Tag Archives: Clermont State Historic Site

Cake Trees And Clermont

“Can we plant a cake tree?”

The question caught me off guard.

“You know, like a cake tree. Or a cheese tree.”

It’s a chilly afternoon in mid-April several years ago, one of those sunny days that invites you out into the garden, but then leaves you shivering. It had been warm standing next to the bus as the Harvesting History Club disembarked at Clermont State Historic Site in Germantown, Columbia County, but soon we were in the dirt, one with the Earth, as spring arrived. Doing the digging were a dozen or so elementary school students, our garden educator Leslie, and me.

I was assisting one of the youngest students as she methodically planted her tiny seedlings and asked me questions. I handed her another seedling, a cool-weather vegetable she’d planted in a tray weeks earlier. Just like her, before the new semester began I knew next to nothing about plant. But I did know that cakes and cheese did not grow on trees.

“Oh,” her lips pursed at my answer. She took the kale and gently patted it into the dirt.

 “But,” I continued, “I know we have strawberries. You can use strawberries in cake.”

“OH!” she brightened. “Where are they?!”

I pointed to a wild tangle of leaves and vines, already vying for dominance in the far corner of the garden. The strawberries wouldn’t be ready until June, which she wasn’t thrilled about. But she perked up moments later, when another student discovered a cool bug and everyone ran to see it.

Two campers show off their gardening and nature journals.

Clermont has a centuries-old garden history. The mansion has stood since colonial times — when growing and harvesting was an essential part of life. One of the wealthiest families in early America, the Livingstons of Clermont grew most of their own food and took in significant farm contributions from their tenant farmers. Clermont Livingston (yes, they named their son after the house) kept weather journals detailing growing and harvesting on the manor from the 1840s through the 1890s.

Clermont in the 1890s.

Through the early 20th century, most of the mid-Hudson Valley was agrarian, with vast farms, orchards, dairies, and kitchen gardens populating the landscape.

Today, most people in the area are living on land that was farmed within the last century. With all of this in mind, it’s a little startling how many of us live so close to nature but are so disconnected from it.

To help reintroduce and reestablish that tie, Harvesting History began at Clermont in 2014, spearheaded by Site Manager Susan Boudreau and Garden Educator Leslie Reed. The purpose of the program is to connect Hudson Valley kids with their history and engage them hands-on by working in the garden. As they learn about seeds, plantings, and garden care, they also learn about healthy eating, the history of their home, and the natural world.

It’s amazing how many students start the program with no knowledge of where their food comes from or how it’s made. It’s not just young kids, like the little girl and the cake trees, but teenagers and young adults. I was 23 when I started working with the program and had no concept of growing seasons or how to plant something.

Two young gardeners help harvest Swiss chard.

It’s a blind spot that our parents and grandparents would not recognize, brought on by refrigerated trucks and supermarkets where you can buy tomatoes and avocados at any time of the year. By planting heirloom vegetables in the chilly spring air, students don’t just begin to understand the seasons, they begin to understand meteorology, biodiversity, and entomology. 

Students use nets to capture insects and magnifying glasses to identify potential garden pests.

Harvesting History has become quite popular. When I was first out in the garden in 2014, talking about cake trees and planting kale, we were serving 100 students annually. In 2018, we served 800 and we had even more students in 2019. The program is often on the road, visiting after-school programs, libraries, and schools, working on their own gardens and learning about healthy eating.

We do garden crafts, like making your own weather journal.

We even have this amazing bike blender we use to chop up herbs and veggies. Bike blender salsa is my absolute favorite way to make salsa now. 

After getting a demonstration, campers try their hands – or in this case, their feet – at making bike blender salsa.

This last spring, our little kitchen garden was expanded to 2,500 square feet, allowing for more students to visit and experience some hands-on history.

And to dream more dreams of cake trees.


Post by Emily Robinson, School Programs Coordinator and Camp Director, Clermont State Historic Site.

All photographs provided by New York State Parks

Belsnickel’s Christmas: Furry Palatine Giftgiver

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:

Belsnickel with his sack of gifts.

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. 

Dwight Schrute from the television comedy “The Office” channels his inner Belsnickel in a 2012 holiday episode.

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!


Post by Geoff Benton, Curator of Education and Collections, Clermont State Historic Site.


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.


Read these contemporary accounts of the Belsnickel legend in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Allentown Morning Call.

Find another version of the tale in the Indiana German Heritage Society newsletter.

A Book for Tales and Verses

100 years ago this summer, a little girl received a lovely present from her grandmother.

A leather-bound notebook, perfectly sized for small hands. The paper was heavy, to thwart ink from pooling and bleeding through. The pages were lined, to keep unsteady handwriting neat. The gilded edges indicate the importance and timeless elegance of its owner, a daughter of one of New York’s first families. Her name was emblazoned on the cover— Honoria Alice Livingston.

BookCover

 

Honoria was the eldest daughter of John Henry Livingston and Alice Delafield Clarkson Livingston. Her great-great grandfather was Chancellor Robert R Livingston, one of the 5 drafters of the Declaration of Independence, the Minster to France under Jefferson, and the co-inventor of the first practical steamboat, just to name a few accomplishments. The Livingston mansion, Clermont, was decorated in 7 generations of familiar excellence. Honoria grew up at Clermont surrounded by her family’s achievements and with the love her parents, her younger sister Janet, their beloved nurse Ollie, a dozen or so servants, and a menagerie of pets.

Honoria and Family
Honoria and her family

Her maternal grandparents, Howard and Alice Clarkson, lived just up the road and visited often. Grannie Alice and Mom Alice were both prolific poets and journal writers in their own right, so it’s no surprise that young Honoria was showing an interest and a talent for creative writing herself. Grannie christened the notebook with a special poem for her young granddaughter.

To Honoria.
When Grannie was a little girl
She made a little book,
And many times with joy and pride,
Did in its pages look.

And here she wrote her little tales,
And sometimes verses too;
For airy fondness came to her
Just as they come to you.

And now you write such pretty tales,
And little verses too;
So Grannie thought perhaps this book
To hold them all, would do.

The very day she received the book, Honoria took to work. On the next page, in her very best 10-year-old handwriting, she titled the contents “The Poetry I Made My-Self.” She wrote three poems that day and several more throughout the week.

Comb and brush
I hear a thrush.
Comb and brush
I want to wash.
Brush and comb
Gobi is home
Brush and comb
Away I rome.

Honoria A. Livingston. Aug 3rd 1919

Early poems reference her family, her beloved dog Gobi, and strict rhyming schemes, even if she had to bend the rules a bit to make it work. The following year, the little notebook traveled with the Livingston family as they moved abroad to continue their daughters’ education. Honoria’s repertoire of subject matter grew beyond family life at Clermont and started to include the French countryside, German soldiers, English fairies, and Italian friends.

O Holy Angelica
A sample of Honoria’s poetry including O Holy Angelica.

The Livingstons lived in Europe for the next 6 years. Honoria became a teenager and her subjects became more mature and dramatic:

There’s a road that leads to nowhere good,
There’s a road that leads to Hell;
But there’s also a road to Paradise,
and on that road I dwell.

-Honoria A. Livingston Oct. 5th 1924
Guicciardini, Florence.

Her structures became more experimental and modern:

Of the Universe!
Tell us, I pray thee
Where do the sunsets go when dead?

-Honoria A. Livingston December 2nd 1924
Guicciardini, Florence.

But even so, more than half of her poems are about her beloved pets and many about the comings and goings of her family and friends. Some of her poems are even in French and Italian! She loved to write about the moon and sunsets over Florence, where the family called home for her teenage years.

A week before her 17th birthday in 1926, she wrote a poem to herself, remarking on the occasion and how much she had grown since starting the notebook:

Almost Seventeen!
From a very little child
Into a stately maiden dark,
she has grown.
Guicciardini, Florence. January 25th 1926

The rest of her poems in 1926 play out as her previous years in Italy had— pets, family, and beautiful evenings at the family’s Villa. But in November, something happens. The family suddenly rushes back to the States, leaving precious friends and belongings behind. Honoria’s handwriting becomes rushed, the ink is half washed away in big drips, and pages are torn out. The end of 1926 and the beginning of 1927 do not exist.

Ripped pages
Ripped pages from Honoria’s book.

This is when Honoria’s father, John Henry, passed away.

After JH’s passing, the family settled back in at Clermont. Honoria writes in the notebook for another year and then sets it aside— a memento of her childhood and teenage years. She grew up, had her debut in New York City, and married a charming Irishman named Rex McVitty.

Honoria and Rex
Honoria and Rex

They spent their lives at Clermont in Sylvan cottage, even after the mansion and grounds were deeded to The People of the State of New York. They enjoyed meeting park visitors and actively took part in site events. Honoria lived in the cottage until her passing in 2000— her tin mailbox and Poughkeepsie Journal newspaper box were only recently removed from the driveway.

Honoria on the porch
Honoria on Sylvan Cottage’s porch

But even as Honoria grew up, from a 10-year-old girl with her first important grown-up possession, to a beautiful debutant, to an accomplished writer, golfer, gardener, and the Lady of the Estate, she never forgot about her notebook. She came back to it “many times with joy and pride,” just as her Grandmother had before her. As an adult, she even edited and typed some of her early work.

FairiesTyped
The typed version of Fairies

From a historian’s perspective, Honoria’s poetry journal is a fascinating artifact. Not just a chronical of a young girl growing up, but a chronical of life for an American family and a window into post WWI Europe. Not just flights of fancy, but a collection of popular culture influences of the time. Not just cute pets, but little family moments that tell us so much about the last generation of Livingstons of Clermont. It’s a lovely little book, a scrapbook of experiences, and we are lucky to have it.

Post by Emily Robinson, State Parks

 

Exploring New Netherland

In December 2016, members of the Dutch Consulate, including Consulate General Dolph Hogewoning; the Deputy Consulate General, Jan Kennis, and Cultural Officer Tessa Dikker, toured Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site and Crailo State Historic Site (Crailo).

Their visit to Albany was part of a larger effort to promote Dutch history, heritage, and culturally connections globally.  The group met with several directors of cultural institutions that connect the story of the Dutch locally; explored promotional efforts and plans to improve information sharing.  State Parks Division of Historic Preservation Director Michael Lynch shared information about State Parks’ resources at five Dutch related state historic sites.

During their visit, the consulate staff was invited to return to the Capital Region to experience the first Pinkster event at Crailo, tour the new exhibit at Senate House State Historic Site, and visit Philipse Manor Hall and Clermont State Historic Sites to explore even more Dutch connections.

State Parks hopes that the visits will be the start of a strong and lasting relationship with the Dutch consulate, including enhancing the connections with scholars in both the Netherlands and the United States.

Exhibits
Touring the exhibits at Crailo State Historic Site, (left to right) Deputy Consulate General, Jan Kennis, Cultural Officer Tessa Dikker, Crailo Site Manager Heidi Hill, and Consulate General Dolph Hogewoning, photo by State Parks

Featured image: Consulate General Dolph Hogewoning and Deputy Consulate General Jan Kennis discuss the Schuyler family with Heidi Hill at Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site, photo by State Parks

Nature Times Spotlight: Can you guess what the name of this winter guest is?

Good news, bird lovers! Not all birds are leaving New York for the winter. This beautiful bird, the Rough-legged hawk or roughy, spends its summers in the Arctic tundra, but when winter comes along he or she takes up residence in Southern Canada and the Northern United States, including New York State. So this winter you might see them circling high above or sitting at the highest point on a tree scanning an open grassy field for a bite to eat. These birds prefer to hunt on open grasslands, farmland, and large open wetlands. This type of habitat is similar to the grassy tundra of their summer homes. State Parks you may see a Rough-legged hawk are Jones Beach State Park, Golden Hill State Park, Chimney Bluffs State Park, Point au Roche State Park, and Clermont State Historic Site.  Other northern visitors that you may encounter while looking for roughys are Snow buntings and Short-eared owls – they also prefer the same type of open land to find food.

roughlegged_hawk_soaring_usfsw
Rougy in flight – notice the dark feathers in the middle of the wings and the white feathers on the chest. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service

Some characteristics to look for when identifying a Rough-legged hawk are the dark patches at the bend of the wing and a dark bellyband and a white bib around the throat (and no red tail like one of its cousins). There are light and dark color varieties of this species, so a bird book should always be on hand when searching for this and other bird of prey!

Roughys search for food from utility poles or while hovering over the ground.  They use their powerful eyesight to spot small mammals like mice and voles far below in grassy fields. Then they swoop down to catch the food in their talons.

Don’t be surprised if you look up and see one (or two) of these high flyers in the next few months.

tom-koerner-usfws
Rough-legged hawk in flight, photo by Tom Koerner, US Fish and Wildlife Service

Post by Greta Alvarado, State Parks