But the keepers of our heritage are out to get me – and probably you too. In 2009, amidst all the Henry Hudson hoopla, a consortium of public agencies including the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Park Service, the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor and some private funders like Central Hudson put their resources together to organize a new annual event called New York Heritage Weekend. The idea is to kick off the first wave of summer tourism a fortnight before the traditional Memorial Day weekend start, by pulling together special events, “shoulder season” discounts and behind-the-scenes tours with historical and cultural themes to celebrate National Preservation Month. There are a gazillion events going on this weekend in the mid-Hudson, linked more or less closely under the Heritage Weekend umbrella; you can find a full calendar at www.heritageweekend.org/heritage_weekend_events.aspx.
One theme that’s getting a lot of attention this year is landscape gardening talks and tours. Noted landscape architect and historical consultant Robert Toole has a new book out titled Landscape Gardens on the Hudson, A History: The Romantic Age, the Great Estates & the Birth of American Landscape Architecture. He’ll be holding forth this weekend at two of the area’s stately homes noted for their beautiful grounds. On Saturday morning, May 14 at 10 a.m., he’ll visit the site of last summer’s most-talked-about local wedding to keynote the Hudson River Heritage Preservation Forum on “The Astor Legacy in Rhinebeck” with an illustrated talk on “Historic Landscape Gardens in the Mid-Hudson Region,” with a book-signing to follow. The $85 fee for the day will also include talks by J. Winthrop Aldrich, Alan Strauber and Mark Allen Hewitt, morning coffee, lunch and afternoon refreshments and a tour of Astor Courts, John Jacob Astor IV’s famous Beaux Arts “Casino” designed by Stanford White. Astor Courts is located at 189 River Road in Rhinebeck; visit www.hudsonriverheritage.org to reserve your place.
After his morning talk at Astor Courts, Toole will be heading over to nearby Montgomery Place in Annandale-on-Hudson to lead a series of free landscape tours. They will head out on Saturday at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 and 3:30 p.m., and on Sunday at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. Tours of the mansion, usually $10 per person, will also be free this weekend and available from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the last house tour at beginning at 3 p.m. Toole’s books will be available for purchase and signing. Montgomery Place Historic Estate is located on River Road off Annandale Road. Call (845) 758-1036 or visit www.hudsonvalley.org/content/view/16/46 for more details.
But there’s a lot more to New York State’s historical heritage than the mansions and gardens built by its upper crust. In recent decades, there has been a movement to revive a spring holiday tradition imported to the region by settlers from the Netherlands in the 17th century, then adopted and adapted by slaves and freedmen of African origin when the English displaced the Dutch. The multi-day celebration was known as Pinkster after Pinksteren, the Dutch word for Pentecost – the Sunday that officially ends the Easter season – and is associated with the native azaleas locally known as pinksters that bloom this time of year.
For the Dutch, Pinkster was a time for church attendance – considered lucky for weddings, baptisms, confirmations and the like – as well as for visiting relatives, eating (especially sweets), drinking, games, dance and music. Slaves and servants as well as their masters were allowed a break from their workaday routine; and for enslaved families broken up and sold off to other households, the holiday represented a rare opportunity to travel, reunite for a few days and socialize. Money earned by slaves on their Pinkster days off was their own to spend as they liked, so street festivals with booths and wagons selling various traditional crafts and foodstuffs became commonplace.
Perhaps most importantly, Pinkster was a time when African cultural traditions like drumming, dancing and storytelling could be practiced in groups and preserved. In role-reversing rituals reminiscent of the Mardi Gras “Indians” or the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, a Pinkster King was elected each year to preside over festivities where satirical songs and sketches making fun of aristocrats and slaveowners were tolerated. The site in Albany where New York’s State Capitol now stands was once known as Pinkster Hill, because it drew an annual crowd of thousands, both black and white, to observe the upbeat holiday.
Pinkster celebrations were once common to all the parts of the Northeast that had been settled by the Dutch; but nowadays, the only place in New York State where it is consistently revived is the historical restoration of Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow. A rousing Colonial-style celebration by reenactors in period costume is promised for this Sunday, May 15, featuring lively presentations of drumming and traditional dance, African folktales and demonstrations of traditional African musical instruments and utilitarian wares. Pinkster at Philipsburg Manor, located at 381 North Broadway (Route 9), runs from noon to 5 p.m. Entry fees are $12 general admission, $10 for seniors, $6 for children aged 5 to 17 and free for members and children under age 5. Call (914) 631-3992 for more information.
Finally, it can’t be overlooked that the Civil War Sesquicentennial is just getting underway, and lots of observations can be expected over the next four years. While no battles between the Blue and the Gray actually took place in the Hudson Valley, the region did play a major role in the conflict. At the West Point Foundry in Cold Spring, one of America’s most important 19th-century ironworks, workers manufactured Parrott guns – the mainstay of the Union artillery. These cannons with their “rifled” barrels were a major breakthrough in war technology, enabling heavy projectiles to be fired with enough force to shatter even the amazingly strong foundations of the seafront fortresses that the Confederates had built with waterproof Rosendale cement imported from the Hudson Valley. Use of the Parrott guns conferred a critical advantage upon the Northern forces, and they have been credited by some with turning the tide of the Civil War.
Today, Scenic Hudson’s West Point Foundry Preserve conserves the Foundry’s ruins. In addition to Parrott guns, the Foundry produced some of the nation’s first steam engines, locomotives and ironclad ships, as well as the pipes for New York City’s water system. Scenic Hudson plans to commence construction later this year on a heritage park that will tell the story of West Point Foundry, its role in the Civil War and the land’s remarkable ecological renewal. Meanwhile, as part of New York Heritage Weekend, guided 90-minute tours of the archaeological site will be conducted this Saturday, May 14 starting at 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. To reserve a spot on a tour or get directions, visit www.scenichudson.org.