“Sugar Shack”

March 28, 2011

Peter Lavalle tending the boiling Maple Syrup at Platte Creek Maple Farm, Saugerties, NY


OVER THE YEARS I’ve given my readers a “peek” into my life behind my role as editor of this publication — “Splitting Wood” back in March of ’96; “The Stone Wall” in May ’04, “Autumn in New York” in November of ’07, and “City Boy, Country Boy” in May of last year — a life that I jealously guard along with the solitude it guarantees me. If you’ve kept track over the years, I’ve given glimpses into my home and environs that is situated on a 2-acre plot on a dead-end road about half-way between the villages of Woodstock and Saugerties, New York — even some first-hand glimpses to those who’ve managed to break my barrier of isolation for a short visit (the “stone wall” described in May of 2004 serves as a visible warning to the idle curious).

Anyway, this time I want to share another peek into my life in the woods — a visit to the “Sugar Shack” about a mile down the road from me. Many don’t know that it is, in fact, not Vermont but New York State that leads the country in the production of maple sugar — and one need only visit Platte Creek Maple Farm’s “Sugar Shack” in Saugerties, New York to see why. Set back a few hundred feet from the road on a piece of woodland riven by a meandering brook, the “Sugar Shack” is a one-story wooden building that deceptively hides a high-tech operation which converts raw maple sap into one of America’s favorite pancake toppings behind its rustic walls — pure maple syrup. For country-living cognoscenti, the maze of plastic lines running from surrounding sugar-maple trees and converging on the “Shack” give away the game that is largely hidden behind leafy foliage during the rest of the year. But come early Spring — when cold nights are followed by warming days — the sap begins to rise and the shack begins to fill its waiting containers. Then the day comes when smoke arises from the open-end gable atop the roof and all the neighbors know that the process has begun! This year, the event was heralded by an open-house featuring free pancakes, sausages, ham, and — of course — fresh maple syrup! It was not long before the little parking lot and adjoining woods were awash in cars and people  — Cornelia and I among them. We wondered at this close-up view of the building and operation — having passed it almost daily on our way to the Post Office but never having actually driven in to take a close look.

We are not exactly greenhorns when it comes to making maple syrup — having tapped the maple trees on our own property in our early years and boiling down the raw sap into syrup — a ratio, incidentally, of 40 to 1 — i.e. it takes forty pints of raw sap to make one pint of syrup — and a considerable amount of labor in getting and cutting wood for the process during the preceding season. We did that for several years, until the sheer labor of it finally got to us. The next best thing then, was to visit the “Sugar Shack” — its two overhanging eaves on both sides of the structure sheltering the fire-stove-sized cut logs. As we approached, several young bloods were steadily feeding the large cast-iron wood-burner sitting in the middle of the floor inside, while others cooked up food and skimmed the boiling container of fresh sap being converted into “country sweetness” into waiting cruets — trying to keep up with a hungry horde led by their noses and appetites taking it all in. Yep — give me the rural life; you can keep your city traffic, crowds, parking meters, and noise. I’ll just visit now and then to take in a promising art exhibit.


Robert H. Angeloch: 1922—2011

March 22, 2011


And so, another Woodstock artist passes from life to the archival records of past legends. Although I’d met and known Bob before I profiled him in the local daily in nearby Kingston, New York  — The Sunday Freeman — in March of 1984, it was not until he sat and shared a couple of hours with me in his studio for the interview that I really got to know a bit about both the artist and the man. Like many artists, Bob was a bit reluctant to allow me too far inside his head — that is, until he found out that I had moved to neighboring West Hurley in 1945 and had harbored secret urgings to follow the path of art myself, bicycling past the then summer school of the Art Students League along the (also then) old Woodstock-Saugerties Turnpike and imagining the real artists laboring over easels behind its imposing stone walls. Today, of course, the still-imposing stone building is now the Woodstock School of Art and the old turnpike translated by state mandate into Route 212 — a transition, incidentally — of the building anyway — that boasts the fingerprints of none other than Robert H. Angeloch.

By the Spring of 1984, however, as I sat in his studio on Summers Lane, Bob had already carved out a substantial niche in the long roster of Woodstock notables, already an established award-winning artist, teacher and gallery owner — the Paradox on Mill Hill Road. He’d come to Woodstock in 1948, another WWII vet who first dipped his feet into the artistic milieu at the League’s NYC facility on 57th St., coming to see for himself what had been dubbed by his pre-war forerunners as the “best landscape school” in the world. He was not disappointed — in fact, he was even instrumental in bringing others up to Woodstock through his participation in a joint League/US Army film that urged veterans to consider an art career, both the League’s NYC and Woodstock facilities featured in the film that followed the character he portrayed through, first choosing classes in NYC, then moving up to the Woodstock Summer School. It would not be long before Bob would immerse himself in the Hudson Valley landscape that had been luring artists up to the foothills of the Catskills since the 1800’s — to finally settle into his studio surrounded by long-familiar ‘friends’ of trees, streams, woods, mountains and fields.

We sat amid hundreds of “works-in-progress” in that studio — i.e. sketches that might or might not have major or minor roles in future projects — as he told me his story. He was reluctant at first to share his sketchbooks (many artists are since they are, in fact, akin to personal diaries), only handing them over after I had revealed my own youthful aspirations. What they — and he — revealed that day — and long after we became better acquainted through the years — was a man who had a reverence for life, a keen sense of his own humility in the face of nature, and a man not unwilling to halt his own progress to help a fellow seeker along the way. I regret never having taken a class with him — but then he was one of the many who advised me to avoid classes and simply to follow my own inner promptings. He, like so many others,  helped to flesh out the main character in my novel about Woodstock, The Mountain.

Most of all, I regret that he is no longer with us. He exuded a rough, rugged exterior that — as all who really knew him soon discovered — hid a soft, sentimental heart.

Passing of Another Woodstock Legend

March 12, 2011


The recent death of artist Bruce Currie closes yet one more door on Woodstock’s illustrious past as America’s “go-to” art colony. The ending of World War II breathed new life into New York City’s Art Student League as it languished under a dearth of students during the war years. Almost overnight — with the help of a movie made by the League under the auspices of the U.S. Government (starring, incidentally, another Woodstocker and colleague of Currie’s, Robert Angeloch) that urged homecoming soldiers to seek a career in art — both their New York City and Woodstock summer school facilities suddenly burgeoned with budding artists. Already enjoying an international reputation as “the world’s best landscape school” before the devastating war years, the League’s summer sessions once again drew applicants from across the expanse of the United States, among the many who crowded Woodstock’s two main rural thoroughfares being Bruce Currie — a genuine decorated war hero from Iowa who quickly translated his dedication as a soldier to that of a dedicated artist. I profiled Bruce for a local newspaper — one month, in fact, before we founded ART TIMES in August of 1984. A gentle, soft-spoken man, as I sat in his studio on Boggs Hill Road, I quickly learned why he more than held his own in a competitive art colony of would-be ‘famous’ artists — and, make no mistake, Woodstock had many such, attracting back in those days reporters from NYC publications (including the Times) to cover shows at the Woodstock Artists Association on Tinker Street. No longer just a “landscape school”, the mixed bag of artists that had descended on Woodstock from across America and beyond assured the League of a variety of “new” ideas — abstraction, one among many. Currie soon developed his own unique vision, a subtle blend of realism and abstraction that soon made others take notice — including New York City galleries that eagerly sought to represent him. This, in turn, brought him more solo shows, more recognition, more awards, until he was a force in his own right. Currie, along with many of his Woodstock contemporaries, served as exemplars for the main character in my novel The Mountain. I had profiled most of Woodstock’s “second wave” over the past 35 years and almost without exception each contributed to the amalgamation that would become “Jake” in his coming-of-age in my novel on the Woodstock artscene. Bruce, as well as being an artist to know, was also a man to know. I, along with much of Woodstock, will miss his quiet presence.