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Landmarks: Legacy of land and literature

Landmarks: Legacy of land and literature

Robert Frost didn’t see too much of the Christman Sanctuary. We don’t even know if he got to the wat
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Robert Frost didn’t see too much of the Christman Sanctuary. We don’t even know if he got to the waterfall.

America’s most revered poet of the 20th century, Frost visited the Schoharie Turnpike home of W.W. Christman in Delanson around 1930, and shortly after his arrival the two men went for a walk in the woods owned by Christman, a farmer and a pretty fair poet himself. Within minutes, the two men were back at the farmhouse and suddenly weren’t on speaking terms. Christman’s grandson Corkey, now 73, said no one, at least not any member of his family, has any idea what happened.

“They both had monumental egos; Mr. Frost and my grandpa,” said Christman, “and the story goes that they didn’t stay long in the woods, and they both came storming back and Frost said, ‘I have to leave right away.’ Maybe somebody knows what happened, but I don’t, and nobody I know does.”

Most visitors to the Christman sanctuary these days leave having had a much better experience than Frost. Purchased by the Nature Conservancy in 1970 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places around that same time, the sanctuary is more than 100 acres of mostly woodland, and was described by the State Historic Trust as an “outdoor classroom.”

Stream and waterfall

Along with the more than two miles of hiking trails, the sanctuary includes the Bozenkill and a 30-foot waterfall that’s only about 15 minutes from the parking area on the Schoharie Turnpike.

“A 30-foot waterfall is sizable, so that’s a pretty unique thing,” said Mark King, director of protection programs for the Eastern New York Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, which overseas about 50 similar preserves ranging from Westchester County up to the southern Lake Champlain area, and as far west as Otsego County.

“It’s a beautiful waterfall, and the preserve has a couple of other very interesting features, like the lean-to. There’s no camping there, but people use it to picnic.”

There is a memorial stone dedicated to the Christman family along the trail, and a narrow path cut through rock that takes hikers from a ridge above the Bozenkill down to the stream itself. There is also a trail that leads across the stream down from the falls and forms a two-mile loop that takes you through a red pine forest.

And along with all the natural pleasures included in the preserve, there are books of poetry by Christman and his son Lansing that tell us more about the land.

“Most of the land we get doesn’t have a lot of history coming with it,” said King. “Sometimes we know very little about it. But with Christman and his son, we get a lot of details from the books of poetry they wrote, and in those books the property is often referenced. He [W.W.] was a very interesting character.”

Maintaining trails

While the Nature Conservancy protects the land from development, it is the Mohawk Valley Hiking Club that maintains the trails. Henri Plant of Scotia and his wife, Doris Saunders Plant, who died in 1999, were longtime members of the club and started heading to the sanctuary back in the 1960s. In 2005, Plant was allowed to put up a marker on the trail in memory of his wife.

“When the water is running it’s really nice, and when the falls freezes it’s spectacular,” said Plant, who at 89 doesn’t get out to the site nearly as much as he used to. “My wife and I always loved the place, and then we got more involved when they were going to build I-88 right through it. We wanted to make sure that kind of thing never happened.”

It was way back in 1970 that W.W.’s son Lansing, a journalist, television newsman and author, fought to make sure that the new interstate highway system would not threaten the Christman Sanctuary or the Bozenkill that runs through it. Later that year, Lansing, the owner of the property at that time, sold most of the land to the state of New York for what was reported to be “well below the market value,” and the state then sold it to the Nature Conservancy. The original farmhouse is still standing and a descendant lives there next to the sanctuary not too far from the entrance area.

It was Spencer Christman who first bought the land making up the sanctuary in 1854. In 1865, a son, William Weaver Christman, was born in the family farmhouse where he lived his entire life before succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 71 in 1937, just a few years following his meeting with Frost. A farmer by trade, W.W. also became a poet, author, naturalist and education reformer. It was during March 1888 that Christman and his wife, Catherine Bradt, began earnestly feeding the birds.

“He gathered the seeds and the grass from the barn floor and then scattered it outdoors on the snow in the doorway of the barn and the windowsills,” said town of Duanesburg historian Howard Ohlhous. “They started doing it every winter and that’s how the sanctuary got started. He and his wife, she loved the outdoors, too, did a lot of very good things. The place is a real jewel for the town of Duanesburg.”

A nature lover, Christman was a big fan of poet Walt Whitman and naturalist/author John Burroughs, and corresponded with both men. His library included an autographed copy of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and in 1926 Christman had his own first book of poetry, “Songs of the Helderhills,” published. He followed that up in 1930 with “Songs of the Western Gateway,” and in 1934 he won the prestigious John Burroughs Medal for his work “Wild Pasture Pine.”

A big fan of Teddy Roosevelt and often characterized as a progressive thinker, Christman was one of the first to push for a consolidated school system.

“He wrote letters to the state education department in Albany telling them that the one-room schoolhouses were not adequate,” said Anne Christman, a granddaughter who lives in Scotia.

Advocate for education

“He had very limited schooling himself, but he insisted that all his children graduate from high school. At that time, that meant his nine kids had to either walk or take the horse and wagon to Delanson, and then take the train to Altamont every day, and that’s what they did. He really instilled in them the value of education, and they all graduated from high school.”

W.W. Christman had seven sons and two daughters, and while all of them were successful, Lansing Christman and his brother Henry became the most prominent. It was Henry, author of “Tin Horns and Calico,” the story of the Anti-Rent Wars of the 1840s, who arranged the meeting between his father and Frost.

“My grandfather loved to argue, and evidently you didn’t argue with Robert Frost, you listened,” said Corkey Christman. “But my grandfather was the kind of guy that was always having fights with people. Well, not really fights. But he would just love to discuss and debate.”

Unfortunately, Corkey doesn’t remember his grandfather. W.W. Christman died the same year Corkey was born.

“But my daddy told me the stories,” he said, “and evidently, my grandfather thought differently than most people. Here’s a guy, a farmer with practically no education, who decides he’s going to write poetry and correspond with people like Whitman and Burroughs and Frost. Well, he did it and he got published. He also took care of the land. He farmed it, and then he planted trees on it, turning it back into woods. People didn’t know what he was thinking.”

But, he was always willing to tell you what he was thinking, and he was also always willing to listen. And, according to Corkey, it didn’t matter if you were Robert Frost or just some regular guy a little down on his luck.

“We weren’t too far from the railroad tracks, and they’d get hobos coming to the house and asking if they could sleep in the barn for the night,” said Corkey. “My grandfather would say, ‘Yes, but I have two rules. There’s no smoking in my barn, and if you spend the night you have to come into the kitchen for breakfast the next morning.’ That’s the kind of guy he was. He loved talking to people and visiting with them.”

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