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A Young Boy Visits An Old House

By Robert Eltinge Lasher

As a little boy I was happiest when we were at The Locusts and sad when we had to leave. I thought the locusts was named after those insects that buzz so loudly on summer days. They were called locusts then thought they are really cicadas. They shed their shell-like skins which I picked off the tree trunks and saved.

We lived in Bronxville in the 1920’s, seventy miles from The Locusts, but we drove up often to visit Great Uncle Ed Eltinge and Great Aunts Caroline, Frank and Louise. The high point of the trip was the Hudson River crossing before the bridge was built. When we reached the ferry in Poughkeepsie I would beg my father to be the first to drive on. If that wasn’t possible he and I would walk up to the accordion gate for a good view of the voyage. It was especially exciting if another boat’s wake gave us a bumpy moment and splashed us with its spray. Sometimes it would be twilight by the time we rumbled down the ferry gangway. As we headed west on the New Paltz Road, it was time to look for the New Paltz lodestar …. skytop light. I always wanted to be the first to see it.

Excitement grew when we reached New Paltz and turned off onto the unpaved Plains Road, finally plunging into the deep dark under the ancient maples lining the driveway. Dad would pull up at the horse mounting block, give a toot, and a typical Eltinge welcome unfolded. The top half of the old Dutch door would open revealing Aunt Frank’s ample figure silhouetted against the kerosene lamp’s soft glow. She would be joined by the others all calling out exclamations of greetings and delight as we approached.

Once inside we were enveloped in hugs, kisses an, and expressions of welcome and love. We loved them too and we were very happy to be in the house with its familiar aroma made up perhaps of wood fires, kerosene lamps, the sweet straw matting covering the floors, and generations of good cooking. If the evening was chilly a lively fire would be burning in the Franklin stove. We stood in the sitting room by the fire while Aunt Frank went to alert Grace (the cook) and when she returned we moved into the dining room. When all were seated around the kerosene lighted table, we bowed our heads as Aunt Frank rattled off the grace so fast I never understood anything but the Amen. That out of the way, Aunt Frank whacked the clamorous bell in front of her, a signal to Grace to serve the soup. The bell, far from the usual tinkly type, was the kind used in hotels to summon bellhops.

Food at The Locusts was always delicious and plentiful. Vegetables, fruit and berries were grown by Uncle Ed who also raised chickens. Pastries, cakes and cookies came from Aunt Frank’s magical hands while milk came from Dodd’s farm down the road. Meat was bought from Sutton the butcher in the village. When dinner was over we’d return to the sitting room and settle down around the center table. Uncle Ed would poke up the fire as Aunt Frank turned up the lights in the two-branch Rochester lamp. The Rochesters were fitted with mantles like Coleman lanterns and gave better light than the ordinary kerosene ones which burn wicks. This was the cozy time for catching up on family doings and making plans for the next day. If Aunt Louise, who ran a girl’s school in New York was there, she might entertain us with a few "airs" at the Victorian spinet piano.

I knew the dreaded bedtime was creeping up, but there was one more treat to come. Aunt Caroline always had a box of chocolates to produce after dinner. The box went round the circle and finally to me. Which to take? Mother would help me find one with squishy raspberry or strawberry insides; my favorites. Alas, the time for goodnight kisses came and I was given a candle in a candlestick and told to blow it out before getting into bed. I went out into the big shadowy hall, past the long coats on the rack which seemed to move as I moved, past open doors to black rooms, but the worst was Aunt Jane who stared down at me from her frame. I tried not to look, but I never could resist a peek. No matter where I was, even on the stair… her eyes followed me.

In the bedroom a menacing ottoman crouched between the bureau and the wall. I daren’t look! I quickly undressed, blew out the candle, jumped into bed, and waited, covers over my head, for mother to come and hear my prayers, tuck me in, and give me a last kiss. I knew mother and dad would be sleeping later in the big bed across the room… meanwhile there were those noises in the dark. My little bed was in an alcove next to the chimney where there were muffled flutterings… chimney swifts. There was scratching in the walls… mice, rattling and soft footfalls from above… squirrels playing nut hockey in the attic; and once in a while a loud snap… old furniture adjusting to the temperature. On windy nights, doors squeaked, shutters rattled, and the trees sighed. On some nights there came the blood chilling hoots of an owl. Luckily the sandman came long before mother and daddy.

Uncle Ed’s chickens, cooped behind the house always woke me, and still in my nighties I would rush downstairs… or slide down the bannister… and go out the back door to the Lilac House (outhouse). In those days the only plumbing in the house was a hand pump by the kitchen sink that drew water up from the cellar cistern. Drinking water was dipped from the spring. There were wash stands in all the bedrooms. On them were matching porcelain sets - - wash basin, water pitcher, soap dish, and shaving brush cup. There also was an enameled slop pail for the dirty water. A china-lidded chamber pot was also available under every bed, two for double beds. Uncle Ed’s handyman had the daily chore of emptying these vessels and had to replenish the water.

Mother liked to talk about the pranks she and her cousins played when they were young at The Locusts - - such as night raids on Aunt Frank’s cake and pie cupboard (she never scolded the culprits, but just baked some more), and putting tadpoles in each other’s water pitchers and worse, smoking cigarettes in the evening sitting on the lawn benches. They also made up some humorous names for the Lilac House, among them "cave of the winds" and "villa de gossip."

The Lilac House was an imposing structure. It had clapboard siding, shingle roof, brackets under its eaves matching those on the house, a picturesque though non-functioning chimney, and a paneled door. The inside walls were plastered. It was lit by a four light window and had five lidded seats accommodating three adults and two children. This edifice was raised two feet above the ground on a dry-laid stone foundation with enough chinks in it to provide more than ample ventilation. When the house was full (my grandmother was one of eleven children), the Lilac House was by necessity used communally. In the morning ladies and small children went first followed by the men and boys.

Of all the aunts, Caroline… loving, generous, funny, dispenser of bon-bons, was my favorite. She was also daring as the first lady in the family to smoke openly. Aunt Caroline kept a wind-up Victrola along with a large selection of popular records in the parlor. I liked the "Stein Song" sung by Rudy Vallee best. It was fun to march around the room to it. The parlor was the most formal room in the house with its high Victorian furniture standing stiff and self-conscious on a red "Turkey" carpet. A miniature bronze menagerie grouped on the center table attracted me. My favorite was a little barnyard tub on which perched a cluster of brightly colored chickens. Also on the table was a china jar filled with dried flower petals and spices which smelled lovely when you lifted the lid. There were decks of cards and board games like "Innocents Abroad," and "Uncle Wiggily" and checkers in the chimney cupboards. These were brought out on rainy days. On one wall hung a pair of family portraits. Opposite were two large companion landscapes and one of them drew my attention.

The right side painting showed the Wallkill Valley backed by the Shawangunk Mountains as it looked in 1850. It was the other that interested me. The setting was the same, but depicted the rescue of Catherine DuBois by her husband and his friends. She is shown tied to a stake surrounded by smoldering tinder while the Indians who had captured her are seen fleeing. All this was explained to me, but I wanted to know what happened next. I was told Catherine was returned to the bosom of her family where she lived happily ever after.

For trips to the village Uncle Ed would hitch old horse Kitty to the buggy. He often took me along and let me sit between his knees so I could help hold the reins. In the village he’d tie Kitty to a post while we went to the stores. Uncle Ed seemed to know everybody. There was a lot to see on Main Street while he chatted with friends. Cars and occasional buggies or farm wagons passed up and down the street. Trolleys, (open-sided in summer), would be going to the ferry slip in Highland and then back. If I was lucky I’d see the four horse stage taking guests to Mohonk Mountain House or returning them to the Poughkeepsie train station.

My father often took all of us for rides in his Franklin with its V shaped windshield and later in the sea-green Reo Flying Cloud. Sometimes we drove over the Shawangunks and down into the Roundout Valley near the Catskills. It was fun to see new places and to stop for lunch or refreshments at places like Watson Hollow Inn in Olive or the tearoom in the garden in Stone Ridge, or elsewhere, as long as they had ice cream. It was even more exciting when we brought a picnic along, although considerable time could be spent in choosing the ideal spot. It had to have both shade and a pretty view and no poison ivy, briars or cows. Just as we thought we’d found a nice place someone would say, "I think there’s a better vista further along," and off we would go until we found that special spot. Finally we all got out of the car and a cheerful bustle took over. The car robe was spread on the grass with pillows and parasols for the ladies, followed by baskets, bags, boxes and thermos bottles. A raft of things would be brought and I could hardly wait to see what they were. Typically there would be a choice of sandwiches - - creamed cheese and olives, creamed cheese and jelly, chicken and/or ham, lettuce and mayonnaise, peanut butter and bacon, deviled eggs (a staple), hearts of celery, potato salad, sweet pickles, fruit, cookies, huckleberry johnny cakes or eggless fruitcakes and thermoses of lemonade, milk or iced tea. On the way home we might play ‘I love my love with an A,’ etc., do tongue twisters like "Peter Piper"… or a counting of windmills contest. Sometimes we sang.

Paying social calls was still the mode in the 1920’s. Callers to The Locusts were mostly women, many of them elderly and they tended to arrive in small groups. If the weather allowed they were entertained on the verandah (or piazza as Aunt Frank called it) and were offered iced tea or lemonade and cookies. I remember being asked to pass the cookies at one of these events. That ordeal over, I was allowed to play with the tiles from the mahjong set at the end of the porch.

New Paltz was still a community in which most people were related to most everyone else. In gatherings like this, conversation tended to drift into the more arcane reaches of genealogy and be peppered with ‘second cousins, first removed, double cousins, step grandmothers, or collateral ancestors.’ As the cousins babbled on I was happily building skyscrapers until something caught my eye. One lady had accelerated the rocking of her rocker perhaps in reaction to some ancestral revelation. I also noticed that the oscillations were moving her chair steadily backward. I was riveted as she inched closer and closer to the edge. She was about to tumble off when one of her relatives called out, "Sarah, pull up your chair before you fall off!"

There weren’t many disappointments at The Locusts, but much to delight a small boy. One was to cuckoo clock in the dining room. Before I could tell time I’d ask everybody to alert me just before the cuckoo went into action. I would watch tensely hoping he’d really come out - - he always did and I was enchanted. One of the best things about The Locusts was the railroad that ran only 200 feet east of the house. As soon as I heard the distant whistle I’d run out to wait at the lawn’s edge until the train came. I would wave to the engineer and he never failed to wave back. I met my first dog at The Locusts. His name was Laddie and it was love at first sight. He was a perfect playmate and the only one at The Locusts. Every time we came he bounded up to me as happy to see me as I was to see him, but the day came a few years later when Laddie was not there. I cried when I was told that he had gone up to doggy heaven. It was my first bereavement. The next year I found a new dog at The Locusts named Hoover. We soon became pals, but when someone gave me a little stuffed dog, I named him Laddie.

Even simple things like watching Aunt Frank making cakes or cookies had me watching and hoping. She never used a recipe… it was a pinch of this and two pinches of that. She worked swiftly while humming a tuneless hum and when finished she would give me her mixing spoon to lick and a sample or two after they came out of the oven. The only thing I didn’t like was church. The endless sermons were very boring although the hymns were nice. People made such funny faces when they sang and when mother’s sister, Aunt Rita, was with us, I noticed her head bobbled on the sustained notes causing her pince-nez glasses to wiggle and the flowers on her hat to jiggle.

1996 Update: My wife and I now live here at The Locusts. Of course, much has changed over the years. Plumbing and electricity came in 1930 and the furnace in 1940. The buggy is no more having burned up when the carriage house was struck by lightning. The Lilac House is gone (the lilacs remain) as does the portrait of Aunt Jane. A gas stove has taken the place of the old wood range. The painting that fascinated me and its companion picture now hang in another parlor a few miles away. The Franklin stove is still here and as I write this its cheerful fire is warming us as a blizzard roars in the night. The cuckoo clock is resting in the attic awaiting repair, but most of the old furniture went long ago in an auction. We still share the house with swifts in the chimney, squirrels in the attic and mice in the walls.

Best of all, we have a six year old grandson, Sam, who loves to come to The Locusts just as we love to greet him and his mummie and daddy at the old Dutch door. One of the first things Sam does after they arrive is to get out the happy family of stuffed animals that he keeps here. Among them is my old Laddie… now his.

Note: The author of this history of 1920’s life in a New Paltz historic house is our good friend, Robert Eltinge Lasher. Bob and his wife Marjorie live in contented retirement in the house built in 1742 and 1826. Bob’s parents inherited the house in 1939 and Bob and Marjorie in 1954. Bob still bucks up the many cords of wood they burn for heat every winter and is always ready with a story as friends gather around the Franklin.

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