Tuesday, January 14, 2020


“Can we plant a cake tree?”
The question caught me off guard.
“You know, like a cake tree. Or a cheese tree.”
It’s a chilly afternoon in mid-April several years ago, one of those sunny days that invites you out into the garden, but then leaves you shivering. It had been warm standing next to the bus as the Harvesting History Club disembarked at Clermont State Historic Site in Germantown, Columbia County, but soon we were in the dirt, one with the Earth, as spring arrived. Doing the digging were a dozen or so elementary school students, our garden educator Leslie, and me.
I was assisting one of the youngest students as she methodically planted her tiny seedlings and asked me questions. I handed her another seedling, a cool-weather vegetable she’d planted in a tray weeks earlier. Just like her, before the new semester began I knew next to nothing about plant. But I did know that cakes and cheese did not grow on trees.
“Oh,” her lips pursed at my answer. She took the kale and gently patted it into the dirt.
 “But,” I continued, “I know we have strawberries. You can use strawberries in cake.”
“OH!” she brightened. “Where are they?!”
I pointed to a wild tangle of leaves and vines, already vying for dominance in the far corner of the garden. The strawberries wouldn’t be ready until June, which she wasn’t thrilled about. But she perked up moments later, when another student discovered a cool bug and everyone ran to see it.
Two campers show off their gardening and nature journals.
Clermont has a centuries-old garden history. The mansion has stood since colonial times — when growing and harvesting was an essential part of life. One of the wealthiest families in early America, the Livingstons of Clermont grew most of their own food and took in significant farm contributions from their tenant farmers. Clermont Livingston (yes, they named their son after the house) kept weather journals detailing growing and harvesting on the manor from the 1840s through the 1890s.
Clermont in the 1890s.
Through the early 20th century, most of the mid-Hudson Valley was agrarian, with vast farms, orchards, dairies, and kitchen gardens populating the landscape.
Today, most people in the area are living on land that was farmed within the last century. With all of this in mind, it’s a little startling how many of us live so close to nature but are so disconnected from it.
To help reintroduce and reestablish that tie, Harvesting History began at Clermont in 2014, spearheaded by Site Manager Susan Boudreau and Garden Educator Leslie Reed. The purpose of the program is to connect Hudson Valley kids with their history and engage them hands-on by working in the garden. As they learn about seeds, plantings, and garden care, they also learn about healthy eating, the history of their home, and the natural world.
It’s amazing how many students start the program with no knowledge of where their food comes from or how it’s made. It’s not just young kids, like the little girl and the cake trees, but teenagers and young adults. I was 23 when I started working with the program and had no concept of growing seasons or how to plant something.
Two young gardeners help harvest Swiss chard.
It’s a blind spot that our parents and grandparents would not recognize, brought on by refrigerated trucks and supermarkets where you can buy tomatoes and avocados at any time of the year. By planting heirloom vegetables in the chilly spring air, students don’t just begin to understand the seasons, they begin to understand meteorology, biodiversity, and entomology. 
Students use nets to capture insects and magnifying glasses to identify potential garden pests.
Harvesting History has become quite popular. When I was first out in the garden in 2014, talking about cake trees and planting kale, we were serving 100 students annually. In 2018, we served 800 and we had even more students in 2019. The program is often on the road, visiting after-school programs, libraries, and schools, working on their own gardens and learning about healthy eating.
We do garden crafts, like making your own weather journal.
We even have this amazing bike blender we use to chop up herbs and veggies. Bike blender salsa is my absolute favorite way to make salsa now. 
After getting a demonstration, campers try their hands – or in this case, their feet – at making bike blender salsa.
This last spring, our little kitchen garden was expanded to 2,500 square feet, allowing for more students to visit and experience some hands-on history.
And to dream more dreams of cake trees.

Post by Emily Robinson, School Programs Coordinator and Camp Director, Clermont State Historic Site.
All photographs provided by New York State Parks

Sunday, January 5, 2020

"An Insidious Foe": General John Armstrong Jr.

General John Armstrong Jr. lived long enough to be the only member of the Continental Congress to be photographed. The dog  however seems indifferent to the idea.
John Armstrong Jr. was born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania to Scots-Irishman John Armstrong Sr. (obviously)
John Armstrong Sr. 
and his wife Rebecca Lyon Armstrong (her maiden and married name which meant she didn't have to get her linens remonogrammed) on November 25, 1758. Records of his child hood are pretty minimal so its unclear if he was a trouble maker then but he was certainly well on his way to being one by the time the Revolutionary War broke out. 

His career started off innocuously enough in the Pennsylvania militia, bur John Armstrong Sr. had been adamant  that his two sons would receive the best possible educations they
General Hugh Mercer, One tough s.o.b.
could. This soon brought Armstrong to the attention of General Hugh Mercer, who made him his aide-de-camp. Had he been able to stay with Mercer Armstrong probably would have had an exemplary military career but unfortunately while on route to Princeton on January 3, 1777 with the 350 men of the Continental vanguard Mercer encountered the British army. His horse was shot out from under him and he was quickly surrounded and cut off from his military family, including Armstrong, by the British. Getting to his feet, Mercer was ordered to surrender. Instead he drew his sword and began hacking, slashing and thrusting at the British around him. He never stood a chance and was soon beaten to the ground and bayoneted at least 7 times.
Dr. Benjamin Rush. Think Hawkeye from MASH but with better suits.
As the rest of the Continental Army delivered a decisive beating to the British at Princeton Armstrong carried Mercer into a nearby house, where despite the best medical care available in the form of one of America's leading doctors, Benjamin Rush, Mercer died nine days later.

It should be noted that the first six times he was stabbed only made Mercer angry (maybe)

Armstrong was next asked to act as an aide to General Horatio Gates for whom he would
General Horatio Gates, who later acquired the nickname
"Granny" Gates which was surely applied with love and
work off and on for the rest of the war. Given Gates success at the Battles of Saratoga and George Washington's relative lack of success in 1777, what with losing Philadelphia and all, an informal cabal formed seeking to replace Washington with Gates. This meant that friends of Gates were always a question mark in Washington's mind.  

This included Armstrong who was desperately seeking advancement in the army at this point. Armstrong joined the expedition against Castine, Maine  but this also ended in disaster and a court martial for Paul Revere, who may have left some men to fend for themselves in order to save his personal baggage.  Armstrong was then made adjutant general of the army in Rhode Island but was immediately replaced. When the British evacuated Newport, Rhode Island Armstrong was sent to congress with the news, a job that traditionally ended with a promotion for the messenger but Armstrong received nothing.  The taint of the cabal was strong. n 1780 he fortunately missed the Battle of Camden after coming down with Malaria. That battle saw Gates abandon his army and retreat further, faster than anyone thought possible.

Two more undistinguished years found Armstrong encamped with the army at Newburgh. There Armstrong wrote two letters designed to stir up trouble. The letters, addressed to the officers of the army, claimed that Congress was trampling upon their rights by not paying them and not having a retirement plan ready for them. The letters seemed to hint at a coup by the army. They called for a meeting of the officers.. On March 15 Washington took control of the meeting and reconfirmed his control of the army. As he spoke he called out the then anonymous letter writer "Can he be a friend to the Army?" said Washington. "Can he be a friend to his country? Rather is he not an insidious foe?" Then pulling out his glasses and saying something to the effect of "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country" he read a letter from Congress
A recreation of the building in which  Washington addressed the officers
of the army at New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site 
promising benefits to the army officers as the men who had been contemplating mutiny wept openly.  

After the war Armstrong returned to Pennsylvania where he almost caused a civil war in 1784 by leading 400 militia men into the Wyoming Valley to try to run off some settlers from Connecticut. Connecticut and Vermont, for some reason, responded with militias of their own. Only the timely interdiction of Timothy Pickering stopped blood shed, sent the militias home and allowed the settlers to keep their
Timothy Pickering

Armstrong next spent two rather unimpressive years in the Continental Congress in 1787 and 1788, or as it was then known the Congress of Confederation. They were essentially a lame duck congress limited not only by the powers granted them under the Articles of Confederation but by the knowledge that their very form of government would soon be replaced by the new Constitution. 

In 1789 Armstrong made his career by marrying Alida Livingston, the youngest daughter of Judge Robert R. Livingston and his wife Margaret Beekman Livingston. He was now brother in law to Chancellor Robert R. Livingston and the young and upcoming politician Edward Livingston. Armstrong parlayed his family connections into three stints in the Senate between 1800 and 1803 during which time he took part in a conspiracy to give the Livingston faction total control of New York State which eventually led to the death of Alexander Hamilton. Read about that here and here

In 1804 Armstrong replaced his brother-in-law Chancellor Robert R. Livingston as minister to France where he stayed until 1810, holding the post under both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. 

Alida and her daughter Margaret
Upon returning to America he built a house called La Bergerie on land his wife inherited from her parents. They had seven children, including a daughter Margaret Rebecca, who would later marry into the Astor family. The Astors renamed La Bergerie, Rokeby, by which it is still known today. The main activity at La Bergerie was raising merino sheep purchased from the Chancellor. 

Armstrong as he appeared about the time he
became Secretary of War. 
In 1813, during the War of 1812, James Madison tapped John Armstrong to become the seventh Secretary of War of the United States.  Armstrong was utterly out of his league and had no idea of what to do to prepare the army for the impending British invasion. When the British landed in Maryland the army simply ran away in a battle that became mockingly known as "The Bladensburg Races." The British then marched into Washington D.C. and burned it down. 
You get your bosses house burned down and see what happens to you. 

A month later Madison unceremoniously fired Armstrong, who returned to Rokeby, his public career over. But lets be honest there's not a lot of places to go after you let the British burn down the White House. Alida passed away in 1822 and Armstrong spent the rest of his life tending his sheep and writing. He died in 1843 and is buried in Rhinebeck. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Belsnickel: The Furry Palatine Giftgiver

Today we have Santa Claus. The English had St. Nicholas and the Dutch had Sinterklaas. But what did the Palatine children  of the Hudson Valley believe in during the 18th and 19th century?

The answer in a word, Belsnickel.

The answer in a photo:

There are several variations of the spelling including Pelznickel, which would seem the most likely as "Pelz" in German means fur and Nickel is probably related to Nicholas.

Nevertheless Belsnickel is a  crotchety man dressed in dirty clothes and furs, usually with his face disguised, who is both the gift bringer and the child punisher in the Palatine region of Germany. The legend originated sometime in the middle ages and sometimes his fur hat has deer antlers which allude to a pagan origin to the character. He is also different from other variations of Christmas characters in that he combines the threatening and benign aspects of a Christmas spirit.
The basic tradition is thus; sometime between St. Nicholas Day and Christmas Eve, Palatine children would hear a tapping at their window at night and suddenly Belsnickel would burst through the door. He would be carrying a sack of presents and a switch. (Belsnickel was the first of the Christmas characters to distinguish between good and bad children) The children of the house would be lined up and asked if they were good that year, in some cases they would be asked to recite something from school or a passage from the bible. If they succeeded they got a present from the sack. If they lied about being good or couldn't do their recitation they got a whack from the switch. 

In another variation, Belsnickel would scatter presents on the floor. If the children waited for permission they could dive in a grab the presents. If they dove in greedily without permission then Belsnickel walloped them all with his switch.  

It has been difficult to find traces of Belsnickel in the Hudson Valley but his legend lived on, particularly in the Pennsylvania Dutch. Perhaps in the Hudson Valley the Dutch and English influence drove him out earlier. Belsnickel all but disappeared in the first half of the 20th century thanks to two world wars where Germany was the bad guy. Suddenly many people of Deutch descent became Dutch and many German traditions were quietly swept under the rug. 

Belsnickel has seen a resurgence in recent years. He now features in several holiday festivals in Pennsylvania and  even appeared in an episode of "The Office" a few years ago. 

So perhaps this year as children in the Hudson Valley prepare for the arrival of Santa Claus they should listen carefully for a tapping on their window. It just may be Belsnickel checking to see if they have been naughty or nice. 

At a birthday party on New Year's Day I spoke to my great-aunt about this Belsnickel blog. She was raised in Elizaville, outside of Germantown. She like many of her neighbors is a Palatine descendant. She did not know of Belsnickel but remembers as a young girl in the late 1930's and '40s a neighbor coming to their house on Christmas Eve, first tapping on the windows with a stick and then coming in dressed in furs with his stick and bag of presents. He wore something on his head but she could not remember what it looked like exactly. She did remember it "scared the hell" out of her. When she was about 7 she decided to confront him to prove she wasn't scared of him but as soon as the door opened and he stood there in his dirty furs she ran and leaped into the lap of her aunt, who though the whole thing was hilarious. 

To make a long story short this is a great example of the Belsnickel legend being kept alive in the Hudson Valley well into the Twentieth Century even though the name wasn't used after World War I. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Warts and All: How "That" Uncle At Your Holiday Dinner Is More Like A Livingston Than You Might Think

       The upcoming holidays have me thinking a lot about the complicated relationships we have with other people. Most people love their families, but we can all think of that one cousin or uncle who always says something weird that makes us uncomfortable during dinner, the family member whose opinions are completely out of touch with those of everyone around them. It does not make us hate them completely although it may make us want to throw yams at them. We accept family warts and all.

By the way, if you can’t think of "that" family member then I’ve got some bad news for you.
Especially if your facial hair looks anything like this

Anyway, we have a similar situation when looking at historical figures. They can be held as paragons in one hand and terrible people
in the other.  The classic examples that are always brought up are George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, leaders in American freedom, held enslaved people. Chancellor Robert R. Livingston also held enslaved people over the course of his life. When he traveled to Philadelphia to attend Congress, he always brought at least one enslaved man who would act as his body man. At the same time the Chancellor was also an early member of the New York Manumission Society, which worked to end slavery in New York. He even waffled a bit on the issue in his will, which called for his enslaved people to be freed but only if it was convenient for his wife Mary.
       We see more biases pop up from other members of the family as well.Margaret Beekman Livingston was a highly respectable woman. She ran a highly successful estate for twenty-five years following the
death of her husband, including rebuilding it from almost nothing following its destruction by the British. She raised ten highly successful children. Yet when her daughter Catherine wanted to get married Margaret refused to give her consent for years. She had no objections to the character of the man in question or his ability to support her daughter. She objected to the fact that he was a Methodist.
      Perhaps the most controversial character in the family’s history is Henry Beekman Livingston. No one disputes that Henry was a successful army officer from the time he joined the army in 1775 until he resigned in 1779. It’s after his marriage to Nancy Shippen that he became controversial. In her journal Nancy accused Henry of being a violent tempered paranoid who ruthlessly and systematically ruined her life. Some historians have even inferred from the journal that there may have some abuse in the relationship.
       On the other hand, there are documents that show that after
Nancy left him that Henry met Maria Van Clief. Henry and Maria had three children, John, Harriet and Charles. Although Henry and Maria never married Henry never denied the children were his. Maria died in 1809. During both the Jefferson and Madison administrations, Henry tried to get John an appointment in the army by writing directly to the presidents. Failing that he sent him to law school. Harriet never married and lived with Henry until his death. Charles was described by his uncle, Freeborn Garretson, as having an “imbecile mind.” From what we know Charles was in some way developmentally disabled, but Henry took care of him until he died. Sadly, Charles died only a month after his father.
        So, what does the hypocrisy, bias and other family problems tell us about the Livingston and about the other founders? It tells us they were people. Real people. They were not merely the marble statues and Gilbert Stuart paintings we are left with today. They were real people with problems, complicated thought processes, changing opinions and feelings. They did not do the things they did so that we could deify and worship them 250 years later but so that they could live the best lives they could in their own time. Sometimes they did things right and sometimes they did things wrong.
       It’s important to remember this as we enter into the season of family gatherings. Remember that we accept our family warts and all and most importantly refrain from throwing the yams. 
Do Not Disrespect The Yams

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Honneur Aux Armes: A Livingston's Skill With the Sword

Usually when we talk about swashbuckling sword wielding adventures on this blog we are talking about Henry Beekman Livingston or Richard Montgomery in the Revolutionary War or Captain William Kidd the pirate. But none of them could hold a candle to the greatest swordsman, or should I say swordswoman, the family ever had.

She will cut you
That's right, Janet Cornelia Livingston.

The younger daughter of John Henry and Alice Livingston. Born in 1910, Janet was always a bit different than her sister Honoria. A little more tomboyish.

When the family moved to Italy in 1921 so the girls could receive a European education and finishing, Alice probably envisioned the girls learning the classics, art and languages. 

Eleven year old Janet liked swords. 

Luckily the family indulged her and allowed her to take lessons with a fencing master. A year later she earned her diploma from that instructor.

Janet's fencing diploma

Janet was a really good fencer though. Her instructor happened to be an officer in the French army so he put her through some more rigorous training which she handled with skill and grace.

This is the part where he asks her not to hurt him

Seriously this guy was either brave or stupid to fence without a mask

I mean she is clearly going for his eyes here

She passed with flying colors and earned another certificate.

He's standing in profile so you cant see his new eye patch

One of the most amazing parts about this is clearly Janet's hat, which never moved during all the fencing

This one certified that she had met the fencing qualifications for the French Army Regiment stationed at the Armory of Saint-Raphael

Oddly enough Janet's interests changed and though she probably could have pursued fencing, as it was added to the Olympics as a women's sport just two years later in 1924 she chose not to. She went on to become an accomplished horsewoman, learned to drive and in later years even learned to fly and got her pilots license.

Yet the swords were never far away and the pair used in the above photos, or at least a pair of foils extremely similar to those above are in Clermont's collection today, having been given to the museum by the Livingston family when the house became a historic site.