Looking forward to looking back

Photo of the men’s dorm prior to its demolition (courtesy of William B. Rhoads)

Susan Stessin-Cohn launches New Paltz Historical Society and hopes to memorialize unmarked graves at former Ulster County Poorhouse with Trina Greene sculpture

Historical photos of the Ulster County Poorhouse, circa 1940, (courtesy of Gail Logan)

The study of history is an exercise in discovery, or it’s nothing at all, says Susan Stessin-Cohn. She speaks from experience. Stessin-Cohn’s investigation into some musty old ledgers some 15 years ago culminated in a discovery whose ramifications continue to echo across the centuries.

Stessin-Cohn knew that Ulster County once built and maintained a poorhouse for indigent citizens. Throwing the poor, the mad and the sick into the county home was about as far as Ulster, or any other county in the state, would go for people with nowhere else to turn. The building stood until the late 1970s out on the outskirts of New Paltz, on Libertyville Road.

What Stessin-Cohn discovered those years ago was that the homeless and sick were treated no better in death than they were in life. At least 2,100 forgotten souls were unceremoniously buried for decades in scattered, unmarked graves across the property.

   If you’ve ever visited the Ulster County Fairgrounds, you may tread on the graves of men, women and children whose bodies were often not even afforded coffins, their remains dumped in graves so shallow that their bones sometimes became visible decades later in the grounds’ underbrush.

The poorhouse and its forgotten victims have never left Stessin-Cohn’s awareness. She lobbied back then for county dollars to create a memorial, an effort that enjoyed only modest success. More recently, county officials have approached her in hopes of creating a worthier memorial.

History may be Stessin-Cohn’s passion, but acting on the discoveries that her research has uncovered is an equal passion – which is why she’s involved in two projects just now: the creation of a New Paltz Historical Society and a new memorial for what Stessin-Cohn has called “the most tragic place in the county.”

Stessin-Cohn (pictured to the left in photo by Jeremiah Horrigan), who has had a long career as a teacher and a teacher of teachers, has had the idea of establishing a town historical society for some time, she said last week. Her appointment a year ago as one of the New Paltz town historians cemented that desire, and with the enthusiastic cooperation of the Town Board, she’s getting ready to launch the idea – to make it happen – next month.

Lest anyone think that the Huguenot Historical Society completely covers New Paltz, historically speaking, Stessin-Cohn has a ready answer: “There’s all kinds of history: Dutch history, slave history, Native American history, you name it,” she said.

And it’s not that she – or the society of history spelunkers that she hopes to attract – will have to look far for historical riches: The town has long been in possession of 19 boxes of historical records dating back to 1667. Stessin-Cohn’s eyes light up at the mention of the boxes – “ten cubic feet of them,” she said.

She’s “obsessed” by a variety of history-flavored practices: She has created dozens of historical quilts. Every morning, she transcribes a single day’s entry from Julia Lawrence Hasbrouck’s voluminous mid-18th-century diary onto an eponymous blog (see https://frommypenandpower.wordpress.com/). She describes it as a way of getting “in the zone” with her research: a condition that you’ll hear other passionate people – actors, athletes – describe as both necessary to their work and the joyous reason why they do it in the first place. History, she said, “is about being there within them; that’s the whole point of doing history.”

She said that the value of history for her can be summarized in the term “sankofa”: a word in the Akan language of Ghana that is symbolized by the image of a bird with its head turned backwards. The word is translated to mean, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”

If she at times appears to be a one-woman dynamo (“I don’t sleep a lot,” she explains), Stessin-Cohn insists that the discovery and investigation of history are not a solo project. So with the creation of a townwide historical society, she’s looking for history buffs, experts and beginners of every stripe to join her as she puzzles out the evidence of the past. “And you know another thing about history? It’s not just about the past,” she said.

That brings her to the her other current project: a renewed public effort to remember those thousands of forgotten people at the fairgrounds site – an effort that she said will draw on contemporary information to demonstrate the multiple uses of historical knowledge.

The area that was the site of the Ulster County Poorhouse (demolished in 1985) and its associated cemetery (still there, though mostly unmarked) is now home to the County Fairgrounds and Public Pool. (courtesy of Ulster County Planning Department & Information Services

In a reversal of the way in which she first lobbied county officials 15 years ago to memorialize the county poorhouse, county officials came to her with the idea to upgrade the dilapidated remnants of what the county provided back when. Stessin-Cohn has already arranged to have local sculptor Trina Greene begin work on a statue commemorating the forgotten ones. The county is committed to providing $15,000 toward the effort; Stessin-Cohn expects to launch a crowdfunding effort to raise at least another $20,000. The memorial will include a kiosk not only detailing the historical abuses of the poorhouse, but also bringing contemporary issues of poverty and health care into the picture as well.

In that way, visitors to the fairgrounds will have a chance to experience something more than the thrills of the midway. They’ll have a chance to experience for themselves the meaning of sankofa. They’ll be able to go back to a shocking history that may be more resonant than they would ever have imagined.


New Paltz Historical Society inaugural meeting, Thursday, October 8, 7 p.m., free, New Paltz Community Center, 3 Veterans’ Drive, New Paltz. For more information, call (845) 255-2351.

To read more about the history of the Ulster County Poorhouse, check out this great link: https://ulstercountyny.gov/poorhouse.

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