The Washerwoman’s Genes

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.


1 Comment »

  1. Nice to stumble accross your blog. Reminds me of my discoveries of this area over the last few years, and the remnants apparent all around us of those that came before. Found you by googling “twaalfskill” aka wilbur.

    Comment by Chris Stachecki — February 7, 2008 @ 12:57 am |Reply

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