Nyack Sketch Log: Squash Blossom

squash blossom_featuredby Bill Batson

Since 1973, Nyack has been the home of Squash Blossom, a Native American crafts store operated by Trudi Feiner at 49 Burd Street. Squash Blossom is the last store standing from the crafts and antique renaissance that restored the economic fortunes of the village in the 1970s. The family that launched the venture, however, is equally recognized for the zeal of their progressive politics, personified by Trudi’s late husband, Irving Feiner.

Irving and Trudi Feiner met at a self-proclaimed interracial resort called Camp Unity in 1948. A year after they met, Irving Feiner became embroiled in a legal case that tested the boundaries of political speech and transformed both of their lives.

Irv and Trudi

Trudi and Irving Feiner

As a student on the GI Bill at Syracuse University, Feiner mounted a soap box one afternoon to urge local residents to attend a rally. The gathering was to protest the verdict in the trial of the “Trenton Six,” a group of black men given the death penalty for killing an elderly white shopkeeper based on a confession that was later impeached. Former United States Assistant Attorney General, O. John Rogge, a member of the defense team, was on the program. A permit to hold the event in a local high school had been revoked by the Mayor of Syracuse.

Subsequent accounts reported that Feiner gave a contentious speech that disparaged elected officials. When a member of the crowd threatened to “get him down” from his improvised platform if the police didn’t, Feiner was arrested.  The case made it to the Supreme Court where a 6-3 majority ruled against Feiner, requiring him to serve a one month sentence for the misdemeanor. He was also expelled from the University.

Hugo Black

Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black

“I understand that people in totalitarian countries must obey arbitrary orders,” wrote Justice Hugo Black in his dissent. “I had hoped that there was no such duty in the United States.”

According to Irv Feiner’s obituary in The New York Times “The legal principle involved came to be know as the “heckler’s veto,” meaning that a disruptive listener could effectively stop a controversial speaker by threatening havoc.”

The Feiners moved to Rockland County in the late 1950s and joined a group of young couples that included Betty and Carl Friedan (Betty would later write The Feminine Mystique) and Herb and Edith Kurz (Herb, who passed away on November 24, 2014 founded Presidential life and was a prolific philanthropist.) The goal of the families was to start a progressive interracial community.

Screenshot 2014-12-14 19.19.11

Epaminondas from “Epaminondas and His Auntie”

When they were unable to acquire the land they sought for their utopian community, the Feiners bought a home in nearby Blauvelt. They quickly regretted the decision. One of their three daughters, Rachael, brought home a book from school entitled “Epaminondas and His Auntie,” a work of unreconstructed Jim Crow era racism.  They moved to Nyack in 1963 because of the village’s diverse demographics.

Screenshot 2014-12-14 19.26.34

(l-r) Susan, Irving, Emily, Rachael and Trudi Feiner

In Nyack, the Feiners worked with a group that included Joan Bodger and Win and Betty Perry and Gerry and Eddie Dahlberg to create Nyack Head Start. Irving began a successful career in New York City as a lithographer.

The tragic death of Rachael in a car accident in 1971 came 6 weeks before the Feiners planned to leave Nyack. The family’s relocation to Santa Fe, New Mexico seemed to exacerbate their pain, so after two years they returned. Packed into their station wagon was the inventory for the first Squash Blossom that was located on the corner of Main Street and Broadway.

Screenshot 2014-12-14 19.30.23

Herb Kurz visits Irving and Trudi at Squash Blossom

In 1974, Trudi and two partners bought their current location from the estate of a member of the Blauvelt family.  The structure once served as the hay loft for the horse stables used by the St. George Hotel.

Irving continued his outspoken exploits, running for Rockland County Executive, New York State Assembly, and Mayor of Nyack.  As the organizer for the Jimmy Carter for president campaign in 1976, Feiner successfully changed New York State election law to allow voters to know which candidate convention delegates in Democratic Presidential primaries were supporting.

Following in her parents footsteps, Emily Feiner ran for Village of Nyack Trustee in 1985, winning by two votes. Feiner contends the margin of her victory came from “my mom and my dad.” Emily is now an Outreach Manager at the New Jersey VA for programs for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Emily’s sister, Susan, is a Professor of Economics and Women and Gender Studies at the University of Southern Maine, where she is also the president of her union.

Feiner at Tully CenterIn 2006, Feiner, who later completed his degree at Syracuse, was invited to give the lecture at the dedication of the Tully Center for First Amendment.

Irving Feiner passed away in January 2009, but not before seeing Barack Obama’s inauguration as the first African American President of the United States. He watched the watershed event on a large screen TV he purchased just for the occasion. It was his last waking day.

trudi Feiner Featured

Trudi Feiner with photo of President Obama and White House Intern Laurie Roberts hanging proudly on the wall at Squash Blossom

All of the objects that are assembled on the shelves of Squash Blossom have sacred meaning. Trudi can tell you about the significance of each Zuni fetish animal or the rituals surrounding wedding vases. She can tell you about how dreamcatchers serve to ensure that when the sun rises, all your bad dreams just disappear. Yet, as incomprehensible as some of the losses the Feiners have weathered are, a photo behind the counter might be their dreamcatcher made real.

In the picture, Laurie Roberts, Trudi and Irving Feiner’s granddaughter, is standing with President Obama, during her recent White House internship. For two life-long advocates for racial equality and political empowerment, the image, in substance and symbolism, represents the progress that they fought to secure.

If you want to learn more about Native American culture, or talk politics with an old-school progressive who tells it like it is, visit Squash Blossom Monday through Friday 11am to 5pm and Sundays noon to 5pm during the Christmas season, after December 25 the store is open Thursday through Sunday.

Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. “Squash Blossom” © 2014 Bill Batson.


Nyack Sketch Log: Hickory Dickory Dock

by Bill Batson

Every ornament, toy and clock at Hickory Dickory Dock tells a story. Once you pass under the canopied entrance of 43 South Broadway in Nyack, and navigate gauntlet of wind chimes, you enter a forest of handcrafted collectibles. Some of the objects invoke fairy tales, others honor folklore and some have a direct link to the customs that shaped how Christians in America celebrate Christmas.

Twenty seven years ago, attorney and civic leader John Costa learned that a Nyack couple was no longer able to manage their small clock shop. Costa had always been interested in clock making and his parents had owned a small retail shop in Bergen County when he was a child.

Because of the demands of his law practice, Costa had to convince his wife, a painter and graphic artist, to support the venture.  Norma Costa’s natural affinity for aesthetics and craftsmanship has developed into an aptitude for the mechanics of clock making and repair. Their daughter Loreen, who manages the day-to-day operation, has traveled to Germany annually for the last 20 years to build relationships with the craftspeople that make Hickory Dickory Dock’s clocks and collectibles.

The business is in its third location. They started out in half of the space that is now the Runcible Spoon.  Their next venue was at the corner of Franklin Ave. and Main St. that has since become the Murasaki restaurant. In 1999, they moved into their current location, a building that was once White’s Funeral Home.

“This is a perfect location for us,” said Loreen. “A rectangular store creates a conveyor belt where people move quickly up one side and down the other, but the nooks and crannies of this old building allow people to linger and settle in.”

The floors, shelves, walls and display cases of Hickory Dickory Dock hold hundreds of toys, seasonal decorations, nutcrackers, beer steins and jewelry, but clocks dominate the space.  There are clocks for the wall, floor, desk and mantle. The constant movement of dials and pendulums and the music of clocks marking time are the soundtrack of the store. “We try to avoid the cacophony of having them set to chime at the same time, but we make sure that when you’re in the store, at least one of our clocks is always speaking to you,” Loreen said.

Hickory Dickory Dock represents some of the finest clock makers in the world including Chelsea of Boston, Comitti of London, Hermle of Germany and Howard Miller of Zeeland, Michigan.

The centerpiece of the clock collection are the cuckoos. A back wall of the main room of the shop is covered, salon style with dozens of cuckoo clocks.  With their hand carved moving figurines and distinctive sound, the elaborate timepieces are the pride of the black forest in Germany.  The craftspeople of this region are credited with inventing clock making.

St. Nicholas and Krampus

During a family trip in 1991 to visit the family-run factories that produce the clocks that they sell,  the Costas decided to expand their business to include holiday decorations.  “Many of our Christmas traditions, from the Christmas tree to the practice of counting down the days that are a part of Advent are from Germany,” said Costa. “Our Santa Claus looks and behaves like their Saint Nicholas, who in German legend fills shoes that children leave out with sweets.  A major difference in our Christmas custom is the character of  Krampus. Where our Santa withholds gifts from those on the naughty list, in German folklore krampus visits bad children to deliver a lump of coal and a few whacks with a thin switch,” she said.

Hickory Dickory Dock now has decorations for a variety of seasonal holidays, and works with crafts people from around the world.  What all of the items have in common is that they share the stories of the families and regions of the craftspeople who create them.

And while the Costas have spent years developing relationships with artists and crafts people, Loreen knows that the real story begins when someone comes into her shop. “When one of our customers selects an item to be a part of their family holiday tradition or to a honor a special event like a birth, that object becomes part of their family’s story,” Costa proudly acknowledged.


Hickory Dickory Dock will be open seven days a a week until Christmas.

The cuckoo clock in my sketch was made in Germany by Anton Schneider.

This sketch log was originally posted on December 18, 2012

Nyack Sketch Log is now a book. While they last, first editions can be purchased at the Nyack Indoor Famer’s Market on Thursdays at Nyack Center. On Sun., Dec 14. I will be signing books at two events. I’ll be at Nyack’s 1st Indoor Street Fair at Nyack Center from 10a-1:30p. & at a Nyack Sketch Log exhibit at the Nyack Library from 2-4p. You can also order books at billbatsonarts.com. Thank you for your continued support of my work.

Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: Hickory Dickory Dock” © 2014 Bill Batson.


Nyack Sketch Log: The Book

Nyack Sketch Log Front Coverby Bill Batson

When I started publishing a weekly sketch and short essay in August 2011, I thought I would run out of subjects before I ran out of stamina. Three years, later, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.

This week, I am publishing my first book, a collection of my favorite essays. As a whole, the collection is a narrative about preservation, of memories and of a place.

The premise behind Nyack Sketch Log is that the unexamined place is not worth inhabiting. I am fascinated with every building and every soul that dwells within the one-square mile of the village where I live. Each person’s story is a poem, screenplay, or song, that has yet to be written, seen or heard.

The idea for my composite visual and literary portrait of Nyack was ignited on June 18, 2011. Kris Burns invited me to an evening of flash mobs and pop-up projections honoring our hometown visual arts hero, Edward Hopper. Her event, Hoppers Happens, had a profound effect on me. Ironically, my first entry was in watercolor, not the pen and ink that has become my visual voice.

There was something about the projection of an Edward Hopper painting on the side of a brick wall that made the village that I had known all my life new again. Suddenly, every facade was as captivating as a distant, exotic locale. Vistas that I thought had become mundane, were now begging for my attention.

Nyack Sketch Log:

A compilation of 55 sketches and short essays

  1. Warts and All: 1884 Map (1/3/12)
  2. Liberty Street (8/23/11)
  3. St. Philip’s A.M.E. Zion (2/21/12)
  4. Congregation Sons of Israel (9/23/14)
  5. The Towt House (8/19/14)
  6. Underground Railroad (5/15/13)
  7. Scholar Puts History on Map (3/5/13)
  8. Mount Moor (4/8/14)
  9. Historical Society (10/9/12)
  10. Green House (1/31/12)
  11. Grace Church (12/13/11)
  12. Pilgrim Baptist Church (2/5/13)
  13. Nyack Library (3/6/12)
  14. Hopper House (8/7/12)
  15. Hopper Happens (8/14/12)
  16. Hip Hopper Hooray! (7/10/14)
  17. Hopper meets Hitchcock (2/7/12)
  18. A House Haunted by Art (8/26/14)
  19. Rockland Center for the Arts (9/18/12)
  20. Helen Hayes MacArthur (12/4/12)
  21. Tappan Zee Playhouse (9/24/13)
  22. Elmwood Playhouse (11/26/13)
  23. Nyack Village Theatre (4/17/12)
  24. The Trip To Bountiful (5/7/13)
  25. Carson McCullers (9/25/12)
  26. Yoga Reborn Here (9/3/13)
  27. Couch Court, (3/26/13)
  28. IOOF (2/5/13)
  29. The Office (6/5/12)
  30. Sam Waymon Lived Here (2/12/13)
  31. Brinks Robbery (10/18/11)
  32. O’Donoghue’s Tavern (6/24/14)
  33. Pickwick (12/20/11)
  34. Koblin’s Pharmacy (9/11/12)
  35. Maria Luisa (8/5/14)
  36. Mayor Jen Laird White (3/19/13)
  37. NAACP’s Frances Pratt (4/23/13)
  38. Fire Department (7/3/12)
  39. Hudson House (8/28/12)
  40. Maura’s Kitchen (3/20/12)
  41. Preston Powell’s Teagevity (2/4/14)
  42. Pie Lady… & Son  (5/22/2012)
  43. Year Round Farmers’ Market (1o/20/12)
  44. Orchards of Concklin (7/17/12)
  45. It’s Bike Season, Be Safe (6/4/13)
  46. Boat Club (10/15/13)
  47. Best Western (9/17/13)
  48. 1 Poltergeist Place (10/30/12)
  49. Nyack Center (12/6/11)
  50. Brave New Normal (11/2/12)
  51. Gay Pride Rockland (6/3/14)
  52. Amazing Grace Circus (9/11/14)
  53. Mlk Jr.’s Dreamcatcher, (1/14/14)
  54. Two Wampum (7/3/13)
  55. Sketch Log Vs Google Maps (10/11/11)

First Nyack DrawingThat night, I met Dave Zornow, the publisher of NyackNewsAndViews. In the weeks after our meeting, Dave saw me sitting on curbs around town drawing buildings. He asked me to submit a drawing and a caption. My caption was 750 words. Nyack Sketch Log was born.

Nyack Sketch Log is my grown-up show and tell. Each week, I publish a sketch and short essay that explores a local person or place of interest. Since August 2011, I have made 169 sketch log entries.  My column has over 100,000 page views. My book presents 55 of my favorites.

Boasting about the abundance of intriguing lives and locations in Nyack is not my only goal. I write to defend my community and my neighbors and to rally others to the cause. I am using my keyboard and my pen to promote preservation, cultural literacy, tolerance and community empowerment.

First Sketch Log

Nyack Sketch Log # 1, Liberty Street

Art and literature that focus on the communities where we live can heighten people’s awareness of their surroundings. We can better appreciate the beauty of the built and natural environment; extraordinary life stories of people we pass everyday; the value of having public spaces and markets and town squares and the unique character of places that have been collectively constructed over generations. If we become more observant of our environment and our community, we might become more aware of her needs and more zealous in her defense.

Sketch Log # 167

Nyack Sketch Log # 167, Toni Morrison’s Bench by the Road

So yes, I believe that any place becomes more habitable if examined. But the truth is, some places are more worthy of habitation than others. The people, the history, the culture, the small businesses, the natural features, the diversity make this place, in my mind, the most livable stretch of the Hudson. My sketches and short essays form my argument that there is no spot sweeter than Nyack.

You can order a signed copy of the limited first edition at BillBatsonArts.com. Copies will also be available after December 4  at my booth at the Nyack Farmers’ Market and at Pickwick Book Shop.

Without a long list of friends and colleagues, acknowledged in my book, I could not have produced a weekly sketch and short essay for the last three years. The work of creating this book was accomplished by a production team that included Sabrina Weld Feldman, Sponsor; James Hershberger, Project Manager; Loraine Machlin, Designer; Pat Jarden, Copy Editor and Nancy Eisen, Troubleshooter. Special thanks to Judy Martin, the earliest supporter for this project, who proofread every essay twice, once before online publication and again for the book.

My Nyack Sketch Log book is dedicated to the memory of my father, William Prime Batson.

Bill Batson & The Nyack Sketch Log video shot and edited by Ben Harwood. Special thanks to Village of Nyack Mayor Jen Laird-White and Edward Hopper House Art Center Artist-in-Residence Kris Burns for their appearances.

Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: The Book” © 2014 Bill Batson.


Nyack Sketch Log: Rockland Non-Profits Matter

NSL168_featured_revisedby Bill Batson

On October 16, Rockland County Executive Ed Day submitted his first budget proposal that eliminates 100% of the funding that contract agencies (non-profits) receive from the county. The Rockland County Legislature will vote on the budget on December 4.

Full disclosure: I am a member of the board of the Nyack Center, that received $49,000 in his predecessors’ last budget. That role has given me insight into some of the Nyack Center programs that these cuts would jeopardize.  I hope that when you learn more, you’ll help us spread the message that Rockland non-profits matter.

NSL168_Rockland Non-profits Matter

Nyack Center Director Kim Cross speaking at Rockland Non-profits Matter’s rally at the county legislature

Here are some of the Nyack Center programs that would be impacted by these proposed cuts:

  • The Breakfast Club ensures that 44 children get a healthy start each day.
  • The after school program provides 87 children with a safe place for instruction and recreation.
  • The Back Door Café gives hundreds of teens a drug & alcohol free social venue.
  • The computer time program gives internet access to 40 young people.

As taxpayers and concerned citizens, we are all interested in responsible spending by local government. However, during a period of continued economic distress, the complete elimination of county support for programs that help the poor and working families is draconian, and according to some experts, counterproductive.

Send a message that Rockland Non-profits Matter

Contact your county legislator and the county executive and ask them to restore the proposed cuts.

Rockland County Executive
Edward Day

(845) 638-5122

Rockland County Legislators

(845) 638-5100

  • District 1, Douglas J. Jobson
  • District 2, Michael M. Grant
  • District 3, Jay Hood, Jr.
  • District 4, Ilan S. Schoenberger
  • District 5, Barry Kantrowitz
  • District 6, Alden H. Wolfe
  • District 7, Philip Soskin
  • District 8, Toney L. Earl
  • District 9, Christopher J. Carey
  • District 10, Harriet D. Cornell
  • District 11, Frank Sparaco
  • District 12, Joseph L. Meyers
  • District 13, Aron B. Wieder
  • District 14, Aney Paul
  • District 15, Patrick J. Moroney
  • District 16, John A. Murphy
  • District 17, Nancy Low-Hogan, Ph.D.

Forty other non-profits are also on the county executive’s chopping block. Fortunately, rather than devolving into an every-group-for-themselves dynamic, local community organizations have formed Rockland Non-profits Matter. The group held a massive protest at the County Legislature on Tuesday, November 18. Led by Paul Trader, from the Institute for Non-Profits at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland, the ad-hoc coalition is mobilizing the communities that they serve to reverse these cuts.

Trader made a presentation to the legislature on October 30 where he suggested policy makers should look at nonprofits as an economic benefit for the county as opposed to a burden:

“Of the money brought into Rockland from outside sources, our non-profits spent $486 million within the county. That’s almost half-a-billion dollars spent by non-profits within the county. This is done through purchasing of equipment, supplies and services from local businesses, and employment of Rockland residents. Cornell University’s analysis showed that this outside funding directly supports at least 7,800 jobs.”

In another example of solidarity, all five town supervisors in Rockland County, Geoffrey Finn,  Stony Point Supervisor; Alexander Gromack, Clarkstown Supervisor; Howard Phillips, Haverstraw Supervisor; Christopher St. Lawrence, Ramapo Supervisor and Andrew Stewart, Orangetown Supervisor  are urging that funding be restored.

The mayors of five Hudson River villages sent a joint letter asking that the county executive reconsider his proposal:

“We commend the county executive for his desire to solve our extreme fiscal woes and we understand how difficult the job he has ahead of him is. The solution to the problem however does not lie on the backs of our weakest, our damaged, our dying, our culture and arts and our public safety, the very fabric of our county. There is an answer but it must be achieved in a thoughtful, thorough and responsible budgeting process.”

Bonnie Christian, Mayor, Village of South Nyack; Michael Kohut, Mayor, Village of Haverstraw; Jennifer Laird-White, Mayor, Village of Nyack; Lawrence Lynn, Mayor, Grand View; Christopher Sanders, Mayor, Village of Piermont.

As the year comes to an end, many of us are creating gift lists, one for shopping and another for charitable giving. I ask that you join me in making two contributions. First, contribute to one or more of the groups that might lose all of their funding from the county. Second, contribute your time by making a phone call to your Rockland County Legislator and the county executive. I know from my past experience working in the office of an elected official, a well-timed wave of phone calls can have the impact of a tidal force.

Visit change.org to sign a petition entitled “Stop The Across The Board Budget Cuts: Submit A Sound And Responsible Budget. The petition effort has garnered over 750 signatures.” 

Working Group Members from the Institute of Non-Profits

Arts Council of Rockland; Association for the Visually Impaired; Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Rockland; CANDLE-Community Awareness Network for a Drug-Free Life & Environment; CASA – Court-Appointed Special Advocates, Center for Safety and Change; Child Care Resources of Rockland; CHORE Services; Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland; Edward Hopper House Art Center; EPIC, Every Person Influences Children; Head Start of Rockland; Helping Hands of Rockland; Hi Tor Animal Care Center; Historical Society of Rockland; Holocaust Museum And Study Center; Home Aides of Rockland; JAWONIO; Keep Rockland Beautiful, Inc; Konbit Neg Lakay; Legal Aid Society of Rockland; M.A.D.E. Transitional Services; Martin Luther King Multipurpose Center; Meals on Wheels; NAACP Nyack Branch; NAACP Spring Valley Branch; Nyack Center; Penguin Repertory; People to People; Rivertown Film Society; Rockland Camerata; Rockland Center for the Arts; Rockland County Association for Learning Disabilities; Rockland 21st Century Collaborative for Children And Youth (Rockland 21-C); Rockland Conservatory of Music; Rockland Economic Development Corp. (REDC); Rockland Housing Action Coalition; Rockland Independent Living Center; Rockland Interfaith Breakfast Program; T.O.U.C.H. of Rockland; Teacher Mommy Daycare; United Hospice; VCS; West Street Child Care Center; Women Veterans Association of Hudson Valley; YMCA of Rockland

For more information, visit the Rockland Non-profits Matters Facebook group.

Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: Rockland Non-Profits Matter” © 2014 Bill Batson.


Nyack Sketch Log: Toni Morrison’s Bench By The Road

NSL167_featured Image_2nd revisionby Bill Batson

Nyack will soon host a monument to the painful period of history when African slavery was a global industry. Later today, November 18, 2014, at 1p, representatives of the Toni Morrison Society will be joined by Mayor Jen Laird-White, Nyack Public Schools Superintendent Dr. James Montesano and other local civic leaders in Memorial Park to announce the installation of a commemorative bench to honor Underground Railroad conductor Cynthia Hesdra. Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize winning author and Grand View-on-Hudson resident, will be invited as a special guest at the dedication ceremony on May 18, 2015.

Toni MorrisonThe project to reinterpret the ordinary park bench as a place to ponder public history began with a turn of phrase. In response to an interviewer’s question in 1989 about the inspiration of her novel Beloved, Morrison said:

“There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist . . . the book had to” (The World, 1989).

Bench by the Road, Sullivan Island

Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina

The compelling comment became a call to action for the Toni Morrison Society. In 2006, the Bench by the Road Project was established and the metaphor was made real. Nyack will be the 14th bench location around the globe.

Other sites include:

Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, site of Fort Moultrie, the embarkation point of nearly 75% of the slaves who entered America in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Bench by the Road_Oberlin Ohio

Toni Morrison in Oberlin, Ohio

Oberlin, Ohio, a community active in the clandestine resistance to slavery called the Underground Railroad.

Fort-de-France, Martinique, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Aimé Césaire.

Concord, Massachusetts: The Walden Woods “Bench by the Road” Project honors former slave and Revolutionary War hero Brister Freeman, along Henry David Thoreau’s Path.

Underground Railroad shrineThe process that led to Nyack’s selection was set into motion when a shrine to the Underground Railroad near Main Street was condemned in late 2013. A meeting of leaders of the African American Community was held at the home of Village of Nyack Mayor Jen Laird-White in December of 2013 to discuss the impending demolition. The group expressed their concern that an important chapter of the African American experience in Nyack was being erased from the local landscape if the commemorative structure created by Joseph Mitlof was lost.

Commemoration Committee_Mitlof

Joseph Mitlof

Mitlof, who passed away in April 2014, had established several historic markers, in addition to the shrine, that traced the path and celebrated the conductors of the Underground Railroad in Nyack. The Underground Railroad is a euphemism to describe a series of clandestine sanctuaries, located in private homes and other structures throughout the United States. The escape route allowed slaves to flee their captors in slave-holding states in the years before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln. Contemporaneous accounts and current scholarship cite Nyack as an important Underground Railroad location.

Even though Mitlof never claimed that his shrine was an actual Underground Railroad location, the absence of the building, with its signage visible from Main Street, created a void.  Furthermore, the demolition of the shrine was a painful reminder of the 1960s urban renewal project in Nyack that destroyed dozens of homes and displaced a vibrant African American community that lived in the area between Main Street, Depew Avenue, Broadway and Franklin Street.

Underground Railroad Historic MarkerThe remaining markers that Mitlof had erected remain, but were not considered an adequate alternative. Located respectively in an isolated parking lot and on sidewalks near heavily trafficked roads, the markers were uninviting.

The group resolved to harness the urgency that the loss of the Underground Railroad shrine represented and create a permanent monument. The Nyack Commemoration Committee was created by a resolution adopted at the April 10, 2014 meeting of the Village of Nyack Board of Trustees. I was later asked to serve as Chair.

Nyack Commemoration Committee

Nyack Commemoration Committee

The mission of the Nyack Commemoration Committee is to create a public commemoration of the experiences and contributions of African Americans in the Nyacks. This commemoration would be in the form of a substantive display in a public space, that would accommodate individuals and families who might want to comfortably linger to reflect on and celebrate local African American history.

The Bench by the Road Committee of the Toni Morrison Society approved the application submitted by the Nyack Commemoration Committee. The committee is composed of:

  • Village of Nyack Mayor, Jen Laird White
  • Bill Batson, co-publisher, NyackNewsAndViews
  • Anngela Vasser-Cooper, Women’s Veterans Association of Hudson Valley, Inc.
  • Constance L. Frazier, Retired Assistant Superintendent of Schools
  • Frances Pratt, President, Nyack NAACP
  • Willie Trotman, President, Spring Valley NAACP
  • Winston Perry, President Historical Society of the Nyacks
  • Wylene Wood, President African American Historical Society of Rockland County.

Nyack Bench_Hesdar SignThe Bench by the Road in Nyack will commemorate a former slave, who became an entrepreneur and abolitionist, Cynthia Hesdra. Hesdra (1808-1879) was enslaved at one point during her life, yet died a wealthy woman, accumulating properties and businesses in New York City and Nyack. One parcel was near what is now Memorial Park, at the point where the Nyack Brook meets the Hudson River, a landmark used by escaping slaves seeking safe passage to Canada. Hesdra is listed in Mary Ellen’s Snodgrass’ Underground Railroad Encyclopedia as a conductor.

Lori Martin

Dr. Lori Burns Martin,

Louisiana State University Associate Professor Lori Burns Martin, who was raised in South Nyack, was responsible for having a section of Piermont Avenue renamed Cynthia Hesdra Way in 2010.  She also authored the only scholarly account of Hesdra’s life, The Battle Over the Ex-Slave’s Fortune: The Story of Cynthia Hesdra. Afro-Americans in New York Life and History and the book, The Ex-Slave’s Fortune.

The proposal calls for:

  • A multimedia presentation in the Nyack Center describing the backstory of the other 13 benches, so that our community can learn about the national and global context of this initiative.
  • The Ex-Slave's FortuneA procession to the Hudson River, in the manner of the African Maafa ritual (pronounced Me aapha) that commemorates the traumatic legacy of African slavery, the diaspora and the middle passage.  Marchers will carry yellow umbrellas and throw flower pedals into the Hudson River, a body of water that empties into the ocean that separates North America and Africa and to the North, carried escaping slaves to Canada and freedom.
  • A dedication ceremony in the upper level of Memorial Park where a drum circle will be formed around the perimeter of the park.
  • The location where the bench will be unveiled is Memorial Park near the section of Piermont Avenue renamed Cynthia Hesdra Way, overlooking a parcel of land owned by Hesdra at the point where the Nyack Brook meets the Hudson River.
Bench by the Road co-chairs

Dr. Carolyn Denard and Craig Stutman, Co-Chairs of the Toni Morrison Society’s Bench by the Road Project (far left and second from right respectively) with Nyack Commemoration Committee members Bill Batson and Constance Frazier

Toni Morrison Society founder Dr. Carolyn Denard, who serves as Dean of Connecticut College and her colleague Delaware Valley College, Assistant Professor of History and Policy Studies, Dr. Craig Stutman came to Nyack on October 20. Their first order of business was to attend a meeting with Nyack Public School’s superintendent, Dr. James Montesano and his key administrators. The Nyack Commemoration Committee selected a school day for the dedication ceremony so that public school students could play a central role in the installation of the bench. The meeting produced a collaboration that will introduce students in Nyack to the life and work of Hesdra and Morrison and the history of the Underground Railroad. The bench will also become a landmark that this current cohort of students can return to for the rest of their lives and proudly proclaim that they helped erect.

Bench By The Road LocationIn his recently published book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, author, historian and Cornell University associate professor Edward E. Baptist Cornell notes that America has not adequately remembered those enslaved in our country from 1620 until 1863. He observes that while monuments to Confederate and Union soldiers are scattered across the South and in places in the North, like Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, there is scant statuary recognition of the men, women and children who suffered through involuntary servitude, or those that sought to liberate them. In his book, published in 2014, Baptist makes the same argument that Morrison made in 1989 and that the Toni Morrison Society has sought to redress.

In Nyack and 13 other communities around the world, the Bench is more than simply a perch from which to feed pigeons, or a place to make a bucolic retreat. Our bench by Cynthia Hesdra Way will be, as Morrison said, “a place to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves,” and to honor the woman who risked her hard-won liberty and prosperity to shepherd others to freedom.

During the Civil Rights Movement, normally innocuous public accommodations, like water fountains and bus seats, were transformed by courageous action into powerful symbols of resistance to racial oppression in America. The Toni Morrison Society’s Bench by the Road Project similarly modifies the meaning of the mundane park bench.

Special thanks to Enid Mastrianni

Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: Toni Morrison’s Bench by the Road” © 2014 Bill Batson.


Nyack Sketch Log: Jerry Donnellan Serves Those Who Served

Veterans Archive Image

My father, William Prime Batson, and his brother-in-arms in Italy in 1945

by Bill Batson

“When I was coming up, practically every adult male was a veteran,” said Vietnam veteran Jerry Donnellan. Over 30 million Americans fought in World War II, Vietnam and Korea. Only 2.2 million have served in our 13 year-long conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Veterans are treated better today than those who returned from the unpopular Vietnam War, but their position is tougher. The economy is the problem.” Donnellan is working to mitigate the impacts of this new dynamic as director of the County of Rockland Veterans Service Agency.

When Donnellan sits with a returning veteran, he asks if the vet is looking to go to school or to work. One option is much easier to address than the other. “When my generation came back, there was a Chevy plant in Tarrytown, and a Ford plant in Mahwah. There was a paper mill in Piermont, and U.S. Gypsum was in Haverstraw. As a 22 or 23 year-old coming out of the military today, unless you have a particular skill, you can only find work in a big box store or a fast food place.”

Jerry Donnellan_revised

Jerry Donnellan

“For those who want to study, there is still the GI Bill. As a solider, you pay into it and the military puts more money in. When you come home you can go to a state school without it costing anything. You get tuition, housing and books,” said Donnellan. “That gives the vet some time to look around, decompress and get a sense of what the vet wants to do.”

The other major issue Donnellan helps veterans address is the process of seeking compensation for injuries suffered during combat. “Post traumatic stress is something very hard to wrap your head around. Soldiers are asked to stand on a wall with weapon. Then they are told to put their weapon down and ask the person they were protecting for help. It’s a difficult transition. The other difficulty is that a person in the military is a giving person. The soldier who has all of his fingers and toes has an aspect of survivor guilt when asking for medical attention besides others who have lost limbs.”

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 1.22.19 PM

Burn pit

Donnellan suggests that there are other injuries that like PTSD might not be visible, but are very real. “Many develop respiratory issues while working in hot climates. Breathing sand that is like talcum power and smoke from burn pits where plastics and medical waste are incinerated is the problem.” Donnellan informs his brothers-in-arms that they can obtain free medical benefits within a five-year window. “But they have to apply.”

Camp Shanks

Camp Shanks

The lessons that Jerry
Donnellan shares were learned under fire. During the Vietnam War, Donnellan sustained three injuries in the same battle and lost the lower portion of his leg. For the last 25 years, Donnellan has led local government’s efforts to support veterans. Holding this post in Rockland County is a unique privilege. From 1942 until 1946, 1.3 million soldiers passed through Orangeburg’s Camp Shanks on their way to their deployments. Known as the “Last Stop U.S.A,” Camp Shanks was the embarkation point for 75% of the troops that fought on D-Day. Donnellan is the president of New York Vets, the non-profit entity that raises the money to operate the Camp Shanks Museum.

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 2.05.37 PMDonnellan describes the origins of his military career in the most self-effacing terms. “I was Rockland County’s least successful draft dodger. When I got out of high school in 1964, we had advisers in Vietnam, but we were not at war. I wasn’t anti-war. I just didn’t want to get up early and roll around in the dirt. The alternative was to go to college, where there were girls, music and beer. Unfortunately, I ran out of college before they ran out of war.” He was drafted in 1968 and injured near the North Vietnam border a year later. He received three Purple Hearts for his injuries.

After the war, Donnellan returned to Rockland County working as a stage manager for venues like Rockland Community College, Theater-Go-Round in Nanuet and the Westchester Premier Theater. One night in Westchester in 1976, Donnellan was drafted again, this time by Frank Sinatra. Sinatra’s road manager Bob Keirnan had to rush back to Las Vegas to help Ann-Margret stage her act, leaving Donnellan to call the show. Jerry spent the next 11 years as Sinatra’s road manager.

When Donnellan talks about himself he is all laughs, but when he talks about his fellow vets, it’s strictly business. “I want to make sure that every vet applies for the benefits that they have earned.” Donnellan estimates the number of recently returning veterans eligible for assistance in Rockland County is approximately 2,000. “Many young people are computer literate, so I urge them to visit our website rockvets.com. You can ask questions without having to talk to some government guy in an office building,” Donnellan assures.

There are two opportunities to recognize the ultimate sacrifice and military service of others this month, both at the Palisades Mall.

Buffalo Soldiers Recognition Day, November 11
On Veterans Day, Tuesday, November 11, Rockland County’s Buffalo Soldier’s Association, an organization of African American Veterans, will hold a recognition ceremony at Mount Moor Cemetery.  The historic African American burial ground is the final resting place of veterans from all the major military conflicts since the Civil War and is located on the southside of the Palisades Mall near the Route 59 entrance.

Toys for Tots, November 28
Help members of our military continue the humanitarian aspect of their service by supporting Toys for Tots. Since 1947, the Marine Corp Reserve League has collected donations of new unwrapped toys for less fortunate children in communities throughout America.  The Rockland County Detachment, Marine Corps League is the local organizer of Toys for Tots. Starting Friday, November 28, there will be a collection sites throughout the county including on the third deck of the Palisades Mall. Collections will continue every weekend through Christmas.

See also:

Jerry Donnellan photo credit: Bill Demarest 

Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: Jerry Donnellan Serves Those Who Served” © 2014 Bill Batson.


Nyack Sketch Log: Tools of Many Trades

NSL165_tools of the trade_featured imageby Bill Batson

The story of our civilization is told through our tools. There was a stone age, iron age, industrial revolution and now, a computer age. Each epoch is defined by what we have picked up and used with our hands.

An exhibit at the Historical Society of the Nyacks has assembled hundreds of tools. You are welcome to feel the weight of these wooden and metal implements that helped a parent earn a wage, or brought relief to an ailing patient. You have until November 29 to enjoy this orchestra of domestic and industrial instruments.

Here is a survey of some of what you will find if you visit this tool box on display. The text that follows is based on panels written by the individuals who loaned their utilitarian objects.

Variable Speed Reversible Manual Hand Drill

Today, a reversible speed electric hand drill is a normal tool, but 130 years ago, it didn’t exist.  All hand tools were manual. Speed differential depended on the operator, not drill mechanics. By adjusting the handle length and multi-position beveled gears, the drill speed and torque can be changed to suit the job at hand, bracing the drill against the shoulder or chest.

This 1880’s drill, featured in today’s sketch, was owned by William Rauschenberg’s great grandfather, W.T. Braswell.

nsl165_William Rauchenberg toolsRauschenberg uses tools from his “papa’s” tool box to create 3-dimensional works of art. The disassembled tools are decontextualized and transformed into bas-relief panels. The casting technique allows the viewer to appreciate the elegant form and ingenious function of each individual part of the hand operated and mechanical tools.

Papa’s toolbox and two of Rauschenberg’s casting are on display in this exhibit.

NSL165_FootrestsBootblack’s Foot Rest

Originally used at a shoe-shine stand at Grand Central Station in New York City, these foot rests were purchased at Donna Cashin’s yard sale before she and Marty moved south. Donna’s grandfather was a shoe-shine guy at Grand Central, and kept them when he retired. Donna was the school nurse at Nyack High School for many years, and Marty was a State Police Officer, who had a side job as the butcher at Reliable Meat Market when Al and Rhoda Fertile ran it.

Loaned to the Historical Society by Kathy Platy

A. Schechner, M.D.

Myra Starr’s parents moved to 103 South Broadway in 1930, the year her father graduated from New York Medical College.

NSL165_Dr SchechnerThey had the house at 146 South Broadway built in 1937/38, and her father, Dr. A. Schechner, practiced there until he died in 1967.

He was president of the Rockland County Medical Society, and later, Medical Director of Nyack Hospital.  He made house calls in the early days, and kept a general practice until the end, along with specialties in allergy and cardiology.

On display in the Nyack Toolbox exhibit are photographs of her family with the house/office in the background, as well as signs from her father’s practice and his sphygmomenometer and stethoscope, both in good condition.

Loaned by Myra (Schechner) Starr

NSL165_soldering ironsLouis Stein’s Soldering Irons

These are Myra Starr’s grandfather’s soldering irons (3) and a photo of him using them. The other photo is of the interior of his first shop in Nyack, the New York Radiators Works, at the southwest corner of Piermont Avenue and Burd Street, now a parking lot.  The building was first the site of the Rockland County Bank, built in 1860 by Azariah Ross, and the photo shows the decorative border and the bank safe.

Loaned by Myra Starr

Sally Savage’s Childhood Brownie

NSL165_Sally's Brownie“I loved this Kodak Brownie that my father gave me when I was fourteen, so when it became clear that I was not going up to Oxford or Cambridge to read history, my father said:  ‘you’ve got to choose a profession, ’ I chose photography.”  Thus began a successful career that has led to New York City, Piermont and Nyack, and to many other cameras.


NSL165_typewriterSteven Wexler (1945-2010) was born in Pearl River, grew up in Nyack, and moved to Tijeras, near Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was a teacher, carpenter and author, and typed early drafts of his book Scamming God on this typewriter before doing the final version on a computer. Typewriters, of course, were the main writing implements of our society throughout most of the twentieth century.

Loaned by Miriam Wexler

“A Nyack Toolbox – Implements from the Past” will be open through Sat., Nov. 29.  The exhibition is open to the public on Saturdays between 1-4p or by appointment. The Historical Society of the Nyacks Museum is located at 50 Piermont Avenue in the historic DePew House, across from Memorial Park. The entrance is under the front porch.  For more information, visit nyackhistory.org.

Special thanks to Win Perry and Jennifer Rothschild of the Historical Society of the Nyacks. 

Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: Tools of Many Trades” © 2014 Bill Batson.



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