A Catskill Catalog: October 10, 2012

George. For me, local history began with George Hendricks, who died, too young, last week. George was kind of like the Godfather of A Catskill Catalog.

You see, George was a senior in high school when I first made my appearance as the new kid on the high school faculty. This was the early 1970s, a time when a volatile combination of youth culture and a dull, repetitive, test-centered curriculum made “Relevance” the battle cry of school reform. Students had been bored silly and weren’t going to take it anymore!

Relevance meant elective courses and independent study. Relevance meant discussions in school about the real world outside of school. Relevance meant building a school curriculum that touched students’ interests and concerns, and tapped into their passions. I think it was a great time to be a student. I know it was a great time to be a teacher.

I can’t say I remember all the particulars. Memory hazes after 40 years. I think George approached me in the hall, asking if I would take on an independent study. Or maybe he was my student in a half-year elective class, and asked to stretch the bounds of the class’s subject to include his special interest. Either way, George wanted to study railroad history in the Catskills.

The Ulster & Delaware Railroad still ran a freight train from Kingston to Oneonta every day. Passenger service had ended years before, but, I remember, Lutz Feed, up in Roxbury, for example, still took their deliveries by rail. The Pennsylvania and New York Central Railroads had merged, a few years earlier, creating a single, massive, dying hulk of yesterday that, as George pitched to me his project, still limped once a day through Arkville.

Gerald M. Best’s book The Ulster & Delaware, Railroad Through the Catskills (Golden West Books, 1972) was new and just about the only available book on the subject. Which meant George would have to use primary sources, information taken from people with direct experience of the rails and the documentation they might provide.

George was doing real local history. I could bring to him the techniques of inquiry in which I had been so recently immersed at liberal arts college. He brought to me passion for a place. He brought to me passion for the home ground.

That passion never waned. At age 18, George produced a high school research paper memorable enough that I’m now boasting about it 40 years later. Perhaps his sons, Nathan and Adam, will find it among his effects. He must have been in his 20s or 30s when the Town of Middletown appointed George town historian. I remember reading of the appointment and feeling that satisfied warmth teachers feel when a former student achieves in a field teacher and student once shared.

George’s passion was the Catskills, particularly the upper East Branch Valley that has been home to his people for 250 years. I don’t remember how many of the first settlers of these parts were in the Hendricks family tree, but I do know that the Hendricks family tree marks the beginnings of colonial settlement in these parts.

These settlers were of Walloon and Huguenot heritage, descended from Protestants who had fled Catholic Belgium and France to settle in the Dutch New World. Harmonus DuMond made a farm across the river from present day Margaretville. His brother Peter DuMond settled on lands upriver from his brother. Near present day Arkville, settled Peter Hendricks with his wife, the widow Kittle, and her 16-year-old son Frederick Kittle. Johannes Von Waggoner also settled on lands along the stream.

Peter Hendricks provided the name. That whole little community had a hand in providing George.
These first four families of the Town of Middletown built shelter and cleared land, planted fields and harvested a crop that first spring, summer, and fall. They spent the winter of 1763-64 huddled against the mountain cold, out on the frontier, at the very edge of the wilderness. Their descendent, George Hendricks, was always very proud of them.

Our community, the one those ancestors founded, has every reason to be proud of George.
billbirns@gmail.com