Local History: What a Read!

Historic Tales of the Harlem Valley: Life at the End of the Line. Tonia Shoumatoff. History Press, 2023, 202 pages.

by Kevin T. McEneaney

I admit I am not a local history buff, yet Tonia Shoumatoff’s book is written with such warmth, charm, and humor and presents such fascinating facts and delightful anecdotes that is hard to put it down. This is a book that belongs in every library in Dutchess County, as well as adjacent counties and beyond.

After a wonderful, lyrical opening, the book immerses the reader in the history of Wassaic, as the author was herself after moving there in the late 1980s. She begins with the Borden Condensed Milk Company and what it meant for the development of this area, and she proceeds to focus on the legacy of farm life here, along with the role played by the Gridley Ironworks and much later institutions and enterprises. Her many-faceted portrait of the area unfolds from there.

Did you know what the folk balladeer Rambling Jack Elliot said of the area? Or what Henry David Thoreau said? Do you know about Joel Spingarn and the crucial NAACP conferences held at Troutbeck in Amenia? Or about the legacy of the distinguished philosopher and “public intellectual” Lewis Mumford, for whom the author worked? Or about how Timothy Leary arguably launched the psychedelic era in Millbrook, drawing in Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac, Charles Mingus, Alan Watts, and Gary Snyder, among many others, and eventually attracting a notorious (and notably unsuccessful) raid by G. Gordon Liddy, of Watergate break-in fame? Or the history of the Amenia Seminary, at its founding one of the very few coeducational “seminaries” (private secondary-school academies) in this country? Or the sudden vanishing of Lake Amenia and with it Amenia’s thriving summer vacation industry? Or the origins of the Wassaic Project? Or the nonviolent antiwar and social activism of Bill Henry and how it led to Wassaic becoming a node of the Occupy Wall Street movement? Or about the Luther auction barns, or about Hadassah Luther, who sang at Dolly Parton’s Dollywood for five years and recorded twelve country western albums of her own? This area is not the omphalos of our state, but it has a notable history, and the details and stories are here.

Fascinating chapters are devoted to the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay at Steepletop, in Austerlitz; the noted artist and author DeCost Smith, known for his paintings of Native Americans; the “surrealistic shaman” Alex Shundi; landfill remediation in Amenia; and the founding of Hudson River Health Care. Much of the material in the book first appeared between 2011 and 2013 in The Millbrook Independent, before its demise about four years ago. (It now exists only online for music and drama reviews, as well as poetry and the occasional environmental article.) The book also offers you the pleasure of knowing your neighbors, such as Sharon Kroeger, of Calsi’s General Store in Wassaic.

The book is plentifully illustrated with black-and-while photos as well as a sixteen-page color insert. The photos are period snapshots, many of which are quite amusing (Timothy Leary in an outdoor discussion looking at a bird or plane in the sky; the babies in an early Borden ad). Published by the well-regarded History Press, which specializes in local history, the book is handsome, and its thick, glossy paper is satisfyingly durable.

I predict that at the next social event you attend, someone will ask the question, “Have you read Tonia’s book?” 

The book is available at Merritt Bookstore in Millbrook and other bookstores in the area. 

Kevin T McEneaney

Author of Hunter S. Thompson: Fear, Loathing, and the Birth of Gonzo, and other books