SMG June 2009 Issue

Hiking The Gunks by Ed Henry
Cruising the Wine Trail by Chris Rowley
Huckleberry History in the
Hudson Quadricentennial by Marc Fried
Taking the Scenic Byway by Tod Westlake
An American Environmental
by Phil Ehrensaft
Hanging with the locals by Tod Westlake
Native Gardens by Paula Sirc

Photo by Alex Shiffer
Huckleberry History in the Hudson Quadricentennial
By Marc B. Fried

At a Halloween party on the New Paltz campus years ago, I noticed a young man whose costume achieved a kind of ribald sartorial pun of a historical nature: this was accomplished by means of a minor indignity perpetrated upon the memory of the historic ship on which Henry Hudson arrived in 1609, on his voyage of exploration and discovery: the Halve Maen (in Dutch) or "Half Moon." Now a half moon, though semicircular in shape, is more commonly known in English as a first quarter or last quarter moon. But the college student had executed his "half moon" with a full circle, by cutting a large, perfectly round hole into the left half of the seat of his skin-tight pants (no undergarment in evidence).

How all this ties in to the huckleberry pickers of our Shawangunk Mountains ought to be obvious by now: like Henry Hudson, Half Moon and Halloween, the word huckleberry begins with an h; like the hole in the young man's trousers, they are also round; and like Halve Maen and quadricentennial, the name Shawangunk may be difficult for some folks to pronounce.

The Native Americans who interacted with Hudson and subsequent Dutch traders and settlers were our earliest berrypickers. A sediment core extracted from a spruce swamp in the heart of the Shawangunk pine barrens showed a dramatic increase in mountain fire beginning about 400 A.D., and it's believed this may represent the start of intentional burning of the mountain by the Indians, to encourage more prolific berry crops. But it was during the latter half of the nineteenth century that huckleberry (wild blueberry) picking developed into a significant local industry, whence a way of life and a whole subculture soon became established. This continued strong until World War II and finally faded out during the 1950s and early '60s. But its contribution to Shawangunk history and lore continues today as an important part of our cultural heritage.

The advent of rail service to Ellenville in 1871 was an important factor in the growth of the berry business. As early as July 1, 1871, the Ellenville Journal reports that "The 'huckleberry' season has opened, and pickers have been several days engaged on the mountain....[Whole-salers] are buying at booths near the foot of the mountain, and thousands of bushels of Shawangunk berries, the finest in the world, will during the next few weeks find their way to New York....[T]he berries will be shipped mainly by rail." It is believed that pickers began building squatters' camps and cabins at Sam's Point in significant numbers about the time the railroad came to Ellenville. Thus began the evolution of huckleberry picking from a daypickers' phenomenon to one encompassing seasonal mountain communities. When the Smiley family built a carriage road in 1900-1901 connecting Ellenville to Lake Minnewaska, hundreds of berrypickers formed communities of tents, cabins and tar paper shanties along this route, which came to be known as the Smiley Road.

A former Sam's Point camper told me there was relatively little drinking among the Sam's Point crowd, compared to what went on at the Smiley Road camps. "Sam's Point was more, people that come there to pick to make a living and to save some money," she said. "Not just to have a good time, to get drunk and fight like on the Ellenville side of the mountain." If Sam's Point aspired toward middle class values, the Smiley Road probably included a somewhat higher percentage of loners, drifters, drinkers and troublemakers. This of course made for more drama and more interesting stories, such as those concerning bootlegging, revenue men and rowdy personalities, as well as some poignant tales of childhood hardship.

Setting the mountain on fire kept the berry crop vigorous and, incidentally, encouraged the predominance of a uniformly dwarfed pitch pine forest. Thus, the unique biological and aesthetic character of the Shawangunk pine barrens is something we owe in large part to our berrypickers (and to the Indians who preceded them). One legendary method involved drilling a hole near the back of a turtle's shell, attaching a long piece of wire and, on the end of the wire, a burlap bag soaked in kerosene. The turtle crawled over the ground trying to avoid a hot seat and spreading the fire. When the Conservation Department was called in, the berrypickers were often among the first to line up for paid work to help control the fire.

After World War II, it was a different world: many new industries had been born, everybody wanted to be modern, and berry picking began to be perceived as an old-fashioned or even "hillbilly" pursuit. Those who stayed on at the camps tended to be the elderly and the unemployable, but also included those with a touch of the poetic in their souls, folks who loved the mountain and were loath to relinquish this bond. One man told me, "From a baby I was carried into the mountains. It was just a thing, that every year you looked forward to get there, you couldn't wait....It's like, it's in your soul....It was just like some kind of a power, pulling." And a woman who had headed up the last commercial berry picking operation on the upper Smiley Road told me, "I felt if I missed a year on that mountain, part of my life would be gone. I went there when I was so young and I just loved that old mountain....I know it doesn't sound possible when you live in the valley and have a home to live in, but those were the happiest years of my life."

The Smiley Road is accessible as a hikers' trail, starting from the Berme Road Park at the foot of the mountain in Ellenville. Remnants of the old berrypickers' shacks may still be viewed at the Sam's Point Preserve, accessible via N.Y. Route 52 and the hamlet of Cragsmoor. The Preserve is run by the Nature Conservancy (for more information, [845] 647-7989). Three years ago, the Preserve produced a film about the berrypickers, available on DVD at the visitor center's gift shop.

In 1995, my third book, entitled The Huckleberry Pickers, was published (much of it is in the form of a walking tour along the length of the Smiley Road). The annual Shawangunk Mountain Wild Blueberry and Huckleberry Festival will be held in Ellenville, Saturday August 22. The festival's Cultural Heritage Area has historical and natural history exhibits and displays, and original folk songs will be performed, celebrating the lives and times of the Shawangunk Mountain berrypickers. Some of the surviving former pickers always stop by, as well as their children and grandchildren.

This year's festival occurs two days after a full moon. But not to worry: likely the only person in a costume will be a young woman in clown garb, eminently appropriate for children.

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