WARWICK VALLEY DISPATCH By Scott Webber
For artist Robert Fletcher, capturing his Warwick community’s past is his way of preserving its heritage for the future.
From his watercolor studio along Iron Mountain Road in New Milford, Fletcher’s eyes gaze with impassion out the studio’s windows as he scans the still rural Warwick Valley his neighbor’s ancestors so loved and cherished.
Four of his paintings are hung on the walls of G’s Restaurant on Main Street in the Village. Called “The Four Seasons”, each preserves a time in the past and tells a story.
“Spring” catches the Nathaniel Wheeler Baird family tilling the soil that is still in the family today. While he plows, his wife, Abigail Denton Baird and son, Samuel, are waiting under the tree for him to stop and have lunch.
The young couple receive the land as a wedding gift from her parents. The gentle hills that rim the Warwick Valley are in the distance.
Now, almost 200 years later, Nathaniel’s great grandson, Bill Baird, and his sons, still live and farm there.
“Summer” catches an afternoon during a wedding at the Old School Baptist Meeting house where the guests parked their carriages on High Street and are seen walking up the knoll to the church. The bride’s carriage rides to the top of the driveway and she gets out, entering the church with its hot and stuffy air.
Overhead the skies darken as a summer thunderstorm begins to rain down on the scene. The rain pounds the ground as the thunder rolls above, the trees bend in the strong winds. The sun will come out as the newlyweds emerge from the church.
“Fall” focuses on the O.W. Ferguson Mill which had one waterwheel and three purposes. Powered by the Double Kill Creek, the wheel generated enough energy to run a grist mill, cider press and sawmill. In the early 1900’s the mill was part of the hamlet of New Milford along with a tannery, post office and general store.
Farmers came and brought wheat, buckwheat, corn and bran to be ground in the eight stone grist mill. These stones were imported from the French Pyrenees because of their superior ability to hold the cutting edge. The gristmill was rebuilt in 1861 after the first mill (built in 1802) was destroyed by flood.
The price charged to farmers was either 12 cents per 100 pounds or a percentage of the yield.
The shed to the right of the gristmill housed the sawmill and cider press. Ferris Barrett, a local farmer, is shown bringing apples from his orchard to be pressed into cider. The press can be seen to the left of the shed. To the right of the press are a number of boards recently sawed from logs such as the one laying in the yard.
The two-wheeled cart was used to maneuver the heavy logs or newly cut lumber.
“Winter” takes you to the Warwick Station of the Lehigh and Hudson Railway which connected New Jersey and Pennsylvania to all of New England and carried a wide variety of cargo. Heavy freights transported coal from Pennsylvania and limestone from MacAffee, New Jersey.
Warwick contributed iron ore and milk. In fact, the Warwick Valley Railroad was the first railroad in America to use refrigerated cars to transport milk.
The locomotive shown is Lehigh and Hudson River Railway’s Engine No. 1 named “Grinnell Burt.” Built in 1880, it was the namesake of the President of the Warwick Valley Railway Company which built the elegant train station in 1893 at a cost of $10,000.
Passengers were traveling to Chester, Newburgh, Middletown or such faraway places as New York City, Philadelphia or Chicago. The only other form of travel was by horse and carriage over rough dirt roads.
People wishing to stay overnight had a choice of either the Demerest Hotel, across from the station, or the Warwick Valley House, down the block on Oakland Avenue and now the home of the Warwick Valley Dispatch.
In a barn at the rear of the house, horses and carriages could be rented from the Campbell and Vanness Livery Stable.
Fletcher recently finished another of his watercolor paintings, this one, “Christmas 1900”, showing horses and carriages lined up along Jockey Street as people entered the New Milford Methodist Church. This one is not on display at G’s.
He is selling copies of the prints. A print 17 inches long goes for $55 and one 24 inches long, $85. He is donating $5 of the cost to the New Milford Historical Society. He can be reached at his home at 33 Iron Mountain Road, where he and his wife, Elizabeth, have lived since January 1968.
He is currently working on paintings showing military funerals around World War I. He used part of a fully restored carriage that is the centerpiece of his studio in one of the funeral paintings.
The Fletchers moved here from Northern New Jersey where he was a partner in an advertising agency. He still does graphic art design work. He served in the U.S. Army in the early 1950’s and did a tour in Germany.