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Something old, something blue

Free Kingston Historic Bluestone Festival returns to The Strand

by Frances Marion Platt
September 29, 2011 12:00 PM | 0 0 comments | 694 694 recommendations | email to a friend | print
For years, Fitch Brothers, one of the largest local bluestone businesses (shown above), shipped tons of bluestone from its yards in the Wilbur section of Kingston. (Lithograph courtesy of the Friends of Historic Kingston)
For years, Fitch Brothers, one of the largest local bluestone businesses (shown above), shipped tons of bluestone from its yards in the Wilbur section of Kingston. (Lithograph courtesy of the Friends of Historic Kingston)
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Way back in the Devonian Period of the Paleozoic Era, about 350 million years ago, when the lobe-finned fishes were beginning to evolve legs, a mountain range now known as the Acadians or Ancestral Appalachians sat atop the spot that is now New York City. The silty runoff from these mountains formed a delta that extended from northern Pennsylvania up to what are now the Catskills and beyond. Fine bluish-grey sand settling to the bottom of a shallow seabed eventually compacted into a fine-grained bluish-grey sandstone, technically defined as feldspathic greywacke but better-known to us today as bluestone.

It’s attractive, it’s durable, it fractures conveniently into flat planes and it doesn’t get slippery when wet, so a young nation fell in love with Catskill bluestone for the making of sidewalks, curbs and building façades in its growing cities. And the Rondout was the riverport through which millions of tons of it passed back in the 19th century, when Kingston was America’s largest bluestone supplier. The “Sidewalks of New York” celebrated in song were mostly made of local bluestone; in many New York City neighborhoods, they still endure long after younger concrete sidewalks have crumbled.

You can find out all about the history of what was once a huge industry in Ulster County, watch master stonemasons at work with the material and learn about efforts to preserve Kingston’s remnants of bluestone infrastructure by attending the tenth annual Kingston Historic Bluestone Festival this Sunday, October 2 from 12 noon to 6 p.m. The center of the action is the grounds of the Hudson River Maritime Museum (HRMM), located at 89 Rondout Landing in Kingston, where you can see bluestone art exhibits and listen to period songs as well as more contemporary music. The full list of musicians had not yet been published at presstime, but the Virginia Wolves have announced that they will be performing this year.

In past years of the Festival, Opus 40 has exhibited photos of the massive earthwork sculpture in a bluestone quarry in High Woods, along with stoneworking tools used by the late sculptor Harvey Fite. So if you’re curious about the fate of Opus 40, now that efforts to transfer ownership to the Town of Saugerties seem to have fizzled, this event might be a good opportunity to get a status report. Fite’s hand-built house, adjacent to the quarry, reportedly lost a large section of its roof during Hurricane Irene, so donations will undoubtedly be needed more urgently than ever.

There will also be historical lectures at the Rondout Heritage Center, located diagonally across the street from HRMM at the foot of Broadway. Dr. William Rhoads, professor emeritus of Art History at SUNY-New Paltz and a leading expert on the vernacular architecture of the Hudson Valley, will give a presentation at 1 p.m. in the second-floor conference room at the Heritage Center. At noon, Pamela Timmins will speak on the topic of “Sustainability of the Hudson River Valley.”

According to Festival organizers, although the bluestone slabs used throughout Kingston could conceivably last through another 350 million years of weathering, they are susceptible to displacement, especially by street excavation and tree roots, and sometimes need resetting. The Bluestone Festival aims to offer information, engender responsibility and provide sources of contact for restoration and preservation of historic bluestone infrastructure, sidewalks, curbs and buildings.

There is no admission charge for the Festival, and free parking is available across the street. Restaurants in the Rondout traditionally offer “Blue Plate Specials” during the Bluestone Festival, so you can really make a day of it. For more information, contact Edwin Pell by e-mail at bluestonefestival@yahoo.com or visit www.hrmm.org.

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