I parked the BMW 335i and walked to the banks of the Hudson River, just across from New York City. But I wasn’t after cities—I was searching for Lavender, Sam, and Alice, hoping to either meet them in person or at least follow in their footsteps. Poor, lost Lavender would be the hardest to track down: she became the protagonist of America’s most enduring ghost story back in the 1940s. Sam was one of the country’s best racing drivers in the 1960s and 1970s, piloting everything from Camaros and Challengers in the Trans Am series, to Ferrari’s at Le Mans, to a Surtees Formula 1 car at Watkins Glen, to Eagles at the Indy 500. And Alice was a colorful and free-spirited counterculture icon in the 1960s, immortalized in Arlo Guthrie’s magnificent song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” Along the way, naturally, I also encountered various castles, canals, shipwrecks, and the nation’s smallest train station. Come ride along!
Smart people, including my wife, fly from the Baltimore area to Cape Cod. It’s fast, convenient, and inexpensive. Others, including myself, drive north up the Hudson River Valley and then east through Massachusetts or Connecticut, looking for historical fun along the way. My tour began at the Fort Lee Historic Park, New Jersey, looking across the river toward The Big Apple.
The park also offers an impressive view of the George Washington Bridge, which, on this late Tuesday afternoon, was full of commuter traffic.
Days after the July 4, 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence, General George Washington ordered forts to be built on both sides of the Hudson River to prevent the British from capturing the Hudson River Valley and splitting the fledgling Union in two. Fort Lee was positioned on top of these steep palisades and had the ability to rain cannon fire down on the enemy ships. Fort Washington was positioned across the Hudson on the high ground of northern Manhattan Island.
It was a good plan… But the British attacked Long Island with overwhelming force in August 1776 and by September had captured all of New York City except Fort Washington. When it fell on November 16, British General Charles Cornwallis sent 5,000 men to attack Fort Lee. Gen. Washington had to order its hasty evacuation, leaving behind most of the munitions and other supplies. This critical defeat prompted Thomas Paine to write, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
Today, the Fort Lee park serves primarily as an unusually scenic array of jogging and bicycling trails. An occasional structure commemorates the fort that once stood here, although it appears that someone has borrowed the wheels out from under this cannon.
A quick blast up the Palisades Parkway and 9W north brought me to Ramapo, NY. In the 1930s, a beautiful young woman named Lily lived in a dilapidated shack in this part of town. Her father had worked at the nearby Ramapo Iron Works and her family was very poor. Lily had only one nice dress, a lavender gown that she found at her church’s charity clothing bin.
Lily loved to dance, and one night she set off in her gown to walk to Tuxedo, NY for a dance at this high school. Two boys, driving a car borrowed from one’s uncle, came upon Lily and offered her a ride. She accepted gratefully, as the night was becoming chilly. The boys were entranced by their guest and ended up joining her at the dance, where the three had a wonderful time. She told them her name was Lavender.
After the dance, the boys drove Lavender home. It was cold, and one of them lent his sports jacket to Lavender to wear. As they neared her house, she asked them to drop her off at this bridge, lest they see her ramshackle house.
As they left Ramapo, the boys realized that Lavender had forgotten to return the coat she’d borrowed. The next morning, they drove back to the bridge and soon found her house. They were startled at its poor appearance but knocked on the door. An old woman answered and, when asked about Lavender, replied “Oh, you mean Lily. She always used to call herself Lavender.” When the boys explained about the jacket and asked to see her, the old woman said that there must be some mistake, as her daughter had died nearly 10 years earlier…
Disconcerted and upset, the boys proceeded to a nearby church cemetery. The mother had told them that Lily was buried here, in her favorite lavender dress. They assumed that the elderly woman must be mentally confused, but there hadn’t been any sign of Lavender in the small house. The church had an ominous appearance.
Behind the church, the boys found the cemetery, with many large and ornate headstones.
Further on, a small grave marker caught their attention. Folded neatly on top of the grave was the young man’s jacket. Engraved on the simple stone marker was the name Lily.
Across the U.S., and indeed around the world, there are hundreds of variations on this same story. As best researchers can determine, the Ramapo, NY version is the original. It was first documented in the 1949 book Dark Trees to the Wind
by Carl Carmer—and Ramapo locals continue to swear that this version is 100 percent accurate. It took some doing, but I managed to track down the town, high school, bridge, and church cemetery from the original legend, as shown in the forgoing pictures. And yes, I did get a few goose bumps while tramping around the cemetery looking for a grave marked “Lily” as the sun was disappearing! (Unfortunately, the engraving on almost all of the plainer gravestones had eroded to the point of being illegible.)
As for Lavender’s house? In the early 2000s, one of Ramapo’s old “saltbox” ironworker houses was in exceedingly poor condition and on the verge of collapse. It was slated to be burned by the local fire department, but a local college professor proposed instead that it be dismantled and stored. The old house was carefully deconstructed and the pieces stored, largely forgotten, for about 10 years. Recently, however, the Ramapo Environmental Research Center was looking for an original ironworker’s house to serve as a cultural attraction and small museum. The professor volunteered his saltbox house, and it was painstakingly reconstructed on a piece of vacant land near the Torne Valley Sports Complex (and about 0.7 mile in a straight line from its original location in Ramapo village). Although the Environmental Research Center is silent on the issue, long-time residents of the area unanimously agree that this was Lavender’s house—and who am I to argue with them?
With Lavender’s story crowding out any other thoughts, it was time to turn in for the night. All of my dreams that night featured scenes like this one:
I was up early the next morning, anxious to arrive on time for my 9:45 AM tour of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. (Sorry Guy, Mike, Patrick, and all my other friends who went to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis!) From the West Point grounds I enjoyed the beautiful view up the Hudson, with Storm King Mountain on the left and Pollepel Island 4½ miles in the distance.
West Point is an imposing and beautiful place. Two years after the defeat of Forts Lee and Washington in 1776, the Continental Army built a commanding fortress here and strung a 150-ton iron chain across the Hudson to prevent British ships from passing. Although a large ship under full sail probably would have dislodged the chain’s mounting points, none dared try it. General Benedict Arnold, after having served brilliantly—if controversially—in capturing Fort Ticonderoga and winning the battle of Saratoga, was named commander of the fort at West Point in 1780. He had become disenchanted with the revolution, however, following accusations of malfeasance and a formal rebuke from Gen. Washington, and he secretly plotted to surrender West Point to the British. Fortunately, his treasonous plans were discovered, leading to his arrest, escape, and enlistment with the British forces. West Point was never successfully attacked by the British.
The Cadet Chapel stands proudly at the top of the hill in the prior photo. It is a beautiful church, both outside and in. Shown below is the console for the largest church pipe organ in the world, with 23,511 separate pipes. (No, I didn’t count them myself; that’s what the Internet is for! All historical photos are courtesy of the Library of Congress, unless otherwise noted.)
The U.S. Military Academy was inaugurated in 1802, following recommendations from Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and others. It is considered one of the finest colleges in the country, with exacting academic, athletic, and ethical standards. One of the oldest buildings on campus is the Superintendant’s Quarters, from 1819. All of the school’s Superintendants from Sylvanus Thayer on have lived here, and the great majority of U.S. Presidents have been guests at the Quarters.
With a last look at the 1897 Battle Monument, it was time to continue on my way. (Note the scale of this monument: the 1907 photo focuses on just one of the orbs at it base.)
The southern entrance to Storm King Highway lies just outside of the West Point gates. This highway was chiseled out of the side of Storm King Mountain in 1916, becoming one of the first public roads in New York designed for automobile use. Its construction often required surveyors to rappel down the side of the mountain! These photos, incidentally, were taken from the little pullout visible in the aerial view below (from Teaching the Hudson Valley
I was getting closer to Pollepel Island, but not yet as close as I wanted to be.
Zooming in from Storm King Highway, I could begin to see what I was looking for—namely Bannerman’s Castle. I had utterly failed to find this landmark on an earlier trip in 2013, and I was determined to succeed this time. (See Almost Heaven: The Hudson River Valley by Z4
Succeeding required driving north to Newburgh, across the deteriorating Interstate 84 bridge, and then south through Beacon to the magnificent Breakneck Ridge Metro-North Railroad Station. Yes, this really is an active train station, although only on weekends; it caters to mountain climbers and adventurous hikers who want to attempt the climb up the ridge.
Did you notice the distant overpass in the above photo? My goal was to hike along the tracks, get up on the overpass, and see whether it offered a view of Bannerman’s Castle. The view south along the railroad tracks was certainly impressive…
…and the location put me only 0.4 mile from Pollepel Island, at last! My Almost Heaven
report details how Bannerman’s Castle came about; suffice it to say here that the munitions armory, mansion, and river gateway have all deteriorated substantially but remain impressive nonetheless. Next time, I’ll travel on a weekend and take in the guided tour of the island
In 1714, a Jewish immigrant named Luis Moses Gomez built a frontier trading post, using local fieldstones, north of Newburgh, NY. An upper story and attic were added in 1772 by Dutch immigrant Wolfert Acker, using bricks fired from local clay. The respective parts of the house are still readily apparent. The Gomez Mill House
is the oldest known surviving Jewish residence in the United States.Dard Hunter
was a papermaker from Ohio. He bought the Gomez property in 1909 and built a small paper mill across from the house. It was modeled after the cottages of Devonshire, England, right down to its thatched roof. The house and mill are now owned by the Gomez Foundation and are available for tours.
Nearby, I found this scenic church high on a hill overlooking the Hudson. In a further demonstration that Baptists can be, uh, a bit quarrelsome, in 1832 a group split off from the Oliver Street Baptist Church in downtown New York City to form the Amity Street Baptist Church. In 1860, they built a new chapel on West 54th Street (with their former church building converted to use as a stable!) Attendance began declining in the late 1800s, prompting minister Leighton Williams to form the Brotherhood of the Kingdom, holding meetings on this hillside as early as 1893. In 1905, he had the Amity Baptist Church disassembled and rebuilt here. It’s survived two long periods of abandonment but is currently prospering as the Chapel Hill Bible Church. (Manhattan photo courtesy of the New York City Chapter, American Guild of Organists
As I continued to meander northward up the west bank of the Hudson, from time to time I would find an overgrown dirt road leading right down to the water’s edge. One such trek brought me to the old Milton railroad station, which served passengers on the West Shore Railroad from the late 1800s to 1958.
Prior to construction of the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge in 1888, farm produce, coal, and other raw materials on their way to the cities and factories of New England had to cross the Hudson River via barges. The Poughkeepsie Bridge changed all that, but, by 1974, train traffic had dwindled substantially, and a fire had damaged its eastern portion. Fortunately, the bridge has been renovated, and in 2009 it reopened as the Walkway Over The Hudson
—the longest pedestrian bridge in the world.
The “Maid of the Meadows” lighthouse at Esopus, NY was built in 1871, replacing an earlier one that had been damaged by ice flows. It helped guide river traffic through 1965. More recently, the lighthouse has been renovated as part of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act.
Kingston, NY merits more exploration than I could give it—but I did locate the 1870 Ponckhockie Union Congregational Church, which was the first building in New York to use an early form of steel-reinforced concrete. The original spire towered 220 feet into the air, but its concrete deteriorated quickly and forced removal in 1965. (Historical photo courtesy of the National Park Service
By chance I also encountered the John N. Cordts Volunteer Fire Company. It was built in 1894, perhaps to help protect the stunning mansion at the top of the hill that John had just inherited from his father. Note that either the firehouse is quite small or my 335i is massive…
By now, and as usual, I was running rather late. Still, I couldn’t forgo a side trip to the West Saugerties. The farther I drove, the smaller and rougher the roads became. Eventually I ended up on Parnassus Lane, and I knew I was close.
The music historians among you will recognize that I was on my way to Big Pink—yep, the home of The Band in 1967. While living here, The Band wrote a sizable portion of their now-classic songs and recorded many of them in the basement on a two-track tape deck. Music from Big Pink
remains one of their most popular albums and made number 34 on Rolling Stones’
500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd cites this album as a major inspiration. Moreover, Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes
album was also recorded here with The Band, and both Eric Clapton and George Harrison were frequent guests. Today, the house is someone else’s residence—but it’s still pink. The owners
don’t mind the occasional historical tourist stopping by for a quick photograph; after all they are musicians and recording artists themselves. Rock on!
Backtracking to the venerable Highway 9W, I continued northward toward Albany. Another detour brought me to Coxsackie, NY, where I found a farmer’s market and this very long, rather odd ruin of a dock, a boat, or perhaps something else altogether.
It turned out to be what’s left of the Storm King freight steamer, which plied the Hudson from 1911 until she sank in 1936. The bow was a little more recognizable as having been part of a ship, but I have no idea what all the little peg-like pieces were used for. The ship’s pilot house and superstructure were rescued and are now used as an office building at a local funeral home(!). (Historical photos courtesy of the Town of Coxsackie
The beach near the steamship landing was very popular—until the Hudson became too polluted for swimming, anyway.
In case you were wondering, Coxsackie’s name derives from a Mahican Indian word, meaning something like “place of the owls.” It was a charming little town.
The town library is composed of one end of a row of houses; it’s in excellent shape, but the units on the opposite side could use some renovation. (The whole section can be seen at the end of Reed Street in the old photo.)
With my energy ebbing, I finally reached a friendly Motel 6 on the outskirts of Albany, ate a good dinner at the Mexican restaurant next door, and turned in. No dreams of Lavender this time, just the mellifluous notes of “The Weight,” “Long Black Veil,” “I Shall Be Released,” and other favorite songs from The Band playing through my mind.
The next morning, I braved the morning rush hour into downtown Schenectady but quickly escaped into the historic Stockade section. Here I learned that the city’s name derives from the Mohawk Indian phrase meaning “beyond the pine plains.” The Dutch settlers who moved here in 1661 got along quite well with the Native Americans—until 1690, that is, when the French and their Algonquin and Ojibwe Indian comrades attacked the village and burned it to the ground. Half of the village’s population were killed outright and another fourth taken prisoner. The 20 Mohawk residents were spared. (Historical drawings and photos courtesy of The Stockade Association
and the Gems-Doolittle Library Collections Blog
In 1902, an unsuspecting homeowner on Front Street in the Stockade district discovered a significant number of skeletons in his backyard. They are believed to be some of the victims of the Schenectady Massacre.
After the massacre, the local Mohawks urged the surviving settlers to rebuild, which they did. Foremost among these Indians was one known by the settlers as Lawrence; he is memorialized by this statue in the middle of the town square.
The Stockade district has since been continuously inhabited for 325 years, making it the oldest residential neighborhood in the U.S. Several of the old buildings survived a second attack by the French and Indians, in 1748, as well as the 1819 fire that otherwise destroyed much of the area. The first house shown below was the 1820 Toll House—no, not that
kind; rather, the home of Dr. Daniel J. Toll, a physician.
Schenectady’s oldest church is St. George’s on North Ferry Street, with construction having started in 1759. During the American Revolution, services were suspended, and the Continental Army used the church as a barracks. This rude treatment presumably occurred because St. George’s was part of the Church of England, serving the British garrison in the years leading up to the Revolution. The dramatic stone tower and wooden steeple were added in 1879.
After the French and Indian Wars had ended, the city soon began developing into an industrial giant. Prior to the construction of the Erie Canal, goods had to be transported by land from Albany to Schenectady, where they were loaded onto ships for passage up the Mohawk River to Lake Erie. The canal greatly shortened the time required—and it continues in operation to this day. The Mohawk-Hudson Railroad came along in 1831, initially using horse-drawn cars and then the DeWitt Clinton steam locomotive (photo), named for the seventh Governor of New York who had promoted construction of the Erie Canal. The fledgling railroad operations were followed by the massive Schenectady Locomotive Works in 1848. Thomas Edison founded his Machine Works here in 1886, which grew into the General Electric Company.
Stockade resident John Ellis rescued the Locomotive Works from bankruptcy in 1850 and turned it into a thriving business. He built this mansion for his son Edward in 1885. (Brother Charles also received a mansion from his father, immediately next door to Edward’s. It is marred by the later addition of an elevator but is otherwise equally spectacular.)
The First Reformed Church of Schenectady was formed prior to 1680. Its Dutch Reformed church buildings have had a checkered history: the first was burned during the Schenectady Massacre, and the fourth and fifth buildings succumbed to fire as well. The current structure was built from the ruins of the fifth church, which burned in 1948. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will continue to do better than its predecessors.
Although I’d heard of Union College, I didn’t know that it has the oldest planned campus in the country, preceding even Thomas Jefferson’s venerable University of Virginia. By 1800, Union was one of the “big four,” along with Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. I was especially taken with the stunning Nott Memorial, named in honor of the fourth president of the college, Eliphalet Nott, who served in this position for 62 years (1804-1866)! In the process, he became the longest-serving college or university president in U.S. history.
The memorial, which now serves primarily as an art gallery, conveniently opened its doors about 5 minutes after I arrived. The interior was every bit as glorious as the exterior. I did not climb the hanging stairway all the way to the topmost level—but I wish I had!
From Schenectady, I went looking for signs of the original Erie Canal. Gov. DeWitt Clinton was instrumental in getting the New York legislature to approve the canal’s construction, which started in 1817, and he was a passenger on the first boat in 1825. The canal prospered for many years, despite competition from the railroads, and was enlarged in 1835 to address overcrowding. In 1918, the waterway was replaced with the Erie “barge canal,” using sections of the original together with greatly expanded locks. The barge canal is still in use, although freight traffic is outweighed by pleasure boat travel these days.
The original Erie Canal had 83 locks and 18 aqueducts, which carried the canal over various rivers and streams including the Mohawk River on the outskirts of Schenectady. The stone arch supports of this aqueduct are still visible on both sides of the river (with the modern Route 9 bridge in the background of this photo). The aqueduct itself was a wooden trough, sturdy enough to support the weight of the canal water and the cargo boats as they crossed the Mohawk.
Reaching lock no. 19 required a mile-long hike along the old towpath. The path offered nice views of the Mohawk River, along with not quite enough shade and too many insects. But no sacrifice is too great in the pursuit of history!
Along the way I discovered some faunistic denizens, including a little toad (who was very hard to see even though he wasn’t hiding) and a red-winged blackbird (who was
hiding but easy to see).
Lock 19 was a double lock, having been built in 1842 as part of the first expansion. By 1853, 175 boats a day were passing through this lock.
Squire Whipple, a graduate of Union College and the “father of the iron bridge,” built this example over the Erie Canal in 1869. The path on the other side leads into the Vischer Ferry Nature and Historic Preserve
, which includes no shortage of beautiful views.
As I continued eastward along the Mohawk River, I stopped for a look at the Crescent Dam. Unfortunately, the view from the river level does not do justice to the engineering beauty of this place.
Another double lock from the old Eric Canal (no. 18) can be found in the middle of Cohoes, NY, right across from the magnificent Cohoes Falls. It was part of the “Terrible Sixteen” series of locks that was required to raise canal boats the distance required to match the drop of the falls. The passage through the locks required an entire day, and this difficulty was the primary impetus for building the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad.
The Erie Barge Canal replaced the Terrible Sixteen locks in Cohoes with a modern set of 5 huge locks in Waterford, NY. This is a small section of the first one. Nearby are a series of small locks on what had been the “Cross Cut” Canal to Lake Champlain.
Speaking of Waterford, that’s where the “Waterford gable” originated, with its high, stepped appearance. This style can be seen across New York and New England. This particular house, built in 1802 by General Samuel Stuart, was the first to use this form of gable.
The town is also home to the former First Baptist Church, in case any staunch Baptists are reading this report. It is now a senior citizen center (which is probably how I ran across it…)
Remember the early example of steel-reinforced concrete construction at the Ponckhockie Union Congregational Church? Well, unreinforced
concrete has been used to build houses and other structures for at least 8,000 years, dating back to the Nabatea culture in the Middle East and later the Greeks and Romans. As best anyone can tell, however, the first poured-in-place concrete house in the U.S. is this one in Waterford, built by Colonel Samuel Smith sometime between 1863 and 1873.
Waterford became an industrial powerhouse early in the 1800s, in part because of its location where the Mohawk River empties into the Hudson. With the Erie and Champlain Canals originating here, boatbuilding soon became a specialty. The Matton Shipyard operated on Van Schaick Island during 1916-1983, building canal boats, barges, tug boats, and police launches. This building was the wood-planning mill. (Photo of the tugboat Matton
courtesy of Tugboat Information.com
I generally park anywhere I can to grab photos. In this case, it was on the shoulder of what was once the military road connecting Fort Ann and Fort Orange (Albany) during the French and Indian Wars. Every square inch of space around here seemed to be brimming with history.
Exactly where the Mohawk meets the Hudson is a little confusing. I think
this is part of the Hudson, with Peebles Island to the right and Cohoes to the left. It was a beautiful spot.
Dutchman Goosen Gerritse Van Schaick bought the island that now bears his name from the Mohican Indians in 1665. His son Anthony built this mansion sometime between 1735 and 1755; during the Revolutionary War, the Governor of New York made it the capital of New York State for 6 days.
After all this, you may be wondering whatever happened to Sam and Alice. We’re getting there, we’re getting there! But first we have to cross the Hudson and admire the 1878 First Presbyterian Church of Valatie, NY…
…and then the 1737 Luykas Van Alen House near Kinderhook, which was the basis for the Van Tassel homestead in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
(from whence Ichabod Crane rode his horse, only to be chased by the Headless Horseman)…
…and the associated “Ichabod Crane” one-room schoolhouse…
…and finally Lindenwald, the home of the eighth President of the United States, Martin Van Buren. With all the fascinating history in this part of New York, it was a little hard to make much progress toward Connecticut!
At long last, and late in the afternoon, I drove by Mudge Pond and the town of Sharon, CT and arrived at the home of Sam Posey and his wife Ellen Griesedieck. I was welcomed by Ellen
, who is a noted painter and photographer, with photos and artwork published in Sports Illustrated
, and Road & Track
among other magazines, and one-woman art shows from New York to Paris. She is also the founder of The American Mural Project
and the designer of the Newman’s Own labels for her late friend, Paul Newman. (Photo courtesy of The American Mural Project.)
Ellen told me that Sam was over at the family’s studio. In addition to being one of America’s best racing drivers during 1965-1985, Sam is an accomplished painter, author, and Emmy-winning broadcaster
. There have been a number of “racer writers” over the years—Denise McCluggage, Paul Frère, and Phil Hill come to mind—but I would argue that Sam Posey has proven himself to be the best of the best. His just-released book Where the Writer Meets the Road
is a collection of his articles, stories, driver profiles, and other writings about automobile racing. Sam’s 1975 autobiography, The Mudge Pond Express
, helped inspire me to start my own racing efforts in the early 1980s.
Any of you who followed TransAm, CanAm, Indycar, Formula 5000, or Formula One racing in the 1960s and 1970s will remember Sam, as will anyone who heard his subsequent Indy 500 or Formula One broadcasts.
Sam’s first race was in a 40-horsepower Formula Vee at Lime Rock, CT in 1965. Amazingly, within 1 year he was racing a Porsche 904 at the 24 Hours of Daytona, a 350-horsepower Bizzarrini Strada 5300 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and an 800-horsepower McLaren sports racer in the brutal CanAm series. I watched him race an Alfa Romeo GTA to fifth overall and victory in the under-2 litre class at the 1966 Marlboro 12 Hour—having no idea at that time who this talented young driver was. In 1967, he became the first person to lap the 1.53-mile Lime Rock circuit in less than a minute. (Racing photographs courtesy of Racing Sports Cars
Sam’s racing career included an overall win at the Sebring 12 Hour, ten Le Mans 24-hour races (including third place in 1971), fifth place in his rookie year at the 1972 Indy 500, and several Trans Am wins, as a teammate to Mark Donohue on Roger Penske’s Sunoco team and later the Dodge factory team. Despite several petrifying-looking crashes, he was never injured—until he broke his thumb in his Formula Ford track-day car at Lime Rock a few years ago! (For the record, that crash occurred when he had to avoid a car that spun ahead of him.)
As I walked over to the studio, I spotted Sam’s current preferred ride:
Inside the studio, Sam was hard at work preparing his Fox Sports commentary for the 2015 Le Mans 24-hour race. He was flying to Charlotte, North Carolina the next morning to join the broadcast team. His office space was crowded with finished and in-progress paintings, model racing cars, brushes, oil paints, and paperwork. Despite his impending deadline, Sam generously put his commentary aside, and we talked about his driving and broadcasting career, our mutual friend the late John Fitch, his friend Skip Barber, and a few other topics. Sam is 71 now and has been battling Parkinson’s Disease for a number of years. Nonetheless, he still has a great sense of humor, and his desire and ability to achieve are undiminished. It was an honor to meet him after all these years, and I wish both him and Ellen the very best.
Sharon, CT is only a few miles from the well-known Lime Rock Park racetrack, so it seemed appropriate to stop by for my first visit here since the early 1980s. The iconic control tower at the start/finish line was easy to find. Did I mention that it was designed by Sam Posey?
It’s not especially common to see a Lamborghini—let alone twelve
of them in one place! I discovered that the Squadra Corse Lamborghini Experienza was in town, with a set of Aventadors, Huracáns, and Gallardos for the upcoming track event. Quite a sight.
As I wandered around, I noticed Lime Rock Park’s official pace car: a 2013 BMW M3 E92 coupe. And it turns out that it’s not “any old M3”: it’s the second of 200 “Lime Rock Park” special editions built by BMW. Skip Barber, the owner of Lime Rock and head of the Skip Barber Racing School
, owns number one.
With a last look at Lime Rock’s main straight (named in honor of Sam Posey), it was time to continue on toward Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
In Great Barrington, MA, I found my first sign of Alice Brock. She and her husband Ray bought the 1829 Trinity Church in 1964 and lived here for several years. In November 1965, they invited numerous friends to celebrate Thanksgiving with them—two of whom, 18-year-old Arlo Guthrie and his friend Rick Robbins, were soon arrested for littering after they dumped garbage from the Thanksgiving meal over a cliff, since the Stockbridge town dump was closed. This true story, and how it featured in Arlo’s Army draft during the Vietnam era, is related in “Alice’s Restaurant”—both the song and the subsequent Arthur Penn movie of the same name.
At the church, I learned that it was now owned by Arlo Guthrie and serves as The Guthrie Center at the Old Trinity Church
. Best of all, I discovered that there would be a hootenanny there that evening. Now that was an offer I couldn’t refuse! Not only would I get to see the inside of this storied old church, I would hear some excellent folk music. In the meantime, I continued on toward Stockbridge. Naturally I stopped to visit the Housatonic River along the way…
…plus Chesterwood, the summer estate and studio of Daniel Chester French (who, among other accomplishments, sculpted the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC)…
…and the abandoned Monument Mills industrial site, which produced textiles from 1850 to 1955.
Eventually I made it to Stockbridge and the historic Red Lion Inn
, which dates back to 1773 and would be my overnight destination. I had just enough time for an excellent bratwurst dinner in the Lion’s Den pub before returning to the church.
Back in 1965, Arlo Guthrie was largely unknown. Propelled by the song “Alice’s Restaurant,” however, he soon became one of the nation’s foremost folk singers, following in the footsteps of his legendary father, Woody Guthrie.
Arlo met Alice and Ray Brock when he was a student at the private Stockbridge School, where Alice was the librarian and Ray served as an architect and carpenter. By all accounts, Alice was (and continues to be) a fun-loving free spirit, equally adept at beach combing and organizing small businesses. She’s also written several books over the years, including The Alice’s Restaurant Cookbook
and How To Massage Your Cat
. This group of pictures shows Alice in various settings, including, in the color photo, her role as “Suzy” in the movie “Alice’s Restaurant.” (The part of Alice was played by actress Pat Quinn.)
In the photo on the left above, Alice is reaching across the table, Arlo Guthrie is at top right, and (I believe) his future wife Jackie Guthrie is shown at his left. Sadly, Jackie Guthrie passed away in 2012 after 43 years of marriage and 4 children with Arlo. (Jackie Guthrie self-portrait courtesy of Terry Roland’s moving eulogy “An Appreciation—Remembering Mrs. G.”
When I arrived back at the Guthrie Center for the hootenanny, I admired the many pictures of Arlo, Woody, and the numerous musicians who have performed at the church over the years. (My wife’s favorite folksinger, Tom Rush, played here 2 weeks later.)
The hootenanny was great fun. The performers were all very talented, and I particularly enjoyed Ray Cerbone’s moving song “Next To You”
. (These photos appear “posterized,” incidentally, not because I’m trying to be artistic, but rather because that’s the best my iPhone could do in the very dim light!)
As I left the church at the end of the show, I had to chuckle when I looked up at the tower. Peace forever, brothers and sisters!
I also thought back to the poignant ending of the movie “Alice’s Restaurant,” with “Alice” standing forlornly and uncertainly at the church’s main entrance, pondering her future after having just renewed her wedding vows with Ray. (In real life, the Brocks separated about a year after the Thanksgiving celebration.) If you haven’t seen this movie, I highly recommend it. It vividly portrays the 1960s hippie lifestyle in all of its freedom, romance, contradictions, and excess. Be aware, however, that Alice is not a fan of the movie, believing that its portrayal of the character Alice is far removed from her own life.
The next morning in Stockbridge, I found the original Alice’s Restaurant “around the back,” just like the song says. It was called “The Back Room” when Alice started it, and after a year she sold it and it became “Theresa’s Stockbridge Café.” Sadly, the restaurant recently closed and shows no sign of reopening.
Further down Main Street is the Stockbridge Town Hall and Police Department. Arlo and his friend Rick were locked up here following their arrest for littering, until an enraged Alice showed up to bail them out—and to have some harsh words for Police Chief William Obanhein. (Arlo, “Officer Obie,” and the blind judge all played themselves in the movie. Officer Obie famously said that making himself look like a fool was preferable to having someone else make him look like a fool.)
From Stockbridge, I hastened pell-mell on to Falmouth, MA in Cape Cod, joining up with my wife and our dear friends Martha, Vickie, Jim, Alan, and Pam for a very enjoyable vacation. This is almost the end of my tale about the search for Lavender, Sam, and Alice—but not quite. On the following Sunday, Martha and I drove to Provincetown, at the end of Cape Cod, where Alice Brock has been living since 1979. As we walked toward number 69 Commercial Street, we enjoyed the local scenery and historic buildings, such as the towering 1860 Center Methodist Episcopal Church, which now serves as the town library.
When we arrived at number 69 and found Alice’s home and art gallery, we learned that, well, Alice doesn’t live here anymore. She has been suffering from emphysema, had to close the gallery back in January, and was in the process of moving to a new home. I did receive a nice email from her, however; I hope she continues to “make it up as she goes along”
for many more years to come. (Photos and “About the Author” courtesy of The Alice’s Restaurant Cookbook
All told, I had a most enjoyable tour while taking the long way from Catonsville, MD to Falmouth, MA. The 335i was the perfect vehicle for the trip, alternately serving as a very capable sports coupe and an enterprising co-conspirator, always eager to accompany me on any adventure and willing to help me escape whenever necessary. My quest for Lavender, Sam, and Alice, and all the places and people in between, could not have been more exciting or fulfilling.
PS—Did I mention that I actually encountered Lavender when I visited Ramapo? She was wearing a lavender-colored top and was walking a small dog. Our conversation went something like this:Me
: O forgotten spirit! O tragic being! Is it really you?Lavender
: Uh, come again?Me
are Lavender, are you not? Once named Lily? Lavender
: What are you talking about? Me
: O gracious spirit—I feel your pain, your loss of Earthly Identity. Tell me your story, I implore you. Lavender
: (Looking around nervously) What, are you mental? And how would someone like you get such a nice car?? Me
: O spirit, I have traced your sad story from your home, to the high school, to the bridge, to the… yes, even to the cemetery, and all these years later. It [i]is
true, I can feel it! I can see the despair and anguish in your disconsolate eyes! Please unburden your soul, please let me help you. [/i]Lavender
: I’m going now. And don’t try to follow me—I have mace!
: Farewell, sad entity. May your wanderings lead you to a better place! Lavender
: (Disembodied voice) Geez, could this day get any worse?
PPS—I wish I were making this up…