A Catskill Catalog: November 7, 2012

My good friend Frank Russell was a Democratic Committeeman for sever­al decades, representing the scant number of registered Democrats residing in Middletown Election District #7, the New King­ston Valley.

I say scant number of Democrats because Dela­ware County, and the Cats­­kills, was Republican country. Had been ever since the Civil War. Most of the vic­torious north was Republican, for it was the Party of Lincoln that prevented sec­ession, put down the re­bellion, freed the slaves, reconstructed the country. The Republican-sponsor­ed and Republican-passed Home­stead Act put the party on the side of small farmers, entrepreneurial pioneers, go-getters in the post-Civil-War world.

The Democratic Party was the party of the south, the party Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr had created, in 1800, out of a coalition of Burr’s New York urban art­isans and workers, and Jefferson’s Virginia slave-hold- ­ing landowners. In the 1820s and ’30s, Andy Jackson brought the Democrats the loyalty of the “common man.”

But the common man in the Catskills was likely to be a land renter rather than a landowner, and, since the Democrats were the party of landed-wealth, their land­lord was most likely a Democrat. The Livingstons were Democrats, as were the Van Rensselaers. Those two families owned millions of acres of leased land throughout the mountain region.

Governor William Sew­ard, an up-state politician, was an early opponent of the land-lease system that oppressed Catskill Mountain farmers. He was also a founder of the Republican Party. Thus, Republicanism got a pre-Civil War head start here in the mountains.

So, in 1936, Republican Governor Alf Landon of Kansas was primed to make our fellow upstate New Yorker, Franklin Roose­velt, a one-term president. Days before the election, the Literary Digest, a popular and prestigious magazine, published the results of a telephone poll, one of the first such surveys ever taken. They predicted a smashing Landon win.

Over the door of my barn, I have a tin Landon sign that once hung in the gar­age of Frank Russell’s brother-in-law. It must have been lonely to be the Democrat­ic Committeeman in a village where literally every­- one seemed to be for the Republican. They didn’t like Franklin Roosevelt. Con­trasted to their country independence and solitary grit, FDR’s New Deal seemed vaguely sinister, collectivist, not-to-be-trusted.

Corinne Trowbridge was an election inspector in New Kingston that year. She told me that the results of the 1936 election in New Kingston were pretty convincing. Out of maybe seventy-something votes cast, Democrat Frank­lin Roosevelt got two. That’s right, two! And Cor­inne added, “And I know who those two FDR voters were, and neither one was Frank!”
We go into that booth and cast our ballot. In there is where the decision is made. Makes Election Day pretty special.

It’s not that Democrats never won around here. It just happened seldom. Ray Marks was a Democrat from Margaretville who was elect­ed and re-elected Delaware County Treasurer in 1930 and 1932.
Fifty years later, Bob Estes, a 37 year-old Walton attorney, was elected Delaware County Judge, defeating incumbent, Dick Farley. Judge Estes won re-election in 1992. He was a Democrat.
So was the late Gary Cady, also of Walton, appointed Delaware County Clerk, by the first Governor Cuomo, when Republican Harold Owens retired. Gary was defeated for election in 1989, then elected in 1993, and re-elected, unopposed, three times after that. Everybody liked Gary. Party didn’t seem to matter.

Back in the early 70s, Election Day in New King­ston was a holiday every bit as festive as Thanksgiving. Corrine Trowbridge and Frank Russell, Telford Butler and Mary Hoy served their community as election inspectors, running the vot­ing and the polling place. Each person who came in to vote was greeted by name, and conversation seemed as central to the day as voting was.
New Kingston folks in those days voted in Marvin Hosier’s garage. Actually, the big mechanical voting machine stood kitty-corner in a raised side-room, just off the two-bay garage that formed the entire first floor of the house where Hap Hosier lived. You came into the polling place through the garage, up a step, and were greeted there by the four election inspectors, sitting around a big rectangular table that took up most of the space.

Now here’s the amazing part. A little before noon, Telford would leave the polling place, drive home to his farmhouse on Brook Road, and return with table­cloth and place-settings, china and silverware, pots and pans and dishes and bowls filled with a full-course, roast-chicken dinner, mashed potatoes, gravy, bread stuffing, the works.

If you came in to vote during the dinner hour, you’d be asked, pleasant­ly, if you could come back later. The polling place smelled of thyme and dill. Telford was a terrific cook.
And Republicans, Tel­ford and Mary, and Demo­crats, Corinne and Frank, broke bread and sliced chick­en together. The day after Election Day, that’s a good thing to remember.
billbirns@gmail.com