Saturday, January 24, 2009

Nanny Goat Hill

Nanny Goat Hill, the rock promontory between Montgomery and Dock Streets, is a familiar and significant landmark in the history of the Village of Saugerties. From atop its rugged heights the Esopus Creek can be seen to the south and east as it wends its way to the Hudson River. To the west Mount Marion and Overlook Mountain are visible. It is precisely because of its commanding views that Nanny Goat Hill qualified as the official Saugerties Ground Operation Defense Post during the early years of the Cold War and also as the local base for Operation Sky Watch - code name BRAVO NOVEMBER ZERO ZERO BLACK overseen by the United States Air Force. As a scenic overlook it has been used by generations of Saugerties citizens. Its beauty has been an inspiration for the poetic. Its long history evokes sentiments that abide in the hearts of those who remember.

Nanny Goat Hill, with its clear and unobstructed view of the sky, proved to be of strategic importance duringWorldWar II and the ColdWar. Because of limited radar detection capability at that time, the United States Air Force formed the Ground Observation Corps (GOC), made up of civilian volunteers whose mission was to visually search the skies for enemy aircraft attempting to penetrate American airspace. Joseph Sinnott, renowned cartoonist who was born near Nanny Goat Hill in 1926, well remembers the observation post built atop ‘the hill’ during World War II. His cousin, Rita Gordon Gavigan, of Montross Street, served in the GOC and spent many long hours as a citizen sentinel watching the skies over Saugerties.

During WorldWar II, Montgomery Street in Saugerties held the unique distinction of having the greatest number of young men and women serving in the Armed Forces from the village. In 1944 Frank P. Hughes (1916-1997), a Montgomery Street resident, conceived the idea of creating an honor roll to be erected on Nanny Goat Hill as a tribute to the young women and men in service from Montgomery Street. The honor roll was built by William Ribsamen. Hughes, a talented artist, painted the memorial. The six foot by three and a half foot tablet contained twenty-three names. Above the names Hughes painted a picture of Uncle Sam. On either side of the names two streamers of red, white, and blue extended the full length of the roll. On a Sunday afternoon in May of 1944 a ceremony was held on Nanny Goat Hill before a large number of residents, marking the unveiling and dedication of the honor roll. The grounds around the roll were meticulously landscaped with flowers and shrubbery. Edmund U. Burhans, a member of Lamouree-Hackett Post, No. 72,American Legion, was master of ceremonies. Reverend Ray E. Kulman of the Atonement Lutheran Church offered the invocation; Joseph M. Campbell delivered the address in which he voiced the hope that those on the home front would begin to prepare for rehabilitating and caring for the returning soldiers. The benediction was given by Rev. Edmund Harty of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church.

On July 14th 1952 the United States Air Force initiated a civilian volunteer program known as Operation Sky Watch in which the volunteer Ground Observation Corps manned defense posts 24 hours a day in search of enemy air craft. During the summer of 1952, under Operation Sky Watch, Larry Campanella, the Saugerties Observation Post supervisor, reported that there were over 100 volunteers at the Nanny Goat Hill Post. An average of 37 planes a day was reported in July. In September of 1952 Saugerties Observation Post Spotters, Mrs. William Plimley and Mrs. Douglas Robinson, on duty at Nanny Goat Hill, reported a strange set of lights of extreme brilliance over the eastern sky. The colored lights were reported to have formed a rough piewedge pattern. John Hilton, who was the Ulster County Assistant Air Post Coordinator, and who lived onWest Bridge Street in Saugerties, had also witnessed the strange lights. The Spotters immediately telephoned the Ground Observer Corp Filter Center at White Plains and an investigation by the United States Air Force ensued. A subsequent spotting several days later of the same lights intensified the investigation by the Air Force but no information was divulged as to what it was. Similar strange sightings were reported during Operation Sky Watch.

During the 1950’s the threat of a Communist attack on American soil was at its height. Saugerties, like many communities across the United States, organized a civil-defense unit, purchased sirens and emergency equipment, and simulated blackouts to test evacuation procedures. Local citizen Ben Sanford was the Saugerties Civil Defense Director. Some Saugerties residents, including Warren H. Knaust, built bomb shelters and stocked up on canned goods. President Eisenhower called upon the nation to observe a week in September 1956 as Civil DefenseWeek. Arthur F. Simmons,Mayor of the Village of Saugerties, heeded the call and issued a Civil Defense Week Proclamation that year stating, “…the maintenance of peace and, as an alternative, personal and national survival in the event of enemy attack are of paramount interest to the citizens of Saugerties…”

The Saugerties Civil Defense program included a Ground Observation Corps made up of men, women, and teenage volunteers. An official observation post was manned atop Nanny Goat Hill, where volunteer observers reported all planes sighted and all planes which were heard but not seen. Suspicious air traffic was reported to a filter center where a worker plotted it on a map. When the track was established, the information was forwarded to the Air Defense Direction Center, where the decision to scramble interceptor aircraft for identification purposes was made.

From 1953 to 1956 Rita Gordon Gavigan, known as the ‘voice of Saugerties’ because of her daily radio broadcasts, headed up the Saugerties Ground Observer Corp and fiercely rallied local volunteers. She once announced, “Ladies and gentlemen you are wanted on the phone! No, not the phone in your own home but one in the Air Defense Observation Post on Nanny Goat Hill!” Many answered the call and in the months of November and December of 1955 one-hundred and sixteen volunteers served. The Saugerties Ground Observer Corp was funded by the State, County and local government and was responsible for purchasing such items as binoculars, electric fans and heaters for the post. Even a refrigerator had been installed to keep the milk cold for use in the coffee the Spotters needed when on night duty. The Air Force responsibility to the observation post was to train observers, supply administrative forms, install and pay telephone bills, and help supervise the operation. Initially, training emphasized memorizing the shapes of the engine, wings, fuselage, and tail of a plane. Later, it was decided that learning an airplane’s overall configuration was more effective. To raise funds to support the Nanny Goat Hill observation post, the Saugerties Ground Observer Corp held a benefit movie at the local Orpheum Theater titled “The Kiss of Fire” with Jack Palance and Barbara Rush plus a sensational short, “24 Hour Alert” starring Jack Webb.

In 1956 the Saugerties observation tower on Nanny Goat Hill was remodeled. The original wooden “shack” was faced with brick by local mason Connie Lynch and new equipment was placed inside. During the summer months Saugerties teenagers helped out as observers while adults were on vacation. In July and August 1956 Jo Ann Scala, Winnie Canger, Jimmy Whitehead, Georgie King, Johnnie Burns, Walter Johnson, Joe Buytkins, Joe Sweeney, Bonnie Miller, Sue Reynolds, Tom Mahoney, Bruce Freligh, Charlott Ann Bell, Judy Genthner, Bruce Ormany, Joe Brackett, Jane Granwehr. Roland Mayone, Louis Abrams, Roland Gambino and Bud Peter all proudly participated as spotters. A local housewife, Dixie Bond, managed to spot aircraft with her two children on hand. Miriam Nitchke was said to have had a fine time her first day of duty alone. Rita Gavigan reported that, “Everything flew over except a weather balloon!” Richard Overbagh and his entire family signed on for “Operation Skywatch”. Sate Keenan, who acted as Chief Observer and Evelyn Longendyke, Assistant Chief Observer in Saugerties, also put in many long hours atop “the Hill”.

Perhaps one of the most significant awards that Saugerties has ever received was from General E. E. Partridge, Commander in Chief, Continental Air Defense Command. The award, issued in 1956, honored the Saugerties Ground Observer Corps for their voluntary support of the Air Defense of the United States. Rita Gavigan, received an individual honor from the United States Air Force for her untiring efforts as leader of the Saugerties Ground Observer Corps. A formal citation presentation was held at the Observation Post atop Nanny Goat Hill.

The name Nanny Goat Hill brings to mind the question of how the name was derived. Edward Leonard Sinnott, (1897- 1958), who lived near Nanny Goat Hill, reminisced to his son, Joe, of the goats that grazed on its rugged terrain. This observation is certainly a reasonable theory of how the name originated. The transcendent appeal of Nanny Goat Hill echoes through the ages. On its rock face the carved initials of Edward Sinnott and his best friend Lorenz Loerzel, (whose father owned the brewery on the corner of Partition and Clermont Street), were etched in 1908 when they were both twelve years old. Love of this rocky promontory was perhaps most profoundly expressed by Saugerties own poet-philosopher of Nanny Goat Hill, John Hughes Kerbert, born in 1854, who lived on Montgomery Street. In 1941 the beloved eighty-seven year old Kerbert was interviewed at home by a young college student collecting the wise man’s lore. It was said that as he sat in his room, gazing at Nanny Goat Hill, he was content reminiscing events from the past. He was quoted as stating “there are people all over the world who come back to visit the scene of many of their happiest hours at Nanny Goat Hill.” To the casual observer, he noted, it was only another cliff. To the native though, the mention of its name hearkened “childhood and playing at adventures among its caves, youth, and moonlight walks, watching boats on the river, picnics, and ballgames.” So enchanted was John Kerbert with Nanny Goat Hill that he penned this poem dedicated to it:

The Isles of Enchantment are pictured in story And wonders discovered are prized and admired In lands near and far are great proofs of God’s glory Of things that attract us we never grow tired Now to me who have seldom had chance to behold them God’s wondrous Earth gifts or man’s works of skill There are few sights I fancy or scenes give more pleasure Than sunlight at morning on Nanny Goat Hill.
I’ve watched it from childhood and Life’s page unrolling Unchanging glad greeting to many it gives And the health giving breezes that constant blow o’er it Recall to me visions in memory lives The kite flying season and old fashioned ball game The crowd’s come to look at the old Iron Mill The tale telling Elders and Love making youngsters I can see them again on old Nanny Goat Hill.
The days of my youth I so carelessly squandered But little of value they seemed to me then Ambition oft thwarted brings feelings of Rancor And apathy rules o’er the doings of men As the old Hill bid welcome and oft times I wonder Though changes are great to my memory still It appeared the one spot where all cares were abandoned As we herded the cows upon Nanny Goat Hill.
I still am enjoying the gentle breeze blowing O’er the hilltop as summer day’s draw to a close And bright golden sunshine is bathing in splendor As it did at the morn when it silently rose Now the day of fast travel and long distance speeding With pleasure long hours for many may fill Content I remain with my bygone reflections As I gaze from my window on Nanny Goat Hill.

Today there is little physical evidence at Nanny Goat Hill to indicate its importance during wartime over a half-century ago. Gone is the memorial to the men and women who served their country during World War II. The Air Spotters building, where Saugerties citizens selflessly dedicated years of steadfast vigil to protect their homeland, has been torn down. What remains, apart from the still magnificent views its heights afford, are the sweet recollections of yesteryear best found in the words of John Hughes Kerbert “There are few sights I fancy or scenes give more pleasure -Than sunlight at morning on Nanny Goat Hill.”

-- Karlyn Knaust Elia

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