A Catskill Catalog: June 17, 2009
My arrival in the mountains and the publication of Alf Evers’ monumental history The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock (Doubleday, 1972) occurred at about the same time, so I have always felt a bond with the author. Alf Evers died in 2004, a month short of his 100th birthday. He was a Catskill Mountain institution.
I never met Alf. Wish I had. These mountains had been much written about before him, but the Catskills lacked a comprehensive regional history until his 800-page book filled the void. His book was thoroughly researched, full of historical detail, infused with the ear of a folklorist whose sympathies were with the people of whom he wrote. Alf Evers was a great storyteller.
Once, while researching the spoken dialect of the Catskills, I listened to a series of local history tapes, listening for specific features of spoken language identified with mountain speakers from the southern portion of the Appalachian chain. Alf was on one of the tapes. I well remember my surprise when, after hearing just a few words and sentences; I realized that this lover of all things Catskill was not native to the region.
Alf’s spoken language gave away his Bronx roots. He was born in that borough in 1905. When he was nine, his architect father moved the family to a small farm in Tillson, just outside the Catskills in Ulster County. There, Alf met Charley Woods, a local farmer, whose stories and rural turn-of-speech captivated the youngster and began his lifelong interest in folklore.
Later, the family moved to New Paltz, where his father worked on the restoration of an historic stone house in the old Huguenot Street part of town, a project that drew Alf into history and the connections between the artifacts of today and yesterday’s people. Arrowhead collecting with one of his New Paltz High School teachers further inspired that interest.
In 1925, Alf attended Hamilton College where his roommate was B.F. Skinner. Legend has it that Alf turned the future behaviorist toward psychology as a career field. Skinner was interested in art, but supposedly, young Alf Evers told him, “Science is the art of the future.” Skinner went on to become a groundbreaking behavioral scientist.
Ironic, then, that Alf Evers left college the following year to study painting and drawing at the Art Students League in New York City. It was there that he met his wife, illustrator Helen Baker, with whom he had three children.
Alf and Helen Evers wrote and illustrated over 50 children’s books. They lived first in Trumbell, Connecticut, moving in 1931 to Woodstock. Alf supplemented his writing with work as a Fuller Brush salesman and insurance investigator. He and his wife divorced in 1950.
In 1955, Alf published his classic children’s book The Treasure of Watchdog Mountain, an early “attempt to teach children what ecology was, about the relationship of man to the land. It was a pioneer book of its kind,” Alf later wrote. “I based it on Overlook Mountain, which I saw through my studio window,” he went on to say.
That writing experience kindled his interest in the history of the mountains, and he began the long process of research that resulted in his 1972 Catskills regional history. He dedicated the book to Barbara Moncure, his longtime companion, a folksinger whose 1963 recording “Folksongs of the Catskills,” was itself a significant contribution to the documentation of Catskill Mountain history.
Alf Evers followed his 1972 regional history with an equally comprehensive history of his hometown. Woodstock: History of an American Town (Overlook Press) was published in 1987. His In Catskill Country: Collected Essays on Mountain History, Life and Lore (Overlook Press) was published in 1995.
Alf next turned his attention to Kingston. He was working on his history of Kingston when he died. Kingston: City on the Hudson (Overlook Press, 2005) was published the year after his death.
No collection of Catskill Mountain books can be complete without Alf Evers’ work. He was the master, the collector and teller of tales who set the standard for all writing about these mountains that follows.
Interestingly, Alf, so intimately connected to Woodstock, almost moved to Roxbury in 1959. He had sold his house in Woodstock and was living in rented quarters when he contracted to buy a Roxbury home. The new house burned down before Alf could make the move. There was some drilling for gas and oil going on in Roxbury at the time, and Alf, always a bit suspicious of corporate America, suspected that the house had been deliberately set aflame.
Researching this column, I discovered that Alf’s first children’s book was a little illustrated story called This Little Pig, about a pig with a curly tail, who wanted a straight tail. I remember that book! Seems like I’ve been reading Alf Evers longer than I’d realized.