A Catskill Catalog: Sept. 30, 2009

A clever fund-raiser was held recently by the MARK Project, the regional planning and economic development agency. A few civic leaders were “arrested” at the August Margaretville Street Fair, with MARK supporters asked to “bail” them out with donations. One of the cuffed and booked was the Mayor of Fleischmanns.
Now the idea of the mayor of one Catskill Mountain village facing antagonism on a visit to another seems funny today. After all, we are all citizens of an identifiable region, the Catskills, all brothers and sisters in mountain life.
Yet, just a decade or three ago, some pretty intense rivalry thrived among the villages and hamlets of the mountains.
In the ’60s and early ’70s, basketball was king, particularly among Catskill Mountain men and boys, with quite a few women paying close attention and keeping score. This was before Title 9 opened-up school sports for active female participation, making basketball a boys’ thing and cheerleading an important activity outlet for girls, an important part of the show.
Tuesday and Friday nights from November to March were high school basketball nights, and everybody, it seemed, was at the game, whether the game was in Margaretville or Tannersville, Andes or Windham, Roxbury or Grand Gorge, Stamford or Fleischmanns. The boys played, the girls worked intricate cheering routines, and the gyms were regularly filled to capacity.
My introduction to the Catskills was through a basketball game. A close college friend, a Margaretville lad, asked me if I’d like to join him and his coach on a trip down Route 30 to watch a potential college recruit play. Winter Fridays in Schenectady can be bleak, so I was happy to go. The trip itself was a trip for this suburban boy – a voyage into a place that seemed, then, quite cut-off from the more urban world of the Hudson-Mohawk valleys.
That evening, we took Route 7 west to Schoharie – there was no Interstate 88 then – following Route 30 from that quaint village, highlighted by its 19th-century vintage Parrot House hotel, all the way to Margaretville. But what a road Route 30 was! Just south of Middleburgh, the narrow, shoulder-less track hugged the cliff-side above Bouck’s Island. It was the same path as an old Indian trail, my friend told us, as we drove 40 or 50 feet up on the edge of the valley wall, a sheer drop beyond the flimsy rail along the cliff edge. Where was I going?
Past the Old-West-looking Chapman House in Blenheim and the construction debris wasteland that the Gilboa-Blenheim Power Project seemed, for a time, to make of Blenheim Hill. At the top of Grand Gorge, a world seemed to open up to my eyes, a hidden world of peaks and valleys and peaks right close on the valley’s other side.
Then at Hubbell Corners, a few miles past Grand Gorge, the road suddenly rose and turned and swooped up and over the railroad tracks in a head-lightening blur. Was someone trying to keep visitors out?
We made it to Margaretville in time for the tail end of the JV game, in, what my friend told us, was a major local rivalry: Margaretville versus Andes, both teams pretty good that year. We parked the car among the hundreds of cars and trucks that lined the street. There were going to be a lot of people at this game, it seemed.
And there were, in the smallest high school gym I had ever seen. It seemed about the size of my elementary school gym. And it was packed. I mean packed.
Tall wooden bleachers on the backside of the gym were chock full, home fans on one end, visitors the other. The exit door walkways on either end of the bleachers were six or seven deep in people, as was the narrow space between the separate home and visitor bleacher-structures. Somehow we squeezed into the home section for the start of the varsity action.
Injuries had depleted the Margaretville team, so a pair of sophomores had been called into the home team backcourt. The team benches across the gym were the lip-edges of the stage that receded from the gym wall. Spectators lined the stage, and stacked back in the entrance hallways. Literally hundreds of people packed the place that Friday night. And they cheered and yelled and booed, and they cat-called the referees.
At every time-out, cheerleaders took the floor with practiced routines, first the visitors, then the home girls. The place roared during play. Yet, every time a kid from either team went to the foul line, complete silence. If a fan dared to make noise as a visiting player readied for a free throw, a home cheerleader would greet that fan with an admonishing “shh.” It was a show!
Andes won in a last-second heartbreaker for the hometown team, and the men weren’t above letting the boys know exactly how they had failed, and I was amazed by the intensity and community “we-ness” of it all. Such intensity was a bit unsettling, but also attractive to one who had grown up in the cool blue post-war suburbs.
I had a few more visits to the mountains before I came here to teach, and, for the next few years, the small gyms and intense games became part of the everyday scene. But I never forgot how surprising it seemed to me on that first trip.
Later, I heard stories about Margaretville – Fleischmanns games from the years before my time, games that eclipsed any others in community rivalry and intensity. Sometimes, I’m told, police officers had to be present just to keep the peace.
So, it wasn’t such a surprise when the police officer of one village “arrested” the mayor of another. It’s history.