Tuesday, April 26, 1994
Survival in Columbia County, NY
Last Fall on the Taconic, on a Friday afternoon, 30 miles out of New York, on our way to see the red and gold maples of Columbia County (just as gorgeous as Vermont, and alot closer), the old Olds started to slip gears. I nursed it to the one and only gas station between NY and Albany, 60 miles North of here, and called the Bronx dealer. "Better get to a shop, your transmission is shot," was the advice. "But you guys just changed the oil..." "Yeah, the old thick oil, that's what made it move. 80,000 miles is too long between transmission oil changes." He's right, I drove on, cautiously, to our hideaway, another 45 miles of fear, and called the Catskill Transmission guys. Shot gears was the diagnosis, bring it in early, maybe we can get you back to NYC, if you have $1,600 bucks. I didn't, but I brought it in anyway, and the owner reviewed the sit, reduced the price to $1,000 (can you believe that), guessed that the job will be done by nightfall, and drove me to the local Jartran junk car rental. We got the word at 6PM that they had to stop because their kids were having a birthday party at the shop, but they would continue Sunday.
Sunday, 3PM the job was done, I drove over, gave an unverified check (the owner had been stuck only once, last Summer, by a Canadian), and a friend of the house drove me over to Jartran, where I dropped the car in the lot. On the way I found out that he was an ex-NYer who opened a beer distributorship 5 years ago. He got tired of the temptations, got married and moved out. The territory was fine, an his drivers were pleased as Punch to have jods at $16,000 a year! This is where I got an education.
Upstaters live in houses that have been inherited and paid for ages ago, when you bought a reasonable property with small acreage for $20,000. The big cash outlay is taxes, and schools are the big cost center. The local highschool superintendent is the big money earner in the county, at $80,000, and the "why" question is raised at many school board meetings. Ubnlike, NY where school boards are elected by 5% of the voters, which makes a farce of local government, school board and school funding attracts more people to the polls than any other election.
Government is cheap. Columbia County has 640 sq. miles and 60,000 inhabitants, spread in 17 townships. Town supervisors earn $ 5,000, councilmembers $2,000 cost erimbursements. Town highway superintendents work for $20,000, workers for less. The superintendent may double as construction inspector - he sees everything anyway -and as the dog catcher, for another $2,000. Police power is supplied by the state troopers; if you want money badly enough to set a local speed trap on the Taconic, you put on some guys, who will bring the speeders to town justice ($3,000), and get some funds. Small towns do hire local cops, when the kids get out of hand. Hudson (8,000 inhabitants and lots of drugs) has a real police force of 20.
Fire Departments and Emergency Service are volunteer. In the middle of the day, when you hear the siren, you kow that some guys in the hardware store, both salesmen and customers, are running to their cars, a short-order cook is dropping his skillet, a barber might be giving the razor to his customer, saying: "Here, finish it yourself." This is still country, wher everybody takes care of everybody else. In fact lived and painted only 20 miles away, in Sturbridge, Mass.
Just like in the big city, Zoning Review Boards are the power. Many poor, not just land poor people want to subdivide the 2, 5, 7 or whatever acres it takes locally to build on, to sell the property. That's easy. But if a real subdivision of a farm gone broke comes along, many issues get raised. Water; sewage; roads; garbage;
As to how people survive: first, you acn garden and have vegetables in the root cellar all winter.
You can get a deer license, first for the early bow-and-arrow season, then for the gun season, for all members of the family. You must have refruigerators. One of the highschool girls who works for our local roadside stand told my wife that her family never had beef; all she knew in her growing-up years was venison.
And the roadside stand, if your truck garden is large enough to sell. If you have to buy wholesale, you might as well forget it. And cost of labor does not count into the equasion. My wife, who cannot pass a strawbweery patch in a pick-it-yourself farm, has a cash-only-if-you-sell-it deal with our localroadside stand owner, for her jams - the natural outcome of a berry-picking habit.