A Catskill Catalog: April 18, 2012

I watched the eight-minute film “Game Warden” this morning. The 1955 theatrical short focuses on Margaretville Game Protector Bryan Burgin, the father of Hunter Safety programs in New York, a major figure in the history of outdoor conservation in this state. A video of the film is at catskillarchive.com. It is also available at YouTube.

Six minutes into the film, a second game protector makes a silent appearance, providing Bryan back up as he approaches, theatrically, a potentially dangerous game violator. Bryan’s young colleague is 34-year-old Bob Van Benschoten, a New Kingston farm-boy, and army veteran, then seven years into a career that would lead to the very top of the uniformed service, Director of the Division of Law Enforcement of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Bob Van Benschoten died last week. He was 90. He and his family have been integral to our community.

Nearly three decades ago, high school students at Margaretville Central School produced a literary anthology called “Uncle Jacob’s Trail.” The students took that title from an archaic folk-name for the road that leads out of Margaretville, the road that travels up over Margaretville Mountain and opens up on the New Kingston Valley below.

That road follows the trail that Bob VanBenschoten’s great-great-great grandfather, “Uncle Jacob” Van Benschoten, traveled in 1784. Like Bob, Jacob Van Benschoten was an army veteran, having fought for American independence in the Revolutionary War.

That war was over in 1784, when Jacob, and a surveyor named Cockburn, hiked into the Catskills from Kingston. The Treaty of Paris had ended the war the year before, recognizing American independence and opening the way for the pursuit of happiness.

Seven years earlier, in October 1777, Jacob VanBenschoten’s family, and the families of his neighbors, had lost everything when British river-raiders burned their homes and barns in Kingston. Patriot leader, Robert Livingston, had offered free land to those burned-out Yorkers, anywhere in his vast west-of-the-Hudson domain, nearly the entire Catskills. All they had to do was find and survey unsettled wilderness.

But, with a war going on, who had time to go find land?
The war over, Robert Livingston, now Chancellor of the new state’s courts, renewed his offer, and Jacob Van Benschoten answered the call. He and Cockburn hiked 50 miles into the mountain wilderness, passing by the mill-centered settlements already established at Woodstock and Shandaken, and the few scattered farms on the East Branch of the Delaware.

Uncle Jacob led the way, up over the hill north of that river into the lush valley of the Plattekill. There they stopped, surveyed, and called the place, appropriately, New Kingston.
Jacob Van Benschoten settled on the lands he discovered. His large farm straddled the Plattekill Creek. In 1921, Bob VanBenschoten was born on the several-hundred acre portion of Uncle Jacob’s original farm that remains the family home-farm today.

One of three boys, Bob was the son of Andrew and Laura Worden Van Benschoten, well-educated and successful farmers, and leaders in the tight agricultural community that flourished in the mountains when Bob was growing up. Hunting and fishing were as much a part of farm life as milking and haying. Bob grew up outdoors.

So he was a natural when he joined the Conservation Department in 1948 as a game protector. Bob’s sharp and observant intelligence, his personable demeanor, and encyclopedic knowledge of the woods marked him as an exceptional officer.

By 1967, Bob was a supervising officer, rising in rank and responsibility, until, in 1976, Robert Van Benschoten was appointed chief of the uniformed service, Director of Law Enforcement in the Department of Environmental Conservation. That’s a big job.

Bob once told me a story that has stuck. It is a parable, perhaps, illustrating the sometimes- contentious cultural divide that often frustrates rural folks operating in the urbane cultural mainstream.

Ogden Reid was the Commissioner of Environmental Conservation to whom Bob reported. Reid was a former Congressman, scion of the family that had published the New York Herald Tribune, a wealthy, sophisticated, and cultured New Yorker.

In the late ’70s, a recurring news story focused on a Capital District woman who was feeding deer in violation of conservation law. The news media dubbed one of her wild pets, naturally, Bambi. Departmental attempts to enforce the law were met with public outcry, and when Bambi ended up dead the outcry was pitched.

“I want you to go claim the body and arrange for burial,” Commissioner Reid yelled at Law Enforcement Director Van Benschoten.
“You mean collect the carcass and dispose of it? Yes sir!”

Bob Van Benschoten was a gentleman of the old school, at home in the finest restaurant as he was in a deer stand. Like others of his generation, he was a rock upon whom community was built.
Bob Van Benschoten was a great man.
billbirns@gmail.com