In the Cathedral of the Shawangunks
- by Bruce E. McKinney
Back when the world was small, when the trip from Ohioville to New Paltz in rural New York State was a one mile school bus ride the edges of my world ran from New Jersey far to the south, Pleasant Valley to the east, Kingston to the north and the Shawangunk Mountains to the west. I was seven more or less [in 1953] and understood all roads ended where five dollars of gas ran out or the car broke down. My mother’s woody Chevrolet was a big improvement on her 1937 Buick that had required a stout leg to depress the clutch. Armored cars today weigh less than that svelte beauty that was my mother’s first car. Of necessity you knew every garage in southern Ulster County because you needed them when the car started sputtering.
In the mid 1950’s my parents, Adelaide [AKK] and Tom, who published weekly newspapers in Highland in a hogarthian maze of mostly cast-me-down linotypes and presses, also printed the occasional newspaper for the Lake Minnewaska Mountain Houses that were owned by the A. H. Smiley family and run by Ken Phillips, a local man risen from a job in the hotel’s garages in the late 1920s to become owner in the 1950s. In that era the two wooden Minnewaska hotels, Cliff House and Wildmere, were substantial and aging, freighted with style, signal witnesses to their extraordinary history but well past their peaks.
That Ken and his wife Lucille would come to own Minnewaska seemed a remote impossibility in the 1940's but Alfred Fletcher Smiley and his wife Ruth, who were carrying substantial debt, had no adult heirs capable of operating the resort. As his interest was personal financial continuity, Smiley sold the corporation's common stock to the Phillips family who thereby assumed the debt and allowed the Smileys to maintain their resort lifestyle. It was in effect a leveraged buy-out before the term was coined two decades later and Smiley would receive additional payment from the resort's cash flow. In this way one of the greatest American real estate assets of its and any era changed hands. The quality of the land assets was unquestioned even as the ability to generate sufficient cash flow from them always seemed in jeopardy. Beauty and cash flow in that era were not strongly linked and Minnewaska’s location was always just a little far and the roads just a little too steep when it snowed, to support year-round use. The hotels were open from May to September and the Phillips needed luck and good weather to earn enough to pay the Smileys and carry the entire enterprise forward into the next year. But for a while they did.
The value of the properties’ 10,700 acres that ran along the Shawangunk ridge and flowed west toward Cragsmoor was not an issue while real estate taxes were low. The land was difficult to develop for these scenic mountains were granite but the property supported in addition to the two hotels on Lake Minnewaska, for a time, a variety of large homes, boarding houses and a summer camp on Lake Awosting. Both Lake Awosting and Lake Minnewaska provided all of the water for the developments that surrounded them. But real estate taxes in that era were becoming important to communities as their principal way to raise revenue to fund schools, build and maintain highways and support municipal services. Local options were otherwise restricted and so the taxes rose. Minnewaska, as one of the largest parcels in New York State and setting in many districts saw its taxes and fees rise steadily.
To the north other Smiley descendants, who owned an adjoining parcel, Mohonk, were also facing tax problems and therefore established a trust and shifted a significant percentage of their 4,000 + acres to it, thereby sheltering themselves from these increasingly ruinous taxes. The Phillips family, by the late 1960s was borrowing against their land holdings, and thereafter could not transfer any of their land into a similar trust to reduce the rising tax burden because the entire property secured the borrowing. Their bank, the First National Bank of Highland, was cooperative but as the loans became non-performing the Phillips faced certain foreclosure. This pressure ultimately led to the creation of the Minnewaska State Park as alternative development options [including redevelopment of the Minnewaska Resort in cooperation with the Marriott Corporation] became ensnared in state procedures and environmental achivism.
This was a sad story and a particularly difficult outcome for the Phillips’ son Ken, someone I knew well in the 1960’s into the mid 1970s. This was going to be his empire and should have been.
This past month, staying in Gardiner nearby the now Minnewaska State Park and there to see my brother and hike the Minnewaska trails as I have most of the past 60 summers, that day I drove west through the rock-cut at the hair-pin turn on Route 44-55 on my way to visit the Ulster County Historical Society and chanced to see first one and then a second sign for an antique shop and, given I was running early, reversed course to see what kind of things might be emerging from that section of the county known as the Trapps.
This was an area I knew well. I had spent six months at Camp Laurel on Lake Awosting in the mid 1950s, where my brother and I were walled off from the catastrophes my father was descending into.
In from the main highway the shop was set back into the woods and down a rolling hill, two people clear in my view as I approached, my mind instantly deciding the proprietor was the lady but I would be wrong. Approaching, I slowed to view debris assembled for sale, all of it seeming to be remnants of the Minnewaska I had known decades earlier; large mowers and other oversized pieces that once kept the place groomed and clear. To my left was a hay wagon of miscellaneous parts and kitchen things and to one side a few books. Four of them were familiar to me as “Proceedings of the Board of Supervisors, Ulster County, New York.” These were annual editions from the 1950s, each of them 400 pages bound in hard cover. My parents had type set and printed two of these annual editions in the 1950s and I wondered if these were my parents' editions.
In fact one was! It was the 1956 edition, one my father had told me was only printed in 5 copies, was and I noticed my parents' indicia on the title page; "The Hudson Valley Newspapers, Inc." My parents had bled to complete these editions and later could not speak of them without adding, “I need a drink.” Life for my parents would never later be harder. This had been their bottom, my father resorting to drinking and driving dangerously, my mother waiting through an endless series of accidents for an end one way or the other, these books the testing of their communal will and personal sanity. My father, between 1955 and 1957 totaled 7 cars and should have died but did not. Those books, the only complete books they ever attempted were the capstone of those troubled years and finding one of them seemed a benediction and a request that I, after these many decades, forgive him. He damaged my mother but harmed me more deeply. By his last crashed car I was ten.
In New Paltz where we lived in that era not much was secret. My father made it home from his last accident drunk and damaged. At 6:00 am, the police were at our door, our family doctor who had come over during the night, blocked the entrance to where my father was sleeping and wouldn’t let them see that he was drunk. I can still hear him saying “he can not be disturbed.”
Later Dr. DeWitt would press my father about his drinking and responsibilities and for the following 17 years until my father passed away in 1974 at the age of 61, he did not drink and drive again. In 1969 the McKinney children, Linda, Craig and myself arranged for our parents with the help of the Phillips, to take the long carriage ride from Minnewaska to Lake Awosting and we celebrated their 30th anniversary there with them. Minnewaska and Awosting are that deep in our bones and DNA.
Now looking away and walking straight ahead I said “so how much for the rubble on the cart?” The proprietor, an aging but fit man, gestured toward the books I had briefly examined and said a dollar a book to which I said, “that’s absurd” and then after a pause, “I won’t pay less than $20, to which he said “hey McKinney?” and I slowed down enough to let it set in that the voice was that of Ken Phillips, Jr., who I had last seen more than forty years ago.
The volume I wanted he would accept no payment for at all and I have since sent him a check for $75 for the three other volumes in the series I saw that day.
Two days later we met again, this time, to walk what is now the Minnewaska State Park, taking a brisk 10-mile hike out past Lake Minnewaska on the Hamilton Point Trail toward Lake Awosting and then returning by the Castle Point Road. Sharing that afternoon with us was Malcolm Todd, another 1950s Camp Laurel camper who had come over from Connecticut for the day. Ken, with a voice that falls away, relived the history of this place, stopping to remember his mother’s favorite view and other spots of near and actual disaster. He is the living history of this storied place and I came away thinking I will make it my business to see he and his parents receive permanent recognition for their 30-year stewardship. He did not come to own these mountains after all but they are of him and he of them.
Looking back, with the 1956 edition of the Ulster County Board of Supervisors back home in San Francisco and at this moment just to my left, I can remember what was and let the past go even though just six months ago I told my brother and sister I never would. And now, after a chance encounter with an old friend and a personally important very rare book, I have made peace with my father’s memory.
All wounds, that aren’t fatal, heal. This is the deepest message of this sacred place.