A Catskill Catalog: June 30, 2010

For me, the iconic image of Margaretville is a classic Main Street postcard photo, taken around 1940, from the Walnut Street intersection. Now, that’s odd, because I wasn’t yet born when the picture was taken, and did not lay eyes on Margaretville until nearly 30 years later. Yet, somehow, that photo captures my sense of the village as a self-contained community, a small town at a time when America seemed a land of small towns. I love the picture.
A framed enlargement of the picture hangs among six or eight others in the hallway of the Village Municipal Building on Margaretville’s Main Street. The permanent exhibit was set up a dozen, or so, years ago in memory of Al Nelson, onetime Mayor of Margaretville and my good friend.
The photograph shows the northeast corner of Walnut and Main as the hub of a vibrant economy. An oval, neon-enhanced Rexall Drug sign juts out over the sidewalk above a similar, but rectangular, sign identifying “Parsons Drugs, Sodas”. Behind it is an oval white Esso sign, signifying a Standard Oil gas station right on Main Street.
Years later, Herman Gottfried would build the single-story red brick professional building that, for years, housed his law practice and the Close and Sluiter Insurance Agency. Herman generously donated the building to the village, which is why the Municipal Building, today, bears his name.
Herman Gottfried was a remarkable guy. He died, at age 99, last April 24. A naval officer, Herman participated in the 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. He witnessed, and provided support for, General Douglas MacArthur’s famous wade ashore, fulfilling the general’s theatrical pledge, “I shall return,” made two years earlier when the Japanese forced American forces out of the Philippines.
Before the war, Herman had earned Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in English Literature at City College, and a law degree at Brooklyn Law School. After the war, he was named Acting Corporation Counsel for the Kingston office of the New York City Board of Water Supply. His job was the legal condemnation of private property to acquire the land needed to build the Pepacton Reservoir.
Sensing both local property owners’ need for knowledgeable representation and the opportunity to build a substantial and lucrative practice, Herman went into private practice in Margaretville in 1949. Herman was aggressive in pursuing his many clients’ claims.
The processing of claims against the city took time. I remember, in the 1980s, the late Doug Faulkner, of New Kingston, received compensation for lost business due to the city’s condemnation, and subsequent flooding, of farms that had been his customers back in the 1950s. By the time the claims processing commission had finished its work, Doug wasn’t even in the same business he had been in when the reservoir was built. May claims arising from the Gulf oil spill move a bit quicker!
Herman and his wife, Peg, nee O’Neill, lived 40 years in Margaretville, moving to Florida in 1989. Every Sunday, Herman, who was Jewish, accompanied his Roman Catholic wife to mass. Occasionally, when he had had a touch of the grape, Herman would be known to declaim, “Some folks say I’m a millionaire.” Then, spreading his arms wide to encompass all those in his view, this lawyer’s lawyer would raise his voice and announce, with a smile, “I plead guilty!”
The Margaretville of the 1940s-era photo was a busy commercial hub. The purposeful movement of cars in the street and of people on the sidewalk seems caught in a stop-action moment. In a breath, those folks will be back on their way. Perhaps, they’ll turn into Judson Weeks hardware store, marked by the Frigidaire sign across the street from that Esso station. The Victory Market, Kelly’s Drugs, and a liquor store beckon customers on that south side of Main Street.
It’s fitting that the corner of Walnut and Main should be featured in a display dedicated to Al Nelson’s memory. A few years after the photo was taken, Parson’s was purchased by Albany Pharmacy grad Joe Christian, who presided over Christian’s Drug Store and soda fountain for the next 40 years or so. He and Al were great friends, and, in many ways, that corner was Al’s corner.
Al came to the Catskills from Tenafly, New Jersey, first to Fleischmanns as physical education teacher and coach. When Fleischmanns and Margaretville merged school districts in 1969, Al became coach of soccer, basketball, and baseball at Margaretville Central.
It was basketball that counted in those days. Schoolboy basketball games, Tuesday and Friday nights, were the wintertime focus of the entire community. The little bandbox gym was regularly filled to capacity. Rumor had it that real money was bet on the competition of teenagers. Basketball was a big deal.
Al won a couple of sectional titles with the merged Margaretville and Fleischmanns squads. That set a standard that was hard to match in the years following. His teams didn’t always meet community expectations. Yet, every Saturday morning, Al would be at the corner of Walnut and Main, outside Christian’s Drug Store, available for the inevitable discussion and critique of his team’s performance from the many local fans who thought, falsely, they knew more basketball than Al did.
Nephew of TV comedy stars Ozzie and Harriet, Al was a true gentleman with a wonderful subtle sense of humor. He was elected mayor after his retirement from teaching and guided the village through some major improvements in the water system. He died, too young, from cancer.
Al’s name is engraved on plaques located on the water system pump house in the village park and on the Fair Street Bridge. Sometimes, I just like to visit those plaques, remembering the guy who made the corner of Walnut and Main the Saturday morning place to be.