My old country road
One normally waits to share the success of a project until after it’s been completed. My attitude is why wait? If I end up with egg on my face so be it. I like eggs however they’re served. I’m declaring the mission I recently embarked upon a success even though I’ve thus far conducted only one interview.
I’ve decided to write the history of my country road. It’s with the cautious encouragement of the Columbia County Historical Society. If the effort turns out to be as engrossing as I hope my wish is to publish the results in History & Heritage, the society’s award-winning magazine.
I can already hear the doubters. What’s so exciting about a country road and yours in particular? What’s to write about beyond the fact that it’s either dirt or paved? Perhaps I can silence my critics by sharing a little about the project’s genesis. My grandparents bought the house where we live today in the late 1940’s. I was told that back then two cars traveled down the road each day. It was actually one car – heading to work in the morning and coming home at night.
There’s something cinematic about that lonely old Hudson – I’ve decided it was a Hudson because I recently discovered that there was a Hudson dealership at the end of the road – raising a cloud of dust as it drove by.
Ed Simonsen, who grew up on the road starting in the early 1940’s, confirmed that my information regarding the meager traffic flow was essentially correct. He was also my first and thus far only interview. Ed has also wanted to document our road, the houses and their inhabitants. Everyone knew each other because the population was so small and because survival sometimes depended on the grace of neighbors.
A passing vehicle constituted an event. Everyone waved. My wife thinks I’m a bit of a nerd because I still do. I consider it a family tradition. My grandparents used to wave, my parents waved, and now I wave. Some motorists wave back. Others ignore me. A few look angry, as if I’m one of “them.” But I refuse to surrender the habit. It may be a vestige of a less contentious time in American history. But someone’s got to wave.
I don’t know how many vehicles pass our driveway in an hour. Part of my copious research will include counting them with a clicker. It’s certainly more than one guy going back and forth. And the volume keeps growing as more houses get built. Also, I have a theory that some of the traffic can be attributed to apps like Google maps. I suspect they find drivers shortcuts that take them along once overlooked country lanes.
Pretty much as soon as I joined Ed at his home and turned on my tape recorder I realized that this seemingly innocent project is more challenging than I thought. Ed started talking about life on the road when he was a child; he was lonely because there were no other children to play with. But he also discussed taking the school bus to Martin Van Buren High School in Kinderhook, NY. Ed loved the school and his teachers.
They’re no longer around, of course, but a couple of the girls on the bus Ed thought out of his league still are; they live nearby. Shouldn’t they be interviewed, too? Not necessarily about their thoughts on Ed but for memories of their own? This thing may end up resembling a collage more than a magazine story.
Ed, a retired high school teacher and environmental activist, counted fewer than a half dozen houses on the several-mile-long road when my grandparents bought theirs. Some of their descendants still live in them. I’ll have to reach out to them, too. When I was a child my grandparents’ outhouse stood as a memento of that hardscrabble era. The place didn’t have indoor plumbing when they bought it. Neither did Ed’s home. People pumped water from the ground.
He remembers, as a child, taking walks with his family to our house. A large forlorn farm home down a long driveway qualified as an attraction on a road without many. The previous owners lost the property during the Great Depression and it sat unoccupied for a decade until my grandparents bought it.
Eleanor Roosevelt visited the one room Ichabod Crane schoolhouse at the end of the road in 1952 and broadcast her radio show from there. It must have been opposite the Hudson dealership. Old timers speak of the event to this day.
I have photographs of our place from the 1920’s or early 1930’s. The story must have pictures. They’re a bit grainy but you can see the ghostlike images of people and a beat up car. The spreading maple no longer exists. But a hundred years later the sapling behind it has become a majestic tree in its own right.
That’s still relatively modern history. How far back do I want to go? How far back are their records? Gregg Beringer, the Ghent, NY town historian did some research and found an advertisement for the sale of our house in 1851. It wasn’t new then. Yet all this land once belonged to Native Americans. Who can shed light on their lives?
And then there’s my personal history with the house and the road. It’s where I developed a passion for nature, escaping into the woods as a teenager to write profoundly bad poetry. Now approaching old age myself the same trees provide solace that I’m part of something larger than myself.
Whoever said this was going to be easy?
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.
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