A Catskill Catalog: September 10, 2008

I have on my computer a photo, sent to me by a friend, of former President Bill Clinton, his wife, the junior Senator from New York, and Ike Phillips of Woodstock radio station WDST standing in a crowd of onlookers on Tinker Street in Woodstock. The former President and the Senator came to the Catskills this August in an unannounced visit that was a surprise to most of us and a mountain vacation for them.
The first reports of the Clintons’ upstate vacation appeared on August 13 when the couple ate lunch at the Beekman Tavern in Rhinebeck. The next day they appeared, unannounced, in the Corner Cupboard in Woodstock for coffee, and then took a walk along Tinker Street, taking in the sights, as so many Catskill Mountain tourists, and residents, do. That’s when Ike caught up with them.
They stayed overnight in Shandaken at the Emerson Inn. I understand the former first couple had the premier accommodations of the inn: the Imperial Suite, a luxury duplex that normally rents for a gazillion dollars a night, although I certainly have no inside information as to their personal arrangements. If I were the innkeeper, I’d probably put them up for free.
That’s because the accommodation of a president can be a publicity bonanza. When I arrived in the Catskills over 35 years ago, the Delaware Inn in Stamford was on its last legs, a run-down “hotel” that was, by that point, really a neighborhood bar and grill. Yet a sign outside still proudly proclaimed “Teddy Roosevelt slept here.” The 26th president, who served in the White House from 1901 to 1909, actually stayed in Stamford in the 1880s when he was a young state assemblyman, but a president is a president in hindsight.
In the late 1980s, my boss, the principal at Margaretville Central School, arrived to work one Monday morning excitedly asking each person she saw, “Guess who was in church with us yesterday? Jimmy Carter!” The former president, a dedicated fly fisherman, was fishing the Beaverkill, and Sunday morning, he and his wife attended the little church that serves that valley. I don’t think there’s a sign there saying “Jimmy Carter worshipped here.”
There are few celebrities who have the cachet of a president. One who did was Babe Ruth. Both the Andes Hotel, still doing a brisk business, and the recently demolished Phoenicia Hotel, boasted of visits by the Babe, who frequented the Catskills to hunt and drink. The Babe understood his celebrity. When told by Yankee management that the post-market-crash salary he was demanding was more than President Hoover made, the Babe famously replied, “I had a better year than he did.”
We’ve never had a Catskill Mountain resident as president, although a couple of our close neighbors held the post. Martin Van Buren, “The Little Magician” of Kinderhook, just across the river, was our eighth president, serving from 1837 to 1841. Van Buren learned his politics in the tavern his father ran on the Albany Post Road, a popular way station for state politicians traveling between New York City and Albany. It was even rumored that he was actually the secret son of Aaron Burr, America’s third vice-president, a rumor that author Gore Vidal put to use in his novel Burr. After serving in the White House, Van Buren retired to a grand house he purchased for his retirement, a house he called Lindenwold, which is open on state Route 9H for sightseers today.
Sightseeing at the home of our other neighbor President was reported to be one of the things that drew the Clintons to our region. President Franklin Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park is one of Bill Clinton’s favorite spots. As President, he made three visits there, including a 1995 meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
FDR, who was a lifelong country squire on his Duchess County farm, began his political career running successfully for the State Senate in our across-the-river neighboring county, and returned to Hyde Park whenever he could as governor from 1929 to ’32 and president from 1933 to his death in 1945. He was a real upstate guy.
Perhaps, our Catskills came closest to having a president during the run-up to the 1956 Democratic Convention when New York Governor Averill Harriman was a candidate for his party’s nomination. Harriman’s family owned the Gerry Estate, Broadlands, in Lake Delaware, and he was a frequent second-home resident in the Catskills, particularly during ski season when he often skied at Belleayre. Harriman had the important support of former President Harry Truman, but dropped out of the race before the convention.
Maybe there is a boy or a girl in one of our Catskill Mountain schools who will be president one day. Then we can create a sign that says “Home of the president of the United States.”
© William Birns