A Catskill Catalog: July 30, 2008

Donald W. Bouton of Greene County’s Halcott Center has written and published a wonderful memoir chronicling the changes in Catskill Mountain life over the 150 years of the family farm. Don’s great-grandfather settled in the Halcott Valley in the 1850s. His grandfather, father, children and grandchildren have all made a home – and a life - in what Don lovingly calls “this special place in the Catskills.”
By The Light of the Kerosene Lantern traces five generations of mountain life in a beautifully designed and printed book that contains numerous historic and contemporary black and white photographs. The author was moved to write by the questions of his grandchildren, questions spurred by the things of the past that seem so foreign in our day: what’s that for, “Goompie?” or, how do you put shoes on a cow?
Organized like a grandfather sharing memories with the kids, the book is comprised of 45 stories on topics like “Stone Walls” and “Maple Syrup, “Steam Tractors” and “Milking Machines,” “Cauliflower” and “Medicine Shows.” What makes this book so special is that this grandfather can really write. His stories are beautiful little essays, personal yet communal, full of striking detail and homespun wisdom.
The star of the tale is Don’s father, the late Marshall Bouton, a man whose presence on the farm seems palpable years after his death. Reading about Marshall Bouton reminds me of those many Catskill Mountain men I first encountered 35 years ago, men of deep intelligence and practical skill who, without benefit of a lot of education, seemed to me smarter than a lot of people I met in college.
While we tend to think of multi-tasking and the many faceted multi-job career as particularly modern phenomena, Marshall Bouton and his contemporaries were making a living and a life out of multiple endeavors all along. Besides operating a large dairy and poultry farm, Marshall was a farm machinery selling agent, a fertilizer dealer, a sawmill operator, a steam-powered machinery service provider, an insurance agent, a town clerk, and a notary public.
One of my favorite stories in the book is called “Big Trip.” It tells of the yearly journey Don and his brother made with their father to Catskill to pick up election supplies, one of the duties of the town clerk. I’ll go to Kingston at the drop of a hat, the 40-mile distance only a challenge as gas prices rise. Don recounts the day when a trip to the Hudson Valley was a trip to someplace else, an all-day affair that challenged the endurance of both the travelers and the 1920 five-passenger Dodge sedan in which they traveled.
The trip was so long that a rest stop was required. Each year, the boys and their Dad would stop in Boiceville at the little country store and souvenir shop located there. The shop itself was constructed to look like a log cabin. Behind the shop stood several tall statues which purported to be Indian totem poles, highly visible on the hill just above the road. The statues attracted tourists and passersby to stop; the souvenir shop sold Indian-themed trinkets.
That shop and those statues still stand, the shop now a business no longer selling souvenirs, the statues now hidden behind a growth of trees and brush. Look up to your right as you approach Boiceville from the Kingston side just beyond Bread Alone and The Boiceville Inn. You’ll get a glimpse of a tall be-feathered native warrior stretching his plaster arms to the sky.
Native American imagery has long been used in the Catskills as symbols of our wilderness soul. While the native peoples themselves were largely part-time residents of our mountains, camping here seasonally to hunt and fish, the symbolic use of Native American artifacts and mythology has long been a mountain staple. I remember a boyhood neighbor friend returning to our suburban hometown from a Catskill Mountain vacation with a souvenir pair of “Indian moccasins.”
Today, many people are discovering Native spirituality as a road toward awareness of the soul and the deeper meaning of life. A number of Native American spiritual centers have opened in our midst – one at the old Smith Farm in New Kingston –and there is a growing interest in the sweat lodge and other Native American avenues of spiritual growth.
Sometimes this serious interest in the power of Native culture and the symbolic use of Native American artifacts and imagery merge. Such was the case recently in Arkville where the wilderness symbols of fire, forest, feather and fur were put to use in a symbolic initiation called “Ooga Booga.” Conducted by the campfire as dusk descends on the forest, “Oooga Booga” is a rite created by flint nappers, men and women who work flint into arrowheads in the manner of the Native people. One need not be a napper to be an Oooga Booga, but one must recognize the value of Native symbolism in the creation of community in harmony with the natural world.
Such community and harmony have long been important Catskill Mountain traits as Don Bouton’s book make abundantly clear. Oh, how do you put a shoe on a cow? Very carefully.