MTHS Blog

From the Spring 2022 edition of The Hemlock

Every Wednesday, MTHS board members Bob Gildersleeve and John Curran volunteer their time to manage and digitize the extensive collections held in the MTHS Archives. After a year-long hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Bob and John have been back in the archives working diligently all winter to make up for lost time. The following Q&A provides a closer look at the important work they are engaged in.

Q: What is your connection to the Mountain Top?

John: I have lived on the Mountain Top my entire life. Growing up on Osborne Road in Haines Falls, the North-South Lake recreation area was close enough to walk or bicycle to. I spent a lot of time there as I was growing up and learned to appreciate the beauty of the mountains and nature. It is still one of my favorite places. I have been on the MTHS Board since 2009 when I retired from the New York State Office of General Services. Bob Gildersleeve started teaching me the workings of the Archives shortly thereafter and I have been enjoying it ever since.

Bob: Even though my roots go back eleven generations in New York State, I’m not a native to the Catskills. I was born in Newburgh, NY and came here to teach at Hunter Tannersville Central in the 1970s. I immediately became interested in the region. I’ve been working with the Archives since it was established from materials collected by Justine Hommel and others.

Q: How would you describe the MTHS Archives?

John: Our archives are comprised mostly of documents and photographs related to our local history. The items are cataloged, scanned and the pertinent searchable data is entered into our Past Perfect database. The items are then stored in archival-grade containers in our climate-controlled, fire-resistant Archives. Many items are used in temporary displays and as learning aids during programs. All items are available for public viewing upon request.


Bob: The collection is almost exclusively paper items including photographs, postcards, books, brochures, deeds, letters from the 19th and early 20th centuries, a diary or two, and business papers. There are also a few fabric items.

Q: Why are the Archives important?

John: Historical documents are continually aging. If not stored properly, they will deteriorate. Our climate-controlled, highly fire-resistant archives provide a safe place to store documents. We only use archival grade storage materials. Documents not stored properly are also subject to loss and or damage.

Bob: Preserving the history of any community is important to its residents, and certainly our Mountain Top is no exception. Some communities, however, have more than local significance. In many ways, our Mountain Top has national and even international importance. The Society gets frequent requests for information from around the US and occasionally from abroad. The reasons are many: the importance of the Greene County Catskills in American art and literature, the area’s impact on tourism, and its recreation history.

Q: Every week you volunteer your time working in the Archives. What draws you to this work?
John: Learning local history and sharing what I have learned. I can’t just enter an item into our database without reading or studying it. If it is something I am familiar with, I share what I know about it. If it is something I am not familiar with, I ask questions and research. Yes, it can slow the process, but it keeps our work interesting and keeps us coming back.

Q: What are some of the tasks you perform in the Archives?

John: Mostly I enter items into our searchable Past Perfect database, which includes assigning an Accession and Object number, scanning the item and entering the pertinent data. I also do research to identify people, places and things; respond to inquiries; provide material for MTHS displays and programs; and eventually store the items.

Q: What is your favorite collection or item the Archives hold?

John: Oddly, one of my favorite items is something we do not physically have. We only have a high-resolution image of it. This is the 1883 Hexamer Survey of the Hotel Kaaterskill. The Hexamer Survey is a fire safety survey of the Hotel Kaaterkill performed by Hexamer & Sons of Philidelphia. It has detailed drawings of the layout of the hotel and descriptions of its various infrastructures. Having had a career in construction, I found this item not only fascinating, but invaluable to our research on the Hotel Kaaterskill. It has been used on hikes to the site and has enabled us to make sense of the layout of the huge hotel. We are indebted to our friend Scott Koster for sharing his finding with us, and The Philadelphia Free Library for providing a high-resolution scan of the document.

Bob: In particular, I like a beautiful photo-realistic painting by Robert Skiba that shows both the Catskill and Tannersville and the Ulster and Delaware Railroads. Skiba started with a Detroit Photographic Company image of Haines Falls in the collection of the Library of Congress. Through careful research and with great skill, he added details including the Coal and Hay company, the siding and stone wall and trains. 

Q: What projects are you working on currently?

John: I have been working on the Joan Wright and Doug Griffin Collections. Mrs. Wright is a descendent of the Haines and Dunn families and provided us with a large collection of family photographs, writings, and family history; most are labeled with names and dates. Mr. Griffin’s collection consists of about 260 postcards of local and nearby places. There are several rare and unusual postcards, many are unused and all are in excellent condition.

Q: What is your future vision for the Archives and how they will be used by the public?

John: I would eventually like to see our database available to the public online. This would be a monumental task to accomplish, but it is my hope that someday it will come to pass.

Bob: We’d like to make better use of the Joan Brower collection and genealogical information. Neither of us are genealogists, and, except for dabbling into our personal family histories, are not equipped to round out the collection.

Q: What are some of the Archives’ more significant collections?

John: Two that stand out to me are the Joan Brower Collection and the Bob Mazon Collection. The Joan Brower Collection traces the Brower family history, but it is much more than that. Mrs. Brower traces the family history of the Brower spouses and the history of the professions and trades the Brower family occupied. It was all done pre-internet and consists of many large organized and indexed binders filled with letters, photos, newspaper clippings and much more. The Bob Mazon Collection is a huge mainly digital collection of photographs. Bob Mazon was a local photographer who through his photography, documented many local events, news stories, local landscapes, local places and much more from the 1980s up through his death in 2014. The collection will be an extremely valuable resource to future generations. We are grateful that both of these people entrusted their collections to us.

Contact Bob and John at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to inquire about volunteer opportunities in the Archives

A folk tale about the origins of the Catskills and why digging a hole in your spring garden can perhaps more accurately be called excavating. Excerpted from Doris West Brooks’s Short Stories and Tall Tale of the Catskills.
 
 
"As the area around the Catskill Mountains was being settled, not only did the name of the mountains change from time to time, but the spelling of the names varied widely. Both the names “Catskill” and “Blue Mountains” were used interchangeably to designate this region. There is no doubt as to how the name Blue (Bleu, Blew) Mountains came into being; the mountains have a very definite blue color to them especially when seen from a distance... The early Dutch settlers knew the Devil flew about the Bleu Mountains. This is one of the reasons why the Dutch preferred settling in the fertile Hudson River Valley and the foothills of the mountains. Folklore tells us that there were two versions of how the Catskills were formed. Here is the story combining the two tales. (The Lord’s creation and the Devil’s)...
 
All the while the Devil flew about on his devious way, wreaking havoc and causing mischief, he carried a sack of rocks on his back. One day, way back when the Lord was just finishing up the world, the Devil was called to California on urgent business. This was way back when the continents were still flat, the waters just receding, and time was measured in epochs, not years. The Devil stayed on the west coast for a long while for he had a lot to attend to there. His sack, containing the rocks, became tattered and worn. Well, the Devil heard that there were fresh pickings back east and off he flew, not knowing his sack had a rent in it. He wouldn’t have cared anyway. As the devil flew over Arizona, one of his medium-sized rocks fell through the rip in his bag. The rock landed with such impact that it bounced, splintering into hundreds of fragments. The hole the rock left in Arizona was later referred to as The Grand Canyon. The many fragmented pieces of the stone landed all in a row, creating the Rocky Mountains.
 
...Just as he got directly over where we’re standing now, the rip in the Devil’s sack gave out completely and what was left of his rocks was dumped right here, forming the Catskill Mountains. Now it hadn’t taken the Lord nearly as much time to finish His work as it had the Devil, and He didn’t have much of anything left over to hide that pile of bare rocks, and, anyway, He was busy. The Lord has just created the rainbow and because the rainbow was made on the bias, He had a lot of color left over. The Lord was making extra birds and flowers out of the left-over scraps of color and, out of the tiniest bits of yellows and blues, He was fashioning butterflies. He figured the world couldn’t have enough butterflies, and, besides, He was enjoying Himself. Heaven knows, he needed a vacation after all that work creating the world and after all the problems He’d encountered with one of His latest experiments. It had been all down hill ever since the Garden of Eden. You can imagine how annoying it was at this point to be told that there was a heap of rocks in upper New York State that needed His immediate attention. The Lord just took up a handful of dirt left over from another job and flung it in the general direction of the Catskill Mountains. And that is how the Catskills were made and why to this very day there is only “one dirt to every three stones."
 

Shirley Wiltse Dunn,  1929-2022
A farewell tribute to a Mountain Top native
and keeper of local history in the various places where she lived

Shirley Wiltse Dunn was born in Tannersville, NY, graduated from Tannersville High School in 1946, and from New York State College for Teachers in Albany in 1950. She earned Master’s degrees in English and History from the same college, now known as SUNY Albany. Mrs. Dunn worked as a teacher, a museum interpreter, editor, and historic preservationist.

After her graduation from the College for Teachers, Shirley taught school in Delmar, NY and Baltimore, MD for four years while her husband pursued his education. Then she took on the role of devoted mother to her four children. Once her children graduated from college, she returned to the labor market following her passions in History and English as a teacher, writer, supporter of local history groups, and historic preservation consultant. She worked for the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation until retiring in 1992.

Shirley wrote or edited seven books including three well-respected studies of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation. She was a co-author of Dutch Architecture near Albany; authored a children’s book about the Mohicans; and left a legacy to her mother and a gift to all Mountain Top residents by writing a popular book of her mother’s stories of the people and events in the Tannersville area titled Pioneer Days in the Catskill High Peaks. Her last book, on Fort Crailo and the Van Rensselaer families who lived there, was published in 2016.

Shirley Wiltse Dunn was generous with her knowledge, sharing through her writing, sharing a collection of glass plate negatives (which can be seen on the MTHS website), and donating volumes from her own library to the Mountain Top Historical Society.

She could certainly be added to the MTHS’ newly minted list of extraordinary ordinary women and will be fondly remembered by her friends, neighbors, colleagues, students and local historians.

Justine Hommel and the Haines Falls Free Library Bookmobile in 1950
 
A librarian, historian, educator, author, expert on the high peaks region of the Catskills and Mountain Top, and Bookmobile director extraordinaire, Justine Legg Hommel (1926-2016) was, as Deb Allen puts it, a “force of nature.” Her memory deserves celebration not only for her boundless compassion and activism that shaped much of the cultural vitality of our mountain top, but also to help address the lack of attention afforded the history of rural women.
 
While serving as an assistant librarian for the Haines Falls Free Library, Justine was instrumental in coordinating the Bookmobile, a service that provided books and reading materials to mountain top residents who otherwise lacked access or transportation. In 1957, Justine became the librarian and held that position until 1988.
 
Justine worked to preserve the scenic beauty of our area, in particular the Kaaterskill Clove, many years before advocacy for natural landscapes and the high peaks region was popular. She fought tirelessly to ensure that the Kaaterskill clove road would be complemented with natural stone walls rather than the steel originally intended by the Department of Transportation.
 
She was a co-founder and dedicated President of the Mountain Top Historical Society (MTHS) for more than thirty years. During her tenure, the MTHS acquired a campus and the historic Ulster & Delaware Train Station.
 
Her scholarship on the history of the Mountain Top garnered local and national media, including the Smithsonian, National Geographic Magazine, and the New York Times. She was a recognized expert on the high peaks, and served as an advisor on a PBS documentary on the Hudson Valley, was honored by the New York Historical Society, and received the first Jessie Van Vecten Vedder Award from the Greene County Historical Society.
 
The Justine L. Hommel memorial highway extends from Palenville to Haines Falls, through the beautiful Kaaterskill Clove. Think of her every time you pass the beautiful stone walls.
 
Note: This post is based on the recent presentation on Justine's life by Deboah Allen. View the presentation at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWB_oBkl7KY&t=1563s