TheLand of Rip Van Winkle

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Land of Rip Van Winkle

By Thomas J. Illari

2018 will celebrate the anniversary of the most prominent resident of the Catskills who actually never resided there. Rip Van Winkle. It was in June 1818 that Washington Irving penned the classic short story. It was published a year later in a book which is a collection of short stories called “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.”

Although the story is set in the Catskill Mountains, Irving later admitted, "When I wrote the story, I had never been on the Catskills”?  Irving’s first trip up the Hudson wasn’t until 1832.

In the opening of the story of Rip Van Winkle, Irving makes reference that the tale was found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker. A fictional character made up by Irving as narrator of the story. The word Knickerbocker later became synonymous with Dutch Americans living in New York State.

The story of Rip Van Winkle itself is widely thought to have been based on Johann Karl Christophe Nachtigal’s German folktale "Peter Klaus”. This story, set in a German village, tells of a goat herder by the name of Peter who goes looking for a lost goat. Peter finds some men drinking in the woods and after drinking some of their wine he falls asleep. When he wakes back up, twenty years have passed. Sound familiar? Nonetheless it was a hit.

The story of Rip Van Winkle gripped the imagination of nineteenth century America and it seemed that no matter what part of the Catskills you visited, Rip Van Winkle had been there ahead of you.

Although Irving wished to keep the location a secret, it didn’t stop local towns from laying claims that they were the home of Rip Van Winkle. Palenville, at the base of Kaaterskill Clove, was a popular 19th century hamlet and taken as the village where Rip’s adventures began. But Irving himself wished to keep the exact location a mystery.

Another contender to Rip’s whereabouts was the old Mountain Turnpike leading up to the Catskill Mountain House. It had its own fame regarding Rip Van Winkle. Irving mentions a deep mountain glen in his story and, Sleepy Hollow; a horseshoe bend on the old Mountain Turnpike, took claim to fame as the exact location of Rip’s famous sleep. There was a boarding house at the horseshoe bend by the name of The Rip Van Winkle House and a boulder claiming to be the exact place that old Rip slept for twenty years.

When Irving himself was asked to help solve the exact location of Rip’s home he only made sure the mystery did not fade. In a letter dated February 5, 1858 Irving writes the following in response to a letter inquiring the location of Rip’s hometown:

“I can give you no other information concerning the localities of the story Rip Van Winkle, than is to be gathered from the manuscript of Mr. Knickerbocker…perhaps he left this purposely in doubt. I would advise you to defer to the opinion of the very old gentlemen with whom you say you had an argument on the subject. I think it probable he is as accurately informed as anyone on the matter”

Some other fun “Rip” facts:

Route 23A leading from Catskill West was known as “The Rip Van Winkle Trail”

In 1930 Tannersville had their very own airport – the Rip Van Winkle Airways Airport

Actor Joseph Jefferson made a lifelong career acting as Rip Van Winkle and would continue acting in his show for 40 years. Jefferson was able to take an American play and characters to places like Australia and England with great success.  Jefferson also starred in a number of films as the Van Winkle character starting in the 1896 Awakening of Rip.  Jefferson's son Thomas followed in his father's footsteps and played the character in a number of early 20th century films. Joseph Jefferson made several recordings, all of material from "Rip Van Winkle". The success of Rip Van Winkle was so pronounced that he has often been called a one-part actor.

When Rip wakes from his twenty-year slumber his world has changed. Many of his friends are dead. The image of King George III over the tavern has been replaced by one of General Washington. Rip has missed out on the entire era of the American Revolution. Some critics have pointed to this as evidence that Rip Van Winkle is a symbol of America itself, baffled by rapid political change and freed from tyranny.

Rip Van Winkle is full of symbols. The most noteworthy is the relationship between he and his antagonistic wife, Dame Van Winkle. She symbolizes the relationship between America and Britain prior to the revolution.

In 1954  “Rips Retreat” opened in Haines Falls on the East side of North Lake. The retreat was essentially commercial but also based upon historical and educational features. Rip was always on hand to greet visitors. It operated through 1960 and the land was then sold to New York State.

There was a short-lived amusement park called Rip Van Winkle Park built in 1908 on Catskill Creek in Leeds. It was built to increase trolley ridership from Catskill Landing to help the financially troubled Catskill Electric Railway Company. Both ventures later failed.

Rip’s Lookout was a souvenir stand, a small building, just past the horseshoe turn on 23A as you drive up Kaaterskill Clove (on the Rip Van Winkle Tail).  They had a viewing glass to see where Rip Van Winkle slept on the side of the mountain. There was a wishing in the front and the small building which operated as a refreshment stand and gas station.  It was a popular motorist stop with spectacular views of the Clove. (This location is now the parking lot for those wishing to hike to the lower Kaaterskill falls.)

The infiltration of Rip Van Winkle on the Catskills is profound. Rip Van Winkle Tours once ran from NYC to Sullivan County, one may cross the Hudson at Catskill over the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, or fill your gas tank at the Rip van Winkle Gas Station, drive along the Rip Van Winkle Trail, sleep at the Rip Van Winkle Lodge on a mattress by the Rip Van Winkle Bedding Company or rest on a Rip Van Winkle Recliner.

So as we approach the 200th anniversary of Rip Van Winkle, let us not forget how this fictional resident of the Catskills has played a significant role in the identity of the region.  To this day we see his name associated throughout the Catskills and even throughout the US.  However, it is Greene County that remains identified as the Land of Rip Van Winkle.

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