A Catskill Catalog: March 11, 2009
I live in Melvin Mayes’ house. He built it himself in 1925, raised his family here, and sold it when he moved to Florida in the early 1980s. The house changed hands twice before I bought it in 1996. I like to point out that, I believe, it was the only house sold in Fleischmanns that year.
There’s nothing too remarkable about any of that, except maybe the dearth of home sales in Fleischmanns in the mid-90s, until one learns a little bit about Melvin, a self-employed carpenter and builder who grew potatoes in the back yard and kept chickens and a cow in the big shed out back.
Melvin liked to write. He loved history, particularly the history of his home village.
Here I am, living in the house he built, sharing many of the same interests. Like Melvin, I like to write. Like Melvin, I love history, particularly Catskill Mountain history. Is there something kind of mystical about that?
I never met Melvin Mayes. After he moved to Florida, Melvin carried on a brisk correspondence with Lewis and Jackie Grocholl of Fleisch-manns. They were kind enough to lend me his letters, which Jackie has preserved meticulously. In his rounded, flourishing, fountain pen inscribed hand; Melvin begins his letters with comments on the weather and the current state of his health, before diving into memories of life in Fleischmanns in the days of his youth.
Those days were the first decades of the 20th century when Melvin and his boyhood friends – Harry Tubbs, Harold “Jimmy” Judd, Harold and Ray Slover – lived in a world of horse-drawn wagons, and .22 caliber rifles, and fishing in the Vly Creek that runs out of Halcott, then known as the Portertown Creek.
In an early letter, Melvin wrote of a funeral procession, which began in the Slover cabinet-making shop on Main Street, Fleischmanns. Jackie Grochell is a Slover, so Melvin was gearing his story to his audience. In those days, a furniture shop also made coffins, so the Slover furniture wagon served as the local hearse.
The Slover building later housed Halpern’s Supply, a once-famous hardware store that advertised the lowest prices around in the 1930s and drew bargain hunters from distant points, a kind of early destination shopping outlet. Later, artist Alfredo Santos had his 1970s studio in that building. Santos’ work enjoyed a retrospective gallery exhibit and sale in Fleischmanns just last year. He is a highly regarded artist who created a mural in San Quentin during a youthful bid in that prison. Today, Bud Sife owns the building that once housed the Slover furniture shop.
Melvin tells the story of a funeral procession that lasted nearly a full day, beginning in the morning at Slover’s, heading up the Red Kill Road, over the Denver-Vega pass to a cemetery in Roxbury. It was nearly dark by the time the furniture wagon and the little procession got back to Fleischmanns. It’s fascinating that a trip I take nearly every week – it takes 17 minutes or so – once consumed the better part of a day. That’s history.
Jackie also has a complete collection of the Fleischmanns Flyer, the little four-page newsletter that Wray and Lonnie Rominger of Purple Mountain Press published between 1975 and 1977. In it, the Romingers told the news of Fleischmanns: clean-ups of the Bushkill, meetings of the chamber of commerce, hotly contested mayoral elections, arson and fires, urgent meetings to “save our village.”
Particularly heart-wrenching is the issue headlined “Black Friday” that announced the sale of the Williamson Veneer Plant on Depot Street to the Weyerhaeuser Corporation which immediately closed it, putting 70 people out of work. The next two issues contain an exchange of letters, one from Wray to the corporation asking for hope that the plant might re-open, the other to Wray from the corporation making it clear there was no chance the plant would operate again.
The Flyer contained an occasional feature called “Memories of Fleischmanns,” written by an anonymous author. Having read Melvin Mayes’ letters, I notice enough stylistic similarity that my hunch is that he was that writer. I think my hunch was affirmed when I read Wray’s dedication to Melvin in a 1991 rebirth of the Fleischmanns Flyer.
Melvin Mayes, Wray wrote, “made us feel welcome in our new home” and “shared with us his extraordinary memory of the village in its heyday.” He went on to write that Melvin was in the habit of writing “witty, anonymous poems in the Catskill Mountain News.”
And I write, although not anonymously, in the Catskill Mountain News, as well. I think there might be something to this house sharing.