An Appreciation of Alf Evers
Not only to study history
but to make it
—a note found in Alf Evers’ papers
He was a man with a tremendous thirst for knowledge and he was very brilliant, yet with all his accumulated wisdom, he kept his great love of the people— all the people— high, low and in between. I worked very closely with him during the past eight years, and my feelings traversed from awe and respect to love and admiration. Like most brilliant people he had a vast and complicated life, and we can only trace some of its highlights here.
Alf Evers was born during a blizzard on February 2, 1905 near the Bronx Zoo, when the Bronx was a lot more rural than it is now. His mother, Ann Lukas Evers, was of Hungarian descent, and his father Ivar was Swedish. He had three sisters, Elizabeth, Barbara and Jeanne.
His father was a painter and architect and possessed some of the restless creativity of his son. He designed greenhouses for the White House in D.C., Alf once told me, and designed the curving glass and metal palm house at the Bronx Botanical Garden. Alf recalled that his dad liked to paint in the park near the Bronx Zoo. “He did very nice pictures of children playing in the park.” (Not long ago, Alf donated a number of Ivar Evers’ paintings to the Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz.)
It was ironic that someone who would live a hundred years (if you count the months inside his mother) was born sick and suffered so many illnesses as a child. In fact, Alf told me several times, “I was born with malaria.”
The family lived in a number of what had once been large old country houses, with their formal gardens faded with age, along the lower Hudson River. “I had one big old house,” he said, “with a tower from which we could look down the river and you got to know all the boats.”
The movies were in their infancy, and Alf recalled his baby sitter around 1912. “When she took me for walks,” he said, “she would usually take me to the movie studios (her boyfriend was a cameraman) so I spent a lot of time as a child watching films being made.”
Coming up the River
There was an economic downturn in architectural work, at least for Ivar Evers, just before World War I, and so the family moved to a farm in Tillson. Alf later recalled “the day in August 1914 when I walked down the gangplank of the Hudson River nightboat, Benjamin B. O’Dell and from there was driven in a horse-drawn surrey to the small Ulster County farm near Kingston on which my parents hoped to bring up their children close to nature.” It was his first view of the Rondout, which he would study so closely 80 years later.
Moving to New Paltz
Six years after moving to the farm in Tillson, the family moved to New Paltz so that Alf and his older sister Elizabeth could attend high school. “We considered Kingston,” Alf said, “but chose the New Paltz school as somewhat closer, but commuting proved difficult, so my parents gave up the farming venture and bought the old stone house in New Paltz known then as the Abraham Hasbrouck house, built in the early 1700’s, and began the first stage of its restoration.” When he was in his teens, which would have in the early 1920s, Alf worked restoring the Hasbrouck house, located on Huguenot Street.
Getting Involved in History
It was Alf’s ability to hang out, to absorb, to take it all in, such as when he would go with his family on outings along the Hudson, or with his baby sitter to watch silent pictures being made, that helped prepare Alf for his life’s work. The preparation continued during his years in New Paltz, beginning with the antique Huguenot house with all its early American furniture, and his father’s large library, which Alf was invited to share. “A good deal of his library was in French,” Alf told me not long ago. “I’d sit on his lap and he’d read from these big illustrated French histories. He’d read in French first, then translate, which gave me a start in French.
“During my high school years, my Sunday School teacher was Ralph LeFever, who was the author of The History of New Paltz and its Old Families, and who helped give me a taste for exploring the history of Ulster County and Kingston.
“Others who helped in my boyhood days to direct my attention to history included Byron Terwilliger, a simple country school teacher who collected Native artifacts and copied inscriptions from mossy old gravestones for genealogists, and whom I helped decipher early Ulster and Kingston French and Dutch documents for historical purposes.”
Another big influence on Alf was New Paltz psychologist Dr. Margaret K. Smith, who wrote an interesting essay on the lives of the women of the colonial Hudson Valley for the Dutchess County Historical Society. “She encouraged me,” Alf wrote later, “in my growing interest in the history of Kingston and Ulster County. Dr. Smith helped give me a useful grounding in psychology and hoped I would have chosen a career in that discipline.” Dr. Smith was in poor health, and Alf would visit her and read to her scholarly material in French and German, honing further his language skills.
Thinking of Becoming a Writer at 15
When he was young, he came across the works of Henry James. “I think I read all of Henry James by the time I was fifteen, especially those prefaces, and that made me think of writing. I’d always written verse, from the time I could talk, and made up little jingles and verse.” But, reading James’ prefaces, “I began to see that writing could be a serious and worthwhile thing.”
His friend Dr. Smith told Alf, “I sometimes think William James should have been the novelist and Henry James the psychologist.”
In 1925, Margaret Smith encouraged Alf to study psychology at Hamilton College, where she knew the president. Alf spent a year at Hamilton where he put to use his Hudson Valley skating skills. “I was on the hockey squad. Hockey I loved. I loved to spin along the ice.” He also became a close friend of fellow student B. F. Skinner who went on to achieve fame as a behavioral psychologist. Skinner had originally hoped to become a writer, just as Alf was considering becoming a psychologist. A few days days before he passed away, while he was writing the acknowledgements for his book on Kingston, Alf told me that “one of Skinner’s biographers described him and me as having exchanged ambitions for careers. He became a psychologist and I a writer.”
The Art Students League
In 1926, Alf left Hamilton to live in New York City to study painting and drawing at the prestigious Art Students League. It was one of the years in which Alexander Calder was also studying at the League. There Alf met Helen Bryant Baker, who was preparing herself to become a commercial artist.
Marriage and the Depression
They were married, and then the Great Depression fell with clouds of poverty upon the Nation, and indeed much of the world. For a while Alf worked as a Fuller brush man, selling door to door. More important for his writing, he took a job as an investigator of people doing business with life insurance companies, an occupation in which he learned basic techniques of research. “I would go out in the morning and prowl around and try to answer questions about people who had illnesses they were trying to hide or people who had something in their lives that led them to think that the insurance underwriters would think they weren’t good risks for insurance. I learned how to develop information and how to evaluate it.” Digging up secret facts became part of his persona, and of course by then he had to be fully aware of his ability to remember almost everything he experienced.
His wife Helen worked those years as an artist for Norcross greeting cards and Alf helped by composing captions and verses for the cards. They were living in Connecticut, where from around 1929 to ’31 he ran for political office. As for politics, his beliefs lay in the democratic left. He had been friends with the Socialist mayor of Schenectady, he once told me.
Coming to Woodstock and their First Children’s Story
Alf and Helen would have three children— Jane, Barbara and Christopher (Kit), and so it was a challenge to keep above the economic mire of the Depression when they moved to Woodstock from Connecticut around 1931 with baby Barbara and slightly older Jane. Christopher was born in 1940.
He brought with him his fully formed curiosity. One recollection Alf had was that he would go out with Woodstock Dr. George Lambert on housecalls to learn more about the town. Alf and Helen were living in a studio on Deming Street near the intersection with Sled Hill Road, when, one evening in 1932, in Woodstock Helen Evers said to Alf, “I’d like to illustrate a children’s book, why don’t you write a story.” So he did. It took him about a half hour. “It was a very brief picture story,” he later remembered, “called This Little Pig, about a pig whose tail was curly, but he wanted a straight tail, and how he got it. It was a humorous story and an immense success.
“My wife had a gift for drawing very charming little animals and people. I wrote the stories and did rough drawings.” Helen would then create the illustrations, “and gave them the charm she was able to give them.”
It was a very successful charm, and together the husband/wife team published something like 50 books for young children. There are adults all over the region who recall their parents reading to them from the Evers books, a number of which are still in print almost eighty years later. “We’d get out one a year,” said Alf, “and they were very profitable for us. I did a lot of lecturing at schools, and on radio programs. This was during the Depression.”
Even though it was the impoverished 1930s, the success gave them a chance to live a full middle class lifestyle. They had a living pattern still common in the lower Catskills. They kept an apartment in New York City for the winter months, and came to Woodstock for the warm times of year. They were able spend winters in Bermuda, where Alf painted some of his most interesting oils. The May 1938 issue of Children’s Life featured a letter from Helen and Alf Evers on vacation in Bermuda, plus a photo of a spiffily-suited Alf and his wife, and young daughters Jane and Barbara.
Alf made a number of fine paintings set in Woodstock, such as the outstanding one of the Shady Church, done in the 1930s, with Lake Hill in the background, that Doug James owns. Over the years I learned about Alf’s very occasional bouts of insecurity over his art. I was horrified once when he told me, “I burned all my poetry in 1928.” He also said during that conversation, “A lot of my paintings I burned,” though thankfully many excellent Alf Evers paintings survive. “I did drawings later on, in the late ’40s. I was having a lot of problems, and I did pen and ink drawings, semi-abstract, and those I still have. I always loved drawing.”
Part of the Woodstock Intellectual Milieu, and Awakening to History
In the 1940s the Evers purchased a house on Lewis Hollow Road, the setting for several of his finest paintings. They kept an apartment in the city for the cold months, and continued their collaborations. Alf and Helen separated in 1952. His wife moved away, but Alf remained close to Woodstock till the end.
In the years after his return to Ulster County, Alf later recalled, “I took up again the interest in the county and the past, which I had felt in my boyhood. I began accumulating files on the past.” Wow, did he collect files! Several rooms of his house by the Sawkill are literally packed with them!
After his separation from Helen, Alf became close to educator and folksinger Barbara Moncure. They were companions for many years until her death in the 1980s. Moncure’s 1963 album, recorded with Harry Siemsen, was Folksongs of the Catskills. With Moncure, Alf organized a series of three one-day folk festivals called Huckleberry Festivals during the summers. Alf recalled that “they were local people who sang or had something to say about folk matters— mostly singing, and I told folk stories in between. Barbara Moncure sang folk songs.” The first Huckleberry Festival was held at the Colony Center, the next year at the Parnassus Square barn, and the third year it was at the Maverick Concert Hall. “It was very successful,” said Alf. “I have a poster for it. The performers were almost all local. Holly Cantine’s Woodchuck Hollow Band played.”
Alf was deeply involved in the many artistic and intellectual currents of the era. He had many memories of the composer John Cage’s visits and performances in Woodstock. Once he took Cage on a mushroom hunt up and down Hutchin Hill Road. He was also close friends with the famous composer Henry Cowell and his wife Sidney, who lived off Route 212 near Reynolds Lane. The Cowells collaborated on a well-known book, Charles Ives and his Music, published in 1955. In the introduction the Cowells wrote that “Alf Evers as a Catskill Mountains neighbor of skill and experience, has been generous with the finest possible professional help over stiles, past technical traps, and through mazes and thickets.” Alf helped them in the editing and writing of the book.
1955 was also the year that MacMillan published Alf’s book, The Treasure of Watchdog Mountain, which Alf recalls “was an attempt to teach children what ecology was, about the relationship of man to the land. It was a pioneer book of its kind. I based it on Overlook Mountain, which I saw through my studio window.” (Woodstock publishers Arthur and Jo Schwartz had been working with Alf on an update of The Treasure of Watchdog Mountain throughout 2004.)
After Alf had written The Treasure of Watchdog Mountain, he had begun “delving into the regional background, with the Catskills as the central thing. I wrote a piece for The New York Conservationist on Overlook Mountain, which had an extraordinary reception. They didn’t pay. I did it because I wanted to.
“I made up my mind to continue writing about the Catskills, and I did. I wrote for local newspapers, and I gave talks, and I was president of the local Woodstock Historical Society for many years. I was thinking then of a book on the Catskills, in the ’50s. These pieces of mine would appear in the Woodstock and Kingston papers on various Catskill mountain subjects.” (A collection of nineteen of Alf’s essays on regional history and folklore, In Catskill Country: Collected Essays on Mountain History, Life and Lore, is in print. And Alf is all over the internet! Google him, and you’ll come up with around 20,000 entries, among them the text of Alf’s “Rattlesnake Lore of the Catskills” published in the New York Folklore Quarterly.)
The House in Shady
After seventeen years, Alf sold the house in Lewis Hollow and was living temporarily on Mink Hollow Road. He’d placed a binder down on a house near Roxbury, and was set to move away from Woodstock, but the new house burned down. There had been drilling near there for oil and gas, and Alf speculated that the house had been deliberately burned down. It was then, around 1959, that Alf Evers purchased the white house on Hutchin Hill Road, part of the Vosburgh Mill complex located just up the street along the Sawkill Creek.
Alf transformed the property into his own personal ultra-hilly garden. He used to write in a little cabin that he built himself high on the hill above his house, near which, along the hilltop ridge, he created a labyrinth of shrubs and adorned it with garden furniture he crafted himself. There he would walk, holding his vaunted 3X5 cards, pausing to make some notes for his current projects.
“I do a lot of writing while I’m walking,” he once told me. “That helps my rhythm. I try to alternate physical work with writing. When I’ve written something that’s become too complicated, it achieves clarity when I go through it in my mind while I’m walking.”
Attracting the Attention of an Editor at Doubleday
A senior editor at Doubleday named Ellin Roberts (later, when she retired, the Woodstock librarian), wrote Alf a note, saying “I’ve been following the articles that you write. Have you ever thought about writing a book about the Catskills?”
Alf recalled, with a laugh, “Well, I hadn’t thought about anything else for a long time.” He worked on it for eight years, completing it not long after the famous Woodstock Festival, which inspired part of the book’s title. Published in 1972, and dedicated to Barbara Moncure, The Catskills—from Wilderness to Woodstock was a brilliant success, and has astounded and thrilled generations of readers since.
Then he began a book on Woodstock. Since Alf was a leading avant-garde intellectual, some assumed his book on Woodstock would be about artists and the Art Colony. Not so, he told them. Instead, as in the Catskills book, he brought forth from the shadows of time a wide assortment of people, places, moods, movements and moments, for the enjoyment of the next two hundred years. Woodstock, History of an American Town was published in 1987, in time for Woodstock’s bicentennial celebration.
The Book on Kingston
In 1989, at the suggestion of publisher Peter Mayer, who had been a neighbor of Alf’s when Alf lived in Lewis Hollow, he began a history of Kingston. At first, it was to be a fairly short book, with many illustrations— easy for a brilliant mind to put together. But as Alf researched more and more, and created draft upon draft, he became absorbed with the interesting stories and fact-chains he was uncovering in dusty old books and public records. The book was to occupy the remaining 15 years of his life, against a panoply of many life-threatening ailments— including colon cancer, prostate cancer, progressive diabetes (which had killed his mother), congestive heart failure, and other chronic problems.
He explained once how he perceived the structure of his book on Kingston. “It is a revisionist view of Kingston history,” he said. “All this material was waiting in the old records, and nobody paid any attention. What I’m doing is taking each one of these early people, and assembling all the information I can get about the individual to give an idea of what he was like as a human being. It takes an awful lot of delving...... Being my age, and with my infirmities, I can’t dash around the city the way I used to. It’s one reason the book has taken this turn. I have the printed materials that were not ever used, the court records and that sort of thing.” His book will feature, he told me, “an interpretation of material that was available, but that no one ever thought of in that connection before. It’s really a book about Kingston. It doesn’t purport to be a chronicle.”
Indeed, a full chronicle of the history of the small city of Kingston, could stretch for 250,000 pages. It’s geniuses such as Alf Evers who can distill that 250 thousand into a brilliant flow
Around the time he began his book on Kingston, Alf had a bout with colon cancer, and a colostomy, but was determined to go out in a blaze of writing. Fortunately for us, the blaze lasted around fifteen years. By the end of 1996, however, Alf had become almost totally blind in one eye, and had lost much of the sight in the other, although he was able to read with a magnifier.
We organized art shows of his paintings and drawings, and a benefit concert, to raise money for his expenses. With these, Alf was able to acquire a computer, a printer, and a fancy television-like viewer, which enabled him to magnify whole pages. Friends also purchased for him a high-tech hearing aid, because he was growing ever more hard of hearing.
Tom O’Brien and the Final Years
In late 1997, Alf, who by then walked with a cane, fell and had some additional health problems. After this, he could only perambulate with a walker, and required nursing care. The Fates were smiling when Alf acquired, by graceful happenstance, the services of Tom O’Brien, who had been helping a senior who had passed away in 1997 in the Roxmoor colony in Shandaken. O’Brien had been a manager of the Village Gate in Greenwich Village for thirty years, and moved into the upper bedroom at Alf’s house in Shady so that he could provide 24-hour-a-day care, almost without a single day’s break, for the next seven years. Tom is erudite and widely-read, and he and Alf could communicate on a deep intellectual level.
The only thing I can say is that Tom O’Brien deserves a Presidential Medal of Freedom for the generous, gentle, compassionate, witty, always up-beat round the clock care he gifted to Alf, which in turn gave Alf precious freedom to continue writing, talking with friends, and researching. Tom made Alf’s final years possible.
Alf was then able to live for several years, paying for around-the-clock care thanks to an inheritance from his older sister Elizabeth. Finally, however, the money ran out. Both Maurice Hinchey and Kevin Cahill took personal interest in trying to locate ways of helping Alf, but the Medicare system is very imperfect, and things looked terribly bleak. Tom O’Brien was utterly determined that Alf not be moved to a nursing home, an event which Alf dreaded more than dying, and which would have ended his writing.
A nurse who lives in Woodstock, Louanne Macco, helped Alf get enough assistance through Medicaid, with the additional help of Woodstocker Rose Dittus, in order to remain at home with Tom’s unceasing care. I won’t tarry too long bemoaning the utter injustice of an economic system where a hardworking senior with health problems has to turn over his house to the government for the right to live at home.
A woman named Deborah Schubert had been helping Alf type the book on Kingston, but she was no longer available, so I volunteered. I started typing drafts of his book, and learned to decipher his difficult handwriting, visiting him sometimes 3 or 4 days a week for the next six years. During that time, I printed out at least 25,000 pages of drafts of the manuscript, probably more than that.
I was amazed at his inventiveness. He taped two magnifiers together in a way that greatly increased magnification, and invented his own writing desk out of his walker. He used his walker as a desk by sitting in his writing chair and pulling the walker close, then he placed a board across it, and then a box upon the board, and then he fit a wooden slat across the metal rungs of the walker which he held in place with rubber bands to keep the book he was working on from sliding down.
With his eyesight in decline, I printed out the manuscript in 18 point type, double spaced, which he could read easily, and make changes in between the lines. I formed a team with Alf’s friend Fred Steuding, who had written an excellent book-length thesis on Overlook Mountain as a graduate student. As Alf researched and created new drafts, he made thousands of notes listing sources which Fred dutifully alphabetized and placed in small wooden filing cabinets. Steuding also organized the Kingston book’s alphabetical files, and did a good amount of library research, locating many 19th century sources for Alf. Alf’s son Kit (Christopher) also found historic material for the Kingston project.
Around his desk, the world continue to swirl. He and Tom would listen to the NPR weekend opera broadcasts and Alf kept abreast of world events. Television crews, reporters, students writing reports, people researching their ancestors, and many others came to Alf. He accommodated them all, even those writing to seek information on “ancestors who lived in Mink Hollow” as one letter stated.
In 2000, Alf placed his archives dealing with the Byrdcliffe Colony with the Woodstock Guild. Then in 2001, he decided to place his entire historical and writing archives, including his remarkable and priceless collection of books on local, county, regional and national history, with the Guild where they will be housed in a special library at White Pines.
The Hervey White project
As work on the Kingston book was coming to a close, Alf and I talked about a new book. I thought it was very important that he have a new project. At first he wanted to write a book on the bluestone and mining industries, with emphasis on the quarry workers, for whom he felt great sympathy. Then one day he said he wanted to write a book on Hervey White. “I want to call it something like Hervey White— a Maverick Man,” he told me.
Alf worked with White’s granddaughter, Christine Dauphin, to gather material. The Woodstock Guild bought him a digital tape recorder and Alf was going to be the first 99 year old writer in Western Civilization to have his dictation transcribed by an internet transcription service. He was working on the Hervey project regularly while he was rewriting the final section of Kingston-on-Hudson during his final weeks. Just a few days before he passed away, Alf asked to borrow my copy of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, which he said was much discussed among the intellectuals of Woodstock around the time that Hervey White was founding the Maverick Colony.
By early 2004, I had finished a book, and had a few months of free time, so Alf and I accelerated the pace of working together in the summer and fall of 2004. I printed out draft after draft of the book, as he perfected it. Finally, in mid-November of 2004, Kingston-on-Hudson, an American Historical City was done! I brought the manuscript and discs to a meeting with Peter Mayer and his staff at the Overlook Press offices in New York City. They were excited about it, and decided to publish it in the spring of 2005, around the time that Alf was scheduled to get an honorary degree from Bard College. I’d never seen Alf so happy as when an e-mail arrived from Peter Mayer praising the book.
But that didn’t stop Alf, a famous rewriter, from continuing to work on parts of the manuscript. Of great help during recent years was Alf’s good friend, Karlyn Knaust Elia, the Ulster County Historian, who organized in 2001 a celebration at the Senate House in Kingston. For instance, in his final days, as his health deteriorated, Alf was very concerned about a chapter in the final section of Kingston-on-Hudson, and was emphatic that he wanted to check some facts. Thanks to Karlyn Elia, was able to find the information he needed.
The same was true about finding an image of the windmills that were used on Hudson River ice boats during the 19th century to draw off melted water. Elia located some scans for the book.
He was fiercely dedicated to the end. In one of our final conversations he suggested I go up to the State Library in Albany to try to locate a certain old map of Kingston which clearly listed the location of the Indian Katsbaan, or “Tennis Court,” a place he felt that lay near the intersection of current Pierpont and Hone Streets off Lower Broadway.
With A Little Help from Friends
He had a lot of help from his friends. One day in December when we were working on the images, he showed signs of pain and said that it hurt him to sit, so my wife Miriam purchased a nice soft cushion for his writing chair, for which he was very grateful, and which released him from that kind of discomfort. Alf was always totally grateful to his friends, but I never heard him complain about his aches and illnesses, not a single time.
Alf has several pages in Kingston-on-Hudson about his long time friend Gale Brownlee, including her successful efforts to help stop a large power plant with six hundred foot stacks proposed to be built next to the Kingston-Rhinebeck Bridge. Alf wanted a certain photo he recalled featuring Brownlee, so I called her, mentioning that Alf was feeling a bit under the weather. She quickly came up with the picture Alf wanted, and one afternoon she brought him what she described as “a very healthy vegetable-beef soup. It took me days to make it.” Alf was asleep when she brought it, so she left it in the refrigerator. She later told Alf, “I loved making it for you.” Alf replied, “and I loved eating it.”
On Christmas afternoon Karlyn Elia and her son and daughter paid a visit to Alf and while Tom O’Brien was preparing Alf’s Christmas dinner, they serenaded him with Christmas songs. Alf was pleased with the concert when I visited that same afternoon, and we worked more on the acknowledgements for Kingston-on-Hudson.
Just after Christmas day, Alf came down with a cold. I could hear him cough when we talked over the phone. For seven years, on many occasions, I had shouted through the deafness, “Alf! Don’t dare get sick!” I shouted it once again. I came to his house a couple more times to help him make the final additions to the acknowledgements, and to locate some of the images. To my shock, I noticed that, even with his cold, he had made numerous changes to the final part of the book!
On December 29, I called Tom O’Brien in the afternoon. Alf was singing, Tom said, and speaking as if in a dream. Later that afternoon, Tom prepared one of Alf’s favorite meals, a bowl of hot oatmeal, which Alf ate almost entirely. He was quite jovial with Tom, singing and talking in a soft happy voice. “We had a good time over the oatmeal,” Tom told me. Then he went to sleep on his side. “He was in his favorite position,” said Tom. Not long thereafter a man of glory passed from human life, not unlike the great bard William Blake, who also passed while singing and seeing his dreams before him.
He is survived by his daughter Barbara, his son Christopher, nine grandchildren, and numerous great-grandchildren. His daughter Jane passed away in 1995, in Phoenicia.