a creature that elicits Don’s respect and his love. Designed by Kari Pagnano, of Halcott and New York City, Cow Tales is, like its predecessor, a gorgeously printed and illustrated wire-bound book, a pleasure to hold and admire, as well as to read.

I have a book out myself, a long-awaited thrill for me. The other day, I was at the Halcott Fair, offering my book, A Catskill Catalog (Purple Mountain Press, 2011). Don’s new book was displayed on the same table as mine. For a couple hours, at the Halcott Grange Hall, I chatted with folks about both.

The Halcott Fair is an annual July celebration of country living. The valley itself has maintained its rural character, still boasts a couple of working farms, looks much as it always has. The fair celebrates that pristine rural beauty.

But more importantly, the Halcott Fair celebrates community. The people of Halcott have worked hard to forge a community identity and community solidarity that includes every resident, local and part time. The fair is part of that effort, as are Halcott-branded tee-shirts and souvenirs, and the community-written newsletter, The Times of Halcott.

At about one o’clock, Don came into the Grange Hall. He has had a couple of bad weeks, so his son-in-law guided him, in a wheelchair, to a spot next to me. The hour I spent with him was a real joy.
When my sons worked at Belleayre Ski Center, parking cars and loading skiers, Don worked there, too, perhaps as their supervisor. I didn’t really know Don, then, but I heard a lot about him. My boys, it seemed, came home after each weekend’s work with a Don Bouton story: a bit of agrarian knowledge; a skilled tip on how to make, or fix, something; a piece of simple, profound wisdom.
That wisdom is presented simply and eloquently in Cow Tales and Farm Life in the Catskills. That wisdom made my day at the Halcott Fair.

I asked Don if he missed dairy farming, missed the herd. “It’s all in the book, Bill,” he told me, and it is. Bovine characters people the book, cows like Bonnie, who defied age with heavy milk production deep into her golden years, or Bee, a young cow who became the leader of the herd, the other cows always ready to follow her.

“They know so much,” Don said to me about cows, his voice thick with emotion. “They’re all so different. Each one has her own personality.”

They know so much. How remarkable! Seekers travel to India looking for such knowledge. Eastern spirituality and Native American nature-wisdom harbor such knowledge. I’m getting it sitting at a table in a Catskill Mountain Grange hall.

Dairy farmers can tell you. The Delaware County Historical Association museum in Delhi has a great display depicting traditional farm life in the county. New Kingston’s Betty Elliott is quoted in the display.

Betty explains that, often, at milking, she’d want to be sure that each cow had readied herself before Betty got to her. If any were lying down, while another was milked before her, Betty would call, “Harriet, get up,” and, sure enough, Harriet, the cow, and only Harriet, the cow, would get up, and steady herself, for the coming milker’s attention.

Don Bouton sold his dairy herd when the economics of the dairy business made it unsustainable. He writes, in his book, about the day truckers came to load the herd for shipment to their new home. Don and Shirley stayed away, not wanting to witness the move. But the truckers called. They couldn’t budge the herd.

Don went down to the barn. “Come on, Bee,” he called, and the farmer and the bovine leader of the herd walked, together, up the truckers’ plank, the other cows quietly following behind. Don had tears in his eyes. Me too. I don’t know about Bee.

Don went back, once, to visit the herd at the new owner’s farm. Wait ’til you read how the cows greeted their old friend!
© William Birns