Saturday, October 2, 2010

Better to burn out than to fade away: Kerhonkson, New York is a dying place...

I went home this week. To Kerhonkson, New York, a small town in the Hudson Valley in the fringes of the Catskill Mountains. It is, sadly, a town that is as sick and dying as a town can be without being called a “ghost town” and that’s a shame.
I grew up there. When my family moved south in 1968 from Brainardsville, NY, an even smaller town on the northern edge of the Adirondack Mountains, we were excited. Kerhonkson was exciting. It was bigger, more lively, and had a cast of characters that would rival those anywhere. The Granit Hotel was a mile from my house and was one of the few of the Catskills hotels still thriving, and had a great set of tennis courts and stuff to do. Ten miles up Samsonville Road, Peg Leg Bates ran a country club that everyone was welcome to but that catered mostly to blacks. It was not unusual to see 30 to 40 chartered busloads of folks up from New York for a great weekend of good food and entertainment. Jobs were readily available in the hotels and in nearby Ellenville, where other hotels like the Nevele and the Fallsview stood. The famous Schrade Cutlery knife factory was running on Canal Street and Channel Master and VAW were right up the street. In Napanoch, a mile north of Ellenville, the Eastern New York Correctional Facility, formerly an institution for juveniles with behavioral problems, employed hundreds of corrections officers.
In Kerhonkson, there were many stores and shops to check out. There were Aversano’s, Lipton’s, and Lytwyn’s, (later Sirico’s) Markets for food shopping, Marty Shuster’s Pharmacy, and much more. The Cassino Restaurant was open and busy, as was the Rainbow Diner run by Henry and Ramona Bendell. Nick Previll’s Shell Station offered good service. Tom Gewant sold Fords at his dealership and the mechanics around town were all mostly reliable. It was a pretty typical small town in a nice section of the state of New York, and a good place to live.
Kerhonkson, if you’ve never been there, is located on Route 209 as it runs north and south from the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge on the Hudson River to parts south and ends (I think) in Pennsylvania. The Rainbow Diner, Aversano’s and other businesses were located on 209 and there is a street called Old Minnewaska Trail that runs perpendicular to 209 and off of which runs Main Street, just over a steel bridge that spans the Rondout Creek. Main Street housed the Fire House, the Post Office and several more shops and markets, as well as McGillicuddy’s Tavern and a bunch of apartment buildings. It wasn’t a wealthy town by any stretch of the imagination but it was a happy place to live and things were good.
There were many characters around town and the surrounding hills. Up on Shawangunk Drive, Fletcher, Earl and Nellie Mae VanWagener lived in a small house together—siblings, they were born in the house and would eventually die in the house. Nellie Mae would be the last to go, a tough mountain woman who chopped her own firewood, shingled her own roof and took no crap from anyone. In her bedroom closet she kept a rifle hidden in a cardboard tube. And she wasn’t afraid to shoot first and ask questions later. She had been a part of the once flourishing blueberry picking industry that existed on the mountain that stretched from Kerhonkson to Ellenville. She would eventually die alone in her small ramshackle house, with dozens of cats running rampant inside and out, stubborn to the end. A fall had broken her hip and because she had refused to wear a life alert button that friends had acquired for her, she was unable to call for help. She died a terrible death in the same house that she was born in. She was cremated by the county, having died intestate, and her ashes were spread around her beloved property by myself and a woman named Donna Spano, who had also looked in on Nellie once in a while, as I had, frequently having to take her shopping when her old car finally died and she couldn’t afford another one. At one point Nellie, who was on a limited income, complained that her light bill had approached six hundred dollars the previous month and she wasn’t able to pay it. She usually had a bill of around thirty five dollars, using very little electricity, but it had spiked for an unknown reason for a month and she was worried about how to pay for it. I called Central Hudson and when they looked back through her records noted to me that she had not missed a payment or been even late with one since 1948. And they couldn’t help her. I think eventually they relented whe nit was discovered that her freezer had gone wacky and was burning up the juice at a furious rate. Donna (or I) made arrangements for a used but good fridge/freezer combo to be delivered to her at no charge.
Jigs Crose was another character. I only met him once and have a vague memory of that encounter but he was famous around town for his ability (?) to chew and eat a shotglass with no obvious ill effects.
Another guy I recall from my childhood was a mentally challenged man named Art Decker, who dressed like a hillbilly and rode a very old bicycle around town all the time. He usually had drool on his mouth and didn’t smell too great, and little girls were warned to stay away from him. I write this cautiously, not wanting to libel the man, but it was a concern in our circle of families and friends,
Other people and events are recounted in a nice new book called Closed Until Further Notice , written by a local author and resident Art Stockin. More a memoir and recollection of a lot of the author’s acquaintances than a history of the village itself, it is nonetheless a very interesting look at the area and its people. Proceeds from it go to help rebuild the village.
Kerhonkson is a tough place to describe in a brief piece like this one, but if one word could do it, for me it would be “home.”
And when I recently visited Kerhonkson again this past week after a 4 year absence, I felt the pain from a double edged sword through my heart when I saw not only the decrepit state of my old house on Foordmore Road, but Kerhonkson itself. The bridge connecting Main Street to the rest of the town had been torn down and is finally in the last stages of being rebuilt. During its absence the fire department has had to take long detours just to get to short, as the crow flies, distances away. Main Street now consists of three buildings, the rest having been torn down. The Granit Hotel had been sold to a Korean concern and is now the Hudson Valley Resort and is facing serious financial problems, leaving it, along with the former Peg Leg Bates Resort and the Pine Grove Resort Ranch, a “dude ranch” for city folks who want to ride horses and get a little country in them, as the last functioning resorts in the area.
The job market in the area now consists mostly of corrections officers and yard sales. I know it’s an exaggeration but folks, there ain’t much there. Channel Master left town long ago. Schrade Cutlery, which employed hundreds, went out of business several years ago, as did VAW. The Nevele and Fallsview Hotels finally folded, the last of the famous Catskills Borscht Belt hotles to fall, although up in Sullivan County a few still hang on.
I guess as long as there are criminals the prisons will always need guards, but what does it mean when guarding bad guys is the cottage industry of a region? I used to think that we shouldn’t be spending money to build more prisons all the time but it also occurs to me that as a society we keep producing criminals so as a society it is our responsibility to keep them off the streets and focus on producing more good citizens. Better schools plus better parenting equals better people equals less need for prisons.
But I digress.
So my hometown is dying. It’s a sad but true commentary that nothing lasts forever but dammit, it’s a vital and lovely place and can’t be left to rot. Post 9/11 incursions of city folks changed the face of the area forever with their big city money. Houses that once were selling for $80,000 all of a sudden became half million dollar homes as asking prices, usually a place to start as you bargained it down, became starting points in bidding wars for the wealthy who wanted out of the city. The tax base shot up at record speed and only the wealthiest locals could keep up. Here’s an eye opener: A friend in Rosendale, NY, about 10 miles away, has a small house on .18 of an acre. She and her husband pay around 4200 bucks annually in taxes. That’s like adding 350 bucks a month extra to your rent or mortgage payment. Down here in Georgia another friend has a big house, on a lake with 8 acres, and pays about 1200 dollars a year in taxes. The job situation here in the south is pretty dire, but at least the taxes aren’t criminally high.
So I went home. I’m glad I did. And I’m sad that I did. I often harbor thoughts of moving back but to what? I guess time will tell.


  1. Hi Jim, my long time friend and schoolmate. As you know I have lived in Kerhonkson for the past 50 years. I believe that the problem Kerhonkson has always had exists in its residents, collectively. If the majority were so inclined to productively change their community - it could be done. For a plethoria of reasons it has not been done, and currently if anything is being remains at a snails pace. Your blog was on Kerhonkson was, unfortunately, correct to a very large degree. Enjoy your life in Georgia.

  2. I certainly agree, Melodye. How do you light a fire under dead wood and make a lasting flame? Snail's pace is probably overstating it. One thing I noticed even before I left years ago (when i got married my wife didnt want to live there, being from Jamaica and not driving and wanting to be able to see her family, so we moved to Hartford CT to live at her brother's house. I never woulda left if it hadnt been that reason. I hated CT with a passion--too much crime and bullshit every single day.
    That said, I long to return and to be able to help in some way to rebuild somehow...but have no $, since that is what makes the world go around.
    Although I do disagree with your statement that if the majority want to change it it will be done. There are certainly things that can be done but until someone with good ideas makes the place a "destination" again, there wont be much in the way of tourism. for instance. I notice a lot of art shops and the like around Kerhonkson and Accord, and the county as a whole. This is great and can help change the face if the place, making it more of an arts colony a la Woodstock, but you know that the "redneck " population will scoff at that and call it "sissy" and make their claims to never to have anything but farms, factories and logging as the main business in town. Its not really necessary to have big industry in Kerhonkson, but somewhere in Ulster County there are huge abandoned factories and industrial spaces just looking for something good to come aboard. It's these bigger corporate concerns that will determine the future health of the region. Or not. Not that the majority of residents getting a little ambition wouldnt hurt, (Places like Saunderskill Farm and Kelder's farm are a great start to renovating the area, as is the resurrection of Main Street in Accord), but big employers are the key, and they arent there right now.
    Anyway, keep reading and Ill keep writing and we'll keep in touch!

  3. My parents lived in Kerhonkson form 1951 - 1980, and it was my home until I finished graduate school in 1968. I have returned numerous times through the years. Most recently last August. It was a shock to see the change - most of the buildings are gone and the bridge was non-existent (I saw a recent picture of the new bridge under construction - about 60% complete). Kerhonkson had a rich history and it is sad to see it in its current state. It was good place to grow up.


  4. Interesting blog about Kerhonkson. I grew up just on the other side of the Shawangunk Ridge in the hamlet of Wallkill (2 prisons there, also). After living in CA, TX, FL, and Kingston, NY, I finally relocated in Kerhonkson in 2006. I see the diversity amongst the people, from the impoverished to the celebrity. It is quite a mix; and since we both have decent jobs (not in hotels or prisons) we plan on staying here. It's a slower pace, lots of nature and peace and quiet. Taxes are alright since our home is small.