Rock walls as metaphor against poorly planned growth

Potential housing overgrowth at old Gould Foundation site in Chestnut Ridge and a threatened family cemetery are contrasted against centuries-old rock walls there and elsewhere in old Rockland.

By Arthur H. Gunther III

BEYOND GOTHAM -- You would not expect a county named Rockland to have mere pebbles or such small stone that you could call it a mud flat or a hayfield or desert. This glacial age area, the smallest such New York State jurisdiction geographically, is so full of rock, many of which are unmovable, that it well deserves the name.

And some cursing. If you could unbottle all the collected utterings of fruit and truck crop farmers since the 1700s and of suburban homeowners and now commercial landscapers since the end of World War II, you would have one rather deafening obscenity yell. The old joke among our once many farmers was that each early spring, cleared fields from the previous seasons would be dotted with new stones, which seemingly managed to work their way to the surface and had to be removed by muscle power and maybe a horse or oxen or mule.

For decades, the farmers would follow the Native American tradition and pile the field rock onto walls, which conveniently became boundaries for property and to divide crops. As children who scrambled along these walls, we heard that the Indians had buried their long-ago dead in these walls and that the spirits must not be disturbed by tearing them apart.

Of course, suburban “progress” has done just that -- bulldozed many of these walls, and the woods have obscured the walls that once defined  cropland. Yet if you look for them, you will find rock walls, mostly intact and held together by gravity. Since there is no mortar, the rocks move with freeze and thaw, and our native snakes find them homey.

One such wall exists in old south Spring Valley, which later in the 20th century became the Village of Chestnut Ridge, taking its name from the road and elevation  that climbs into Montvale, N.J. (In New York, the road is Route 45). This area was old Dutch and early American farmland into the last century and is now largely residential with some commercial in New York and lots of that in Montvale. 

The rock wall I cite is alongside the Talman family cemetery that began on land owned in the late 1700s by Douwe H. Talman. While the greater parcel has changed hands over the years,  eventually owned by the Edwin Gould Foundation, the graves of a number of Talmans lie in a 30 by 30-foot place, including the ashes of Wilfred Blanch Talman, the well-known Rockland Leader newspaper columnist. Descended from three centuries of Dutch and Huguenot ancestry in Rockland and northern Bergen County, he was a foremost chronicler of local history, as reporter, photographer and columnist with the Sherwood Newspapers of Spring Valley. One of his premier books is “How Things Began in Rockland County and Places Nearby” (The Historical Society of Rockland County).

The Talman family is worried that major housing construction is surely headed for the old Gould site, which has just been sold to a Brooklyn/Monsey land development corporation and that such use would disturb the burial grounds. Not so, a media report indicates, citing a land-use attorney for the new owners as saying it would be respected.

Certainly it must be. Back in the 1980s, a similar family cemetery off Route 45 in Pomona was disturbed as office development took place. The Talman gravesite is hardly a dot on the full 145-acre grounds. Not difficult to protect.

Yet the post-war history of Rockland is one that is much more of quicksand promise than rock guarantee. Many developers have said they would protect history, but so many old homes are now gone; floodplains were to be left as natural drain for storms, and that has not happened; growth was to be gradual, allowing time for infrastructure to be acquired and paid for without major taxes, but government has failed us there; and quality of life was to be enhanced, yet housing density and too many shopping strips have done us in.

In all that “progress,” many old rock walls have fallen in my county. I hope that as the Gould site is developed, that not only does the Talman family gravesite and its wall remain intact but that those walls in the extensive wetlands are protected as well. The potential for explosive growth, especially if there is predictable downzoning, is a thought almost as overwhelming as the rocks old Rockland farmers dug up each year. They cursed then; who among us now is willing to shout an epithet against too much development?

The writer is a retired newspaperman.

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Peter D. Talman January 02, 2013 at 12:27 AM
Art, Once again, you have put into words my exact sentiments. My son Jonathan, brother Dave and I have received several phone calls and emails concerning the future of that tiny speck of land. Your comments though, always have special meaning, as I know your deep interest in what we remeber as a different Rockland County. I certainly will pass this along to Dave and Jonathan and several others, who, if they are not already familiar with your writings in your "Column Rule." It's always a pleasure to hear from you. The best to you and your family for 2013. Pete Talman
art gunther III January 02, 2013 at 12:19 PM
Peter -- The Talman Family and especially your father Wilfred, helped set the rural/country tone for Rockland over the centuries. Whatever form 'progress' takes, whatever benefits it brings, it must not erase the facts of our history and the debt we owe our earlier Rocklanders. If we forget the past, we stand as shells of what we ought to be.
steve smith January 02, 2013 at 08:14 PM
once again, nice work, art. happy new year.
art gunther III January 02, 2013 at 09:52 PM
And Happy New Year to you, Steve, and to all of us.


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