by Terence P Ward
There’s a lot to be said for the push in recent years to support local businesses and the products that they create and sell. Patronizing locally owned enterprises keeps more of the money circulating in the local economy, while, creating jobs and opportunities for neighbors. Eating like a locavore supports regional agriculture, preserves open space, reduces the carbon footprint of shipping meat and produce hither and yon, and makes it possible for consumers to know a lot more about what they’re eating. While there is a lot of marketing and allure behind big-box stores, mammoth retailing websites, and huge supermarket chains, some critics charge that the high convenience and low prices of these big businesses gutted local main streets and the neighborly sort of commerce they represented.
People frequently make the assumption that small businesses and local businesses are one and the same. It may be a safe bet to presume a small enterprise isn’t being run from a distant place, and thus is indeed local, but the converse–that all local businesses must be small–is simply not true. The Mid-Hudson Valley has spawned its fair share of booming businesses, and while these are not the companies that move markets with one word from the CEO, there are many examples of local businesses that have lasted for decades, if not generations, and shaped the way this region has grown. Here are profiles of some local standouts, taken from recollections of key players and historical accounts.
Highmount Founders Lincoln Christensen and the Davenports
and other members of the Trailsweepers Ski Club at
Highmount after the Easter Parade. Photo courtesy of
One would have to look long and hard to find a more venerable business than the Rondout Valley’s Saunderskill Farm, the second-oldest family farm in the country. The Schoonmaker family has been working their land in the floodplain of the Rondout since 1680, according to 10th-generation farmer Jack Schoonmaker and the copious historical records that his family has compiled. “We’ve been good to the land, and it’s been good to us,” he said. His ancestors fought with the patriots during the American Revolution, managing to avoid the fate of Kingston, which was burned; apparently avoided entanglement in the Civil War; and has continued to till the soil ever since.
Most people who have occasion to travel Route 209 between Kingston and Ellenville are familiar with Saunderskill Farms, home to a spacious roadside market where locals meet to solve the world’s problems over a cup of hot soup or stop by to grab produce for that night’s dinner. The name is relatively new, as part of a three-way partnership Schoonmaker formed to keep the farm going back in 1980. It is named for the small creek which runs through the property. The elder Schoonmaker has since retired, but the farm website (saunderskill.com) notes that, “Grandma Alice and Grandpa Jack still live in the old stone house on the farm that was built in 1770.”
Growing up on the farm, Schoonmaker has seen tremendous changes in agriculture, particularly marketing and distribution. His grandfather took his products up to Mohonk Mountain House with a horse and wagon. “During World War II we went into wholesale,” he recalled, and soon Schoonmaker corn and cucumbers were being eaten up and down the East Coast. “Eventually, we were too small” to supply the growing chains, and returned to direct marketing. “That’s been our success for the last forty years,” he said, adding, “Thank god for ‘buy local!” Cattle were part and parcel of the operation until the 50s, but became less profitable and were eventually replaced with more produce.
“I could not farm today,” Schoonmaker admitted, although his sons have kept abreast of changing technology. “Farming is easier labor-wise, but more intensive technology-wise,” he said. He sees opportunities for his descendants to keep the business going, though: “We’re a hundred miles from the largest market in the world,” he said, opening up possibilities in ethnic foods and, if the business returns to cattle, locally-sourced meat.
While farming is a business that depends upon warm summer to thrive, not so far north of Saunderskill was a business that could only exist thanks to the cold Catskill winters–the Highmount Ski Center. This ski destination opened in 1947 on the north face of Belleayre Mountain and stayed open for another 46 years before shutting down in 1993.
Recent plans to expand and rejuvenate the state’s slopes on Belleayre, including reopening Highmount in some form, prompted Janie Christensen, daughter of Highmount’s first president, C. Lincoln Christensen, to share recollections of her late father.
Skiing was not well-known this side of the Atlantic prior to World War II. After 1945, veterans of the Tenth Mountain Division brought a newfound passion for the sport home with them. C. Lincoln Christensen’s Norwegian father had taught him the basics years earlier.
“As a young man, I became acquainted with Francis Davenport,” Christensen said, according to the history he gave Janie and her brother, Jan. “We discovered a mutual love of skiing and began to seek out local places to practice our sport. There weren’t many. The Winter Olympics at Lake Placid in 1932 had sparked some interest, however, and by 1935, the Simpson family had opened one of the first ski areas in the Catskills, the Simpson Memorial Ski Slope in Phoenicia. We skied there regularly. We also liked to climb and then ski down the narrow, steep and winding Peekamoose Trail on Belleayre Mountain.” The friendship survived the trials of the Second World War, and they continued to seek new slopes after that conflict. “During a ski tour through New England, we made the acquaintance of many of the proprietors of the principal resorts in Vermont and New Hampshire. We had no plan at that time to build a ski center, but looking back, I can see that our thoughts were beginning to turn in that direction.”
Christensen, his friend Francis Davenport, and Francis’ brother Maurice caught wind of the state’s plans to amend the constitution so that the “forever wild” preserve could have skiing on the south side of Belleayre, and aimed to build or buy a lodge nearby. Instead, they found themselves in the position to buy quite a bit more, over a hundred acres on the north side of the mountain, and formed a partnership to pursue a ski center of their own. “I used my G.I rights as the only veteran in our partnership to buy a Jeep, a three-foot chain saw, and three heavy-duty Chrysler industrial engines for the rope tows,” his recollection continues. Rope tows were the standard way to get skiers up a mountain in those days, and he had several cast at the Ulster County Foundry.
The summer of 1946 was spent clearing the pristine slopes to make those rope tows usable: “The mountain was covered with hardwoods like beech, black birch, maples and oaks, some up to three feet in diameter. We worked through the summer, with the heat and the wood-flies pestering us, clearing out lift lines so we could see where we were going.” The first big snow of that season did not come until January of 1947, allowing the men and their workers time to put in the finishing touches, grooming the beginner and advanced trails for their first customers. The partners, key employees, and their wives all helped pack the snow down by sidestepping down the trails on their skis.
Christensen continued on as president of the ski center until 1964, but that first season was the only one he was able to work the business hands-on. He sold his interest to Francis Davenport at that time, but continued to count those days as among his proudest. “In spite of modernization, expansion, and the building of a fancy new lodge, [Highmount] maintained a homey feel that the larger areas could not offer,” he told his children. “It provided me one of the most exciting adventures of my life, and the days I spent planning and building that ski center on Belleayre Mountain were happy ones. None of us could have built it alone. It was a piece of good fortune that Francis, Maurice and I were able to pool our energies and ideas toward the creation of that truly special place and add to the rich treasure of history in the Catskills.” If fortune continues, New York skiers will again be able to experience the same thrill that Christensen and the Davenports did before long.
Christensen did not give up his community improvement efforts for long. In 1977, he helped snatched the Broadway Theater in Kingston from the jaws of demolition, with the help of two partners–Norm Rafalowsky and Helen Newcombe. This dedicated group of three, along with a coalition of concerned citizens, purchased the failing vaudeville house-turned movie house-turned community theater, and reopened it as the Ulster Performing Arts Center. Christensen served as the first president of UPAC’s board. Almost four decades, $1.7 million dollars in renovations, and one merger later, the historic building is once again home to a premier performing arts venue, featuring national and international headliners in music, dance, theater and more.
There are a multitude of other thriving enterprises in the Hudson Valley. The Mohonk Mountain House, where Schoonmaker farmers would bring their produce, was built by the Smiley brothers, Quakers who “came to do good, and did very well,” as a saying goes. Adams Fairacre Farms, which now has stores on both sides of the Hudson, started out a century ago as a small farm stand. Local does not always mean small, and when cultivated, local business can outlast even the dreams of their founders.