A Hundred and Three Years of Experience


Helen Henderson, whose maiden name is Coons, has been living in the Livingston-Germantown area for more than a century. The first time she saw an airplane, leaving a jet stream behind it, she and everyone else who were at a garage at the time, stopped and looked up at the sky in awe. She remembers when “boatmen” would go door to door offering Shad and Herring from the Hudson River. She vaguely remembers the celebrative churchbells that chimed at the end of World War I. She can speak to the struggle of fruit farmers during the Depression and the taste of applejack from local speakeasies during Prohibition.

What follows is a transcribed version of a talk we had Monday at her home in Livingston.

WS: When and where were you born?

HH: Oh, right in Germantown.

That was 1911.

WS: Can you describe the house you grew up in?

HH: Well, it’s an ordinary farmhouse. There’re three in a row that my great-grandfather built. And they’re all the same. Except one is smaller than the others. But the arrangement of all the rooms is all the same. North Germantown. You know where the Methodist Church is? It’s a little south of that. Four houses and three of them are all the same in a row.

WS: What was a typical summer day like in Germantown when you were eleven or twelve?

HH: Oh, I don’t know—we had an awful lot of neighbor-kids that came every night and we played all kinds of games, like hide-and-go-seek and red light and all that stuff every night until it was too dark. But before that, we had, besides apples, we had a lot of cherry trees. We didn’t do much till the cherry season was over. Everybody had work to do.

WS: Do you have any memories of the major fire on Main Street in Germantown?

HH: No, we were too far away from it. One of the neighbor boys came about Noon-time and told us that Germantown burned down. And we laughed. We thought he was joking. ’Course you didn’t have the fire sirens and all that to hear and know.

WS: That was about half of Main Street that burned down, basically, right?

HH: Oh yes.

WS: How old were you when that happened?

HH: When was that, 1923?

WS: I’m not positive.

HH: I think so. I think I must’ve been about twelve.

WS: And, so you remember all the rebuilding that happened?

HH: Not too much. North Germantown and Cheviot sort of stayed to themselves. ’Course the main shopping was down on Main Street. Grocery store, butcher shop and so on. But I don’t think I was on Main Street in Germantown until I had to take regents exams at the school that was down there. And we didn’t even go down the main road—there was a shortcut everybody used to go to the village.

WS: What was that, a path through the woods?

HH: No, it was through an orchard. It was near us and it came out Maple Avenue extension, the end of it now.

WS: What school did you go to growing up?

HH: We had a two-room school almost across the road from us. And all the kids in the neighborhood over quite an area all the way down to Palatine Park Road (now)—all those people came to our school.

But I guess the population had shrunk because when I was in first grade that was the last time it was a two-room school. After that it was a one-room school. And all the kids came from almost Kelner’s—you know where Kelner’s is?—almost from there. And almost from Palatine Park Road.

It was right in North Germantown not too far from the church.

WS: When you were very young, rural areas like Germantown were still easing into things like electricity and indoor plumbing and automobiles. What was it like to see such a transformation in the way people live?

HH: Well, I don’t remember the first automobile I saw. But I heard that my grandfather that lived in our house, although I don’t remember him—he died in 1913—but he had a Model T. But somebody must’ve sold that after he died. We didn’t have any kind of a car until the 1920s. And we didn’t have electricity in the house until the 1920s either. But I think some of the other neighbors had electricity. But we must’ve had the first telephone line—that was when there were five or six people on one line. And we were 105. And some of the neighbors didn’t have phones and they always came when they had anything important and needed to use our telephone.

WS: Was there indoor plumbing in your house growing up?

HH: No, we didn’t have that. The electricity came first. Plumbing came later.

WS: What was it like seeing all those changes in the way people live?

HH: Well, you didn’t know they were changes. They came so gradually. We were just happy for ’em.

WS: Your family has some roots in the Burden Iron Mines of Livingston, right?

HH: Well, my Scotch grandfather came with a group of Scotch and English men to work in the mines. I haven’t been able to find the exact year. But it was somewhere around 1880. ’Cause my mother was born in 1881. And my grandmother and the kids came in 1883. But my grandfather was already here.

In fact, he sent for my grandmother—most of the other men didn’t do that right away. But he did, because there was a little—it was always called a lake; it was right over here. There’s a Catholic church there. And on the other side, there was this little lake and it had a boarding house on it. That’s where my grandfather was staying when he first came.

And, in back of us here, there’s a great gulley that’s fifty feet or more deep where a mine collapsed and that was the same one that went over there. It also was a shallow shaft and it hit the bottom of the lake and the water, they said it went out just like water out of a bathtub. And the boarding house lifted. And my grandfather was hoping that his wife could come and, when they had started another boarding house, she ran it because I guess the woman had left.

But you should see this gulley in back—it goes way up north a half, three-quarters of a mile. And you look in and there are huge maples down there and all kinds of little bushes and so on that have grown up in it over the years. I don’t remember the year (that it collapsed) but it must’ve been real early.

WS: I’ll have to go check that out after this.

HH: Yes, you should. I used to walk up there every day but the ground is rough. I think it’s really part of a road bed a little farther back—there’s the ruins of a stone building that they said was the company store for the mine people. So I think that was the road that came in. But everything’s grown up—it’s wild in there.

WS: When were your parents born?

HH: Oh. My mother was born in 1881. She was two years old when she came here from Scotland. My father I think was born 1873.

WS: Can you describe them?

HH: Oh. I think just ordinary parents. Ordinary good parents. Poor parents.

In the school that we went to there were poorer people than us. Kids that didn’t have new shoes very often. Didn’t have any boots in wintertime.

My father always saw that we had new shoes and new boots for every winter. So we didn’t have to worry about a thing like that.

And depending on what the past year’s—how good the weather was, and how much the fruit sold for and whether there was enough money for everything—there were years we got some kind of sleds—flexible flyers, they were the best ones. My brothers got bicycles.

But there were years in between when there wasn’t enough money for things like that.

WS: When you were very young, did you know or speak with any veterans of the Civil War?

HH: No. Later on, when I was mature, I knew of a couple of them. But, at that time, it didn’t register with me. People have asked me if I remember the end of World War I. Very vaguely. There was a night where it seemed the church bells were ringing and stuff like that. But it didn’t mean anything to me.

There’s one thing I’ll tell you that I think was unusual.

My father used to go to the post—we didn’t have any RFD (Rural Free Delivery), so my father went to the post office down by the railroad station. Every day for the mail. Not that the mail was that important. But he had to have the newspaper that told the baseball scores.

And it was a chore for him to go there every morning. So, when I was almost five, he decided I was old enough to go. So, every day, for several years, I walked to the post office before I went to school and brought the mail back.

And when my brother was old enough, we alternated. But, right up until I went to high school, one or the other of us always went to the post office. And that was a whole mile. It wasn’t bad going downhill, but—(laughs).

WS: That was the rail station where Anchorage boat launch is now?

HH: Yes, it was this side of the railroad tracks from where the Anchorage was. Directly in, across. Well, the railroad station was there, but the post office changed, I don’t know why—I tell ya, it was in five or six different buildings.

WS: What did you do for a living?

HH: Me? Oh, well I was a teacher. Forty-two years.

WS: All at Germantown?

HH: Well, no. In the beginning, there was no central school. It was just the little school down by the Reformed Church. And that was only for the village people. The county was all divided up into districts. When they started building these rural schools back in 1820, 1821, they made sure that none was farther than two miles for a child to walk. So, there were maybe six in the Germantown-Clermont district.

But ours must’ve been one of the first, in 1821. In our neighbor’s front yard, next to the church. There was no cemetery then. The cemetery wasn’t started till about twenty years later. And when they wanted to enlarge the school, they built a little farther south. And built the two-room school.

WS: What years did you teach?

HH: From 1930 to 1972. But my first two—when there was no central school, and there were all these country schools, I taught four years in Linlithgo. The school’s still there, it’s a house, you probably know where it is. Very near the church. And the second one was Blue Hill, which is on County Route 31 going toward where 31 joins, up by Eger’s, the main road.

And, it was a pleasure to teach in those days. You didn’t have problem-children. They were nice kids. They didn’t have filthy mouths. And they knew how to behave themselves. I remember them more than some of the kids in later years. They were such nice kids.

WS: What age group did you teach?

HH: When I went to Germantown, then I taught third grade, but when you’re in a rural school, you start with first and go to eighth. And hope that maybe there’s nobody in the fifth grade or the sixth grade or the seventh grade ’cause it was a real challenge when you had children in all eight grades.

WS: What would you say have been your greatest struggles?

HH: Oh, that’s hard to say. That’s hard to say. I don’t think that there were really any real, real problems. When I was teaching, early, it was always a problem of having a car that ran well enough to take you to work. You didn’t buy a new car. Not on that salary.

WS: What do you remember from the Great Depression in this area?

 HH: The farmers sure had a bad time of it. Because most of them were fruit farmers in Germantown—you wouldn’t believe it now. And their fruit wasn’t worth very much. I mean, they all sent their fruit to New York, but their returns were so poor. Our family always had chickens, and extra money from the poultry farm, but I can remember my brother sending crates of eggs to New York and when he got the money back, it was peanuts. The freight took most of the money. He didn’t have much left, ever, during the Depression.

WS: Can you describe what Germantown was like during World War II?

HH: I think that, by itself, it wasn’t changed much. Except that all the boys were gone.

I remember the day after Pearl Harbor, or the night after Pearl Harbor—. The government had—it isn’t talked about now, but, before the World War, there were several of the young men in the town that were transcripted to serve a year in the service. I think Roosevelt was getting ready for a war.

And they were in service for a year and then they came back and everything was back to normal.

And I remember, the night after Pearl Harbor, my friend next door came over and said, let’s go down to the drug store—that was where they had a lunch counter—and maybe we can get a sundae or somethin’ and maybe we’ll hear some news.

And the biggest surprise of our lives was, her boyfriend and my boyfriend are sittin’ at the counter drinking coffee—in full uniform. And, since they’d been out a while, nobody ever— it was the biggest shock to walk in and see them in uniforms. And they were, I mean, they were right back in service from then on.

WS: Your boyfriend went and fought?

HH: He was in, yes.

He wasn’t my boyfriend for too long after.

And, my girlfriend married somebody else.

WS: Did you pitch in in any way on the home front during World War II?

HH: Not on any regular basis. You had—they asked you to sell more bonds, stuff like that. Seems to me we had somethin’ to do with—when everything was rationed, we had to help people with their ration cards, stuff like that.

And what you could get with the ration cards wasn’t ever nearly enough. If you had meat, it was probably hamburger, because you couldn’t afford any better.

There were only so many stamps you could use for meat. Only one or two for sugar. Only one or two for flour. And it went down to clothes. How many kids you got determined how many coupons you had to buy shoes.

But I didn’t do anything else, beside sell war bonds—I can’t remember what it was with those ration books, somethin’ to do with ration books.

WS: Did you have kids?

HH: No, I didn’t. Sometimes you’re sorry and sometimes you’re happy.

WS: Were you ever married?

HH: Oh yes. He was a pilot. Early in the war he was sent to train—he was a good pilot and, therefore, he was sent from one base to another to train other pilots. For a while, until he went to officer training school.

WS: What was his name?

HH: His name was William Henderson. We knew each other when he was training pilots here in New York state and New Jersey. And we were in contact all the while he was in service. But we started drifting apart. And met up again, years later and got married. But it didn’t last.

It was a good chance to travel all over the country though, I’m tellin’ ya.

WS: Where did you travel to?

HH: Well, mostly to California in the main part of the war. And part of it, Mississippi. I always liked Mississippi. I always said when I retire I was gonna move down there. But when you’re ready to retire you want to live where your friends are and your family. Not in some strange place.

WS: How long have you been smoking?

HH: Since I went out with boys and smoked their cigarettes. But I couldn’t buy ’em till I had a job. But I smoked other people’s.

I still have them. Which I don’t want kids to know, but, they seem to know anyway. I’d stop if I could. But, now the doctors don’t say anything anymore. They used to try to get me to stop. Now, they don’t say a word.

WS: So, somewhere around eighty-five years or more you’ve been smoking.

HH: If you can figure—I haven’t figured it out (laughs).

WS: In what ways has society changed during the course of your life?

HH: Well, when I was young, like when I was walking to the post office, that wasn’t anything strange. Everybody who traveled on the train to Hudson or Poughkeepsie, they always walked to the railroad station. Very few people had a car to take ’em there.

Everybody walked.

At that time, when I was young, everybody went to church almost every Sunday. All the local churches had plenty of people going to church every Sunday. You know what’s happened now. There are only a few.

Less and less churches. All the time. They keep closing.

And, up until maybe seven or eight years ago, I used to visit my nephew up in the southern Adirondacks—it’s a section they call Tug Hill. And it was so amazing. Every two miles there was a church. And it was open. Up there, somehow or other, they still went to church.

But a lot of the activity for young people and families had to do with the church. There were always church suppers. And picnics and so on. And that’s what families looked forward to.

In the Grange Hall, they had movies. But, they were the silent kind. You can’t believe this, but somebody played piano and they sort of tried to make the music fit what was going on on the screen. Some of ’em were real clever at it and some of ’em weren’t.

In Germantown, at the Grange Hall, they also had a good basketball team and after movies and even when the movies stopped every Saturday night there was a dance upstairs in the Grange Hall. That was something that everybody’d look forward to.

WS: The Grange Hall is where Otto’s variety store is now?

HH: That’s right. There’s been a lot of changes downstairs. I don’t know when the drugstore was first there. It was there early in my time. Then there was a lunch counter. Downstairs where Otto has his main—that was, the drug store was in back and it was almost like a department store. It sold all kinds of things, from greeting cards to soap and all kinds of stuff like that.

And Lawlor’s store was about the only place you could go if you wanted soda or a sundae or anything like that.

WS: Do you remember Prohibition and when Prohibition ended?

HH: Yes, very, very well. ’Cause young people drank an awful lot during the Depression—you wouldn’t believe where they got it from.

There was one family that I know, the father worked—I guess they were from New York City and bought a house up here. And the father used to make what they called bathtub gin.

And his sons were very popular.

Papa didn’t want to give up any of it, but, if he was coaxed, he would.

And, there was a place in Tivoli. There’s still Maury’s Hotel down there. But Maury’s down on that cross street that goes down from the main part was—it wasn’t a garage; it was a carriage house or something from the old days. Where Maury’s people parked their buggies. And, during the Prohibition, they were a speakeasy.

And I know of lots of people who went down there. I went along with them once I think.

I think it was only applejack that we got at that time. But, sometimes it was good stuff. Or maybe it was the kind that ate your stomach out, I don’t know.

WS: People have said the Central House in Germantown was a speakeasy too and that Legs Diamond, the gangster, dropped off shipments.

HH: It could’ve been. It could’ve been. I don’t know. I don’t remember whether they sold stuff or not. But, it was real popular after Prohibition was over, I’m tellin’ ya. But I was never in there.

There were other speakeasies that I’ve been in, but not that one.

WS: What were the other ones you were in?

HH: Well, they were mostly in Hudson. Or, there were some on 9G going toward Tivoli. They were just houses that sat a little back. There’d always be several people in there on Saturday night.

WS: Do you remember when 9G was straightened?

HH: 9G certainly wasn’t the way 9G is now. In North Germantown, one place, the road went way off in a field and over a bridge and came back again to where it is now. And when you went through North Germantown—you know where Block Factory Road is?—you went Block Factory Road and there was a bridge not where it is now but a whole lot farther east and you came out—past the Rockies somewhere. But the next thing, you went through part of Linlithgo and—you know where Fox Creek Road is?—Fox Creek Road was the highway.

And there were other places up beyond that. Where the highway to the bridge goes, there was a road that went in past a lake and then you came out almost—you were almost on Third Street. You know where the road is low and used to flood? It came out almost down there.

But, when they build roads they straighten things out fast.

WS: What’s your best advice on how to get the most out of life?

HH: You have to eat well—you can’t be one of those people who skips breakfast and eat when you feel like it. And you have to eat right, too.

I know people who, when you talk about vegetables, there are only two: corn and green beans. And they don’t eat anything else—everything else is poison or somethin’. You gotta eat the right kind of food and you can’t live on steak, either.

Eating right is, I think, one of the important things.

And, a lot of people would say don’t smoke. And there are an awful lot of my family who never smoked and think I’m crazy.

There a lot of people who say don’t drink either. But, when I was young, all the young people drank. I think even more so than afterwards, when Prohibition was gone. Maybe just being defiant.

WS: Well, thank you so much. Is there anything we didn’t touch on that you’d like to add?

HH: You know, down there where the Anchorage was, all that land that the Anchorage was on was never there in the beginning. It was only when the railroad came that they filled that in.

There was a dock that most people used, down Sharpe’s Landing—you know where that is. There was the remains of a dock there for years and years. But, when the railroad came, the people had no way to get out on the water.

In that day, boats were big business. At North Germantown, to the right of almost where you cross the railroad tracks is what they call a cove. But that was all open and the sloops all came in there. And, when I was little, my father showed me the pilings and you could still see where the docks were.

And I have seen some of the town records. After the railroad was built, almost every year the town board voted to build a dock, beyond the railroad tracks. But, evidently, they never got enough money. I forget what year the Anchorage was made, but, I guess about twenty years they had no way to get out to the river.

And they filled all that land in, across the railroad track. But, before the dock, there was a big ice house there. That was the farmers who didn’t have much to do in the winter. If they could work there, they got a dollar a day. But they thought that was big money. At that time. For winter.

When the first people who stayed in Germantown, after 1741—their deeds all said they owned to the channel, you know, on the river. Some of that land between the channel and the shore was deep water, but some of it wasn’t.

And all the shallow places, that was big business for the people whose deeds said that they owned to the channel. Because they could rent out to the Shad fishermen, the Herring fishermen that land. There were, sometimes, some real fights over who owned and who had the rights to use this place—not just along here, but all the way down around Rhinecliff and so on.

All those shallow places meant big business for the people who owned them.

An awful lot of the men who lived near the river, like Cheviot and North Germantown, were boatmen. They worked on little boats.

The upper part of Northern Boulevard, the Perry family came from Rhode Island, I think maybe by 1800 or before. Their business was a little farming but it was mainly they owned a couple of sloops and they went back and forth to New York.

The third house they built was right out on the riverbank. The man said he wanted a house where, when he was coming back from New York on his sloop, his wife could see him and have his dinner ready. But they had a little creek that came out and it was big enough so that they kept one sloop right there. Right behind their houses.

But a lot of families, whole families, went to New York and ended up working on tug boats or something like that.

In our family, we had one great uncle who—his mother didn’t send him to school because he said he was too cold to walk to school and he didn’t learn to read and write. All his other brothers got jobs as firemen on tug boats, but then they worked themselves up to a better job and ended up engineers. But he was a fireman all his life because he didn’t have the education.

And, when the railroad went through, it wasn’t long before there were whole families from town that had—maybe not whole families, but two or three from each family—that had jobs on the railroad. They were conductors or—there were all these towers along, directing the traffic. And there were all these men that worked in those. Even my neighbors when I was a kid. Worked either in Hudson or North Germantown or Germantown.

There were an awful lot of people who were called railroad men. And then there were boatmen. They moved up from tugs. We had one cousin who was born next door to us, was the chief harbor pilot for—I don’t know how long, but could’ve been quite a while. But, he brought the Queen Mary in for the first time. They met all the big ocean liners and had to pilot them in to the docks. The captains of the ship were not allowed one try with the Queen Mary—because one did some damage to the dock and that was the first and the last time.

So many families that had men that worked either on the boats or on the railroads. Especially the ones in the boats, they lived in New York or across the river in New Jersey and their families stayed there, they never came back to Germantown.