The old mill and Bishop's Falls

At The Gateway Of The Catskills - Part 1

by Ernest Ingersoll from May 1877 Harper's New Monthly Magazine

The situation of Shokan, or Ashokan, as the Indians pronounced it, supplies me with a title at once pleasing and truthful. Here in the heart of Ulster County is a little hamlet of widely scattered houses, separated by fields of corn, rye, oats, and buckwheat, and half hidden in old orchards. The "Centre" is a mile eastward of the creek, and "West Shokan" is the name of the railroad station, where there is a brick hotel, two or three country stores, a lumber mill, a church with an ambitiously high steeple, a number of carriage sheds clustered about, and a few houses, which seen as though they would be glad to get away. The Ulster and Delaware Railroad, a local line northwestward from Rondout, traverses the valley, and spoils the clearness of the air with clouds of sulphurous coal smoke.

Leaving the staring group of rustics lounging at the station, I hurried up the track a mile or so, to a farmer's house that I knew of. It was a large square house, standing with it's side to the road, and built with stone, hidden under the accumulated layers many seasons' whitewashing. In front was generous porch, and behind, a newer frame extension for a kitchen. It stood not far back from the road, where was an immense immense horse-block, almost as hard to mount as the horse itself, and in the small front yard were a few flowers, fenced off from the vegetable garden on the left and the orchard on the right, beyond which were the great barns and sheds. Out in the road in front was the "shop", for in this isolated village every man is his own artisan as well as cultivator. "Mon" (short for De La Montaigne) Dorrs was at work there as I came up - a short, somewhat bent man of sixty years, with a keen, cunning countenance and a perpetual smile. He was always good-natured and always busy, caring little for anything off his farm, reading almost nothing, talking only of the weather and the crops and the local politics; an old fashioned Democrat and good neighbor, he was a type of the best Shokan farmers, and his home a type of their homes. They seem to be utterly devoid of all ambition beyond shelter and food, and to take no more interest in the glittering world moving by than the average New Yorker does in a militia regiment marching down Broadway.

In the shop were a carpenter's tool chest, a cooper's horse and shaving knives, a blacksmith's forge and anvil, and some harnessmaker's implements. It was not an exceptional shop. A young farmer's education is not considered complete here until he has a sufficient knowledge of every trade having application to his labor to provide himself of any needed commodity for his daily work. On the other hand, the women all learn and daily practice the spinning of wool and flax, and the weaving of carpet and coarse cloth on looms which their husbands manufacture at home. In that summer of "Centennial" experiences and uproar it was a treat to find a community within one hundred miles of the metropolis where the customs of Revolutionary days had scarcely worn off at the edges.

The valley is several miles long and irregularly broad, but with a level surface. The soil is coarse drift bowlder material, and water-worn stones from an ounce to a ton in weight are every where to be seen. Stone Walls, consequently , almost entirely take the place of fences, which become browned by exposure to the weather, embroidered with varicolored lichens, entangled in thickets of briers, where lightly rests a mantle of snow blossoms, or droop rich clusters of delicious berries, or glow sunburned masses of foliage, and tumble into careless piles, exceeding picturesque the year round. They are the favorite resorts of sparrows and wrens, whose little bright forms dodge in and out of their hiding-places with ceaseless activity, or choose some taller bush near by as a pedestal for joyous song. On every side rise hills to the height of fifteen hundred to two thousand feet, culminating at Shokan in the two mountains, Tys ten Eyck and High Point, that stand over against one another at the head of another valley, like two giant warders guarding the portal to the mysteries of the Catskills, which the far blue summits beckon feet and imagination to explore.

Through this huge gate and down the valley winds the Esopus, named, or at least is supposed to be, after the sub-tribe of the Iroquois Indians which had their hunting ground here. It is a stream as wide as Broadway and very picturesque. In the upper part of the valley it is filled with bowlders, so that one may almost cross it dry-shod. You think you can quite do so, but there is always a channel in the middle too wide to step over. Below, the water encounters an outcropping ledge of rocks, over which it takes three giant leaps, a score of feet down at each leap and plunges at last into a circular basin of unknown depth and Stygian blackness.

Here the water boils up from the bottom, and then swings steadily out between perpendicular walls of green and gray rock. It is like a miniature Niagara, more like some of the little canons near the headwaters of the Rio Grande, which hardily deserve notice among the grander gorges through which that troubled river finds it ways out to the Llano Estacado. The Esopus, from source to outlet at Saugerties, is a brawling mountain stream, such as the painters go to Scotland to find; or rather it was before the forests on its banks were felled and its waters befouled by refuse from the tanneries, mills, and villages, which, attracted by its bark and lumber, have grown up on its banks. But to follow up any of its small tributaries, like the Little Beaverkill or the Bushkill, or to work your way to its source, is to penetrate the primeval forest, where, now that the bark-peelers have departed, rarely wanders any but the trapper or trout-fisher, or an occasional tramp like the writer, who would seek for the love of them the inmost recesses of the wilderness.

Through the gateway about the beginning of the century passed many of the settlers of Delaware County, which lies thirty miles to the northwest, coming from Long Island, Connecticut, and from the counties beyond the Hudson. Down through it now comes a large part of the produce, mainly butter, from that county to market. The settlers beyond the mountains have also sent back a man or two into the world who have emerged from these mountain portals. But little over twenty years ago a youth, the son of a farmer, was in the district school there, in the edge of Delaware, who has since become a sort of Napoleon in the world of stocks, and whom Wall Street fears and admires. A lad, his school-mate and playfellow, now "an author and naturalist of pleasant fame", also followed the Esopus down out of the mountains, seeking the great world beyond, and reversing the movement of his ancestors at the beginning of the century.

If searching varied scenery nearer the village of Shokan, you must not fail to walk two miles down to Bishop's Falls, to which I alluded a moment ago, where the Esopus leaps into its little canon. To get the complete picture, you must climb down to the foot of the falls - cautiously, for the rocks are slippery with spray and slimy confervoid growths. Beside you is the deep dark pool where the fish love to lie; over your head, the long, covered, age-colored bridge, spanning the chasm from abutments of living rock; in front, the rock amphiteatre, raised still higher by a log dam at the top, down whose steps rushes the tumultuous water, white with the foam of its mad leap, and hoarse with the thunder of its breaking waves. On your right is an old tannery, on your left, a still older mill. This ancient mill is historic. Through its decayed and moss grown flume the water has flown to grind a hundred harvests. Could its walls repeat the stories they have listened to, tell the events they have seen, no other chronicle of the neighborhood were needed, for there have been few inhabitants within a circle of a dozen miles who have not driven under its roadway sled.

About a century ago, a man named Bishop, with a baker's dozen of children, came down from Delaware County - curiously enough - to settle here. The space about these falls was all "commons", and Mr. Bishop bought a large tract on one side of the river for a few cents an acre. His first move was to take advantage of the magnificent water-power, and erect a small mill, building so well that the solid oaken timbers stand to-day as firmly as when first put up, but browned by the lights and shadows of the long years which have soaked into their pores. The first machinery, an undershot wheel and simple gearing, was made entirely out of wood whittled out by Bishop himself; where he got his buhr-stones, or whether he had any, I do not know.

These contrivances lasted some years, but one winter, were torn away by the ice. Then a workman from Kingston made a wooden tab-wheel. This also stood a long time, but a few years ago was replaced by a turbine wheel, and the primitive gearing by the iron-shafts and cog-wheels in present use. Meanwhile, under the ceaseless turning of the stream of life, the owner wore out along with his wheels, and Mr. Bishop was laid aside. Some would think this pioneer might have said "My life is one dem'd horrid grind"; but we have no record that he even thought of his stay on this earth thus harshly.

The history of this old mill thus suggests the history of the whole region. The first settlements upon this territory, as I gather from the farmers while they smoked their pipes in the evening twilight, were made about 1740 upon the flats along the Esopus, just below Shokan. One of the first settlers was a man named Mattagh, and there is a crumbling tombstone now in the burying-ground near the old Olive Bridge on which the name Mattagh and the date 1740 still appear, though almost illegible. The earliest families seem to have come from the Mohawk Valley and Delaware County, and their family names still remain among the most respectable people of the town. This fertile valley, and the game-abounding hills, were then occupied by the Indians, who often resisted by force of arms the cool seizure of their ancestral fields by white men who came unasked.

After the Revolution, this part of the country began to fill up, but it was not until 1832, when the Middletown turnpike was put through, that any progress of importance began to be made. Earlier than that, however itinerant preachers organized churches in this region, and curious stories are told of some of the pioneer pastors - men of the old hammering orthodox stamp, fearless in the denunciation of vice and iniquity in every form, holding no parley with sin, resolute, determined, and indefatigable in the discharge of every religious duty. One was blind, another rode his circuit after he was eighty years old, and a third would preach with the stone-mason's apron on in which he had begun earning his bread during the week.

The old mill, in its stability, regularity, and slow movement is not a bad type of the men who bring their harvests to be crushed, and while waiting grind between the stones of each other's comments the grist of neighborhood gossip. They differ mainly in the cut of their coats, from those who came when the old mill was new, for they have preserved the traditions and customs of their forefathers with great tenacity. Their faces show the mixture of Yankee and Dutch blood which flows in their veins, and the thrift in their farming and their incessant whittling further attest the double parentage. All the farms have been in the families of those who now own them for several generations, but still yield abundantly. The aged orchards, the pieces of large second-growth timber, the occasional ruin where once stood a homestead, the many low, old-styled, tumble-down stone houses, show how long the valley has been under the plow. The simplest mechanical arts never had much foot-hold here, for every young man prepares himself to live a Crusoe life, learns all the trades as well as the methods of agriculture, and by the time he is twenty-four is supposed to be proficient in every handcraft likely to be of use to an independent farmer. He is a wheelwright, a blacksmith, a house-carpenter, a stone-mason, a shoemaker; can patch his harness, repair his gun, or intelligently tinker the few pieces of machinery which have forced their way from the outside world of labor-saving inventions into these quiet precincts. You find a workshop on every farm, and a more or less complete set of tools for each of the trades. The cutting and splitting of hoop poles occupies profitably many a rainy day, after the farmer has seen that his hoes lack no handles and his ox-yoke does not need a new bow.

On the other hand, the women are skilled in all those household industries which were considered the accomplishments of the Puritan maidens, and are slow to displace the spinning-wheel by the sewing machine. Of course the testimony of their proficiency as cooks is "new every morning and fresh every evening". In the long August afternoons, when the mellow sun glances upon the circles of ruddy cider apples under the broad orchard trees, and the cat drowses on the door-step, guarding the immaculate kitchen from the invasion of the chickens is heard the loud rhythmic purring of the spinning-wheel, rising and dying away like the droning of the giant bee. Watching the plainly attired woman walking back and forth beside her whirring wheel, guiding with dextrous hands the fleecy lengths she holds, one can easily think himself back in the "good old colony times", when the matrons paused in their spinning to chat of the news brought in the last ship from England, or guided their yarn with tremulous hands and beating hearts, while their lovers watched them through the misty spokes of the flying wheel.

The carding bee has been outgrown, but the idea remains, and the people still find their pleasures in combining play with work; husking bees, quiltings, and raisings are yet the enthusiastic occasions of tremendous labour and equal fun. In the fall there is an occasional nutting party, or hunt for wild honey by "lining" the bees home to their treasure. Hundreds of pounds of fine honey are thus got every year out of these woods. Another set of mountaineers, the bears, are also good bee hunters, and thus betraying themselves, often become the preferred objects of chase.

The bear hunter par excellance and the "character" of the township is Enos Brown, in whose hospitable cabin I enjoyed many an hour of rest and invigoration. He is a pioneer of such stuff as our frontiersman are made, and although wasting no time in long migrations or useless efforts to keep in the forefront of our nation's western picket-line, he has kept himself equally in the wilds by driving his stakes in a spot so unpropitious for "modern improvements" that civilization has divided and gone around him. He was born among these hills, and when a young man, just married, he and his wife were employed to go back into the wilderness and cook for a gang of bark-peelers, who were stripping the hemlocks for the great tanneries below.

A rude shanty, partly of logs and partly of boards, one end filled with a huge stone chimney and fireplace, in which the crane still hangs and serves its daily use, was built on a little plateau up at the head of Traver's Hollow, 1800 feet or so above the level of the Hudson, and the Enos and his wife made a home for the men for several seasons. At last the bark was exhausted, and the place was abandoned by the peelers; but Brown had taken root and buying the adjacent land "for a song", he has remained ever since in the same shanty, which now he "kalkilates wants a new roofin".

Part 2 - Bear Hunting in the Catskills

Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery