Shirley Wiltse Dunn - A farewell tribute
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.
Celebrating the life of Justine Legg Hommel
A Visit to the St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church
This morning I paid a visit to the St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Jewett on Route 23A. I didn't expect to see footsteps in the icy snow leading up to the bulletin board. Following them led to me to discover that a member of the church community has been posting notices pertaining to the recent conflict in Ukraine.
A letter from the Office of the Bishop dated February 26 starts, “As we are all aware, the unthinkable has happened and Ukraine is at war once again, with an aggressor who desires to enslave and destroy her. The Ukrainian army is putting up a valiant defense, but the ravages of war are already being felt.” The letter continues to direct its readers to support the Ukrainian cause by donating to the Ukrainian Catholic Metropolis of Philadelphia and two other organizations recommended by the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.
The bulletin board also displays a recent news article with comments from Rev. Ivan Kaszczak, pastor of the Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic Church in Kerhonkson, who made it clear that Ukrainians “just want peace.”
St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church stands out prominently along the 23A corridor for its distinctive architecture. The church was built in the style of the well-known wooden Tserkvas of the Carpathian Mountainous region in Ukraine.
Construction of the church began in the early 1960s through the efforts of local Ukrainian-American residents who joined together under the auspices of the “Temporary Committee for the construction of the Ukrainian Catholic Chapel in the Vicinity of Hunter, N.Y.” Over the course of two decades, not only a church but a belfry, gate, parish hall (Grazhda), and a parsonage were constructed. According to the church’s website, the project “was financed by Ukrainian post-World War II refugees and immigrants who realized the need for a tangible expression of their heritage and in the context of Soviet control of their country were constantly vigilant in the preservation and propagation of Ukrainian culture.”
The church was built under the direction of master carpenter Jurij Kostiw. Kostiw employed traditional timber framing techniques of the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountain highlands. Cedar logs were imported from British Columbia to form the 61’ high structure. The interior of the church is adorned with intricate wood carvings that feature folk ornamental motifs and traditional religious symbolism, as well as a variety of religious icons including St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the church.
St. John the Baptist Church Ukrainian Catholic Church is a vibrant religious and community center on the Mountain Top. It was heartening to see an additional message posted on the bulletin board this morning from Congregation Kol Anshei Yisroyal, better known as the Hunter Synagogue, expressing solidarity with the Ukrainian community. The message reads: “To the Mountaintop Ukrainian-American Community: As the terrible attacks on Ukraine by the Russian army accelerates, we, the Jewish congregation of Hunter, write to express our solidarity with the brave Ukrainian people, both military and civilian. We stand with you in opposition to Russian aggression. We hope and pray that the invasion will swiftly be repelled, and that an independent, democratic and peaceful Ukraine shall thrive for many generations to come.”
"I Never Objected to the Sapping"
Above: Roberta Christman tapping in February 1981. Photo from the Christman Family.
Despite the cold we now experience, soon the days will be warm enough and the nights appropriately cool to signal the maple trees to start moving the sap inside the channels of their large trunks. It will be maple sugaring season on the mountain top. The process of turning maple tree sap into syrup is both labor intensive and time consuming, but according to Roberta Christman, the only woman in New York State who boiled maple sap into syrup for 62 years straight (unless someone wants to contest it), making maple syrup or “sapping” was never work.
As anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting her knows, Roberta is quick-witted and strong. She is 99 years young and maintains a mental clarity and aptitude that many even decades younger are immediately dwarfed by. Early in January, in the middle of a mild storm that blanketed our mountain roads with snow, Cyndi LaPierre and I sat down with Roberta at her dining room table in her home along Rt. 23 in Windham. Her house sits above the main road with views of the mountains and is adjacent to Christman’s Windham House, the hospitality business Roberta ran with her husband Stanley.
We started our conversation with an explanation of an old black spiral bound notebook sitting on the dining table. This was the “Syrup Bible,” the book in which Roberta kept track of all the gallons of sap collected, syrup made, and all the people that sweet syrup was sold to.
Above: The Syrup Bible. Photo by Author.
When Roberta and her husband purchased the boarding house that would become Christman’s Windham House in 1951 a maple syruping operation came with it. At the time, Roberta had limited experience with making syrup. As the “middle Thompson girl,” one of the five daughters of the Thompson House in Windham, Roberta had helped boil sap as a child outside on an arch (the base of an evaporator) made by her father. She and her sisters let the sap cook down until it was the consistency of “blackstrap molasses.” The previous owners of the boarding house didn’t have time to teach Roberta the ins and outs of making maple syrup so she had to find out for herself. She was referred to Florence Osborne of East Windham, a woman who was well-versed in the sapping arts. She taught Roberta what equipment to buy and how to strain the finished syrup through woolen filters. Stanley also sent away to Cornell for a sugaring how-to booklet to supplement their knowledge.
Soon making maple syrup became a family affair at Christman’s Windham House. Stanley and Roberta’s four children would all assist. “I can remember well. The kids and I would climb over the snowbank and go along the creek and collect it [the sap] and bring the buckets over to the wall…Stanley would collect it and dump it in a container and take it to the sap house.” Originally the sap was transported to the sap house by horse but later a tractor was used. Sap is precious and Roberta warned the children not to spill a drop, even if they slipped, as they often did, in their little plastic red boots.
Naturally, the process of making maple syrup begins at the tree. Roberta used a bit and brace hand drill to tap the holes in the sugar maples; she knew exactly the correct depth to drill. Spiles were then tapped in and metal buckets hung. The sap was collected regularly as the buckets filled. Once enough sap was collected the process of boiling the sap down into syrup was overseen by Roberta. She used a big hickory stick to open the large wood-fired evaporator and threw logs in to keep the sap boiling at a consistent rate.
Nights boiling in the sap house were long. Sometimes Roberta would be in the sap house until 2 in the morning and would go to bed with splinters in her hands. The night before her son Brian was born Roberta was boiling sap in the saphouse. The level of sap in the pans had gotten dangerously low and threatened to burn the pans. To avoid this, Roberta ran to the nearby creek and hauled buckets of creek water over to the sap house to add into the pan. “I didn’t ever burn the pans,” Roberta said confidently.
In total, Roberta put in 700 taps. She and her family greatly extended the original maple sugaring operation they inherited and tapped all along the creek and back up the mountain where the golf course now is. They developed six routes to collect sap from, including the large maple trees that once lined Route 23. “I would try to get three routes done before the children were home from school, then I could start boiling while they collected the rest.” Even as a child, her young daughter Karen would make supper for the family so Roberta could stay in the sap house boiling late into the night. In their best and most productive year, Roberta and her family made 375 gallons of maple syrup. On average, it takes 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup. If this was the case, then the year the Christman Family made 375 gallons they collected 15,000 gallons of sap–no simple feat.
Even with all the duties one must attend to in a sugar house – feeding the evaporator fire with wood, maintaining a good level of boil, checking the sap levels in the pan, occasionally running out to the creek to add water if it got too low, there is also a bit of downtime. “Sitting in a sap house, you’re sitting there for hours,” remarked Roberta, “So I started reading. But the only thing I could read were paperback books–good books you can’t read in a sap house because the steam will destroy them. So I started reading and I probably read two books every winter from the time I was 30 until I was 90. It just consumed me, the idea that I could sit there and read and it was alright to do. So I did. I did a lot of reading in the sap house.” Eventually her family installed a television in the sap house and Roberta enjoyed watching basketball as she boiled.
Above: Roberta Christman filtering maple syrup, 1981. Photo from the Christman Family.
Making maple syrup was a good fit for those in the boarding house business, Roberta told us. “It’s the two months in the winter when you’re not otherwise busy on the farm, except for milking the cows.” Then the minute the maple syruping season was over, Roberta was busy with the boarding business–cleaning rooms and teaching herself how to cook from Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking.
As her children went to college, and there were less hands to help, the Christman family replaced more buckets with modern plastic sap lines to make the work easier. Her son Brian continues the maple sugaring operation to this day. Roberta once mentioned to him that he should give it up considering all the other work he has to manage. But Brian responded that it was “his heritage.” This response made Roberta laugh. Maple sapping hadn’t been her heritage, but with all the time she and her family spent making maple syrup, it had truly become theirs.
Roberta will celebrate her 100th birthday in May. She wouldn’t tell us the exact day. If she could she says she would go up to the sap house and sit and boil today. “I’m probably the only woman in New York State that boiled from 1952 until 2014. There may be other women. And I did enjoy it, really, it was not work. I did enjoy it.”
Author’s Note: Thank you to Roberta Christman for her generous time and Cyndi LaPierre for her partnership on the Oral History project.
By: Alexandra Prince
Note: This article was published in the Winter 2022 Issue of The Hemlock. Visit the MTHS Oral History page to listen to the full oral history interview with Roberta.
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