A Catskill Catalog: September 17, 2008
Underneath state Route 28, between Margaretville and Arkville, where the Hess gas station and convenience store and the Delaware National Bank of Delhi stand on one side of the road and the Meadows Golf Center on the other, there is a cow pass. A cow pass is a tunnel, and this one, back in the ’50 and ’60s, allowed Glen Vermilyea’s cows to cross safely from the barn on the south side of the road to the pasture on the north side. I walked through it not long ago, although I’m guessing I probably wasn’t supposed to be in there. I’d plead research!
When that cow pass was built, it was a major safety improvement, keeping cattle off the state highway. The Delaware County Catskills were dairy country. It was common, well into the 1970s, for motorists to have to wait patiently while a herd of cattle crossed the road in front of them. Any travel at milking time was bound to be so delayed.
The widespread proliferation of dairy farms began to wane when the processors and the state mandated farmers change from milk cans to sanitary bulk-tanks to store their product on the farm. Many small operators couldn’t afford the expensive new equipment the changeover entailed. The number of farms further shrank with a government buyout program in the early 1980s. President Reagan’s supply-side economics sought to raise farmers’ income by reducing the overall national supply of milk. The government bought herds for shipment to impoverished areas overseas. Rumor had it that a milk cow, at the time, was worth more as a MacDonald’s hamburger than as a local income producer. Many Catskill Mountain farmers sold their herds and sought another line of work.
But, once, these mountains were redolent with the smell of cattle. Mountains and hillsides that are heavily forested today were, not too many years ago, cleared to the summit for pasture and hay. I remember a trip to the Adirondacks in the early 1970s when my overall impression was the profound difference between the two New York State mountain regions: the Adirondacks wild and heavily forested, the Catskills extensively “meadowed” and agricultural.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Delaware County Catskills were a major producer of cattle and sheep for sale in distant markets. Every other summer Tuesday, a cattle train would travel the Ulster and Delaware rail line picking up cattle in Stamford, Hobart, Arkville and other rural stops, to go to market. Sometimes the train would be comprised of as many as 14 cattle cars, some double deck. That’s a lot of livestock!
In 1958, the late Jeanne Palen interviewed her uncle, Jimmy Winter, the last of the Catskill Mountain drovers, the men who gathered and drove those herds of cattle from the farms of the sellers to the train, and from the train to the buyers.
Jeanne Palen was born and raised in little agricultural New Kingston, the only child of Ruthven and Lillian Robertson, went to nursing school in Kingston, worked at the old Margaretville Hospital, and married Dr. Gilbert Palen, the surgeon and general practitioner after whom the Margaretville Family Health Center’s building is named.
Jimmy Winter and his brother Frank took over the droving business their father, Rob Winter, started in New Kingston in 1876. The Winter boys gathered stock from surrounding farms in the valley and from places like Bovina and Dingle Hill, keeping the animals in a large pen located next to New Kingston’s general store. From there, they would drive the cattle or sheep along the road to the train station at Arkville.
“I’ve often taken cattle as far as Connecticut,” Jimmy Winter told his niece. “You could always sell cows there for a good price. The trip took five days. We’d start out early in the morning from New Kingston with a big drove, and by night we’d be in Pine Hill, 23 miles away. There’d be four or five of us along, and the roads were not too good. It was hot and dusty in the summer, and the mud was deep in the spring.”
Jimmy Winter was born in 1864 and died in 1958. He told his niece that farmers, in the old days, kept summer cows, which they bred in the fall. Once breeding was done, bulls were sold for slaughter. “I remember when our yard in New Kingston was packed with nothing but bulls,” he told her. “Some were so vicious that we had to blindfold them to drive them along the road.” Move over Pamplona!
Once the cattle reached the train in Arkville, the drovers would ride with them to Kingston, in order to make the last leg of the trip to Connecticut or another final destination. “I’ve driven many a herd right down the middle of Broadway in Kingston,” Jimmy Winter boasted. “I’d like to see you try it today!”
Jimmy Winter was 43 years old when he made his last drove. “The last bunch went in 1905,” he remembered at the end of his life. “That was the end of the drovers’ business around here.” He never explained why.
Today, New Kingston’s Winter Hollow memorializes his family’s name, and the redoubtable Fran Faulkner, provider of the Jeanne Palen interview, keeps his, and her valley’s, history alive.