Sullivan County Historical Society History Preserver Award 2001
Mary Edith Curtis
In the 1750’s, land hungry residents of Connecticut formed the Delaware Company to move westward and to settle in new land along the Upper Delaware River. Included in the company were John Calkin and Moses Thomas who in 1754 left the settled world of Connecticut to face the perils of life on the frontier. They, of course, had children in their new home. Two of them, Oliver Calkin and Hannah Thomas, eventually married and started a family which not only survived, but flourished in this new world and is represented today by our History Preserver honoree, Mary Curtis and her two brothers, Edward and Robert, the eighth generation of that union. Hannah had a no-nonsense introduction to life on the frontier. A family tradition records that at age six she was stationed on the barricades of the stockade located on the Delaware River and was instructed to fire the muskets handed up to her by the women below who loaded them. The point was to provide a constant firing from the fort which would persuade the Indians that the forces inside the fort were too strong to be attacked. Those who know Mary would say that she has inherited Hannah’s spunk. Indeed, as Mary has reflected on the two and a half centuries her family has been in the Valley, the idea has formed of writing a book about the remarkable women who preceded her: a history to be entitled, Generations of Strong Women.
After graduating from Delaware Valley Central School and Syracuse University, Mary experimented with a number of jobs. She worked at advertising in New York City, returned to Syracuse to study for a Master’s degree in Sociology and then left for San Diego to work with some newspapers in California. But the Valley called her home and she returned east in the 1970’s where some interesting projects were soon to be underway. The first one was the Bi-Centennial celebration. Mary’s background in advertising and writing proved invaluable; and she was busy in many aspects of that historical celebration. Her work was so appreciated that in 1978 she was asked to follow in the footsteps of her father, Valleau Curtis and become the Town of Delaware historian. About the same time Tom and Elaine DeGaetani with their great vision of the region’s potential were bringing together various organizations to form the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance which this year is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Again, this was another project which spurred Mary’s interest. Finally, in 1980 the National Park Service wisely employed her as a Public Affairs specialist and by 1994 she was appointed a Park Historian.
Mary brings to her work a background of which many of us who are essentially outsiders can only appreciate, but never hope to duplicate. She grew up in a setting where family traditions going back two and a half centuries had been passed down generation to generation with a resulting love and respect for the Valley and its inhabitants. She feels their history in her bones and her ancestors do not seem that far away. She speaks affectionately of her great-grandfather, Charles T. Curtis (1834-1922), who died decades before she was born. A lawyer, he once wrote about the Rafting industry along the Delaware for the Sullivan County Democrat and about 1910 began what eventually became six volumes of memoirs – the editing of which is another of Mary’s retirement projects.
Mary has worked hard to preserve the remarkable history of this region. One of her projects has been to develop Multiple Property Documentation which has led to the placing of many important properties in the Valley on the National Register of Historic Places. In the same spirit she initiated and supervised more than 150 interviews with Valley residents: an invaluable resource for future historians. Her writings include a history of the town of Delaware for the Bi-Centennial and Stories and Songs of the Raftsmen. She can smile at the region’s idiosyncrasies. Some of you may remember the cries of outrage which were heard when the National Park Service first came into the Valley. Mary documented that outrage in a Master’s degree research paper, The Aginners and Others: A Case Study of Citizen Protest on the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River.
Mary’s influence is visible in many of the historical activities in the Valley. She was a founding director of the Cochecton Preservation Society, a member of the Equinunk Historical Society, has led walking tours of Milanville, Callicoon and Hortonville and has been the Folk Arts Chairman for the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance. She speaks to many groups including the Sullivan Historical Society and her rich memories and good humor are always appreciated. Her sense of the importance of the Upper Delaware Valley as an area which must be studied as a single entity is reflected in her interest in the Upper Delaware Historical Alliance. She missed one meeting and returned to find that she had been elected the Founding President – an office she held for six years. Now composed of about ten organizations, the Alliance brings together the various groups from Port Jervis to Hancock which study the history of the Valley.
Mary is best known to many people simply as a storyteller: a description which she prefers to that of historian. She has a gift for making past eras come to life and to stimulate those of us who lack her roots to learn more about this fascinating county in which we live. She will soon retire from the Park Service and have time to write about great-great-great-grandmother Hannah and the other hardy women in her family who would surely applaud Mary for her own accomplishments. The Sullivan County Historical Society is pleased to present its 2001 Award for History Preserver to Mary Edith Curtis.