The Washerwoman’s Genes

July 26, 2006

A Washboard World

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 6:09 pm

Sometimes I get hunting-and-gathering fever. Googling some word or phrase of pertinence is often my cure. Recently I searched for washboard. Who knew? Several billion hits ensued, with lots of them new to me, despite my extensive searches for washerwoman and laundress.

Because the physical washboard is an antique, you wouldn’t expect much action. But washboard is also a metaphor: I had to go to Advanced Search and eliminate abs, stomach and belly; also, topology and geology, to cut out references to land formations that look like, well, a washboard.

And then there’s the music: bluegrass, country, folk, blues and also band, group, and festival had to go to prevent a hit parade of washboard music pages. In passing, I learned that not only are antique washboards in great demand as instruments, but these days new washboards are marketed for just that purpose.

Another, and not insignificant, use of washboards is in historical re-enactments. Whether military or cultural, re-enactments require a demonstration of how the humbler side of history went forward: how the wool was spun, the pigs roasted, the candles dipped, and the laundry scrubbed. There is at least one company that manufactures historically accurate colonial and civil-war-era washboards and tubs. They are carved of wood and burnished to a deep glow, more objects of art than folk craft, and they are pricey: washboards go for upwards of $90, and a tub can set you back $200 or more. (The small washbasin for only $160, or $110 with steel instead of sapling hoops, is on my birthday wish list. I could put plants in it—with a very protective liner of course—or use it to serve chips or bread.)

The search for washboard also turns up numerous depictions of washerwomen, ranging from artistic to comic—pages that often lack the actual term washerwoman and therefore were hidden from my previous searches.

Beyond products and pictures, googling washboard also brings up memoirs of home washing. These usually put a washboard in the hands of a housewife or servant, rather than a professional. Typically, the writers are people raised early in the twentieth century, often in rural areas, where old-fashioned ways persisted into what we think of as modern times. Hearing the voices of average folks set out the daily routines of long ago is touching—though their memories of endless washday rigamarole are larded with vehemence and humor.

I particularly enjoyed the memoir of Ruth O. Richards of Emmitsburg, MD. She recounts how “devastated” she was to discover, on moving with her husband to the town in 1940, that there was no washing machine in her house, rather only a wash tub with faucets over it–and the requisite washboard. Her solution was to send her laundry out, and her story conveys what it was like to be on the other side of the washerwoman transaction, to be the housewife paying another woman to take over her work. Of course, in the forties, her washerwoman had an electric washer, not a wash tub, but by today’s standards, the equipment was primitive: a machine which agitated the clothes in a tub hand-filled with hot water, adorned with a manually turned wringer on top.

In yet another metaphor, I discovered that people sometimes name their laundry business The Washboard. In fact, I was amazed to find the Rondout Washboard as a real estate listing in my results. Just off Route 9W in Kingston, the business is up for sale for a very reasonable 58K. A picture shows a small, houselike building with only the word Laundromat on the sign. 9W goes over the bridge from Rondout to Port Ewen, where my own ancestral washerwoman had her home-based business.

Perhaps the most unexpected place the search for washboard took me was to a “dream dictionary.” There I learned that

To see or use a washboard in your dream signifies embarrassment. You may be feeling emotionally and/or physically drained.

Dreaming of dirty laundry—of course. But as for the symbol: how many dreamers today, in a world of designer Maytags, ubiquitous cleaners, and indeed, laundromats, would have a washboard in their subconscious, ready for use in a dream?

__ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __
Sites in order of mention (all accessed July 25-26, 2006)

“Catalog,” Beaver Buckets Authentic Reproductions.

Richards, Ruth O., “The Mulberry Bush.”

“Rondout Washboard,” Century 21 Cherrytown Associates.

“Dictionary,” Dream Moods.


Bluestone Blue

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 7:56 am

My dad loved bluestone. The town we lived in poured it in the gutters of all our streets. We had a thick swath of it in the road that ran past our house. Most people probably just thought it was gravel. But when you looked at it, it was blue—pale, grayish, a dry chalky color, but definitely blue, and chunky, maybe a third- to a half-inch across. Dad always noticed when they added more.

Undoubtedly he knew it came from upstate, way upstate—in fact, Kingston way. I thought he liked it because it was blue. Blue sky, blue eyes, blue stone.

He dropped me little hints like that: showing enthusiasm for some darned little thing, a thing with a big back story that intersected with his own. But he never actually told me his grandma was from upstate.

He called up-staters “apple-knockers,” a certain tone of glee in his voice. I heard the term more than once. I never made anything of it, since New York has always been known for its apples—that is, until I had to search out the parents of his grandmother, Josephine Burger Davis, and Brooklyn turned out to be a wash. I intuited that the Burgers might be from apple country. It’s true: Esopus to this day has apple farms.

Dad didn’t talk much about himself or the past; of course, I was too young to think of many questions to ask. I was curious—but he often treated my inquiries humorously, and I got hints and not much more. I’d heard of Flatbush. Knowing he was from Brooklyn, I asked if he was from there, and he said yes. But he was laughing. Flatbush—not a nice spot in the sixties. It was my mother who mentioned Prospect Park—and that was a fact. When I began looking on maps for Dad’s childhood neighborhood, I thought I’d find Flatbush near the park, but it’s considerably to the east.

I don’t even know if he ever visited upstate, or whether the bluestone sidewalks were his only reminder of his family’s upstate roots.

Review: New York State Bluestone

Filed under: Reviews — by WWG @ 7:50 am

Dennis Conors, et. al. New York State Bluestone. New Paltz, 2005.

Turns out, lots of people love New York bluestone.

“There is something so appealing, so magnetic, so charismatic.,” write the authors of Bluestone. “People do love it despite the fact that the stones are often heaved and uneven. After all, most of it was laid down about 150 years ago, and yet is beauty and function remain. To touch it and walk on it, you feel its age, its strength. In the dead of winter it soaks up and retains the heat of the sun. In summer it is cool on your feet” (5). They are speaking here of bluestone laid in slabs as sidewalk, but it is true of the irregular flagstone used for terraces and walkways as well.

The authors concede that its appeal is “something of a mystery. It’s just stone after all. A kind of sandstone, they say, not that common, mainly available . . . in Ulster County and beyond in a certain narrow range on a geological map” (3).

This small pamphlet both celebrates this unique stone and explains its history. A collection of brief essays interspersed with a few wonderful historical photographs, the book may possibly be a SUNY New Paltz student production: the graphic advisor is a faculty member. But the publication information is scant.

For the most part the book is well-written and elegant in its design; however, the several essays were not reconciled as to facts before publication: there are some small contradictions that distract from a reader’s flow through the information. Nevertheless, the book serves as a basic introduction to the bluestone industry in Ulster.

Commercial quarrying of bluestone began about 1830, perhaps “at Coeyman’s” in Albany County, and soon, perhaps in 1832, Ulster county’s first quarry opened, with Saugerties seeming the spot. West Hurley, Woodstock, and Hurley are all mentioned as sites of important quarries.

As many as 10,000 people were employed in the industry at its peak: top men, who cleared the soil down to the level of the stone; stone cutters and quarrymen who cut out the blocks; plus workers to raise the stone, cut it, load it, and transport it for shipment down to the towns and cities where it was used. And it was hazardous work, as is all mining; managing the movement of huge slabs of stone presented many dangers, and bluestone miners suffered from a lung disease analogous to black lung as a result of breathing the stone dust.

The industry was one of the several forces that transformed the Kingston area in the mid-nineteenth century. “In 1825, and for some years subsequent, there was no road along Rondout Creek from Twaalfskill in either direction, neither to the Strand (Rondout), nor to Eddyville in the other course” (19). “Before 1825, Rondout (now downtown Kingston) was farmland with a nearby dock for several Hudson River sloops that carried local produce” (11). The Delaware and Hudson Canal opened just as bluestone mining began in earnest, and soon, bluestone became ”a substantial part of [Kingston’s] commercial and residential buildings, and the Rondout Creek had become the largest distribution point for bluestone” (11).

But after not too long, Rosendale cement and Hudson River brick became more popular as building materials—newer, cheaper, and certainly easier to transport. The bluestone industry declined so that by 1902 bluestone production required only 150 men.

The pamphlet concludes with a brief bibliography, including a couple of books that focus on this stone. You have to ponder: how many rocks beside this unique, dense sandstone, formed about 375 million years ago in the Devonian era, have had their biographies written?

July 24, 2006

How it was

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 8:57 pm

Judge Hasbrouck was readying to sell his house on Hasbrouck Street in Port Ewen, the commercial hamlet within Esopus, and found a shad net left behind by the previous resident. It was useless to him, so he gave the net to his neighbor, the father of a young man named Hugh Clark.

A local teen named Charles Lifer had a boat but no net. Hearing of young Clark’s bonanza, he made a deal with him. He would teach Hugh to row the boat and would share the catch with him, if Hugh would make his net available for shad fishing in the spring. That’s how, at age 8, Hugh became a commercial shad fisherman. He continued this profession for the rest of his life.

His picture—as the oldest shad fisherman—now hangs in the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Rondout, Kingston, across the creek from Port Ewen.

“The monumental labors of our forebears”

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 8:42 pm

Stone walls die because of human action: Through legal stripping of stone out of abandoned rural walls and actual theft, people are dismantling old walls. Tragically, “money can be made by mining the heritage landscape and shipping it away.” And sometimes, walls are damaged by homeowners ignorantly landscaping their property, and many others are destroyed by vegetative overgrowth and other natural forces

The Stone Wall Initiative (SWI) is an organization dedicated to the preservation of the ancient stone walls of New England. The portion of New York east of the Hudson river is included in their territory, because topologically, it resembles New England. Of course, the western shore of the Hudson is as historically and archeologically significant, and contains many walls from the earliest days of colonial settlement. It is also an area that is currently less densely populated than some parts of New England, and therefore its walls may be less threatened, at least for the time being.

SWI wants to spread the word that stone walls are part of our present-day “cultural commons,” even though they originally served the purpose of dividing and delimiting private property. Walls should be preserved, SWI members believe, “for beauty’s sake,” but also “as a reminder of the monumental labors of our forebears.”

Quotations come from the Stone Wall Initiative website, which can be found at:

Hurley Stone House Day: Genealogy Digression

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 8:37 pm

The day itself could not have been more glorious: warm, sunny, dry. I drove down from the Holiday Inn at the Kingston turnpike exit to the crossroads that is the town of Hurley. At the parking lot of the Dutch Reform Church, the sponsor of Stone House Day and the location of the Ulster County Genealogy Society, a stout fellow in breeches and tricorn hat waved me through. They weren’t selling tickets yet—but I was heading for the genealogy books.

Downstairs, past the bake sale and quilt raffle, the genealogy office was beginning to buzz. I asked Florence if she had the Palatine history books by Henry Z. Jones, and she said, “Hank’s books? Of course! Right here.” (Unlike some of the other researchers whose tomes I used repeatedly, Hank is alive and well and promotes his books on a website.) I went through all the volumes in search of Burgers, checking them out one by one.

I had heard that Hieronymus was listed, and there he was, along with some other information I have seen reflected in various family trees on the web: that he is the grandchild of a Palatine immigrant, Johannes Peter Burckhardt, who arrived on July 1, 1710. His father was Johann Peter, and his mother was Anna Amalia Klein; their marrige is recorded, according to Jones, in the West Camp Lutheran Church book for the date 5 Nov. 1717. Hieronymus had a brother Marthen, who married Marytjen Klein (Cf. Kingston Reformed Church book), as well as other siblings whose marriages are recorded in the Loonenburg Lutheran Church book. Hieronymus’ uncle Johann Martinus married Ursula Froelich in Kingston, and many of their children are baptized in Dutchess county, Rhinebeck, Rhinebeck Flats, and Red Hook. This material—which seems quite authoritative—appears to document the splitting of the Burgers into two branches in Ulster and Dutchess counties. (There’s no accounting, though, of how Burckhardt became Burger.)

Having gotten a good look at the family tree, I was ready to take on the stone houses.

Jones, Hank Z., The Palatine Families of New York 1710, Vol. II. Picton Press, 1985. 112-114.

Review:The Early Stone Houses of Ulster County

Filed under: Reviews — by WWG @ 8:17 pm

Myron S. Teller, The Early Stone Houses of Ulster County. Ulster County Historical Society, 1959, rept. 1974; 2001.

I looked through this book before the Hurley stone house tour, concentrating on things I would likely see, such as doors and windows, and not catching many of the details of construction. On Stone House Day, though, I quickly got a case of information overload: docent-chat about owners and property history, furnishings and décor, and particular features of each individual home meant I didn’t focus well on the architecture or the craft, that is, on the work of stone masons and carpenters. Rereading Teller’s work, I long to revisit, this time with book in hand.

Teller, an architect and advisor to Ulster stone-house owners (he died shortly after the first edition was published), provides a spare but complete technical description of stone house architecture. After a short overview of the historical circumstances leading to the profusion of stone houses in the early Hudson Valley, he analyzes their components: floor beams, floors, roofs, frames, doors, windows, roofs, and the fireplace and oven. Teller refers frequently to particular homes as examples (another feature that makes me wish I had had the book with me), and the book has more pages of drawings, elevations, and plates than of text.

In documenting the precision and craft necessary to construct a house of stone, Teller reveals the sophistication of seventeenth-century engineering. The houses are not that different in construction from a twentieth-century stone house (although in the twenty-first, pre-fab, plastics, metals, and composites replace many natural materials). What is different is the sheer labor required to quarry and move stone, cut and trim logs, saw planks and plane floors, create nails and iron hardware, and more. This is not a book about construction but about functional design. Still, a reader can glean the monumental labor necessary to create each house.

He explains that stone houses were at first merely “one large square room enclosed with stone walls 2 feet thick” (1), in which the family cooked, ate, slept, and did all their “living,” a fact that testifies to the difficulty of putting up a house of stone. Even so, in the earliest ones there’s a cellar formed by extending the foundations six feet below grade, and an attic made by building walls up four feet above the room’s ceiling. (Both were crucial, for one stored grain and the other provisions.) Hardly stone heaps, these came to be called “story-and-a-half” houses.

Walls were made of “native limestone available from near-by ridges and low hills, where it lay near the surface and was easy to quarry.” This was mixed with “what they called ‘Field Stone’ . . . rooted out or dropped . . . by the early glaciers” (3). Teller meant no irony, of course, but “easy to quarry” is a relative term. (Hear the sledge hammers ringing.)

Building a wall, stone on stone, was methodically done: “when built in[to] the wall, [the stones] were always laid to rest on their natural base, [the masons] selecting a straight or smoother side to show on outside of wall.” (3) Nothing quick and dirty here.

A cement of lime and sand, with hair as a binder, “was used to point up the outside joints in walls which served to prevent the rains from washing out the clay mortar and saved the building from ruin” (4). Lime was scarce and costly, and so masons used a cruder mortar of clay and straw to hold the inner walls together. No ripping open a bag of insta-mix concrete—back then, it was all home-brew.

Floor beams were logs of oak, flattened on the top side if not all, and “usually peeled of the bark.” Other beams were “squared with the broad axe and adze, a processed called ‘hand-rived’” (4).

Floors were planks of pine or other white wood, “cut with the rip saw which operated by hand up and down” and “hand planed” (4). The boards between the main room and attic were planed on both sides.

You need to say these phrases again: “peeled of the bark,” “squared with the broad axe and adze,” “hand-rived,” “cut with the rip saw . . . by hand up and down.” Sounds positively biblical.

Grooves in the plank edges allowed the planks to be fit closely together (just like the flooring in the house my father build for his family in the 1950s), and the planks were “secured to the beams with hand made wrought iron nails,” if available, or, especially in the early days, wooden pegs. Iron was at such a premium that sometimes a disused frame building would be burned down to recover the nails (4). A hell of a way to recycle.

Every such detail that Teller recounts conveys the forethought, the craft, and the sheer hard work to make a house of stone. As he writes himself, the first settlements were of wood, “as it took considerable labor and time to build [in stone]. . . . The first task was to clear and prepare land for cultivation and provide for living” (1). Then the permanent houses were crafted.

Soon enough, walled villages of stone houses, such as the Stockade built in Kingston after 1658, became necessary to protect against Indian attacks—stone houses becoming, as it were, our continent’s first exercise in “homeland security” (if you ignore the irony that it was the Indians’ homeland and not the Europeans’). Teller explains, “This combination one-room home provided only with cellar and 1st floor entrance and three or four small windows closed with heavy batten doors and shutters was also their fort to protect them” (2).

But after threats subsided, settlers continued to build in stone, up through the early 1800s, so that, as you drive certain old roads “bordering the foothills and edging the broad fertile valley, you come on these picturesque houses near the road and overlooking their fields” (1). Teller’s description is almost fifty years old, and the houses endure still, and endure as residences: most remain in private hands and cannot normally be visited. But we have Teller’s book to give us an x-ray view.

July 20, 2006

Stone Stalker

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 12:17 pm

June, 17-21, 2006: my first in-depth exploring of Esopus and environs: a few museums and libraries, two walking tours, a couple of bookstore visits, and driving, driving, driving. Along the creeks and rivers, through neighborhoods and countryside, on twisty Kingston streets and grungy forgotten dead–ends.

Rondout, Esopus, Sleightsburg, Rifton, Connelly, St. Remy . . . I want to know you. I want to picture your crossroads, your main street, when I think your name. I want to understand the flows of road and river that string you like beads, beads for counting off the echoes of past times.

The first night in the hotel, I sketched my own maps, in order to lock them in my memory. I didn’t want to keep referring to them. And I didn’t want to get lost. I wanted to drive like a native, with an operational intuition. And then in the morning I set out, seeking the roads that followed the water, roads once crucial to industry and commerce, roads now desolate, with neighborhoods degraded or returned to woods, with slips for pleasure boats instead of working docks, with suburbs patched between farmhouses and mill sheds, roads with views flatly rural or deeply natural or even hill-top spectacular.

More mobile than my ancestors ever were, I scoped out hamlet after hamlet. In St. Remy, I scored my first hits: stone walls, dozens of them, weaving through the neighborhoods. Stone walls, low and rough-hewn, often stacked without mortar, crawling along property lines or edging high ground. Further down, in Rifton, along the Wallkill, I found a settlement of stone houses, with a stone church now converted to a residence and an inn-style house on a cliff above the road. Back on the post road, more stone houses interspersed with small, suburban-style tracts. Then I drove across the creeks to Stone Ridge: an area of quarries—really, holes in the ground where rock was been hewn out—and found more houses of stone.

So I’ve seen ‘em, lots of ‘em, from the road, speeding by, then backtracking and snailing past at the slowest pace I dare. The roads twist and turn and loop around, and you realize the concept of shoulder was invented in the twentieth century. Tacking back and forth, flying my obsession flag, I spun down from hunter of houses to stalker, perhaps, even, voyeur.

Because you can’t go in. The houses are privately owned. Built in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they have been kept up, expanded, modernized, and then renovated back to historical accuracy, and lived in all the while—they are homes.

They were built of stone not just because stone was plentiful: after all, trees were too. Stone houses stay up: attacked by Indians, torched by the English, ravaged by nature, they survive.

Their walls are thick, often 12 inches or more. They must stay warm once heated up inside. The window frames are flush with the outside, but from the inside, you can see the deep sills.

So you see, I have been inside.

On our family’s first visit to the area, we stayed in a brick B-and-B in Stone Ridge and had dinner in a café housed in a stone building. Its rocks were round—they seemed to be found stones, not mined rock cut into rectangles. The outside surface of the building was comically bumpy. Our table was along the outside wall, which had been scoured of plaster, and so was also bumpy and lumpy with rocks jutting out of the mortar two and three or more inches. You could put down your fork and reach over and fondle the rock.

At the windows, the merry checkerboard café curtains hung down over sills deep as benches.

And on July 9, 2006, there was Hurley “Stone House Day,” an extravaganza of house visitations, seven in all. On my excursions around Ulster in June, I had spotted a banner on the bridge over Route 29, the road into Hurley, where the genealogical society is, and knew I had to finagle a way to be in town the second Saturday in July. It was stone stalking season to me.

July 19, 2006

Washboard: Death of CHB

Filed under: Washboard — by WWG @ 7:27 pm

Months ago, I requested two death certificates from New York State, having a hunch I might not find them in local jurisdictions. I had begun to despair that the state was a black hole for archive searches. Then, at last, my SASE appeared, and it wasn’t flat. Inside, a form indicated that one search—for the record of Jannette Quimby Burger—was fruitless, but a second had yielded a document: the death certificate of Cornelius H. Burger.

He died in New Paltz, in the home of Moses Schoon, his son-in-law, on February 23, 1899. This indicates that, at the end, at least, he had returned from Fallsburg, where, in 1880, he had lived on the Darius Depuy farm as a laborer, and that he had been reunited with Hannah, his second wife. The 1900 census puts her in the home of her daughter Mary and husband Moses in New Paltz.

The chief cause of death is listed as exhaustion; the contributing cause is senility. Cornelius was 86 years, 10 months, 29 days, putting his birthday at April 25, 1812. The certificate also reports some well-known facts: he was a stonemason and was born in Esopus. His parents are listed as unknown. I would have enjoyed a verification of Zachariah and Elizabeth as his parents, but presumably Moses was the informant, and he didn’t have a clue.

The undertaker is T. J. Pine and Son, of New Paltz.

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