A Catskill Catalog: March 4, 2009

A friend and former colleague is the principal of the Reginald Bennett Elementary School. That’s the school in the Town of Olive, up on the knoll behind the Onteora High School-Middle School on Route 28.

Reginald Bennett was the founding superintendent of the Onteora School District, a post-World War II super-centralization that combined numerous one-, two-, and four-room districts into the second largest school district, in terms of area, in the state. Onteora serves students from West Hurley to Highmount, from Lanesville to Oliverea. That’s a lot of Catskills!

Bennett himself was much more than the name over the entrance to an elementary school. Along with Phoenicia pharmacist Phil Gordon and a handful of others, Reg Bennett was the driving force behind the founding of the school district, which opened for business in 1953.

A friend of mine, a member of the first graduating class of Onteora High School, remembers his older sister rising before dawn to travel to high school in Kingston, returning home, often, long after dark. That arduous day was common for Ulster County Catskill Mountain kids seeking a high school education in the years before Onteora was there.

Reg Bennett himself never attended high school. He was born in Chichester in 1896, a bright mountain kid who excelled at the local elementary school, read voraciously, and found himself teaching his younger neighbors in the Chichester school at the age of 16. He qualified for admission to the State Teachers College at Albany, got a college degree without benefit of a high school diploma, and went on to get a master’s degree from Albany, as well.

And he came home to teach. He also hiked, fly-fished, pitched town team baseball, told stories, and wrote. He did all those things with a strong sense of ethics and ideals. I have read that, once, a fishing buddy challenged him on the curriculum: “What do you teach those kids up at the Sunshine Hill Schoolhouse?”

“To tell the truth,” Mr. Bennett replied. The respect for this country schoolteacher was such that he was Mr. Bennett to nearly all. Of course, by the time he became a district-founding administrator, he had taught most of the people he knew in Chichester, and in the surrounding hollows. Chichester was a company town, and Reg Bennett wrote the definitive history of that place as his master’s thesis. Later, Purple Mountain Press published it as a book, The Mountains Look Down: A History of Chichester, a Company Town in the Catskills (Fleischmanns, NY, 1999).

Chichester’s history begins in 1870, when brothers Frank and Lemuel Chichester bought the economically exhausted valley, stripped of trees by tanners who took the hemlock and left a wasteland: a wasteland of hardwood and waterpower. There, Stony Clove and Warner creeks merge to form a pretty strong flow of water, and the Chichester brothers exploited that stream to power the chair factory they erected there. The coming of the railroad spurred their business, which increased dramatically when the brothers designed and patented a rocking cradle that became a big seller. Over 300 people worked in the factory.

In 1884, the Chichester brothers sold out to a New York City firm, William Schwarzwaelder and Son. Nine years later, the son, W.O. Schwarzwaelder, took over the direct supervision and operation of the factory. By the early 1900s, Chichester was jumping, with a large factory that produced a full line of office furniture, chairs, cabinets, and church furnishings. Workers’ housing, a park, fellowship hall, company store, church, and bowling alley were all owned by the company W.O., known behind his back as “the Kaiser,” was an excellent businessman and concerned, paternalistic employer. He lived in a spacious mansion with his family, a house known locally as “the big house.” Later, his son replaced it with an even bigger “Big House.” It is still there, although the big houses built in the 1990s make it seem more medium-sized.

W.O. also built Tiskilwa Park, on the Ox Clove hill up behind his house, for the enjoyment and recreation of his workers. It is gone now, partially in private hands, partially state land, but much of the Tiskilwa stonework remains. Tiskilwa is a native-sounding word, either invented or discovered, meaning “Valley of Peace and Beauty.”
All this was for the employees who worked in the factory, rented the company houses, took their leisure time in the park, bowling alley and clubhouse, and worshipped in the company church. Reginald Bennett’s father, Rupert, was a foreman there, supervising the lumberyard and mill floor.

W.O died in 1924 and his sons were less successful executives than he. The depression of the ’30s, and poor management, wore the business down. Workers’ hours were cut, the payroll shrunk, orders reduced. Finally, in January 1938, the Schwarzwaelder Company filed for bankruptcy. A year and a half later, on October 28, 1939, the entire village was sold at auction, house-by-house, lot-by-lot. The company town was no more.

Today, a ride through Chichester reveals the company houses, altered and renovated over the past 70 years of individual ownership. The church and clubhouse, the big house, and the remains of the fountain that once graced its gardens, are still there.
The old company store now houses the post office, which contains an historical exhibit of the company town that once was. Across the street, an empty field and the ruins of brick kilns mark the spot where the bustling factory, now a ghost of prosperity past, once stood. © William Birns