Thomas Cole Site Celebrates Tenth Anniversary

Cedar Grove 1

It’s always a wonderful success story when a cultural landmark gets rescued from oblivion by a group of interested and dedicated people. When the landmark is the former home and studio of one of America’s foremost nineteenth-century landscape painters and has not only been snatched from the demolition crew’s clutches but also been declared a National Historic Site, that’s more than wonderful–it’s a major cause for rejoicing.  And on Sunday September 25 Hudson Valley art lovers were indeed rejoicing as they gathered at Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, NY, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its opening.

Cedar Grove lawnLandscape artist Thomas Cole (1801-1848), founder of what came to be known as the Hudson River School of art, rented space at Cedar Grove beginning in the early 1830s, and in 1836, with his marriage to Maria Bartow, niece of the owner, it became and remained his permanent home until his all-too-early death in 1848. Visit Cedar Grove and you will readily understand what an inexhaustible fount of inspiration it was for him.  Not for nothing is this site spoken of as “Where American Art Was Born.”

I remember well the progress of the site from virtual ruin to cultural and historic success story. One day a number of years ago, aware that Cedar Grove lay somewhere on the road between the Thruway and the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, my son and I drove up and down and finally asked at a gas station on the corner of Routes 385 and 23–in other words, right across the road (locally named Spring Street) from the site. The attendant had no idea what we were talking about. Parking our car in a nearby side street, we looked around and eventually realized that we were standing right in front of it–only it was covered in scaffolding, and construction machinery lay strewn on the grounds.Cedar Grove lawn 2

What a difference today, when the Thomas Cole National Historic Site is well signposted, it can boast of having had more than 60,000 visitors since Opening Day, and a steady stream of cars brought people to celebrate its tenth anniversary! Entrance to the Main House was free, people enjoyed strolling the grounds, many came to the Visitors Center to take in the film that was being shown, to enjoy the homemade cookes and apple cider, and to purchase books and cards or simply to pick up literature from which to learn more.

Thankfully the weather cooperated, and so outside the Main House as well some dedicated volunteers were talking with visitors and explaining more about Thomas Cole and the site, one lady was teaching a young girl how to paint, and the Milayne Jackson Trio provided musical entertainment from the deck of the Main House.  It was a great day for celebration, not only that the Thomas Cole National Historic Site has become one of the Hudson Valley’s major cultural successes, but also that so many people who were unfamiliar with Cole and his art, attracted by the signs and balloons and other publicity, were visiting and getting acquainted with the founder of the Hudson River School and his legacy. Kudos to Elizabeth Jacks, Director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, to Marie Spano who has edited a lovely booklet of excerpts from Cole’s writings, and to the corps of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers (including the interns) who bring this place to life.

Flood-drenched Hudson Valley needs help

TrailThese aren’t pretty pictures. They’re not meant to be. I took them yesterday during a trip to photograph the Saugerties Lighthouse, after which I drove to Highland and walked the Walkway Over the Hudson.

As I was driving from central Saugerties toward the trailhead for the lighthouse, I became dimly aware of what seemed to be brown water below and parallel to the road. Later, as I drove over a bridge that had a sign identifying this water, I learned, to my shock, that this brown water was the Esopus Creek. The Esopus Creek! — usually a picturesque stream, sporting ground for many who enjoy the sport of tubing, now a muddy brown assailant that has been the subject of many an official New York State Flooding Alert in recent days, inundated the pretty, historic village of Phoenicia, and wreaked damage elsewhere in Ulster County, one of three New York counties hardest-hit by Irene.

Stopping on the Thruway north at Plattekill, I made my usual purchase from the Grey Mouse Farm stand there and asked them how they fared after the storm. Not great, they said, but they do the best they can. Grey Mouse Farm is located off Route 32 near Saugerties. More heroic people carrying on after this disaster.At Lighthouse

While photographing Saugerties Lighthouse I met and spoke with the lighthouse keeper.  They now have their power back but the half-mile trail leading to the lighthouse is a disaster area, as you can see from this photo.  The wooden plank boardwalks are buckled and covered with trash that floated in from the flooded river. He asked me to get the word out: If anyone lives nearby and is willing to bring some trash bags and help clear the debris, your help is urgently needed and he would be most grateful. And please–wear waterproof boots.

MargaretvilleOne of the fellow hikers I spoke with had been out the previous day to help at Margaretville, that beautiful Western Catskill town where I recently made some vintage images of the Main Street stores. When I asked him how it was there he just shook his head: All gone, it’s completely gone, there is nothing.  They’re waiting for FEMA to come in and assess the damage. My memory is haunted by the friendly Irish face of the nice man who had recently moved into the area with his wife and children to start up the Bed and Bath Shoppe, where we bought some lovely towels and things. Down the road, a shop where a woman sold me a hand-knitted pair of special gloves to wear when I photograph in the winter: the tops unbutton to free my fingers to work the camera controls. The only supermarket in town, where on a rainy Sunday we bought a few things for a pre-dinner beer party in one of our rooms at the nearby Hanah Mountain Resort–“Half of the supermarket is completely washed away,” my fellow hiker told me.

These pictures were taken from the Walkway over the Hudson, the newest of New York’s State Parks. At 1.28 miles long, it offers a hefty walk as well as memorable views of the Hudson. Right now it also offers views of the results of Hurricane Irene: Here you see the damage and the garbage piled up on the shore near the village of Highland, and the other photo shows the “Lordly Hudson,” now brown and with lots of this green debris floating in it.

If you wish to help but can neither grab your tools or trash bags and offer physical help nor live close enough to donate household items and food at one of the many collection stations, here is a website with suggestions for sending monetary donations.  For the Western Catskills, here is another site with updates on the situation and places to donate.

Stopped at a traffic light on my way out of Saugerties yesterday I was glad to note that the Saugerties Reformed Church was holding a worship service today for the victims of 9/11 and of Hurricane Irene. While no one will ever forget the pain and suffering inflicted literally out of the clear blue sky on that infamous day ten years ago, please let’s remember that our neighbors in rural New York who struggle to earn a living by serving people through their farms and their shops and motels also need our prayers and concern and our help.