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Big Chuck

May 10, 2010

I Was Just Thinking: Conversations with a local history-maker

— Every day, history is made in Bloomville, New York.

No, really. History is made there!

George Haynes Jr. is the owner of Catskill Castings. I stopped by for a visit with George last week, and all the while we chatted, we were literally surrounded by history. George’s company is the sole maker of New York state historical markers _ you know, the blue and yellow signs ubiquitous on country roads and city parkways.

George has seen them all, and made them all.

“Every time I pass one of those yellow and blue markers in my travels, I always think to myself, I touched that sign,” he told me.

And, oh the history he has touched. A tour of his cluttered and busy workshop reveals historical markers in varying degrees of completion. Over there is a marker heading to Oswego telling of Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only female recipient of the Medal of Honor; and there is one bound for Hopewell Junction telling the poignant story of a slave cemetery. One of George’s employees, Stan, is finishing up a marker denoting a portage place for Henry Hudson’s “Half Moon” ordered up by a historical group in Catskill.

George gently rubbed his hand over the instantly recognizable template seen everywhere (more than 7,000 in New York state alone) and told me, “It really is amazing what comes through here. I learn a lot!”

The state of New York no longer finances the markers, and all are now privately commissioned and paid for ($895 for the standard royal-blue and sunburst-yellow sign).

“I started down in Walton in the 1980s working for the foundry there, and when it started to shut down I moved my own business here to Bloomville in 1992. We have two facilities, actually. We have a foundry in Greene, where the signs are actually made. And then our shop here in Delaware County, where we design, set up and paint the markers. We employ about 20 people total.”

There are no idle hands at Catskill Castings, especially when you realize that George Haynes Jr. single-handedly coordinates the 400 markers ordered here each year, as well running his multi-truck disposal business and performing his duties as Kortright town supervisor.

I told George that I am addicted to “his” markers and stop at every one I can without putting my wife and kids in imminent traffic peril. I told him that my favorite sign of his was a marker I spied in western New York highlighting the burial place of the “second person in America to die from a bee sting.”

“Yeah, I have no control as to what people order. We get everything and anything,” he said.

A stack of the aluminum sentinels (they are no longer made out of iron, like they first were in 1920) along his shop’s wall bespeaks a vivid, and peculiar, primer of New York history. Some are quite eloquent. One is a tribute to U.S. Senator John Sloss Hobart (1738-1805). His marker reads, “He mortgaged all but honor for his nation.” It is heading to his birthplace in Huntington on Long Island.

Another had been ordered by a historical group in Schenectady. It highlights a long forgotten city neighborhood: “The Gut. A 1920-1960 enclave of Jewish homes, schools and businesses.”

“The Gut.” Sounds like a fascinating place, doesn’t it?.

George has done markers for famous families of New York, including the Roosevelts and the Rockefellers. “I did one recently on behalf of the Wright Brothers and also did the one in front of the boyhood home of writer and TV star Rod Serling. Locally, my signs are everywhere, including all three covered bridges in Delaware County.”

Bloomville, a burg of less than 500 residents situated in a lazy curve along county Highway 10 between Delhi and Stamford, is a place rich in history.

“The biggest paper in all of Delaware County, The Bloomville Mirror, used to print from here,” George told me. “So yes, I am very interested in history, both local and statewide.”

As my visit came to an end, I asked George if he had a favorite historical marker among all of the thousands his company has created.

“Not quite yet,” he told me. “But soon. I just got a sign order from Indianapolis. The order is for a historical marker to go in front of the original brick factory that made all the bricks for the Indy 500 racetrack when it opened in 1909. The original bricks for ‘The Brickyard.’

“Imagine that,” he laughed. “And I am a huge NASCAR fan!”

I’ll catch you in two ...

‘Big Chuck’ D’Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.”  He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.

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