Alf’s benchmark regional history and a collection of essays
Last Saturday evening I spoke at an event – 100 Years of Art in Woodstock – about the life of Alf Evers. This is a transcript of my speech:
Good evening. My name is Richard Frisbie. Thank you for coming to what I’m calling a Catskills Cantico – Cantico is an Algonquin word meaning a ceremonial dance. And – No – I’m not going to dance. I’m here to tell you about my friend, noted historian and author, Alf Evers, and I’ve been given 5 minutes to cover nearly a century of his accomplishments.
My presence here is not without precedent. I spoke at Alf’s 90th birthday party, and again in 2001 for what was called a “Celebration in Recognition of Alf Evers’ Contributions to the Furthering of New York History”. That’s the rather grand title for what was actually a very impressive ceremony on the grounds of the Senate House in Kingston. Alf was surrounded by County, State and Federal dignitaries – everyone from a Pulitzer Prize winner to a Congressman. After 14 people spoke, and Jay Unger and Molly Mason performed, Alf spoke for an hour! His speech was engaging and captivating and covered the important influences in his writing carrier. It was great! I’m sorry if you missed it.
I can’t match the speech he gave, but I can promise to be brief.
For those of you who don’t know – Alf Evers was the preeminent historian of the Catskills. He is renowned for his definitive 800-page histories, “The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock”, “Woodstock: History of an American Town” and his final book, “Kingston, City on the Hudson”. His other books include “In Catskill Country: Collected Essays on Mountain History, Life and Lore”, as well as more than 50 children’s titles written in collaboration with his wife, Helen. In total, he wrote almost 10,000 pages of Catskill Mountain history!
Alf was born in the Bronx, and came upstate with his family when he was nine. They moved to a farm in Tillson where he first became aware of the Catskill Mountains and where his love of the Catskills began. As an adult, he moved into the Catskills, settling finally in Shady, where he raised a family of his own. His strong bond with the region remained his passion until his death in 2004 when he was 99 years old.
In his lifetime, besides the aforementioned books, he was the associate editor of the New York Folklore Quarterly. He wrote articles for the New York Conservationist. He also wrote many newspaper articles on regional history. In addition, he served as Vice-President of the New York State Folklore Society, President of both the Woodstock Historical Society and the Woodstock Library, and he was the town historian of Woodstock for many years. Through all this, he actively encouraged the preservation of the landscape and character of Woodstock and its environs.
My signed, numbered commemorative copy “In Catskill Country”
Personally, I always knew Alf to be generous with his vast knowledge. One day while I was President of the Board of Management of the Woodstock Tree Trust, (and yes, there was such a title) Alf asked me: “Did you ever see a chestnut tree? You know we have one growing here in Town.” Since the American Chestnut had been virtually extinct since the beginning of the 1900s, he had my attention. He said come on – I’ll show it to you. We jumped into my car and he said turn onto Plockmann Lane. I immediately thought – all right, we’ll go through and on up Lewis Hollow Road to find an isolated stand of trees up near the State Land. That made sense.
Just a little way in he pointed to a short skinny tree and said there it is. Right there on the side of Plochmann Lane – the rarest of rare trees – an American Chestnut. He explained that every few years the highway department cuts back the roadside so cars can pass – Plochmann Lane is narrow. Since the virus attacks mature trees, and a cut chestnut grows from sprouts on the stump, this one was cut and it grew, and cut and grew, and cut and grew for nearly a century, but it was never old enough to get the virus. It survived.
Who knew? Alf Evers Knew!
In 1995, Overlook Press had a book signing / birthday party on the occasion of Alf Evers’ 90th birthday and the publication of his book “In Catskill Country“. It was a benefit for the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development. The event was called A Catskills Cantico, meaning a dancing, singing, fiddle-playing party, like the old-timers used to have in the Catskills – and much like what we’re having here. It was called that as a concession to Alf, who actually wanted that to be the title of his book.
And that is how I knew Alf to be, a person with the depth of knowledge so great about the Catskill Mountains that he knew the answer to every question. He knew where the last American Chestnut was in the Town and what a cantico was –and why it would be an appropriate title for his collection of essays. And still, as a respected historian and bestselling author who was revered in his community, he was modest and unassuming enough to bow to the wishes of his publisher. So, to honor him tonight, I referred to this event as he would have: A Catskills Cantico – A Song of the Catskills. I hope you’re enjoying it.