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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 23, 2011

Growing up in the Hilltowns
Stories shared through generations

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — This weekend, a contingent of Hilltowners gathered at the Senior Center to learn from their elders about what it was like to grow up in the Helderbergs generations ago.

Judy Petrosillo and Kathy Stempel of the Berne Library, and local storyteller Nancy Marie Payne put on the event, Growing Up in the Hilltowns.

“Our original intent,” Petrosillo told the crowd with a grand smile, “was to find 10 lifelong residents, over the age of 75, who were willing to subject their life to our scrutiny.”

What would follow were the stories of eight “willing victims.”

“All of them spent most of their lives in Berne,” Petrosillo said, “although some moved out for a little while, some moved in a little late. So, we were close there. And of course — none of them are over 75.”

Laughter swept over crowd.

Payne took the floor next, and told a story that wove threads from the lives of these Hilltown seniors into a whole cloth: stories of Paul Giebitz’s dreams of being a pilot that eventually led to the creation of Berne’s airstrip, “giving Berne its connection with the world”; and how Patricia Favreau, Berne’s longtime town clerk, once got a bucket of water in her face because she had too much faith in the other kids.

The crowd got a closer look at these citizens later on when videos were shown of interviews with each elder by Hilltown teens and children.

Berne-Knox-Westerlo student Abby Swint interviewed Bernice Bunzey. Swint hopes to study journalism one day, and viewed her conversation with Bunzey as practice in her pursuit of that dream.

“What better way to start than interviewing someone that’s part of our neighborhood?” Swint asked The Enterprise this week.

Swint said of Bunzey, “Her grandmother’s house was the house that my mom used to live in, and I didn’t realize that, and she was going on about the history of the house, and it was just interesting how small the world is. And, knowing that the lady I was interviewing knew my father growing up, it was interesting hearing some stories about my dad from her.”

In the video presented to the crowd on Saturday, Bunzey talks about being raised on a farm, and having cows, chicken, sheep, and pigs.

“Of course, that was part of my job,” Bunzey told Swint. Bunzey added later that she did not have electricity until she was 8 years old.

“We usually had to entertain ourselves,” Bunzey said, “or we went to church.”

Giebitz told Alex Luciano of the time that one of his cows fell down a well.

“The one well, we covered up with boards,” Giebitz told her. “The cows got out, and the cow tried to walk across the boards, and the boards broke, and the cow fell in the well. Well, luckily she fell down tail first, and her head was up. So, what do you do with a cow in a 12-foot well?”

He and his neighbors fashioned a makeshift pulley system, and Giebitz was elected to go down into the well and prepare the cow for extraction.

“She ruptured her tail and her rear,” he said. “Later on, it got infected, and she got sick, and we had to put her away.”

Frances Miller was interviewed by Marion White, who asked Miller what kinds of chores she performed around the house when she was a kid.

“Of course, we didn’t have dish washers,” Miller said, “so, I had to wash dishes, and set the table, just like all kids have to do. I’m sure you did, too.”

White turned to the camera with a wide-eyed, deer-caught-in-the-headlights look, eliciting thundering laughter from the crowd.

Some stories were happier than others, but each one fell on appreciative ears last weekend.

“Every single one of these people that I had the privilege to sit and talk with,” said Payne, “told me at the end that, even though they had sad stories, some of them had hard stories, but every time we got to the end, they all said how happy they were with the childhood they’d had, with the towns that they had lived in, and the friends that they had made up on the Hill, and I personally want to thank every single one of them for sharing those stories.”

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