It’s now Thursday, Sept. 11. It’s 2:40 in the morning. I’m still in Burlington, still enchanted by the Peoples Republic of Vermont. I was favored some of the old road magic today, when I stumbled into a wonderful visit with the delightful Paden family at their South Burlington home. I’ll talk about that soon. Right now I’ll reverse direction and go back nine days and 200 miles to Saugerties, N.Y.
Saugerties, N.Y., Sept. 2 – I didn’t intend to land in Saugerties.
I love the Band and Dylan as much as the next man, if not more. I usually incline, however, to the road less traveled. I knew Big Pink, the house where the aforementioned corporation hatched some great music in the late 1960s, was around here somewhere (it’s in West Saugerties).
As I made an effort to circumvent Saugerties, however, I saw a tollbooth looming in the distance. At least I think I did. In any case, a cold chill overcame me. I’ve been battling serious toll-phobia since the first, $50 night of this journey.
Saugerties is 38 miles north of Ellenville, where I’d bedded down Labor Day night in the cozy confines of the Behemoth, which was parked comfortably in the capacious lot out front of the Walton Family Inn & Country Store.
In Saugerties, I park in a nice, shaded spot on John Street and set out on foot. I head south on Partition Street, which travels north and south through the heart of the village.
Soon I am beyond the village proper and head downhill in the direction of Esopus Creek. The sun hangs directly above my head and pours a blistering fire upon receded hairline. I remember I’d forgotten sunscreen. This hits me as I walk by a funky apartment building that, the historical marker says, once housed the Loerzel Beer Hall. I have walked too far to turn back now.
Just shy of the bridge over Esopus Creek, which is painted a striking shade of red, carmine I think, I see a public beach with a playground geared for little kids. I head for the creek, which empties into the Hudson River not far from here.
I skirt a sandpit cluttered with all manner of detritus. I see baby swings and get hit by a wave of nostalgia. Back home, Max is in the middle of the first day of first grade.
I barely make it to the picnic table that sits beneath a twisting, gnarled giant of a willow tree before I started bawling.
This little breakdown has been coming for 24 hours, since I parted ways with Becky and Max at Promised Land State Park. As I waited in traffic on I-84 outside of Milford, Pa., I gazed up at the sandstone roadcuts which rose on either side of the highway.
I felt the walls closing in. I’ve pushed myself out farther on a limb, a limb that grows more tenuous daily.
Perhaps I have gone mad. Here I am on the road again, alone this time, chasing my own albino sperm whale. Likely as not it will devour me. Time rolls on, indifferent to our petty desires and flimsy schemes. Yet I cannot let go, even though hope apparently is a mirage only I see.
This is not exactly the best time in history to be an unknown, 51-year-old writer. If I were a beautiful 24-year-old heiress with a penchant for squandering my trust-fund money on a staggering array of recreational drugs, I might have a shot.
The resultant stress has carved fault lines in some of my marriage and left me a confused neurotic. I fear Becky has given up on me. Yet she agreed to let me take this journey, to the one part of the Lower 48 we didn’t get to during our shared odyssey.
I let the emotional well run dry, then get up and walk over the Esopus and continue south on 9W. Now I am outside the boundary of Saugerties proper and in a place called Barclay Heights, named for a tycoon named Henry Barclay, who moved here from New York and spearheaded the industrialization of Saugerties.
I check out Trinity Church, which is wedged into a little nook where the road bends to the southeast at a 90-degree angle. Barclay had his fingerprints all over the church, too.
Just up around the bend, a sprawling mansion gone to spectacularly to seed overwhelms my eyes. Architectural pejoratives such as decrepit, derelict and dilapidated don’t do it justice.
It is the sort of palatial monstrosity some Gilded Age baron might’ve erected as a tribute to his own vanity. Elegant brick chimneys rise to the heavens from every corner. Dormers fall on top of dormers. I’m sure the banks of Esopus Creek lie on the other side.
I am mesmerized. Fascinated. I wonder who built it and how he might’ve treated his employees. How did he get such a pile of money that he could afford to squander a considerable chunk of it on this upstate Xanadu.
What was his personal Rosebud? And what the hell happened?
I resolve to answer these questions, but for now continue walking south until reached the suburban-sprawl section of Barclay Heights. I find a little tube of sunscreen at Rite Aid for $2. I stop at the adjacent McDonald’s and check my email. A boisterous group of seven boys, all young teenagers, harass each other at the opposite table.
I guess school doesn’t start till tomorrow. I think of Max in a couple years. I wonder how his first-grade debut is going. What will he be like when he reaches his teens? Will his father still be a preposterous dope? We will find out soon enough.
I throw on my backpack and embark on the two-mile walk to Saugerties village.
When I arrive, I visit the office of Win Morrison Realty on Main Street. They’re the folks trying to sell the falling-down grand dame. I speak with Dick Halpert, who’s seems like a nice enough fellow. Says he’d be happy to help me, If he knew something.
He says most recently it was a Chinese restaurant. He prints me a copy of the MLS listing. On the tale of the tape, the mystery mansion comes in at nearly 11,000 square feet and sits on a 3.75-acre lot. With waterfront footage.
Who might have a lead? Dick sends me to Central Hotel Antiques on Partition. Harold, the owner, shares his memories as he tinkers with a lamp. Mostly he remembers when it was a restaurant. It was called the Dragon Inn. He doesn’t know much about its previous history.
Harold suggests the Saugerties Historical Society. He says Billy Reinhart might know something. The historical society is housed in the Kiersted House at 119 Main Street. The stone structure, which looks impossibly plebeian now that my perspective has been warped by the forlorn mansion, dates to 1727. Christopher Kiersted, a Saugerties doctor, bought it in 1736.
A phalanx of a black locust trees dominate the approaches to the Kiersted House. They are majestic in an idiosyncratic sort of way. I like them.
Nobody’s home at the Saugerties Historical Society. I dial the phone number. No answer. Undaunted, I make the short walk to the library. I seek help from the librarian nearest to the local history room. She sends me to talk with Marie, who directs me to the Internet. Marie says the old eyesore is a major bone of contention in town. I’ll find plenty of stories if I only consult the Great God Google.
I do. The mansion is called Clovelea. It was built by paper magnate W.R. Sheffield in 1882. The owner, a man named Ching Ya Wu, owes more than $20,000 in back taxes. He wants to tear it down and develop the land.
He’s now engaged in a row with preservationists who want to renovate Clovelea and keep it around.
Apparently old Clovelea in not unoccupied. A large turkey vulture squats within, according to local cops. Others think it might be home to a bear. Apparently neighborhood children are fond of playing there.
But that is all. I return to the library and visit the local history room. Right off the bat I pry open a maroon folder and a scandalous story pops out at me. It’s right out the Tom Dooley paradigm. A Baptist preacher named Joe Johnson, betrayed by lust in his heart and out, too, was on trial, accused with drowning his wife and son in Esopus Creek.
As luck would have it, this tawdry episode occurred right about the spot where Sheffield erected his palace. Had the deaths of mother and son not occurred 28 years before Clovelea rose on the banks of the Esopus, Sheffield might have been an eyewitness.
Against my better judgment, I became enmeshed in microfilm.
What follows is why I should always endeavor to eschew microfilm of old newspapers. Here are a few of the things I learned on Page 1 of the Feb. 2, 1882, edition:
The Saugerties Telegraph was published every Thursday morning by George W. Elting. Subscription was $2 per year.
A $5 reward was promised to “any person who shall give information to the undersigned which shall lead to the conviction of any person for riding or driving over the new iron bridge faster than a walk. [Signed] Nehemiah Bostwick, commissioner of highways …
Few people realize what a wonderfully delicate structure the human ear really is
On Page 2, there is a lurid report about a deadly fire which destroyed the Potter Building in New York City, the former home of the New York World. As an aside, newspaper reporters and editors really had a taste for gruesome detail in those days. Perhaps a revival of that sensibility will help newspapers ease up of their deathbeds.
A young girl, cut off from the stairs, jumped from a fourth story window and was killed. Her head was crushed almost beyond recognition.
It is said that a gray haired woman was seen in the fourth story of the World building appealing for help. The flames raged about her person, igniting her clothing. She fell back into the flames, and no doubt burned to death.
The news in brief:
Florida strawberries are $3 per quart in New York.
The attempt to light Liverpool by electricity has proved a failure.
Garibaldi is so helpless that he has to be carried on a litter.
A Cincinnati factory makes eleven miles of candy a day.
It was Candlemas Day, when according to the farmer’s maxim, one-half the winter’s supply of wood and hay has been exhausted.
Chauncey Finger of Caataban has a Southdown ewe that has raised 32 lambs in sixteen years.
I have a particular weakness for the advertisements promoting the colorful assortment of 19th century pharmaceutical nostrums. They are wonderful reading.
Dr. Baxter’s Mandrake Bitter was a sure cure for Coughs, Colds, Whooping-Cough, and all Lung Diseases, when taken in season.
Kidney Wort was the only medicine, in liquid or dry form, that acts the same time on the liver, the bowels and the kidneys.
Dr. Evory’s Catarrh Remedy is pronounced by those who have used it the best article for Catarrh or Colds in the Head of any other remedy known.
And, don’t you know, you could get a bottle of Dr. Evory’ Catarrh Remedy for a dime at William E. Van Buskirk’s drug store at the corner of Main and Partition (the Van Buskirk name still adorns the building’s facade).
But my favorite, and it’s really no contest, is the spot about
The new edition of Dr. Culver-Well’s celebrated essay on the radical cure for Spermatorrhea, for Seminal Weakness, Involuntary Seminal Losses, Impotency, Mental and Physical incapacity, Impediments to Marriage etc.
Consulting the Internet, I also learn Spermatorrhea is a condition of excessive, accidental ejaculation.
The snow drifts have made several bad cradle holes on Partition street.
Shockingly, 16 inches of snow fell on Tuesday. It was “Nice, new, beautiful, clean and white.” What is shocking about is how Mr. Elting buried the weather story. Nowadays, 16 inches of snow is headline news for days. And days. More at 11.
You might notice that I learned nothing about W.R. Sheffield’s grandiose plans to built a mansion on the banks of the Esopus.
From the New York Times archive, which I can access remotely due to the wonder of my local library system, I learned J.B. Sheffield & Son Company came to grief in late 1889. The Times liked to employ some form of the word “embarrassed” to describe the position of W.R. Sheffield, who had assumed control of the firm after his father’s 1879 death.
On Dec. 28, 1889, the Times ran a story under the pithy headline “Failures in Business.”
A week earlier, the headline was “Paper Makers in Trouble.” The subordinate headline reported the “Embarrassment of two New York Firms.”
And now, as I’m finishing up this rambling nonsense about how I learned nothing about W.R. Sheffield, I hit the jackpot. I just stumbled on a website promoting the preservation of Clovelea. It must be new. I couldn’t have missed it. Or maybe I could have.
I believe the history was written by local historian Michael Sullivan Smith. It is comprehensive and full of useful nuggets. It also presents a largely positive portrait of the scalawag W.R. Sheffield and his neo-gothic mansion
Turns out poor W.R. Sheffield was accustomed to gracious living. He grew up at Brightbank, the former home of Henry Barclay, which owned a commanding view of the Hudson River. W.R.’s daddy, who took over the paper mill from Barclay, purchased Brightbank in 1858.
Also: Daddy Sheffield made fils Sheffield a partner in 1869, when he was just 22.
The younger Sheffield only spent a dozen years in his own private Xanadu. In the wake of his business reversal, he sold it in 1895 to a New York chemical company executive named Edward Rising.
The house was occupied by one Rising or another until the 1950s, when it was converted to commercial use and became the Stonewall Hotel. Crazy.
And that’s all, and far too much, about poor, old Clovelea.