Q & A with Woodstock Town Historian, Richard Heppner

Last winter, when I caught the history bug while writing The Pocket Guide to Woodstock, I discovered the town’s best attic, more properly known as the Historical Society’s archives housed upstairs in the Town Hall building. There’s a table where old timers gather on Sunday mornings to trade tales while trying to identify faces in old photos. Local landscapes by arts colony painters hang on the walls. Orderly storage boxes line the shelves, tempting a newcomer like me to create havoc by rummaging around for whatever catches my fancy. The place is a haven for distraction.

One day, searching (in vain) for the perfect photo of a hippie (preferably naked) on the Village Green during the wild and woolly Sixties, I found instead a shot of a towering, obese-bellied snowman on the Village Green admired by young men with shaggy, late-Seventies era mustaches. They gazed up triumphantly at their creation, Frosty the Buddha on the Village Green. Innocent fun? Not at the time, as Richard Heppner, the Woodstock Town Historian, told me. This photo had run in an outraged newspaper as the Snowman Scandal, for the young men were in a federal employment program, being vilified for blowing tax dollars on building a snowman after a blizzard.

Today, of course, the story is worth a good chuckle. Only a scrooge wouldn’t wish that all government waste could be so charming. And King Frosty didn’t finish melting until spring, lasting longer than many federal expenditures. I could appreciate why Richard Heppner has made these archives his lair. He’s surrounded by stories. Compared to the present, the past seems both innocent and exotic, a time when people didn’t know better yet still had the gumption to try things we wouldn’t.

When I asked Richard what a town historian does, he shrugged and said, Basically, answer questions for people like you. I suspect he does a whole lot more. He writes articles for the Woodstock Times. He has published two recent books, Women of the Catskills and Remembering Woodstock. Since 1988, he has worked at Orange County Community College as a teacher and an administrator. His wife, Deborah, is President of the Historical Society of Woodstock. They have curated a wonderful new summer exhibit at the Society’s house on Comeau Drive, After the War was Over: Post WWII Woodstock and the Building of a Community.

On Sunday, July 8th, as part of our “Woodstock Celebration” for The Pocket Guide to Woodstock at the Comeau Property, Richard will lead a tour at 2:30 pm of the Comeau house, where he’ll discuss the family that owned the place for decades as their summer estate.

Here’s a conversation that Richard and I had by e-mail.

Will Nixon: What got you interested in Woodstock history?

Richard Heppner: I’ve always been interested in history. As a kid, that’s all I ever read. I think it came from my grandfather who grew up on a farm in the Catskills. He would constantly tell me stories about his early life (the kind where he walked to school through five feet of snow). In my junior year at SUNY Albany I stumbled into a New York State history course taught by a professor who I still remember (Dr. Forrest). I loved his courses and took everything he taught. His main premise was that history is created by people, not generals, Presidents or the church, etc. In other words, real history is found in the individual lives of the people within a community; the people who do the living and the dying, perform the work, raise the kids, struggle to keep pay bills and, unfortunately, have to occasionally fight the wars the generals and the Presidents and the church wage. So, when you look at it that way, you realize that if you really want to understand history, you need to understand the past within the context of your immediate world. It all flows from there. Kind of like small streams that eventually flow into a larger river. (There’s more to that metaphor, but I’ll spare you.)

Will Nixon: What’s the biggest myth about this town?

Richard Heppner: Easy one… the 1969 Woodstock Festival. People still e-mail me or come to the Historical Society looking for where it took place. While humorous in a small way, I worry that if we as a community attach ourselves too much to the festival and that myth (through business and commerce, for example), it will eventually eclipse our real history. Woodstock has an incredible history in its own right, including music. We don’t need to generate a fictionalized history.

Will Nixon: What’s a surprising part of Woodstock’s past that fascinates you but seems to have escaped popular notice?

Richard Heppner: Not so easy… Too many choices:
A specific example would be that Woodstockers once owned slaves. Before New York outlawed slavery in 1827, it wasn’t all that uncommon to run across a slave in Woodstock working the fields or performing domestic work. People have suggested that since they were “northern slaves,” it wasn’t all that bad. That drives me nuts. They were slaves! Human beings owned by other human beings and Woodstock must share in that national shame.

More positively, and a hint at where Woodstock individualism derives from, I am constantly amazed by the sheer physical struggle it took to put down roots in Woodstock during the late 18th century and early 19th century. Woodstock and the Catskills were the frontier. To survive, to have a family survive, was no sure thing.

I also love the history of the Down Rent War that Woodstock was part of. It’s an early version of the 99% versus the 1%, as tenant farmers rose up against the wealthy landlords of the day to earn the right to own their own land. What goes around comes around.

Will Nixon: Of the many figures of Woodstock’s history, whom would you most liked to have met?

Richard Heppner: Hervey White. While many of us know the story of the Maverick and the Maverick Festivals, there are few people in our town’s history that come through being such a wonderfully good and decent person. (And none to shabby when it came to the “intellectual” department.) I’ve wondered at times if he ever got mad at anything or anyone? And, while his contributions to our town’s history are second-to-none, it is his character, to me, that stands out above everything. Did you know, for example, that during a major influenza epidemic, Hervey White traveled about town (putting his own health in harm’s way) helping an overworked doctor ease what suffering they could? I mean who does that? Like I said, history starts with people and what they do with their day once they wake up in the morning.

Will Nixon: This town has gone through many transformations. In the 19th century we had glassblowing factories and tanneries. In the 20th the arts colony followed by the Sixties. Now we have tourists and weekenders. What lies in our future?

Richard Heppner: Actually, we’ve had tourists since the second half of the 19th century when the local folk began to realize they could earn more from what people (visitors) saw in the land than what they (the locals) could take from the land. As a result up went the Overlook Mountain House, Meads, etc. So, tourists (or “trudgers,” as Holley Cantine called them in the 1950s when he fought the local business community as it turned more and more towards accommodating weekend visitors) are nothing new. Getting stuck trying to exit Rock City Road on a Saturday, I’m afraid, will be with us for a while.

The good thing about being Town Historian, as opposed to being a council person, etc., is that I don’t get to spend much time thinking about the future. It’s not in the job description. What is in that description, however, is that I do what I can to preserve our history for future generations of Woodstockers. How they will handle it or interpret it is up to them. What I think they will find, however, is, as Lincoln said, you cannot escape history. We aren’t separate from our past or each other. Rather, each of us is part of a combining experience that becomes our community.

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The Mother Grouse Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges available on-line.

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