Friday, July 17, 2009

Making History

THE STEPtep -----On Wednesday night (7/15/09) in Coxsackie, 20 members of the governing board of the Greene County Historical Society gathered around a table in the Jessie Van Vechten Vedder Research Library. They proceeded to act upon a motion calling for approval of a big hand-over of property and responsibility. They voted unanimously in the affirmative. ------In doing so they resolved in effect that a risky mission that had been undertaken ten years ago under Society auspices has reached a point of culmination. Their Thomas Cole National Historic Site has grown into a sturdy young adult. Its further growth and development can now best be sustained, they resolved, by full independence from the parent. The Society’s governors accordingly endorsed “the creation of a separate State-chartered corporation…for the ownership, operation and development of [the Cole Site], to exist and be governed and managed by the new entity independent of the…Society.”

------Those words were part of a Memorandum of Understanding that had been drafted by three of the Society’s board members and three trustees of what is officially a committee of the Society and is functionally a semi-autonomous Cole Site directorate. The MOA frames a request to the Regents of the University of the State of New York. It invites the Regents to grant a provisional charter to a new corporate entity that is endowed with resources transferred from the Society. The new entity would own and operate what is sometimes depicted as the birthplace of the first distinctly American school of art.

If the Regents grant the charter, a new non-profit agency would come into being. It would acquire from the Historical Society, by way of a contract to be approved by both parties, ownership of the several real properties and the many objects, the historical treasures, that physically comprise the Cole Site. It also would acquire full responsibility for operating that Site in keeping with the aims that motivated the start of its restoration--its rescue from oblivion—just ten years ago. It would inherit from the Society the duties that were specified nine years ago, in the Federal law designating the Site as an affiliated area of National Park System:

(1) to preserve and interpret the home and studio of Thomas Cole for the benefit, inspiration, and education of the people of the United States;

(2) to help maintain the integrity of the setting in the Hudson River Valley region that inspired artistic expression;

(3) to coordinate the interpretive, preservation, and recreational efforts of Federal, Stae, and other entities in the Hudson Valley region in order to enhance opportunities for education, public use, and enjoyment; and

(4) to broaden understanding of the Hudson River Valley region and its role in American history and culture.

------The contemplated transition would be a natural step. Restoration of the derelict Cole site and its cultivation as an incubator of art in the 19th century marked quite a departure, a potentially expensive departure, from traditional Historical Society operations. The board’s decision to take on the project was prompted primarily by County Historian Raymond Beecher, who backed his advocacy with a personal pledge of $100,000.

From its earliest days, the Cole Site project was managed by a Historical Society committee which operated in a semi-independent manner. The committee’s members were not all Society board members and, indeed, its chairpersons for the past six years have been ‘outsiders.’ The Site acquired its own bank account, rank-and-file members, paid staff, volunteers, and fund-raising operations. Year by year, by every conventional measure—attendance, staffing, programs, members, sales, new projects, revenues—its performance has improved.

------In voting to endorse the bid for a Regents’ charter for the “Cole House Group,” the Historical Society’s trustees concurred with the present Site Committee’s judgment that full autonomy would be mutually beneficial. The Society would be relieved of auditing, maintenance, and overhead costs. The Site Committee would be in a stronger position to win grants and bequests, and in other ways to fulfill its mission.


The contemplated change in Cole Site governance also would bring to pass what had been anticipated by the project’s founding father: Ray Beecher. And that fact provides me with a suitable pretext for recalling what took place on May 9th at the Cole Site, Cedar Grove. The occasion was a memorial service, rich with tributes from a host of speakers, for Mr Beecher. The main speaker was David Barnes, a member of the Cole Site board. Ray Beecher, said Mr Barnes,

He was born in New York City in 1917 with the perfect pedigree to predict a lifelong love of history: he was a 14th-generation descendent of George Baxter, English secretary to Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch colonial governor of New Amsterdam. At the age of ten, Ray and his family moved to Greene County, and we can only imagine how taken he must have been with his new surroundings, this boy who would stay here for the rest of his life, and grow up to chronicle its history like no one before or since.

Service is a word that would become synonymous with Ray, and he began by serving in World War II, leading men…in the Asiatic-Pacific and European theaters of operation, displaying an ability to get people to do things that would become very familiar to anyone who worked with him on future projects he undertook [including] the battle to save Thomas Cole’s home.

It’s hard to imagine a longer life more full of accomplishments than Ray Beecher’s incredible life. But I think he considered no accomplishment greater than his 50-year marriage to Catharine Shaffer Beecher. And rightly so; after all, there’s no 4-year degree, no masters or doctoral program that will teach you as much about life…as a half century of marriage….

For over 50 years he was a proud member of the Greene County Historical Society, and his love for this beautiful area was unsurpassed: he learned more about it than anyone, and devoted his life to preserving it and educating people about it as historian, preservationist and author. Indeed, “Action” would also be synonymous with Ray Beecher, and it would be hard to find someone working more actively in every capacity for the Historical Society he valued so highly. He was constantly researching and discovering… and making sure when objects or documents were involved that the owners of that history understood its value, both to them and to future generations. He was always cultivating volunteers, donors, people who might leave their estate to the Greene County Historical Society or the Vedder Research Library. He was extremely successful at this, as Ray Beecher was an excellent businessman…. He helped fund construction of the Vedder Research Library on the grounds of the Greene County Historical Society’s Bronck House Museum site in Coxsackie, and served as volunteer librarian there for many years.

I always loved letters from Ray,…written longhand on both sides of his Greene County Historian stationery. They were always chockfull of information – estates he was helping to settle, the countless organizations to which he belonged and volunteered his time, new discoveries from his never-ending research, and always questions – did I know such and such historical figure? had I heard of so and so artist? As he did in person, he always found a way to let you know how old he was – “As I am sure you know old age is creeping up on me and I get tired and weary some days. The cane is helpful. I should be in a retirement home but I dread the thought.” (Jan. 2005). But those were only momentary lapses – then in the next sentence he would return to his passion: “Today the sun is out and I am sitting by the window rereading my six Thomas Cole letters of 1843 to Henry Cheever Pratt. I had forgotten how much information they contain.”

…In the Introduction to his collection of Letters From a Revolution 1775-1783: A Selection From the Bronck Family Papers at the Greene County Historical Society published in 1973 (when Ray was serving as both Trustee and Officer of the Greene County Historical Society) that he edited for the New York State American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, Ray sums up beautifully the quality that made his style of scholarship so special: “…To mention the wars in American history is to conjure up images of pitched battles between uniformed men glimpsed through clouds of white smoke and flashes of orange fire. The American Revolution is a case in point. The confrontation of Minute Men and British at Lexington Green and Concord Bridge, Washington crossing the Delaware to attack Trenton, the Battle of Yorktown – these are the images we first see in our mind’s eye. When one reduces the Revolution to New York State, the process repeats itself. The dramatic capture of Fort Ticonderoga, the Battles of Long Island, Saratoga…--these are the highlights of our first reactions.”

But this is not the kind of history Ray writes about. He continues: “Rarely do we view the Revolution in the context of the daily existence of a quiet community where no monumental military deeds took place, where men and women suffered without bleeding and fought without seeing their enemy, where the war was first a series of civilian sacrifices and only occasionally a letter or visit from the man who fought the battles recounted in the histories.”

The Coxsackie-Catskill area of New York State was such a community during the Revolution. No significant military actions took place there, but its role in the Revolution was nonetheless important. The citizens of this strategically located area made distinctive contributions to the American cause through the more than six years the military conflict was sustained. There is no glamour in producing foodstuffs, draft animals, and fire wood, but without heat, pack trains and rations the American army would have suffered even more than it did. And these were the services to the American cause most of the population was called upon to give, not only in this one small area but elsewhere. The life described in the papers published here was disjointed by Revolution in ways that were seldom dramatic but usually representative.

And that was one of Ray’s special gifts: to extract the value and significance of everyday experience from the people that came before us – to bring everyday history to life – and in doing so, to reveal a more universal experience than the history of great figures and events that we read in school. And within that scale, those everyday lives had more than their share of drama and interest. In the history he wrote about most – in his five books that he wrote, edited, or collaborated on, his years of Greene Gleanings columns, newsletters and historical journals, he is a genre painter, sketching those scenes of everyday life that strike us with their universality, rather than a painter of grand historical events.

In the Foreword to his 1977 book Out to Greenville: Historical Sketches of Greene County, Ray states simply why he does what he does: This series of sketches seeks to focus the reader’s attention on events and individuals that helped to shape Greene County’s history. None are of national or even statewide importance. Rather they are part of the daily routine of its residents – they add insight into life in Greene County in the nineteenth century. Why would someone devote a lifetime to this kind of history? Ray tells us himself in the conclusion to the same Foreword: The writing and publication of local history is a service-oriented effort; financial gain is not a goal. The reward comes from the public’s increased awareness of Greene County’s historical background. That is what drove Ray’s passionate, endless curiosity about the history of this beautiful area – the hope that he could help us know more, and appreciate better, the historical background of where we live – and that we might then be inspired, like he was, to do something with that appreciation.

He viewed his scholarship, what it might produce, as he viewed nearly everything he did: as a public service. And the public rewarded him for it: among Ray’s many awards were the Alf Evers Award for Excellence given by the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, a Doctor of Humane Letters presented by Hartwick College, his undergraduate alma mater, and he became in 2002 the first person ever to be named a “Greene County Treasure” by the Greene County Legislature, whose proclamation reads, in part, “Through his wisdom, hard work and generosity, Greene County has been immeasurably enriched. As a soldier, educator, historian, churchman, writer, philanthropist, and public servant, Dr. Raymond Beecher is truly one of Greene County’s treasures.”

Thomas Cole’s House

The passion of Ray’s last years became Cedar Grove. Once again, as he had done so many times throughout his life, Ray stepped forward – after some convincing (remember, he was an excellent businessman, and no excellent businessman would have looked at the ruin that was Cedar Grove in 1998 and say instantly, “yes, this looks like a great investment.”) But he put up his own money, famously recounted by Ray himself in the shortest acceptance speech in history when we tried to honor him on this very lawn at the 2001 bicentennial of Cole’s birth: “It took all my beer money.” And like everything else he became involved with, Ray knew more about it than anyone else. Once on board, Ray gave us the vision of what Cedar Grove could be today. Ray was adamant that Cedar Grove never become just another “historic home” filled with period furnishings. He wanted Cedar Grove to be a vital, dynamic force in education and scholarship, those touchstones of Ray’s career.

Ray’s Passing

Now I’ve always shared William Saroyan’s view of death, which is that I know “Everybody has got to die, but I always believed an exception would be made in my case.” Indeed, every passing year that saw Ray as productive as ever seemed to confirm my belief that an exception had been made in his case, as well.

My last letter from Ray, in March 2008, found him the same as always. “I plug away on my new book,” he wrote, while still going to his beloved research library three times a week, to earn his “beer money” as County Historian. He would let on how frustrating it was to grow old: “I wish my painful bones and muscles were as good as my mind.” This from the same man who well into his 80s would tie a rope around his waist, secure the other end, then lower himself over the river bank of his property in order to cut the brush back to clear the view!

Ray passed away peacefully at his family home overlooking the Hudson River in Coxsackie. Of course, when someone lives to be 91 years old, as Ray did, we’re not supposed to feel cheated. But because of the kind of person Ray was, I think he could’ve lived to be 191 and we’d still feel cheated. I don’t think we feel too differently today than William Cullen Bryant felt when he said, in his funeral oration for Thomas Cole, that

His departure has left a vacuity which amazes and alarms us. It is as if the voyager on the Hudson were to look toward the great range of the Catskills, at the foot of which Cole, with a reverential fondness, had fixed his abode, and were to see that the grandest of its summits had disappeared – had sunk into the plain from our sight.

A historian to the end, found on his desk after he died were four shining paragraphs of what would’ve been a superb article he was writing about Cedar Grove for our Winter Newsletter.

I met Ray at the same time I began learning about Thomas Cole, and for me, the two are forever linked – kindred spirits, if you will. For as surely as Thomas Cole is the father of the Hudson River School, Raymond Beecher is the father of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site.

Consider how alike they are, Thomas Cole and Raymond Beecher: they both had beautiful homes on the west side of the Hudson River; both men were gentle souls, loved by those who knew them, but with a fire inside. They both astonished their contemporaries with their incredible energy, their extraordinary capacity for hard work. And they were both prolific in their accomplishments.

Thomas Cole drew our attention to the natural wonders around us, and hoped to raise awareness of its value before it was too late. For the last fifty plus years, Raymond Beecher drew our attention to the natural and historic wonders still around us, and not only raised our awareness of their value, but saved them from the wrecking ball when he had to.

And just as Thomas Cole inspired generations of artists, so has Raymond Beecher set an example that inspires not only those of us here today, but generations to come.

But for me, what these two wonderful men share most is a passion for life that goes right to the heart of who Thomas Cole and Raymond Beecher are. For as Thomas Cole was an artist, so Raymond Beecher was an artist, too.

The most visible creators I know of are those artists whose medium is life itself.

The ones who express the inexpressible – without brush, canvas, clay or guitar.

They neither paint nor sculpt – their medium is being.

Whatever their presence touches has increased life.

They see and don’t have to draw.

They are the artists of being alive.

Indeed, Ray’s life was a masterpiece. But the greatest legacy he left us – greater than the treasures his beer money secured, and arguably greater than the history he uncovered for us – is right here under this tent. Where there was one Ray Beecher – and there will never be another like him – there are now hundreds of us, here and elsewhere, capable of service and action. I think he saw that the work he began was going to be continued, that he’d left it in hands that were capable, enthusiastic, and appreciative of all he’d done.

But don’t take my word for it. If you see the interview with Ray in the documentary playing in the gift shop, when he’s asked about the future, you’ll see that beautiful smile spread across his face, and that twinkle come into his eye, as he says, “I’m optimistic.” It’s because of us. We should be optimistic, too – because with Ray as our guiding spirit and inspiration, we can not only complete the dreams

Ray ran out of time to finish, we should believe we can accomplish anything.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

and kudos to the many dedicated board members who've worked on behalf of the Thomas Cole House treasure to get it to "young adulthood". Mr. Beecher set forth a great model and let's keep the success going