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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 20, 2006

From the editor
Farewell to the chronicler of Dormansville

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

Frances Swart spent her entire life in the tiny Helderberg hamlet of Dormansville — and loved it.

She chronicled the life and times of Dormansville residents for over half a century. Miss Swart died on Sunday, having filed her last correspondents column for The Enterprise on June 29.

At 96, she penned her columns with the precision of the schoolteacher she once was. Her columns came in on time, week in and week out, without fail, and without need of editing, either.

That last column started with a description of the weather. The daughter of a dairy farmer, Miss Swart was keenly aware of the weather. When she was born, she told us last year, most of Westerlo was nothing but farms.

As a girl, she walked to the one-room schoolhouse down the road and otherwise — unless she was lucky enough to get a ride with a friend’s father who had a car — traveled by carriage or wagon.

After graduating from New Paltz Normal School in 1930, she taught in the very same schoolhouse she had gone to as a child. Miss Swart had six grades to teach at once.

She lived with her parents until they died. And, after her mother’s death, in 1951, she took up her pen and continued her mother’s practice of writing "items," as she called them, for the local newspapers.

"I’m very pleased when somebody tells me they read my column and they’ve been keeping up with the news here," Miss Swart told us.

She was an integral part of her community; the friends and neighbors she cared and wrote about cared for her.

Her last column is emblematic of a lifetime of paying attention to the details of small-town life.

She wrote about the Dormansville United Methodist Church, which she had attended all her life. Her last column tells us that the altar vases were filled with bouquets of peonies from a bush planted by Clarence Bates and were placed in his memory.

She also wrote of the Hiawatha Grange, of which she was a member for 78 years. She told of the "eat-out dinner" and upcoming elections.

She regularly wrote of social news — the births, and marriages, and deaths that mark our time on earth. Her last column was no exception. She detailed a 25th wedding anniversary celebration and wrote of a graduation.

And what about the weather"

"The rain," Miss Swart wrote in her even-handed way, "has washed away the blossoms on roses and peonies but seems to help the plantings of some annuals."

In the midst of rain and darkness, though, Miss Swart always looked for the proverbial silver lining. "In spite of it all," she wrote, "it has been a joy to have homegrown strawberries. We should be thankful we don’t have the dry weather now in parts of Texas and other states."

Miss Swart was also someone who was thoughtful of others and precise in recording local history. She wrote her own obituary and left it in a sealed envelope. That way, others wouldn’t be troubled with piecing together the events of her life and the record would be accurate. We’re running it on our obituary page just as she wrote it.

Her dear friend Laura Palmer told us the last line would make us laugh. That line, which usually lists an address for making monetary contributions, says instead, "She wished that, in her memory and in lieu of flowers, friends would remember the Dormansville U.M. Church, support it, and attend it."

Miss Swart died as she had lived — thinking of others and of Dormansville. We’ll miss her.

Rensselaerville, roll up your sleeves

Layers of bureaucracy piled up and mired Sheila Whiteford just as surely as layers of mud filled her house after the torrential June rains.

"I need help, help, help, help, help," Whiteford told the Rensselaerville Town Board last Thursday.

Plenty of people in the packed hall sounded ready to help and we hope they do.

Whiteford’s home, near Potter Hollow Creek, has been flooding for years; she said the creek has changed its course as islands of debris have built up in it.

She named for us more than a dozen agencies or officials she called for help, to no avail. We made some calls ourselves this week — 13 to FEMA alone, as one person referred us to another.

We were trying to find out if a resolution made by the town board to request funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was likely to bear any fruit.

Our answer: Probably not.

We only had to make one call to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation; Rick Georgeson is a spokesperson who finds answers. He called us back and told us that Sheila Whiteford had, indeed, called the DEC on June 30 "wanting us to do something."

He went on, "We explained we wouldn’t do the work; we would be the permitting agency." Typically, contractors are hired, Georgeson said, or public works departments do the job. Whiteford was referred to the Albany County Soil and Water Conservation District, the state’s Department of Transportation, and the town’s highway department, he said.

"We just issue the permit and make sure the environment is protected while the work is done," said Georgeson. "It’s just a matter of finding someone that will step up and do the work or pay for it."

We’re printing the phone number — 357-2069 — that needs to be called to start the permit process. We don’t fault the DEC for wanting to protect our water, but we hope every effort is made to respond promptly.

Rensselaerville Supervisor Jost Nickelsberg called the effects of bureaucracy "stultifying."

"We’re the highest taxed state in the country and to have this kind of response to a lady with this problem isn’t right," he said. "That’s why we as a town are getting behind it. Sometimes, you have to roll up your sleeves."

Nickelsberg said that, when a DEC official comes soon to look at storm damage to a town dam, he will also look at Whiteford’s property.

The supervisor is concerned, too, about the evacuation route posted recently by the state. That road, Route 81, was under water with the June flooding.

"The water surged over 81; it tossed a car about; trees coming down were going 20, 30 miles an hour," said Nickelsberg.

He said of the water from Potter Hollow Creek, which flows to Catskill Creek, "It was up and over the bank; it was up and over the land, stripping it of its value; it was up and over the road."

When Whiteford discovered it would cost $4,000 just to get the mud cleared from her house — she has no insurance to pay for it — she started shoveling.

That’s what residents of Rensselaerville are ready to do. Bob Bolte said he could organize a group of citizens to remove the islands of rock and debris from the stream. We believe he has the heart and muscle to do it.

Bolte, along with K.B. Cook, and his wife, Marion, spearheaded a project earlier this year to build a ball field in Potter Hollow.

"Over $50,000 of equipment and time was donated. We just went out and did it, not with town money," said Nickelsberg, adding with pride, "It’s the best ball field in all of Albany County."

Townspeople call it the Field of Dreams.

"Right past the Field of Dreams is the nightmare," said the supervisor, referring to the flooded creek.

We believe the people of Rensselaearville will wake up from that nightmare to the sound of shovels moving earth.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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