History Happens When You Least Expect It

Washington's Headquarters Postcard-A.J. Schenkman

Alfred Goodrich and animals-A.J. Schenkman

It is late August in the Mid-Hudson Valley and one of my favorite times of the year. There is a feel to it as the cicadas sing all day, and the peepers take the night. Hot days give way to cooler nights. I can hear the gentle hum, in the distance, of a farmer harvesting corn from a field. A scene that plays itself out as it has in this valley for hundreds of years.

I am glad that this morning as I write this article that I have time to reflect on this moment. It has been a whirlwind for me this year as a new father. It is easy to get lost in the day to day haze of sleep deprivation, work, and caring for this new soul. Inevitably other parts of your life suffer such as visiting friends, and family. My extended family, the firehouse, has also taken a back seat of which there is sadness. However, part of being a family is taking the good with the bad with an extended hand when times are difficult, and hence the reason behind this article.

The other day I was out walking with my wife and son around the neighborhood when a familiar car pulled up on the opposite side of the road. A fellow firefighter’s head popped out to chat. He had some presents for my son that he had neglected to drop off to us. He casually stated that there was a card in the bag from another firefighter.

When we got home we opened the presents. There at the bottom of the bag was an unassuming manila envelope. I picked it up slowly while opening it. What I saw was an old picture of Washington’s Headquarters. It was a piece of history in my hands. I believe the picture on the postcard to be from the 1880s. Color had been added, by hand, to give an even more life-like appearance. I studied the people’s faces in the picture. The postcard is adorned with smiling children, young men lounging in the grass, a child talking to her mother on benches long gone.

A snap shot in time. I found myself transformed back into those people’s lives, where they lived again. Hence the reason I love writing as well as studying history to the degree I do. It allows me, like in the movie Back to the Future, to gaze into people’s lives where in my writing and reading they once again live. This is no more evident to me than in a postcard.

Washington's Headquarters-A.J.Schenkman

This postcard and accompanying stereoscopic cards tell a history of the evolution of a structure, in this case Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, it surroundings, plantings, style of dress, and even people. If we take the stereoscopic picture of the man posing on the lawn with his dog and cat as an example (see above). It is believed that the man is Alfred Goodrich who was Newburgh’s Police Chief from 1870-71. Still later, he would become superintendent of Washington’s Headquarters after it became an historic site. Shortly after this photo was taken, I was told, Goodrich died from a stroke.

Perhaps the reason I am so drawn to postcards, such as these, is because they really do “paint a 1,000 words.” It is why, frequently, I use images as prompts for my students when I want them to write. In my own life as a writer, they many times inspire me.

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  • Blog Author

    AJ Schenkman

    A.J. Schenkman teaches history in the Lower Hudson Valley. He is the author of numerous books and articles. His most recent books Include Murder and Mayhem in Ulster County and Wicked Ulster County: Tales of Desperadoes, Gangs & More, and ... Read Full

    Elizabeth Werlau

    Elizabeth Werlau is an English teacher in the Hudson Valley and is the historian for the Town of Plattekill in Ulster County. She has authored and contributed to several books on regional history, including her most recent publication, Murder and ... Read Full
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