By WILLIAM SHANNON
The following is a fully transcribed interview with Leo Bower, a Greenport resident who grew up on North Front Street in Hudson and has a deep personal history with the group of structures referred to in recent years as the Furgary Boat Club. Others call it the North Dock Tin Boat Association. Leo Bower calls it what he says people called it when he was a kid: Shantytown. He mentions several names, at least a few of which I'm sure I've butchered. Please correct any misspelled names with an email to email@example.com or in a comment below.
WS: What are your earliest memories of the Furgary Boat Club?
LB: When I was around probably ten, eleven years old. That’s when we started to go down there. We used to go over on the island in the middle of the river with Art Meyers and his family. Used to go on his boat and they had a camp on the middle flats. And that was when I first remember seeing Shantytown. And then, I think it was the early ’70s that my father bought a shanty down there. And, so we got down there. Then he bought two others and we had three shanties down there.
WS: Who did he buy them from, the people who built them?
No. There was people who from time to time had them. He bought the one from Ernie Koulos, the other from Kerley Miller’s family and the other one, I don’t know who he bought that one from. But, people lived in them year-round, years ago. Everybody keeps saying no one ever lived there, but they all lived there. Joe Samson lived in his. Herbie Woodrow lived in his. Chisel Bryan lived in his. They all lived in them. Way back then. This is the early ’60s.
WS: Can you describe what—you call it Shantytown—can you describe what it was like down there when you first remember it around 10, 11, 12?
LB: Well, it was a place where all the old-timers—well, all much older than me then—talked of the history of Hudson. And the middle ground when it was just swampgrass, which I have pictures of, when it was no trees out there—just a flat piece of sandbar—they used to go over there and play ball, fish and stuff like that. Later years is when I went out fishing with my father. We used to go out with the big nets and we’d get the shad and the herring. We took an old Coca-Cola machine and made it into a smoker. And we smoked the fish and my father sold it.
WS: Those were kind of the glory days of shad and herring on the Hudson River.
LB: Oh yeah, ’cause now you can’t even take shad out of the river. It’s done. Something’s going on. And they’re probably never going to do research ’cause no one has the money anymore to do the things they do and to find out why there’s hardly any shad left in the river. Something’s going on.
WS: Wasn’t there some kind of a bait and tackle store down at the Furgary?
LB: Joe Swintock used to rent out boats and stuff like that but that was before my time. I don’t remember that. When I started going down there, he wasn’t in the shanties no more. But he’d also go down there with his dog and he’d sing and stuff—his mind was starting to go—but he was a nice man. But he was an originator. He had shanties and rented out boats.
WS: You grew up in Hudson, right?
LB: Yup. 61 years.
WS: Where in Hudson did you grow up?
LB: North Front Street. Right up from the shanties. That’s where I lived. But they tore it all down. It’s not there anymore. That’s where the Terrace Apartments are now. That’s where I used to live. Can’t even go back there. They took everything. Ain’t nothing I can go back to. I’d a bought a house down there—I like it by the water. By the water’s the greatest thing. I was down there until I was 15 or 16 and then they kicked us out of there. I forget what it was—later ’60s, I think it was. Just around there. I got the dates home but I don’t remember exactly. And then we moved up to Fifth Street. They tore all the houses on that side of Front Street down and they made the Terrace Apartments.
WS: Who was it that kicked you and your family out?
LB: HUD. Housing. They made low-income housing. But the houses that were down there, they were nice houses. They bought out the houses and Art was the last one that left down there. See we all grew up as a family. A lot of the people who grew up down on Front Street were part of Shantytown. And we’re all still friends. To this day. We don’t meet as much now because Shantytown is closed. We don’t see each other as much as we did when the shacks were open.
WS: What was the house like that you grew up in?
LB: It was an upstairs and downstairs. We lived downstairs. The Meicht family lived upstairs. They were island people too. And they had a couple of the shacks in the water. And then in later years they built one on land. Because the ones in the water you had to keep giving up because the ice would tear underneath them.
But they lived upstairs. And Art lived over on the other corner. And Stickles lived across the street. So we were like one big family. When I grew up on Front Street it was not like it is today. When we grew up on Front Street, everybody was family. It was not like today where people don’t even know the person across the street.
WS: Do you remember any remnants of Diamond Street in Hudson?
LB: Nope. I got pictures where it showed when Columbia Street was three different streets. Where it started out as Fulton, Diamond and then Gifford. Nope, I don’t remember much. My father, he would tell stories, and where he did work—he was a plumber and electrician on the side—and how one job he found a gambling machine in the cellar. I wished they’d a kept that. Yeah, that’d be some unique thing today.
WS: What would you say are the biggest ways Hudson has changed?
LB: The city people came. And they restored a lot of the buildings which was a good thing. But they also brought the bad with them. ’Cause they made the rents go so high that people who were here—there’s not a lot of industry here for people to work—and they can’t afford those type of rents. So, to me, they should put rent control, which they’ll never do because they got too many good lawyers and stuff like that. But it makes it hard on the people who lived here all their lives. But they did do a nice job restoring the buildings. I gotta give them that credit because they had the money to do that. So there was the good and bad that came with it.
WS: What made your father want to buy a few places down at Shantytown?
LB: He always liked it by the water and he always loved boating. We used to do turtle hunting too. A lot of people never think of turtle soup but I think that people, if they never tried turtle soup, they don’t know what they’re missing. Turtle soup is awesome. So, we used to catch the turtles and my father—that’s the one thing I never did, I never skinned them and did them, we just caught them, chopped the head off, nailed it to the tree, bled them out. And afterward they would cut them up. I never cut them up. I wish I’d a learned that, ’cause I never learned how to cut them up. They did it.
But he loved being by the water. That’s where I think my love for it came from. They used to call me the river rat—that’s what they called me. That was my nickname, the river rat.
WS: So, you went out with big nets for shad and herring with your dad?
LB: Yup, for quite a few years. Lot of fun. I skinned and scaled a lot of fish. Lot of fish. And the only way I could get the smell off was to use lemon juice. ’Cause that smell—people would smell you before they see you. But I loved doing it though. And the shad roe people liked. I didn’t care much for the shad roe. The eggs, I didn’t care much for that. But the smoked shad and the smoked herring—my father did it good. He didn’t skimp on the molasses, the sugar and the salt. Nackie (Everett Nack) did it, but his wasn’t as good as my father’s. Nackie did it to make money, my father didn’t do it to really make money. He did it because he loved just doing it.
WS: What did your dad do for a living?
LB: He worked at the Atlas Cement Company, then he did plumbing-electrical on the side. I worked with him. That’s how I hooked back up with my father at Shantytown. See, my father left when I was between four and five years old. I hated my father for a long time. Because he left us. So, I made that peace, which was a good thing to make, because I had that chip on my shoulder for too many years. So, I worked nights at Maguires and days with him when he did plumbing and electrical. I worked with him. That was good. It made that peace in my life.
WS: How old were you when you reconnected with him?
LB: Probably around 15-16 years old. Around that age. ’Cause I wanted to know my father again.
WS: You spent a lot of time on Hudson Middle Ground?
LB: Oh yeah. We used to camp over there, when my children were young. Israel and Chris. We’d camp over there. Matter of fact, I just threw the tent out—a mouse got in it, ate it, so I threw it away—that tent’s, what, forty years old or more. But that’s what we used to do, go camping over there. ’Cause we didn’t have a lot of money, so the easiest thing was to go over on the island, camp out. Didn’t cost a lot. And it was nice. But neither of my sons really took a lot of interest in the river for some reason. Just didn’t. Not really. I don’t know why. You know. If you like it, you like it—if you don’t, you don’t. You like it, you know—all the adventures you did on the river. I got your article when you did the whole thing—it’s a unique thing to do.
WS: When I did from Troy to the city?
LB: Yeah, your father worried a lot then, you know.
WS: Yeah, I’m sure.
LB: Oh yes. Oh yes. ’Cause I told him, the river’s dangerous. The river killed three of my friends. So I know. I know what the river can do. The river changes quick. When I was out Thursday, it was calm, clear and that, and, just as we were going back, man, big old swells. So the river changes. I call it the river of woman—it’s unpredictable. (laughs) People get upset when I say it but that’s what I call it.
But yeah, late ’70s maybe, John Gueldner died right underneath the (North Bay) trestle bridge. He was in a boat, the boat tipped over, and he had a knapsack and when he tipped over it just drug him down. ’Cause the current underneath that bridge—as you know the river’s got some strong currents—and it drug him under. They didn’t find him right away. Took a while to find him. They found him, I think, a few days later. Very sad. That’s why I tell people underneath that bridge is very, very dangerous.
WS: Do you know how long there’s been a fishing community at Shantytown?
LB: I’d say, at least, eighty-something years. At least that. A friend of mine’s got maps because a couple of shanties—it was 1883 and it was the ones on the one corner were there at that time. The city keeps saying we weren’t even there fifty years. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Chisel Bryan, his brother built that shanty back in the early-’30s. So, there it is right there. You’re talking eighty-something years just for that one. A lot of the other ones were fixed up as time went on, but a lot of the original buildings are there on the inside. That’s why they think they’re all new ’cause there’s a few newer ones in there. Chisel’s always had a dirt floor. He never put a wood floor in his. He had mattresses stacked up and he used to sleep on the top of them. And he had an old wood stove inside there. People used to burn coal too. Most of the people that were down there were iron workers. They were hard guys. ’Cause they worked hard and they lived hard, drank and that. I used to say they could chew nails and spit them out. Nobody around is like them anymore. You would’ve loved them, Billy, they could tell you stories and that. I used to go down there on Sundays and I didn’t talk a lot then—I would just listen to them and the stories they would tell. They were just unique people. Unique. Nobody like them anymore. It’s a gone generation.
WS: What would you say have been your greatest struggles in life?
LB: Change. Can’t deal with change. Too much change. Growing up, first—where I lived—I can’t even go back to where I lived. Because it’s gone. When they took Shantytown—but before they took Shantytown, they took the island from us too. They put up all eviction notices on all our shanties. You couldn’t even go in the island shanties anymore—the state did that. And it just continued. The city took Shantytown. Just continued taking things away. And all my best friends that I grew up with, they’re all dead. That’s the hardest thing to deal with, they’re no longer here. I have a picture in my wallet of my friends in the boat which we used to take out all the time. Floyd, Marshall and me. And I’m the only one alive now. I’m the last of the three. We used to go out on the river all the time. We used to go to Athens a lot. Lot of girls over there. That’s why we used to go over there when we were younger. We loved the river. We loved the island.
But the change, all the changes. Everything is gone now. Nothing you can do anymore.
Shantytown. I want to be there when they tear it down. People say ‘why do you want to be there?’ I say because it’s going to be a part of me that’s going to be taken. And I’m not going to cause no trouble or nothing—I just want to be there. People say, ‘why?’ Because I want to be there.
It’s going to go. I know it’s going to go.
And the other thing that bothered me the most, the lawyers of Hudson all lied. All the years ago, when they tried to kick us out the first time. This is going back to around ’89-1990. That’s when they were supposed to kick us out. And guess what. What year did they kick us out? Three years ago. So, who won? And who lost? We won, because they lied. See, it’s hard for me to deal with people lying so much. Because the city kept saying they owned it. They didn’t own it. The state owned it. I knew the state owned it. Then all of a sudden they switched lands. And when they switched lands, that’s when the city was able to kick us out. That’s the only reason we’re out of there. If the state didn’t switch the land, we’d still be in the shanties. We’d still be there. And they called us squatters. The City of Hudson were squatters because they built things on land that wasn’t their land. They were the squatters. They called us the squatters. Yeah. That’s what agitates me with them. Too much. Too much. They wouldn’t put that on the news when I said that. They cut that. Because I wanted them to know who lied all them years. I told the truth all those years. They lied all those years. They tried to get us to sign a paper. None of us signed it and we got to stay all those years. Yup.
You would’ve fit in good in Shantytown.
WS: I definitely would’ve liked it.
LB: You would’ve. ’Cause even though the bridge is scary and that, but you been on the river, you know the current. You could’ve gone under there with your kayak. You would’ve loved it. Could’ve put it on my dock. I had docks down there forever.
WS: If there’ve been any silver linings that’ve come through your struggles, what are they?
LB: My father always instilled in us to be a giver in life and not a taker in life. By doing so, you’ll be blessed. But there’ll always be those people who try to suck the life out of you, I call them joysuckers. Because they can suck the joy out of you. That’s the type of people you got to stay away from. I’ve come across a lot of them. My father said, they’ll be there, but don’t let them make you bitter on life. See, when my son died, I became bitter for a little while. And now I’m trying to get over that. Taking some medication too, so that helps a little. I had to do that because I was angry with people. And I shouldn’t have been, but I was angry with people. I had to get by that. Life always throws you bad things, as you know. Not the things that we want in life. Not the things that we ask for in life. But they still come. They say it makes you a stronger and better person. I don’t always know if that’s true or not. But I know the hurt and the sadness stays for a long, long time. And doesn’t go away. But you’ll be blessed with a lot of good friends and that. I have friends that would die for me. How many people would say that, you know? That’s good friends.
WS: Regarding Shantytown, you had this place your whole life until three years ago. It became a major part of your identity, which you’ve talked about. What was it like having it taken away?
LB: Well, people say it’s only buildings and that. But it’s like having part of your heart ripped out. Because the memories of my father being there and all the time I got to know him and got to love him and that. So, that’s missing. Just going down there, I can see things in my mind. When he was doing this or that, fixing the nets—poles up. ’Cause you’d always have to fix them, they’d get snagged and stuff like that. And I can’t even go in there ’cause they blocked it off. I asked to go in there and they said they’d arrest me if I go in there. Can’t even walk around. I don’t see why. They say because of the liability. Well, liability’s here too (Henry Hudson Riverfront Park). Liability’s everywhere. This is a city park. If I fall down and get hurt here, it’s liability. So, what’s the difference down there?
And my children, when they were growing up, us going out on the river. Leaving down there and going out to the island. So, all those memories are there. And once that’s gone, then that’s another part of my life gone.
WS: What do you think about the talks right now to demolish all or all but one or two of the shacks?
LB: Well, Hallenbeck said he’s going to try to save two. I told him before to let me, if they want, to talk in front of the people and that. So, Hallenbeck said he’s going to try to save two but the paper says now one and they’re not even sure of that. But, to me, at least save one, so we can put up a plaque that says this was a hunting and it was more of a fishing community—but a hunting community too ’cause they’d go duck hunting up in the bay. Let us at least make a plaque for when they open it up as a park. Everybody wants to go back in the shanties. That’s never going to happen again. That part of life is over. I know that. They’re not going to let us go back in there. They’re not. I said to Hallenbeck, I said why didn’t you let us buy it? And he said it’s too valuable for us to buy. I tried talking to the people when they first were getting a lawyer, I said why don’t you go to the city and offer them 60 or 70 thousand to buy that whole section. But they didn’t, they wanted to fight them and do it that way. Because they thought they were going to win. But I told them, a lawyer will take any case. If I went to a lawyer and said, I think I should be able to own the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, will you represent me? They’ll represent me. I said that. They’re not going to win, but they’re going to take your money. I’m not saying all lawyers are crooks. But some of them will take your case no matter what.
I hope that they at least save one. ’Cause it’ll break my heart if they take them all. I don’t care which one they save—I’m not telling them to save my father’s—just to save one or two for historical. Because it is historical. No matter what anybody says. Them places’ve been there since forever. Forever. And to have them all tore down and that whole part of history gone. Like they did to Power Avenue down there, when they ripped all them places down. That was a whole section of Hudson at one time. They did that and now they regret it. So, I think they’ll regret this too one day down the road.