A Journey through the Past with a Former Hudson River Champ

By WILLIAM SHANNON

More than sixty years ago, Greenport resident Joe Krupa became a local celebrity for his skill in racing small boats on the Hudson River, when the Hudson River Marathon stock boat race from Albany to New York City was a major annual event. Joe went to stock boat nationals in Tennessee in 1951 and became the class B national champion. He was known for being his own mechanic, with no official sponsors. Joe and I know each other as fellow members of a boat club. I can attest that Joe has probably spent hundreds of evening hours in recent years puffing a cigar while watching the sky darken over the mouth of the Roeliff Jansen Kill. He's part of a segment of his generation that can take apart any type of motored machine, identify the thing that's wrong with it, fix it, and put the whole thing back together. I've been trying to get him to agree to an interview for this site for months and he finally gave in Tuesday.

WS: All right, Joe, you ready?

JK: I’ll probably lie.

WS: That’s all right. So, where’d you grow up, Joe?

JK: Where’d I grow up? Columbia County, let’s say. Livingston, Greenport. All my life.

WS: You lived around Bell’s Pond, right?

JK: Yeah Bell’s Pond in Livingston. Then I went and moved to Hudson for a bit. And been in Greenport sixty years.

WS: What was your schooling like early on?

JK: I went to a one-room schoolhouse. Bell’s Pond school. The building is still there. I don’t think anybody’s there. We had one teacher. She taught eight grades. And we learned somethin’. There was no sports; there was no hockey; there was no baseball, softball, basketball—nothin’. You went there to learn somethin’. And you did. ’Cause if you didn’t learn anything you’d go home. They’d send you home.

WS: And didn’t you jump ahead in school?

JK: Yeah. She taught eight grades in that school. I done half ’a eighth-grade and half ’a ninth-grade and then, one year, I was a sophomore in high school. Pretty smart, huh? That’s the way you could do it themdays. I had to take the exam to pass the eighth-grade and to go into ninth-grade and I took the sophomore exam and passed that too. It was no problem.

WS: And then you went to Hudson for high school?

JK: Yeah, I went right from the one-room schoolhouse to Hudson High School.

WS: That must’ve been like going to the big city.

JK: It was the big city at one time. It was. You know, it’s a different ballgame. I never seen a gymnasium till I went to high school. I didn’t know what the hell gym was.

WS: What was a typical summer day like when you were eight, nine, ten years old?

JK: Well, when I was in school, we’d have to come home and work around the house—there was no playtime. I had a trap line in the winter time. Before I went to school I had to check my traps. It was a good time. Good time. Now you can’t even walk on a property.

WS: You’re saying anybody could walk on anybody’s property?

JK: It was no problem. Everybody knew everybody. There was no strangers. No posters. Nothin’. Go ’head. Different world than we got today.

WS: Your parents were Polish?

JK: Well, yes and no, because my father’s from Austria. I’m not sure if he’s part German. My mother was Polish, that’s for sure. I think he’s—he was part German. He was pretty smart. But I didn’t take after him.

WS: What did your parents do for a living?

JK: Whatever they could do. Had a farm, small farm. And we did good on the farm, but it just petered out after a while. You couldn’t make a living. So, wherever he could get a job. He was a good carpenter, so he did a lot of carpenter work. Me, my first job was on a sawmill. When I was sixteen years old. That was when I graduated from high school—I was sixteen. I shoulda done somethin’ with my life, but I didn’t. I wanted to hang around town, with the boys.

WS: Did you go into the service long after high school?

JK: I missed World War Two by seven days.

WS: You turned eighteen seven days after World War Two ended?

JK: Seventeen. Seventeen you was ready for the draft. I was going to enlist the following week and, lo and behold, he dropped the bomb and Japan was done.

WS: But, were you in the service during Korea?

JK: I had nine years in the National Guard. Was activated twice. Put on notice to go tomorrow. If you had to. But, fortunately, we didn’t go.

WS: What languages did you speak growing up?

JK: Spoke Polish a little bit. But, most of my language wasn’t the best. Still isn’t.

WS: What were some of your other jobs?

JK: Well, at one time, Hudson was an industrial town. Columbia County was industrial towns. And you had all kinds of jobs. You had all kinds of plants. You could get all kinds of jobs. Cement plants. Coca-Cola plants. Canada Dry plant. Match company. V and O Press. Gifford Wood. I can keep on naming ’em and go right along. You had all these small shops in town that made clothes. Made cloth. Stottville Mills, all cloth mills. You had all kinds of industry. What do you got now? Nothin’ but antiquers. No place to work in the county. No place. Cement plants made this town. Cement plants made Hudson.

WS: You worked in the cement plants, right?

JK: Yeah I did. That was one of my first good jobs. I was at Lone Star. That went out before the Atlas did. All the local people worked them plants. And they made good money. Nobody complained about it till the EPA. They done a job on the cement plants.

WS: What did you do at Lone Star?

JK: Manual labor, that’s all. Them cement plant jobs it was all manual labor. There was nothin’ easy.

WS: Like moving around gravel?

JK: Well. Yeah, I was unloading gypsum to mix with the cement. And that was all done by hand. Wheelbarrow and a shovel. Dump it down the chute; the elevator took it upstairs. And the worm screw took it through the different bins. Nothin’ easy.

WS: Pretty much all those jobs are done by conveyer belts and things like that now in plants that didn’t close down, right?

JK: I don’t know. I don’t know how a new cement plant would be. Even when I left there, they got into bucket trucks—small bucket trucks to unload. You know, instead of doing it with a wheelbarrow. Yeah, they modernized to some extent. Then the EPA just said, well, you guys are makin’ too much smoke.

Yeah, people holler about wages. My first job I got forty-five cents an hour. Yeah, what the hell. And I was happy to get forty-five cents an hour.

WS: What year was that?

JK: Oh Jesus. Oh. Back in the forties someplace. And then I got a nickel raise—they gave me fifty cents an hour and I thought I was in Heaven. Then I went to the cement plant after that. They paid a decent wage. But, it was work. Hard work. But, they paid a decent wage at that time.

WS: How long did you work in the cement plant?

JK: Oh, maybe a couple years. I don’t really remember.

WS: What did you do after that?

JK: I went driving a truck. Old dump truck. Used to deliver gravel. It was Carney’s Gravel and we delivered it locally. Whoever wanted a load of gravel. Gravel was a good commodity at that time. Now gravel don’t mean nothin’ anymore. Everybody wanted gravel for something. Driveways, roads, around the foundation.

WS: When did you become the Greenport Highway Superintendent?

JK: I think it was 1980 that I took office. Did it for seventeen and a half—eighteen years.

I was at construction twenty-six years prior to taking that job and I came in with a lot of new ideas that worked. And I had good relations with the public. Had no problems with the public. Most of my problems were political.

WS: How so?

JK: Well, I wasn’t political-oriented. I had my way of doing things and that’s the way it was going to be.

WS: Was that brick house on Columbia Street that’s now Operation Unite, was that the first house you bought?

JK: My father bought that house. I was on construction at that time yet. That was all beat up and dilapidated and he fixed the whole thing up. And it’s still there. It’s about the only house left on Columbia Street that was original there.

WS: You’ve said there was a few houses between that building and the corner with Fourth Street.

JK: They’re all gone. All burnt up. Every time a house burns up in Hudson, they make a parking lot.

WS: Was that the first house you owned?

JK: I never owned that house. Yes, I did. I did own it when my father and mother passed away. But I had to rent it and I didn’t want to be a landlord, so I sold it.

We haven’t talked about prices. You know, after school there was a gulf station down around the corner. I used to walk down there. You’d get a bottle of Coke for a nickel. Candy bar was ten cents, was more than you could eat. Gasoline was five for a dollar.

WS: Five gallons for a dollar?

JK: Five gallons for a dollar. When they had a gas war, they’d go to six for a dollar. And a guy would come out, wash your windshield, clean your headlights, check your oil. Whatever you wanted to do. Pump your gas. And, now, they don’t even talk to you. They stay there in back of the window and make sure you don’t steal it.

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

JK: My school didn’t even have indoor plumbing. My school had an outhouse. We had a caretaker, used to come ’round in the winter time and shovel a path to the outhouse. Girls had one side, the boys had the other side. Then a few years went by and then they got a chemical toilet in the back of the school, finally. You didn’t have to go out in the snow. But we didn’t have no plumbing in the school. We didn’t have no water. No running water. Had a well outside. You want water? Go pump some. I didn’t have no plumbing in my house. When I lived in the country. It was a long time before we got plumbing. We had a well out there. Kerosene stove. Wood stove. Coal stove. Tough times. But, better than it is now.

WS: You think it was better then than it is now?

JK: Absolutely.

WS: How come?

JK: Well, everybody knew you. You knew everybody. Nobody bothered you or nothin’. It was just a good time. Nobody cared how much money you had, if you had money or didn’t have money. Now, if you don’t have money, you’re lost. I walked to school every day, a mile each way. Now, you gotta take a bus if you live next door. My bus ride to high school was five miles, one way. I was the last one on and the first one off.

WS: What was the city of Hudson like when you first started going there for high school?

JK: It was nice. You could walk on any street. There was no problem. Didn’t have to worry about getting mugged. There were no antique dealers. All kinds of stores in town. It was a beautiful little town. Now they pull the shades down at nine o’clock.

WS: You must also remember when just about all those mom and pop stores moved away from Warren Street. When did that start happening?

JK: I don’t know. Probably in the seventies, they started moving out. Little by little, the small stores closed. First one, you had the A&P come into town with a big store. Then you had the First National come in. And, little by little, the small stores just disappeared. They couldn’t compete with ’em. And you had Oneida down on Third Street. And finally they pulled the plug—they went out too. And all the little stores in between that—you had shoe stores, all kinds of little food stores, magazines, anything you wanted. Hardware stores. Everything. They’re all gone, except there’s one hardware store left yet in town and that’s Rogerson’s. I don’t know how they managed to stay this long.

WS: Do you remember Fairview Avenue before it was like it is today?

JK: Yeah. It was a farm. There was no houses there. It was farm country. There were dairy farms all along Fairview Avenue, right from the Fairview Shopping Center all the way to Stottville was dairy farms. There was no houses or nothin’.

WS: Do you think it’s a good thing Greenport has no zoning, unlike just about every other town in Columbia County?

JK: Well, nobody had any zoning when they started. You know, you could build almost anything anywhere. But, now—I don’t know what year zoning come into effect. But, it didn’t do it any good. They put all the farmers out of business. They’re all gone. Greenport had all kinds of dairy farms. There’s no dairy farm left. Nothin’. All gone.

Apple farms. Right there, across from Bob’s Restaurant, used to be apple orchard. Well I shouldn’t say apple orchard, it was a farm right there—still, the land is there, but nobody’s farming nothing. Out by Pulcher’s Motors, there was a dairy farm up there. Where the Fairview Shopping Center was, it was Healy Farms. It was a big place. You had the Lamberts on Route 9, they had their own milk. Peddled it themselves. All gone. All gone. Had Van’s Dairy on Glenwood Boulevard. They used to process milk and deliver. All gone. Nothin’ left.

WS: What do you remember from the Diamond Street era?

JK: Heh. Well, I don’t really remember too much. I was a little bit young for Diamond Street. But there was a lot of business in town. Nobody got hurt. Lot of gambling. Nobody got hurt. They stayed in their own area and that was it. Brought a lot of business to town.

WS: Do you remember the raid on Diamond Street, when the State Police shut it down?

JK: I know the raid, I remember the raid. But I’m probably speakin’ out of turn.

Diamond Street never bothered Hudson. Did not bother the city of Hudson whatsoever.

But, I think when they had the raid on Hudson, even the Hudson Police Department didn’t know about it. When they had the raid.

WS: Well, they caught a couple of them in there.

JK: Yeah.

 Stock boat racing on the Hudson River. (Photo courtesy of the Wooden Boat Association)

Stock boat racing on the Hudson River. (Photo courtesy of the Wooden Boat Association)

WS: When did you first get into boating?

JK: Probably in the forties—late forties. Forty-eight, forty-nine. Somewhere in there. I did boating before that, but that’s probably when I got a little serious with it. It was a good thing. There was no money in it. If you wanted to race, it cost you money. I had a stock boat. B-class, they called it a B-class. They went by CCs. And you had to be under twenty CCs to be in the B-class. On your motor. And most of the motors were Mercury anyway, they were 19.9. Just under twenty. It was a good time.

WS: Wasn’t that race all the way down to New York City?

JK: I ran Albany to New York. The last Albany to New York race they had I ran it.

WS: What years was that race going on?

JK: Oh, you’re racking my mind here. Oh man. Early fifties, I believe. That was the last race, in the fifties. They did it for quite a while. They ran from Albany to New York. It was a yearly event. New York Marathon. The race was pretty popular at that time. They’d race in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York City—you had to go every weekend, you had to race someplace. All the way to Tennessee. Florida. Had to go to Florida.

WS: You bought a place in Florida at some point, right?

JK: I had a place in Florida. I really didn’t like it.

WS: How come?

JK: I don’t like Florida. Too many bugs, too many snakes. Too many unfriendly people.

WS: Wasn’t there a lot of development between when you bought that house and when you sold it?

JK: When I bought that house, I bought it in orange groves. When I sold the house, there wasn’t a tree left. They pushed everything out and started building houses all around me. I said, that’s it, I’ll just get the hell out of here. But the worst part is, you had the snakes and lizards, termites and ants, oh my god—brutal. Had to keep everything in plastic containers. You couldn’t leave something to set on the counter, first thing you know you had ants in the food. It was no place for me.

We thought about relocating to Florida, but after I was there a few years I decided that’s not the place for me. When they started pushing the trees out and built these enormous houses—time for me to go.

WS: What would you say are the biggest ways this area has changed?

JK: Well, after the Second World War is when things started to change. Right after the war things started going downhill. And, as soon as they started making all these new regulations and everything. Taxes. Sales taxes, everything else. It just put Hudson right down the drain. And all of these people that were in Hudson, most of them went overseas someplace, where they could work without being harassed by unions or whatever. There’s nothin’ wrong with a union—a union’s a good idea. But labor was cheap. Still is. Hasn’t changed yet.

There was all kinds of mills from Stockport all the way to Livingston. You had all kinds of industry. Now, you got nothin’. Everything’s gone. And it’s never coming back.

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

JK: I’m struggling right now. Everything’s a struggle. Jesus. You know, you can’t have a drink anymore—you can’t go out and drink a couple drinks. They stop you, you get a DWI. And it cost you five, six thousand dollars to get out of that, if you can. And the lawyers are making big money. It’s just a bad situation. Years ago you could party, have a good time. They’d help you out. If you didn’t give them a hard time, they’d take you home. Now they take you to jail.

Of course, when I started drinking, beer was ten cents a glass. Used to get a hot dog for ten cents on the corner of Front Street and Warren. Shot of liquor was twenty-five, thirty-five cents for a shot. Now you can’t even buy the glass for that.

WS: Did you ever hang out in that Front Street neighborhood?

JK: Yeah. Oh yeah. See that was all houses. All private housing all the way from the train station to the North Dock. Private housing. And I don’t know what caused it, what happened, but they knocked all that stuff down and put these condos up—whatever you wanna call ’em. You had Italians, you had Greeks, you had Pollocks—you had everything on Front Street. There was no problem. No problem.

WS: Were you involved in the Polish Sportsmen’s?

JK: Yeah. I’m a lifetime member there.

WS: Was there a big Polish population in Columbia County?

JK: You had a mix. You had a Polish population living this end of town and then you had Italians in another end of town and Lithuanians, they were in between there someplace. It was a mix of population. And most of these people at one time worked at the cement plants.

WS: How has the Hudson River changed over the years?

JK: Well, at one time, it was a real pristine, clean river. I remember when the dayboat used to come up—dayliner used to come up and dock at Hudson where the boat club is. The kids used to stand on top of them pilings and wait for the dayboat to go, because the people would throw quarters, throw change in the water and the kids would dive in the water and grab the change.

Then it got to the point where it got so dirty, you couldn’t eat the fish. You couldn’t see your hand two foot under the water. And the oil, it was terrible man. The tankers used to go up and down the river and wash their bilges out. All that crude oil and Number Six oil would be all over everybody’s boats—it would be awful. And then, after a while, it’s gotten—it’s pretty decent now again. Not as good as it was. But you can eat the fish out of there that are migrant fish, you can eat them—you can eat the Stripers when they come up. You can eat the Shad. But at one time you could not eat ’em. They were awful. Oil. Taste like oil.

But, the Hudson River has improved quite a bit.

You had all kinds of factories there along the river. You had a brewery—Evans Brewery was down along the river. You had carpenter shops down there. Had a glue factory down there. You had all kinds of industry. I don’t care where you looked, you had work. I don’t care where you look now, there’s no work. Route 66 was an industrial road, all the way through. Nothin’ there now, couple stores, couple schools. Nothin’ left. Stottville Mills had all them woolen mills. Nothin’ left but the brick. Gone. Lot of people worked there. Cement plants, they worked three shifts. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Never stop.

WS: How old are you now, Joe?

JK: Forty-two.

How ’bout eighty-six, that’s the truth.

WS: If you could go back in time and tell your twenty-year-old self something, what would it be?

JK: We saw the good times. I saw the good times. We didn’t have much money, but we had good times. You can’t have a good time now. You’re lucky to get a hot dog for two bucks. You go to Yankee Stadium, it costs you five bucks for a lousy hot dog. Come on. Used to go down to Front Street and get ’em for ten cents. Nope, we didn’t have that much money, but we had good times.

Taxes kept going up and up and up. It’s just too bad. That’s a tough, tough thing.

WS: You gonna vote for Trump, Joe?

JK: Heh. I don’t know who the hell I’m gonna vote for. Heh. You don’t have no candidates for Christ’s sake. You got a bunch of flea bags. The whole bunch of ’em are hypocrites. They got their own agenda, that’s all they care about. They got one thing on their mind, but nothing to do with the country. They got one thing they’re trying to push and that’s it.

I don’t know if I’d vote for Trump or not. Probably would depend on who the candidates are for president. I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t vote for him. I might. I don’t know if he can do what he says he can do. He might be able to, he might not.

WS: But, you voted for Obama, right?

JK: Heh. I don’t wanna talk about it. I did. I wanted the change. I wanted to get change. To get change, I voted for Obama. We got a change, it went the wrong way. ’Course Bush didn’t do no good either, so. But, I think Obama is probably one of the worst presidents that I’ve ever seen.

WS: What’s your best advice on how to lead a good life?

JK: Drink a lot of beer.

And I drank a lot of beer. I don’t deny that. You had a lot of friends, years ago. You used to go here, used to go there. You could spend a few bucks and have a good night. Now you can’t even get a dinner for a few bucks. Like I said, laws are so strict now that you can’t really go out and have a beer. Probably attorneys had a lot to do with that, I don’t know, but that’s my thinking. All attorneys that would make money on this DWI thing.

Well, you go to court, you got a court charge, you got this charge, you got that charge—by the time you get a traffic ticket it costs you a hundred dollars for parking in a no parking or something. It’s ridiculous. All kinds of charges.

Advice, huh? Well, today, you have to mind your own business. Don’t get involved with nothin’ ’cause you don’t know what’s going to happen. Stay clear of everything, that’s all. Just mind your own business. Do your thing. You have to obey the laws, there’s no two ways about that. And half the time you don’t know when you’re breaking the law. I’m probably breaking the law right now, I don’t know.

Most of my friends are gone. All my buddies, most of ’em have kicked the bucket. I’m still here. But I’ve seen a big turnaround in this world. I was here before television. And, now everybody’s got a television in their pocket almost. Jesus. You got these phones that got cameras in the phone. You’ve probably got one of them.

But, I don’t have a cell phone. Don’t want a cell phone. Never going to have one.

When I go someplace, I don’t want nobody calling me up. That’s why I go, I go to get away from it. I don’t want someone calling me, hey when you comin’ home. Nope. That’s not for me.

It might be good for emergencies. I’m not saying it’s wrong. It’s good for emergencies. But they can track your cell phones, they can track your cameras—whatever you got in your pocket. Everybody knows who you are, when you are, where you are and where you’re going. You got GPS on it. You can’t get away from nothing. All the utility trucks got GPSs. They follow the truck day to day, hour by hour, they know where the vehicle is. You can’t even stop to go to the bathroom—they know when you did that. It’s just unbelievable.

WS: Do you have any regrets?

JK: Eh. Not really. I had a chance to go to G.E. when I got out of high school, but I decided not to go out. I was supposed to go to night school for higher mathematics and work with G.E. during the day shift in Pittsfield. But, I decided to stay home with my buddies. That’s probably the only regret I got. But, the rest of the time, I did all right. I had tough times. But, got through ’em okay.

WS: How many kids do you have?

JK: Well. I got three. I’m not going to elaborate any more on that one.

WS: Okay.

JK: Heh.

WS: Well, that’s all I have, do you have anything else you’d like to add?

JK: Well. You know, my wife and I’ve been married sixty-four years. And people today can’t get married for sixty days, before they got a divorce or somethin’ going. There’s no communication between people. You gotta work it out. You gotta work it out. Somethin’ happens, well, it happens. Work it out. Nobody wants to do that no more.

But, the other thing, just keep your nose clean. That’s all. Stay out of trouble. Which is hard to do. Seems like trouble comes when you’re not looking for it. It comes down a road. It comes in the mail. It comes over the phone. You don’t know which direction it’s comin’ from.