A Catskill Catalog: July 16, 2008
I witnessed a skimmelton in 1971. Visiting in the home of friends who were a newly married couple late one evening, we were startled by a loud ruckus outside the house. We needn’t investigate long. A crowd of mostly young neighbors and friends had arrived outside with a tractor and wagon - or was it a pickup truck loaded with hay? They banged on the door and on the pots and pans they carried, invaded the house, and, in high spirits and with boundless good nature, “kidnapped” the newlyweds for a mock serenade, a hayride through the village accompanied by lots of noise and lots of razzing of the young couple. It was fun although as I remember, the couple was less than thrilled.
I haven’t heard of another skimmelton in the more than a third of a century since that time. There must have been a few, but the old custom seems to be largely dying out. As American culture becomes more and more homogenized, traditional local customs like the skimmelton fade away. That’s too bad.
Such customs remind us that we live in a very particular place, with a history and a set of traditions particular to that place. Such customs remind us that a community and way of life precede us, and that here is bigger than just now.
The skimmelton was a very local custom. The word itself – with a variety of alternate spellings – was identified in 1949 as current in a well-defined region stretching from the Housatonic River in Connecticut to the upper Delaware in Pennsylvania and northwestern New Jersey, centering on the Catskills and the Hudson Valley in New York State. A similar custom, but with more harmonious music, called the Chivaree, has been identified out west.
When I moved to the mountains, there were lots of reminders that the culture of this place was different from the mainstream. In the little mountain village where I lived, men still gathered daily in the General Store to kibitz and gossip and trade insults and talk. The year was punctuated by seasons and activities new to me: haying time, and sap season, cider pressing, and hunting camp.
Area jukeboxes largely featured country music – Tammy Wynette rather than Blood, Sweat, and Tears – and Round and Square Dances were frequent events.
The Catskills are beautiful, and the purity and beauty of the natural environment is a great draw to our region. But, for me, it was the mountain culture that I found fascinating. There was something here that seemed better, purer, and more humane than the urbane suburban lifestyle in which I had been raised. There was something different about life in the mountains.
Several years before I got here, a friend who grew up in the Catskills, was telling me a story. He started by identifying the subject of the story: “My father’s best friend,” he told me, “is a truck driver.” I stopped him right there. See, I knew that my friend’s father was a doctor, a professional man. “Wait a minute,” I interrupted, “Your father’s best friend is a what?” I have great respect for both doctors and truck drivers, but where I came from the two would be unlikely to even know each other, much less be best friends. In the mainstream culture I knew, doctors and truck drivers ran in very different circles. I had to see this place where those circles intersected.
The late Harriet Smith of Roxbury told me a story that illustrates that intersection. Helen Gould Shepard, the daughter of Jay Gould, was a wealthy, cosmopolitan and cultured woman who spent summers at Kirkside, her Roxbury home. Each evening, dinner would be served at 8, evening clothes required.
Harriet told me that it was not uncommon for a man to deliver coal or milk or plumbing repairs at the back door of the big house during the day only to return to the front door in a dinner jacket at 8 that evening with his wife in her evening best for dinner with the Shepards.
Helen Gould was 45 years old when she surprised everyone, in 1913, by marrying Finley Shepard, an employee of her family’s railroad empire. The wedding was a lavish affair that took place in January in the family’s Westchester County estate, Lyndhurst. I wonder if the locals gave the couple a Skimmelton when they arrived in Roxbury that summer. Seems only right.