Ralph Gardner Jr: Go Ask Ruth

Jun 30, 2018

Every community, every town and village in America ought to have its own Piwonka. I’m referring to Ruth Piwonka, the town historian for Kinderhook, NY. Though Ruth tells me her official title is Kinderhook municipal historian.

Here’s one reason why Ruth’s counsel and expertise is so valuable. I recently found some rusty old nails that our contractor had left behind when he replaced the ancient gutters on our house. The nails looked as old as the gutters so I took them to Ruth and asked her whether she could date them. Doing so might give some indication of the age of the house.

Not only could she – to the early 1800’s – she described them as cut nails and even showed me an ad for them in the Columbia Sentinel, a 19thcentury newspaper that she’d recently come across.

And then she sent me illustrations of the nails and links to the work they were taken from – “A Field Guide to New England Barns and Farm Buildings” by Thomas D. Visser.

If Ruth has access to that much information about nails you can just imagine what she knows about other minutiae, and whatever you’d call its opposite – gargantua, perhaps – relating to local history.

She’s no show off but she’s also not shy when asked to share her knowledge.

For example, I could point to any of the dozens of mayors Kinderhook has produced dating back to the early 19thcentury – we happened to be standing in the town hall where their pictures hang in long rows – and Ruth was able to offer thumbnail sketches about any of them.

Take Lawrence Van Buren who served as mayor from 1842 to 1843. I asked Ruth how he got along with his better-known brother Martin Van Buren, the 8thpresident of the United States.

“They had a warm and thoughtful relationship,” Ruth said. “He lived in the village. His home is not far from where we stand. It’s a lovely brick house.”

Then she walked me there.

The historian also knew more than a little, as you’d expect, about Martin Van Buren, Kinderhook’s most famous citizen. She informed me that he was bilingual – in English and Dutch.

“After he retired,” she said, “he used to ride his horse to Merwin Lake and talk to the old Dutch people. What a nice thing to be able to do.”

“There’s a story that was told,” she went on, “that there was a Dutch vessel docked in Hudson in the 1790’s and the Dutch made fun of the Dutch farmers because their Dutch was so poor, so different.”

“His Dutch was not going to be good,” she added, referring again to President Van Buren. “But it was like theirs. We know that Dutch was spoken here until the 1840’s. Then it died out except for a few elderly people.”

There’s two kinds of history, I realize. There’s the kind you read in books and the kind you’re able to visualize, to breathe.

Martin Van Buren, even though I understand him to have been not only one of our shortest presidents at 5’6” but also a lively and clever fellow, appears little more than an elder with abundant whiskers in images from that era.

But he suddenly comes alive when you’re able to imagine him on his horse riding from his estate through fields and woods to Merwin Lake, a scenic body of water on my Saturday morning bike loop.

Ruth, who lives in a modest early 19thcentury house in the village of Kinderhook, moved to the area from her native Midwest in the 1960’s. She told me that she became fascinated with the Dutch influence, little realizing until she settled here the pivotal role the Dutch played not only in local history but also in American history.

“If you’re from as far away as the Midwest you almost would have never heard of Dutch history,” she explained. “I have a feeling most people in Illinois still don’t.”

Her passion for the subject led her to serve as director of the Columbia County Historical Society. She became municipal historian in the mid-90’s and has been reappointed ever since.

I was curious whether she and other local municipal historians – every town around here seems to have its own – get together often to hoist a glass and regale each other with stories, such as the time Benedict Arnold spent the night locally. They don’t. (By the way Ruth says there’s some question about whether Benedict Arnold did, at least at the house in the village that bears the historical marker that claims he was brought there after being wounded at the Battle of Bemis Heights in 1777.)

But even if history isn’t particularly your thing it suddenly becomes visceral when your self-interest is involved. Ruth and I dropped by the Columbia County Historical Society where curator Anna Thompson pulled out Dutch maps dating back to the 1700’s that included our property.

Ruth also informed me that the family that owned our house in the mid-1800’s also owned a thriving tavern in the village of Chatham. By the way, so did the Van Burens in Kinderhook.

And in a follow-up email she told me she was finding “lots and lots” of material about the families that inhabited our house back then but that further research was needed to be done by checking their wills. She even gave me some citation that I assume can be used to track the documents down.

Ruth just acquired Malachi, the latest in a succession of Scottish wolfhounds, the animal shortly to become larger than she is. I’m sure it will be good to have company during her historical strolls around the village, the town and the county.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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