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Roger and Doris Van Leuven.   Photo by Chris Rowley
Berry Pickers Reminisce
"A rough life, but it was a good one, too."

NAPANOCH – They're in their 80s now, and not as spry as they once were, but the memories live on and Roger and Doris Van Leuven's eyes brighten as they recall the life they had as children up on the Shawangunk Ridge.

"It was a rough life," says Roger, "but it was a good life."

They grew up in the Trapps settlement, a small village of cabins that flourished in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. At one point there were more than forty houses, as well as a one room school, a chapel, a tavern and even a hotel at the Trapps.

The Van Leuven clan seems to have lived up on the ridge, in the Trapps settlement for centuries, perhaps from as early as the 1680s. They were "mountain people," making their living the way Native Americans had, by hunting and gathering. In the 19th century they cut millstones from the Shawangunk conglomerate or "grit" and sold them to farmers in the valleys. As civilization encroached, they took seasonal work to make a little money, but they loved the life on the mountain.

In 1934, with work unavailable in the depths of the depression, the folk of the Trapps settlement had to find a way of making money.

"Our father cut wood for the hotels," says Roger Van Leuven. "Mother worked at the hotels, too. There was Wildmere and Cliff House, and Mohonk."

But in '34 the family were urged by Fletcher Smith to go blueberry picking, up on the highest part of the ridge, at 4 Mile Post. All the kids went, Roger, Doris and the younger sisters, Ethel and Alice, and the "baby" of the family, their youngest brother, Richard.

"Took an hour to drive up there," says Roger, reminiscing. "Rocky road, just four miles long. You can get there if you go up Mine Shaft road."

The family rode up there in a 1930 Chevrolet and built a cabin on a rock ledge.

That cabin was an early example of recycling for green construction. "My father worked on Route 52, where they did a lot of blasting. They had all these empty dynamite boxes, so he built the cabin out of dynamite boxes."

Doris Van Leuven-Hall recalls that "we went up there at the end of June, and came down by Labor Day because we had to go to school."

Berry picking was hard work. "We were out in the woods by eight in the morning," recalls Doris. "And we worked all day."

"We tied ten quart pails to our waists," says Roger, "and when the berries were good we filled them several times a day." Roger thinks he may have picked 64 quarts in one day, "when the berries were really good. My sister, Ethel, she was the quickest, she picked 80 quarts one day."

The berries they harvested, were sold to buyers who came up from Highland, or to the hotels. There was a big difference in the price you could get. "The hotels paid good, you could get fifty cents a quart there." That was exceptional, more often the price could be as little as eight cents a quart.

"We didn't complain," says Doris. "We'd pick all day, you told the time by listening for the whistle of the paper mill down in the valley. Some days we stayed out late, until it started to get dark." Roger recalls meeting the wild life of the mountain now and then, too.

"One time, I was over closer to Sam's Point. There was a patch of good berries in the Spruce Swamp. This was high bush blueberries. I found it one day, and I went back there the next day to do some picking. I was picking and then next to me, on the other side of the bush, I heard this loud crash. I knew it had to be a bear, so I lit out of there, and I never looked back. But, I didn't leave my berries!"

"Roger was famous for never leaving his berries behind," says his sister with a big grin.

At the camp at Four Mile Post there were as many as thirty families. "We had families and there were single men," says Roger. "Some of them were hobos, who came up from the coast. People had no work, you see."

The community had social life, pinochle was popular, as were sing-a-longs, and a certain amount of "white lightning." Those were the days when bootleggers were everywhere, because alcohol was illegal during prohibition.

"There was also a minister who came up there, I think his name was Hochsteiner and he came from Hurley," says Doris.

The Van Leuvens picked berries for the summer, and returned to their home in the Trapps hamlet for the winter. But the days of the Mountain Hamlet were coming to an end. The hunting was played out, and the timber had been cut.

"Our car was stolen in '37," remembers Roger. "It was found later in Newburgh. But that was when we left the Trapps."

"We lived in Walker Valley, then," says Doris, "from 1937 to 1941. I went to Pine Bush High School. E.J. Russell was the Principal then. In December '41, we moved to Ellenville, to a house in Green Acres."

That was when Roger joined the army. He was soon far away in the Pacific theatre, fighting the Japanese.

"I was in New Guinea, the Philippines and the Mapi Islands. I was in the 31st Division. I was the only Yankee in a Rebel unit, everyone was from the Alabama National Guard. Nice bunch of guys, though."

While Roger was in the Pacific, Doris, too moved away. "I went down to Washington D.C. I worked in the Pentagon. Then I moved to New York. I lived in the city from '45 to '52, and I had a job at Macy's. But, when I got married I was happy to move back here and I bought this house in Napanoch."

The Van Leuven family still lives in the area. Doris and Roger are in Napanoch, but others are spread from Ulster Heights over to Wallkill. Alice and Ethel live in Florida, but they visit when they can.

Cathy Van Leuven, Roger's daughter, says, "Alice is eighty now, but she hiked up to Four Mile Post this summer when she came for a visit."

The Van Leuven cabin, last inhabited by Roger and Doris's grandparents, has been preserved at the Trapps, the last surviving structure from that long time mountain hamlet and way of life.

Cathy Van Leuven says, "I think there should be a memorial up at Four Mile Post to the berry pickers. There was a whole community up there, it's a piece of our area's history."

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