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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 18, 2007

Saving place: Preserve our heritage, ensure our future

Illustration by Forest Byrd

Over four years ago, we wrote about the disappearance of a magical place in New Scotland. The field was edged by the Helderbergs — lush green in the summer, vivid hues of flame in the fall, white and gray in the winter, vibrant with leaves come to life in the spring.

A quirky cartoonish dip near the edge of the field, not far from the road, provided character. For hundreds of years, farmers had worked around this ancient oddity. Kids imagined the depressions were a giant's footprints or a fairyland.

Houses had sprouted in the field in recent years but, because of the ice-age topography, the place had maintained its charm.

Geologists call the depressions kettles. Our columnist, Michael Nardacci, explained that, during the Pleistocene epoch, the north polar ice cap expanded until it reached as far south as Long Island. When the ice sheets began to melt, huge blocks of ice became buried in sediment, insulated from the sun's heat, leaving depressions when the ice turned to water.

You didn’t have to be a geologist to appreciate such a natural wonder. In the summer of 2003, people called or came by our news office to report — some with outrage, some with horror — the kettles were being filled. The owners of the land had bulldozed it and arranged for rubble — asphalt and cement — from a nearby road project to be dumped there. It was all perfectly legal.

Why, then, were people so upset" Because sometimes ownership isn't just a matter of who holds a mortgage with the bank, or whose name is on a property deed. A community can feel a sense of ownership for a historic site or a natural wonder in its midst.

In 2003, we urged the town to come up with a list of sites the community considers important. We asked citizens to consider what features, what places, what buildings are unique to New Scotland. Any place can have big new homes built on leveled land. What makes New Scotland special" What structures and views should be preserved"

The question was raised again last week by Edie Abrams, an active New Scotland citizen who had served on the Residents' Planning Advisory Committee. She said the committee, in its report submitted to the town board in 2005, recommended the town take an inventory of its historic buildings.

"It's a sad state of affairs that we haven't done that," said Abrams.

Her comments were sparked by the proposal to place a cell tower near the town's oldest church. If approved, the tower would be erected on property owned by the cash-strapped New Scotland Cemetery Association.

Some have argued for the cell-tower proposal, citing the need for better phone service and the need of the cemetery association for the income that would come from the tower company leasing the land. Others have countered those arguments, saying that alternative sites for the tower haven't been adequately considered, the cemetery association can look for funds elsewhere, and the integrity of a historic site will be marred. One church member drew a picture, to scale, of an ugly tower looming over the church, nearly three times as tall as the church steeple.

The site is not listed on the state or national registers of historic places. The Federal Communications Commission mandates cell-phone companies to review state historic preservation files. Finding nothing, this company is entitled to proceed in New Scotland. The town has just four sites listed on the national and state registers, representing only a fraction of the views we value.

We're urging the town, again, to survey its citizens and come up with a list of sites considered important to preserve before the next controversy arises. Determining what creates our sense of place would be both useful and inspiring. Owners of historic properties may be moved to apply for the historical registers and, beyond that, other safeguards may be put in place.

Indian Ladder Farms, just down the road from the field that used to have the kettles, was able to secure state grants and local funds to buy its development rights, which will keep that property farmland forever. Many of those who visit Indian Ladder were willing to contribute because they value the place and wanted to preserve it.

It's unrealistic to think that government or private donors could buy development rights for all the important views in town. But, if the sites are identified and listed, some property owners may donate such rights. A couple in Preston Hollow, Valerie and Robert Greenberg, did just that. Some residents may be proud to preserve what they own and want it protected beyond their lifetime. Future owners would then maintain the legacy.

Local history often resides in the buildings that survive the relentless push of modern development.

We remember years ago visiting the Helderberg Castle as lilacs bloomed among the falling stonework. The castle was built by Charles Bouck White, in the midst of the Great Depression. A Harvard graduate, a war correspondent in the first world war, an ordained minister, a socialist who was arrested for preaching about the immorality of wealth at the Rockefellers' church, Bouck White retreated to New Scotland to build the grand stone home he called Federalsberg, with the intention of starting a colony there. He worked on his Bouckware pottery and wrote novels. "Jesus was a working man," he began his book, The Carpenter and the Rich Man. His wife left him after he told her his books would be their children. His dreams died with him, but the castle he built with his own hands still stands, a testament to his ideals.

A much older and better preserved stone house was recently recognized on Tarrytwon Road. In September, members of the Vanderbilt family gathered with pride around a historic marker for their family homestead in New Scotland. The New Scotland Historical Association held a ceremony to honor the DeLong-Vanderbilt Farm, which has been worked by the same family for 200 years. Mary Ellen Vanderbilt-Domblewski, in the association's newsletter, wrote lovingly of the stone farmhouse she has been drawn to for as long as she can remember. Her pages of description aren't about just a house, but rather the family history it holds. "Generations of Vanderbilts gather at the stone farmhouse each Christmas, and on special occasions," she writes, "to celebrate life, faith, and our heritage together."

Some of New Scotland's landmarks are more public. Voorheesville's splendid brick school, with its preserved Art Deco façade, now serves the elementary students in town but holds memories for generations. And part of the Clarksville Historical Society's mission statement is to mark places of historic interest, such as the limestone industry, unique to Clarksville, which helped shape the hamlet.

The train station that centered Voorheesville — we have a picture of the 1889 Union Station fronted with a dramatic roof that looks like a witch's hat — is no more. The rail lines that connected city with country were the reason villages like Voorheesville and Altamont grew up in the Victorian era. Altamont's station still stands; recently purchased by the library, it will remain a focal point of village life.

Once a building is gone — whether it’s the old hotels that the city folk frequented or the cider mills where the locals worked — a piece of history disappears with it.

The Sioux have a traditional saying: "A people without history is like the wind on the buffalo grass."

The wind makes its mark as it passes through, but it leaves no record; it is temporary, only a fleeting whisper. We need to pay attention to our local history, to learn from it, to preserve it, and to let it inform our future.

We need to take the time and make the effort now to identify what we value or those places will be lost. Just as ancient topography is leveled in the name of progress, real Victorian homes will be replaced by the modern psuedo-Victorian homes, and aging barns with hand-hewn beams built on site will be replaced with the ubiquitous prefabricated sheds. New Scotland will look more like every place else and less like itself. We must preserve the magic left to us before it has all disappeared before our very eyes.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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