Today at Christmas, we have Santa Claus, the jolly old elf who brings joy to children, and asks only milk and cookies in return.
In other traditions, the English had St. Nicholas and the Dutch had Sinterklaas. But what did the Palatine children of the Hudson Valley believe in during the 18th and 19th century?
The answer in a word, Belsnickel. The answer in a photo:
Rather than a jolly old elf, Belsnickel is a crotchety old man dressed in dirty clothes and furs, usually with his face disguised, who was both gift bringer and child punisher in the Palatine region of southwestern Germany.
There are several variations of the spelling including Pelznickel, which would seem the most likely as “Pelz” in German means fur and Nickel is related to Nicholas. Sometimes, his fur hat has deer antlers which allude to a pagan origin of the character.
In New York State, Palatine immigrants initially settled in the Hudson Valley, bringing the legend of Belsnickel with them.
In 1710, the largest eighteenth century migrations of Europeans to America took place when three hundred families from the Palatine region sailed 110 miles north up the Hudson from Manhattan. There, they established camps on both sides of the river, with the West Camp later becoming the Town of Saugerties and the East Camp becoming Germantown.
Later in the 18th century, Palatine families also spread into the Mohawk Valley and founded such communities as Herkimer, Palatine Bridge and German Flats.
Belsnickel is different from other variations of Christmas characters in that he combines both threatening and generous aspects of a Christmas spirit.
The basic tradition is thus; sometime between St. Nicholas Day and Christmas Eve, Palatine children would hear a tapping at their window at night and suddenly Belsnickel would burst through the door. He would be carrying a sack of presents and a switch. (Belsnickel was the first of the Christmas characters to distinguish between good and bad children. And unlike Santa Claus, who is never to be seen by children, Belsnickel and his message are meant to be seen and heeded…)
The children of the house would be lined up and asked if they were good that year. In some cases they would be asked to recite something from school or a passage from the Bible. If they succeeded they got a present from the sack. If they lied about being good or couldn’t do their recitation, they got a whack from the switch. In some versions of the tale, Belsnickel might merely leave the switch in the stockings of naughty children, similar to the practice by Santa Claus of leaving coal for those who had misbehaved.
In another variation, Belsnickel would scatter treats or gifts on the floor during his visit. If the children waited for permission, they could have the presents. If they dove in greedily without waiting, then Belsnickel walloped them all with his switch.
It has been difficult to find traces of Belsnickel in the Hudson Valley but his legend has lived on, particularly in the Pennsylvania Dutch, whose roots are actually Palatine German, not Dutch. Perhaps in the Hudson Valley, the Dutch and English influence drove him out earlier.
Belsnickel all but disappeared in the first half of the 20th century thanks to two world wars where Germany and all things German were the enemy. Suddenly many people of Deutsche (German in that language) descent became Dutch and many German traditions were quietly swept under the rug.
However, Belsnickel has seen a bit of a resurgence in recent years. He now features in several holiday festivals in Pennsylvania and even appeared in a holiday episode of “The Office” a few years ago.
So perhaps this year as children in the Hudson Valley prepare for the arrival of Santa Claus, they should listen carefully for a tapping on their window. It just may be Belsnickel checking to see if they have been naughty or nice!
Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Fröhliche Weihnachten and to all a good night!
Check out the Clermont blog for interesting historical items on the history of the Hudson Valley and the former home of New York’s politically and socially prominent Livingston Family. Seven successive generations of the family left their imprint on the site’s architecture, room interiors and landscape. Robert R. Livingston, Jr. was Clermont’s most notable resident. His accomplishments include: drafting the Declaration of Independence, serving as first U.S. Minister of Foreign Affairs, administering the oath of office to George Washington, negotiating the Louisiana Purchase and developing steamboat technology with Robert Fulton.
After burning almost uninterrupted for more than a century, the natural gas streetlights in this tiny village in western New York were definitely showing their age.
Since 1912, more than 40 of the historic fixtures had illuminated Wyoming, the self-proclaimed “Gaslight Village” and home to about 500 residents of about an hour’s drive south of Rochester.
Along the tiny cluster of streets, there are gaslights in front of businesses, homes and churches, including the post office, the Methodist and Baptist churches, and the local grocery store.
But after decades of use and exposure to the elements, the cast-iron light fixtures were falling apart and corroded, leaving village officials facing a decision: Abandon gaslight, which almost all of the country had done long ago, or save their distinctive streetscape as one of the last reminders in New York State of this bygone era?
“These gas lights have been burning since I can remember,” said Village Historian Doug Norton, who is the mayor’s brother. “The only time they have been turned off was during World War II, because of the blackout regulations.”
Norton said the lights are a point of pride and heritage for the small village. “The lights are pretty cool and something different. They are unique.”
Originally founded in 1809 as Newell’s Settlement, the small village is in a part of the state were natural gas was developed in the 19th century. A gas company outside the village agreed to provide free gas for the public streetlights for 99 years in exchange for being allowed to install pipes in the village so gas could be sold to homes and businesses. That contract expired in 2011 and now the village is paying for its gas.
A 1912 advertisement for the model of natural gas streetlight found in Wyoming, followed by historical photographs of the village showing the lights in use.
Wyoming is a reminder of life before electricity was widespread, when natural gas was the most popular method of both outdoor and indoor lighting in cities and towns.
But unlike Wyoming, most places discarded gas streetlights once electricity became widely available after the turn of the 20th century. Natural gas streetlights now can be found only in a handful of places, including parts of Boston, Cincinnati, and New Orleans, as well as in foreign cities like Prague and Berlin.
That makes these remnants of the Gaslight Era a very rare resource here in New York and worth protecting as part of State Park’s mission under the Historic Preservation Act of 1980.
In Wyoming, thanks to a $65,000 state grant obtained by Senator Patrick Gallivan, and with support from the Division of Historic Preservation at State Parks, 19 of the original 42 historic lights were painstakingly restored and now can continue burning for decades to come.
Original luminaries were removed from the poles and sent out for restoration. A professional metalsmith disassembled the lights, removed dents, removed corroded metal and replaced it with new metal, and cleaned up and painted the street lights to match their original finish. After lamps were reinstalled on their refurbished poles, the flow of gas was restored and the lights relit.
The restored natural gas streetlights of Wyoming.
Lights in The Night
Another 20 lights are replacements – a mix of historic lights from other communities that were discarding their fixtures in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as modern replicas.
Research into the gas luminaries was done by a team headed by Senior Historic Site Restoration Coordinator Beth Cumming, Historic Sites Restoration Coordinator Sloane Bullough, Bureau of Technical Preservation Services Director John Bonafide, and National Register Western New York representative Jennifer Walkowski.
It was learned that the fixtures were made by manufacturer Thomas T. W. Miner Company of New York City. This information was used to augment the existing historic district National Register of Historic Places nomination.
While the Thomas T. W. Miner Company is long since out of business, the quality and endurance of their product is a fitting legacy _ and one that will continue to light the night in Wyoming for generations to come.
Post by Sloane Bullough, Historic Sites Restoration Coordinator,and Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer for State Parks
This project was among ten projects honored this month with State Historic Preservation Awards. Read about the projects here.
All photographs provided by State Parks and Village of Wyoming
This was just one of the 4,400 field trips for students across the state funded through the State Parks grant program since it started in 2016.
During their visit in July, the 11- and 12-year-olds learned from Riverbank about the former president who led America’s defeat of fascism, and his famous 1941 speech in which he described his vision for a post-war world.
The campers participated in a lesson focused on Roosevelt’s message that people must stand up when freedom is threatened and not expect others to defend it. To better understand that, the children created their own buttons with slogans and images as an exercise in free speech, which FDR cited as the first freedom.
day began with members of Four Freedoms Park Conservancy’s education team
leading an inquiry-based investigation into Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency and
his vision of a world order founded upon four freedoms: freedom of speech and
expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear,” said
Ryan Lockwood, Manager of Education at Four Freedoms State Park.
The campers also explored the Park, marveling at renowned architect Louis Kahn’s final project, while also examining primary sources from the FDR era to about what it was like to be a child during the Great Depression. To do this, campers used Depression-era photos by famous photographer Dorothea Lange and an excerpt from FDR’s 1941 State of the Union Address in which he outlined the Four Freedoms.
a lunch break, staffers encouraged the young visitors to see themselves as
activists capable of making the world a better place, just like FDR. After
identifying current issues that mattered to them, the campers created
“Activist Buttons” to persuade others to join them in creating the
kind of world they would like to see in the future.
Many campers made buttons that demonstrated how the four freedoms are not static, said Lockwood. For instance, while in Roosevelt’s time freedom from fear from fear likely involved war, for today’s campers, freedom from fear meant not having to be afraid of another school shooting.
they had their photo taken with their new buttons, the kids finished their
visit playing fun games on the Park’s lawn like Jenga, Connect 4, Checkers and
Four Freedoms Park is among several hundred state parks, nature centers, historic sites, or Department of Environmental Conservation nature centers or fish hatcheries, that more than 200,000 schoolchildren have visited during the three previous school years under the Connect Kids to Parks program.
Since inception, the Connect Kids to Parks Field Trip Grant Program has grown from providing 777 field trips for 30,202 students in 2016-2017 to its current level of about 2,100 field trips for 101,000 students in 2018-2019.
Funding comes from the state Environmental Protection Fund’s enhanced Environmental Justice programming approved in the 2019-20 State Budget. Information for school districts and other eligible organizations on how to apply for the grant is available here and here.
All photographs courtesy of Four Freedoms Park unless otherwise credited.
Now 90 years old, Bruno Kaiser remembers arriving 75 years ago at a U.S. Army base along the shore of Lake Ontario, a day that ended his family’s long struggle to escape death during World War II at the hands of the Nazis.
“We felt safe, which had been our biggest worry for so long,”
said Kaiser. “At last, we felt perfectly safe.”
On Aug. 5, Kaiser returned to Fort Ontario State Historic Site, along with 18 other surviving refugees of the Holocaust, to gather for a final reunion to remember their lives at the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter.
Surrounded by a fence and guarded by military police, the base at Oswego was America’s only wartime sanctuary for escapees of Hitler’s genocide.
Kaiser was one of 982 European refugees who arrived at the fort Aug. 5, 1944, about a month after the first accounts of a liberated Nazi death camp horrified the world.
Coming from 18 different countries, the new arrivals were predominately Jewish, but their ranks also included some Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants. Having escaped annihilation in their homelands through a combination of luck and pluck, the refugees came to the U.S. under a program created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt., whose selection of Fort Ontario stemmed from his earlier time as U.S. Secretary of the Navy and later as Governor of New York state.
Providing security, shelter and food _ but not the ability to leave _ the camp was to be home to the weary refugees for the the next 17 months. After the war’s end, their fate ended up drawing national attention over whether they should be forced to return to their devastated countries.
In late 1945 Roosevelt’s successor, President Harry Truman, gave the refugees the choice of remaining in the U.S. or going back to Europe. Like Kaiser, most chose to stay, building lives and families in their new homes.
Today, no more than 35 former camp residents remain alive, said Paul Lear, manager of the historic site and co-organizer of the reunion and commemoration. He said it will likely be the last such gathering for a group whose members are now in their mid-70s to early 90s.
More than 600 people attended the reunion, said Lear, including
Ambassador Dani Dayan, Consul General of Israel in New York; Rebecca Erbelding,
a historian with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial
Museum in Washington, D.C.; Michael Balanoff, President and CEO of the
Jewish Federation of Central New York; Geoff Smart, son of Refugee Shelter
Director Joseph Smart; and Oswego Mayor William Barlow Jr.
Kaiser’s story is both unique and similar to that of his
fellow escapees, spending months or years on the run, trying to stay ahead of
arrest and shipment to concentration camps. Along with his father, mother, and
two grandparents, Kaiser had fled Yugoslavia in the spring of 1941 after his
father had been arrested – and miraculously released after only a few days – in
the wake of the Nazi invasion and takeover when Jews were being rounded up.
“My father decided we should leave _ quickly,” said Kaiser, so the family caught a train bound for the safety of the Italian-occupied Adriactic coast. During the trip, the train stopped in a switching yard.
“Across from us was another train, this one with prisoners being taken away by the Nazis. I could see their faces. That is how close we came,” said Kaiser. “The rest of my (extended) family, who did not leave, ended up being wiped out.”
His family remained in relative safety under Italian control
until September 1943, when the Italian government surrendered to the Allies,
which led the Nazis to attack and occupy all Italian-held territory. The Kaiser
family then gained passage on a small ship that took them to an island occupied
by the Allies.
From there, the family was shipped to the Allied-controlled portion of the Italian mainland, and taken with several hundred other refugees to the port of Toranto for shipment to North Africa. But the family decided on its own to stay in Italy, and was helped by a local stranger to find an apartment. And it was there, while the teenage Bruno was attending a local high school, that the family learned of Roosevelt’s program for America to accept a very small number of European and Jewish refugees.
“We applied, and because we had family in Cleveland and Chicago, were accepted. The Oswego camp was a peaceful place. I went to the public high school, with about 40 other kids from the camp,” said Kaiser, who recalled he had to “learn English from scratch” to go along with his other languages: Croatian, Italian and German. “The people of Oswego were nice to us. There was never any anti-Jewish anything.”
After being released from the refugee camp in January 1946, the Kaiser family joined relatives in Cleveland, their son finishing his senior year of high school there. He later earned an electrical engineering degree from Ohio State University. Now retired after working for various companies, he is father to three daughters and two grandchildren.
Asked what the lesson of Fort Ontario is for people today, Kaiser paused. “It is that anti-Semitism rears its ugly head every once in a while. And it is happening now.”
Tellingly, a 1981 stone monument to Fort Ontario camp was vandalized shortly after being installed, with the word “Jewish” partially chipped away and its corners knocked off. Site officials decided to leave the monument as it is as a reminder of the dangers of anti-Semitism.
To create the camp, Roosevelt avoided rigid immigration quotas by identifying the refugees as his “guests,” a status that gave them no legal standing and required them to sign documents agreeing to return to Europe at the end of the war. In September 1944, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the camp to draw attention, writing about it her weekly newspaper column. After the war, camp director Joseph Smart stepped down from that post to form a national campaign that pushed for the refugees to be given the choice to stay in America, a step that was taken by President Truman.
Later, the state historic site at Fort Ontario was established and opened to the public in 1953.
Linda Cohen came to the Oswego reunion from her home in Michigan, to remember her parents, Leon and Sarinka Kabiljo, who lived at the camp.
“My parents were married on April 6, 1941, the day the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia. They were on the run for three years, hiding in the forests with the partisans. My mother worked with them as a nurse,” she said. Once Italy surrendered, the Kabiljos went to that country, and while there also learned of the U.S. refugee program.
“My older sister was born nine months to the day after my
parents arrived in Oswego,” said Cohen. “My mother told me that refugees cried
when they got to the Oswego camp. They had beds with sheets, and most had not
slept on sheets in years. She told me the camp director said to them: “When
there is a knock on your door now, it will be a friendly one.”
At the start the reunion ceremony, a recording was played of Neil Diamond’s 1981 song America. “I have heard that song a thousand times,” said Cohen. “But sitting here that day, near where the refugee barracks and my parents used to be, it was like they were that song.”
Currently, the National Park Service is studying whether Fort Ontario should receive national park status, as part of the Fort Ontario Study Act passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in 2018. The site is open to the public and various activities and exhibits run throughout the year.
During his tour of the fort, Israeli Ambassador Dani Dayan praised the people of Oswego for their warm embrace of the camp, with residents often coming to the fence to visit the refugees, passing food and other gifts. “The people who welcomed Holocaust refugees into Oswego were a shining example by saying with their actions that they were not indifferent, that they cared about them and wanted them to be there while the rest of the world rejected refugees solely because they were Jewish,” he said.
During a ceremony near the site of the former barracks, Lear recalled the words of refugee Dr. Adam Munz at the first reunion in 1981: “The Oswego Refugee Shelter was and has remained for me, and I suspect for some others as well, a paradox. It symbolized freedom from tyranny, oppression and persecution on the one hand, and yet there was a fence, a gate that locked and guards were felt necessary to contain us at the very time we longed for the kind of freedom this country stood for and professed. Our country’s immigration laws continue to be paradoxical.”
Lear also recalled General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s prediction that someday people would deny that the Holocaust ever happened. To protect against that, he ordered U.S. troops in Europe to tour concentration camps to bear witness that it did.
Now, in a time of rising anti-Semitism and attacks on Jews, Lear said Fort Ontario, while no longer an active military base, remains “a fortress against forgetting and denying the Holocaust.”
In 1987, the public broadcasting station in Rochester, WXXI, made a documentary about the camp. It can be found here.
Cover Photo: During a visit to the Fort Ontario museum, Yugoslavian refugee cousins Ella, David and Rikika Levi touch a section of the wire fence that used to surround the camp. Behind the fence is a 48-star flag that used to fly over the fort during World War II.
Post by Paul Lear, Site Manager of Fort Ontario Historic Site, and Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer.
There, in a place not easily seen or reached, was a small paper box, discolored with age and wrapped with a now-brittle ribbon. And inside were a ring and a thimble, both made of gold and engraved with the single letter “M.”
The historic Hasbrouck House served as the headquarters for General George Washington from April 1781 until August 1782. And Washington’s wife Martha lived in the house during that time as well, so could the items have been associated with her?
As it turned out, that was not the answer. Further examination of the ring, thimble and box by State Parks conservation experts Amanda Massie, Heidi Miksch, and Michele Phillips from the State Parks Division of Historic Preservation determined the items dated between the 1850s to 1860s. That was long after the Washingtons had left, and in the era after the Hasbrouck House became the first publicly-owned historic site in the nation in 1850.
Both items were likely gifts meant to represent symbolic hopes for a happy domestic life, and for some reason, remained hidden in the attic for more than a century until discovered accidentally.
The thimble was made of 20-karat gold and likely was not meant to be routinely used for sewing. Often given as keepsakes to a bride-to-be, thimbles were recognized as a sign of romantic courtship in 19th century America. The practice goes back in history to the time of William Shakespeare.
Made of 10-12 karat gold, the ring was found to have a latched compartment, which inside held a tiny bit of red fabric, possibly silk, encased in glass. Such cloth keepsakes were common in the 19th century as a way to remember a loved one or special event.
So, who put the gifts there? And who was “M”? At this point, we do not know for sure … But State Parks researchers have unearthed some clues.
“First, we identified that stone in the ring was goldstone, which is actually glass with coppery flecks in it,” said Amanda Massie, curator of the Bureau of Historic Sites, based in Waterford. “To date the ring and thimble, I used historic trade catalogs from the 1880s and 1890s _ both jewelry catalogs and stores such as Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward to see if they had any items of the same style.”
Those searches yielded some similar objects, but none were identical. Massie then researched museum jewelry collections. “Here, I found more success in styles close to the ring with generic 19th century dates,” she said. “With the help of colleagues, I was able to contact curators who specialize in 19th century jewelry to better date the items. They believed that the ring and thimble dated from the 1850s to 1860s. Goldstone was very popular then and the thimble’s more simple design, suggested an earlier 19th century date.”
While the ring and thimble were not luxurious, they have been considered prized keepsakes to a person of average means at the time.
These rough dates suggested a possible time-frame as to when the objects might have been placed in the attic and who might have done it, with the letter “M” as the main guide.
“We looked in census records for both Hasbrouck family members and family members of the caretakers to find candidates,” Massie said. “Mary Hasbrouck Smith was the sister of the last owner of the house and lived in the house as a child. It is possible she left the ring and thimble in the house when it was handed over to the state, but it is more likely that it is from after the house became a museum in 1850.”
The first caretaker, Levi Woolsey, had a wife named Margaret and a daughter named Mary. There was also a servant in the house named Mary Murphey. “Any of these women could have hidden the ring and thimble. Another caretaker, Alfred Goodrich, had a daughter named May who also could be our “M” in question,” said Massie. “Though we do not know for certain who left the ring, we now have a wonderful treasure to add to the collections at our first State Historic Site. “
Parks staffers at the Hasbrouck House later brought this discovery to the attention of 9th grade honor students at the Newburgh Free Academy, who used it in a creative writing assignment on the “Paper Box Mystery.”
The Newburgh students imagined tragic tales of love unrequited or unfulfilled for how the ring and thimble came to be hidden and never retrieved.
Michael Abrams wrote a tale about a young man who bought the items for a girl that he wanted to propose to, only to be called up to fight and die in the Civil War, never to return to the home where he had hidden his treasure.
Another story, by student Megan Bell, imaged a young man
named Edgar, who loved a girl named Mary, with the story told by Mary’s sister.
Edgar had brought the box to the family’s home, and hidden it as a surprise.
But he never got to give it, and was found dead in a nearby river only a few days
later. And Mary “never found someone else she wanted to keep company with.”
And to student Anthony Manzi, the box’s secretive location suggested a romantic scavenger hunt gone sour. A suitor had hidden the ring and thimble in the attic, with instructions to his supposed sweetheart on how to find it, only to learn she was going with someone else, leaving him to abandon the box altogether. The spurned swain then “avoided every place she could possibly be. I never set foot in her house again.”
The story of the mystery box even managed to find its way around the globe _ a class from Australia heard about it in news reports and crafted their own stories. Australian teachers often seek out interesting stories from the United States to help teach American history, and this tale caught their interest.
Here is what the teacher wrote:
I am a primary school teacher in Melbourne, Australia and I showed my class the
news story about the paper box that was found in the roof of the historic
Washington building. We were hoping there might be an update on that find from
local historians, but we cannot find any information online.
you help us out?
Kind regards, Linda V.
Most people might think that for a historic site like
Washington’s Headquarters, opened to the public for almost 170 years, there is
nothing left to learn and no mysteries to find. That is obviously not true,
especially here at Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site!
Our historic preservation experts here at State Parks have developed the clues we know so far about the two items in the mystery box. Whether the mystery is ever completely unraveled, only time will tell. History is alive, and with conservators, curators and other professionals at the helm, the journey into our past will continue.
It was in this house that the General announced the cease fire that signaled victory in the Revolutionary War, authored some of his thoughts for the new republic, and created the Badge of Military Merit, the forerunner of the Purple Heart awarded to all American service members wounded or killed.
To visit these and other objects in the collection, visit Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site. For hours, directions and/or further information, call 845-562-1195 or visit us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/washingtonsheadquarters.
Post by Elyse B. Goldberg, Historic Site Manager, Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site