The following is from an article I published in Kaatskill Life in 1998 (with minor edits). In 2005, I gave a talk on Bouck White for the New Scotland Historical Association and, at the present, I'm making revisions to a book-length manuscript on White's life. - Paula Lemire
Bouck White - Helderberg Hermit
In the 1930s, an unconventional man named Bouck White built a "castle" in the Helderberg Mountains overlooking the village of New Salem, New York. Hoping to create his own Utopia, he spent a decade there, selling pottery and dispensing shards of philosophy to visitors.
White was born in Middleburgh, Schoharie County in 1874. His father ran a dry goods store and young White grew up in comfort in the family's Grove Street home. He attended local schools and continued his education at Syracuse University where his conduct was described as "honorable." In the college yearbook, he maturely observed, "The line between folly and wisdom is often as imaginary one, and men are often seen traveling along with one foot on either side of it."
White transferred to Harvard and graduated in 1896. He went to work as a reporter for the Springfield Republican, but a year later, he began studies at the Boston Theological Institute. He was ordained a Congregational minister in 1904 and spent the next several years in Clayton, a town on the St. Lawrence River. He organized a Boys Club, opened a small library, and converted a stable into a gymnasium for the town's youth. The townspeople were initially dubious of White's innovations, but were won over and provided funding.
Around 1908, White moved to Brooklyn to work at a settlement house run by Trinity Church. There he saw the hardships of the poor and working classes. White joined the Socialist Party, hoping that a blend of religion and socialism would cure the world's spiritual and social woes. The Church vestry grew wary of him, however, and asked for his resignation. He submitted it and found the Church of Social Revolution. Known as New York's "most eccentric radical," he wore a coarse smock in protest of World War I. He was later expelled from the Socialist party for opposing violence.
In 1914, White was arrested at the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church after disrupting a service by challenging the Reverend Cornelieus Woelfkin to debate the civic value of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., whom White held answerable for the massacre of striking miners in Ludlow, Colorado. White was sentenced to six months in jail.
In 1916, White led a "service" to protest World War I. He set fire to flags representing the world's leading nations and covered the ashes with a crimson flag. Claiming that the fire had only united the banners into one of "internationalism," White was jailed for desecrating the flag. After his release, he moved to France to study ceramics and developed a chemical process that enabled him to harden pottery without a kiln.
At a Mardi Gras bazaar in Paris on February 1, 1921, White met Emilee Simone. He asked permission to call on her and, three days later, proposed marriage. Emilee's parents were charmed by White who spoke French fluently and appeared prosperous. The couple married that April; he was 47 and she was 21.
The Whites returned immediately to America and moved to a farmhouse on a mountain outside Marlboro in Ulster County. But Mrs. White fled from her husband's "summer estate" after three days and went to the Marlboro Mountain House, a hotel run by William McElrath. She told McElrath that White hit her and called her names for throwing eggshells into the stove. She said he wanted her to be a radical prophetess. Some nights later, a dozen men from Marlboro abducted White. He was tarred, feathered, whipped, dunked in Orange Lake, and threatened with hanging. After his captors released him, people noticed blisteres on White's neck. It was rumored that acid was mixed with the tar. White said they were caused by sunburn, but tried to hide the blisters with flour.
Emilee filed for an annulment. She had little money, but did not wish to return to France until she was free of White. She described White's farmhouse as slovenly. White made her rise befor dawn and ordered her about. He ate bread, stale butter, and eggs. He was not interested in children, but told her that they would write books together and the books would be their children. White did not dispute her charges. He denied considering himself the "Second Messiah," but admitted that "intellectual persons" should have books instead of children.
An annulment was granted that summer on the grounds that White had hidden his arrest record from the Simones.
White returned to France, but by 1932, he was back in New York and running a pottery studio in an Albany carriage house. In 1934, White bought six acres in the Helderberg Mountains. He was attracted to the lonely cliff by a belief that it was where Hiawatha supposedly experienced visions that lead to the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy. White had long claimed Mohawk ancestery, saying, "I don't know how much of the blood of Hiawatha is in my veins, but my heart is Indian."
Bouck White's "House of Crooked Windows"
White constructed a "castle" using the plentiful limestone. He worked as independently of technology (which he distrusted as much as wealth) a possible. He described his building style:
"The stones are not hacked or broken to form a window opening of some perceived pattern; they are allowed....to build a window of any form whatsover...A new resource for the architect is here emerging, provided their clients be animated by a spirit of natural beauty."
White built an impressive tower at the cliff's edge. The view from the top rivaled the vista offered at nearby John Boyd Thatcher State Park. White kept carrier pigeons at the tower and, during World War II, his birds led people to speculate that White was a spy using pigeons to send messages to the enemy.
White lived simply at his mountain retreat and his sole income came from selling his pottery to tourists. He lived on pancakes, soups, and cornmeal. He wore old baggy trousers and tattered sneakers. Old or new acquaintances were treated hospitably.
White displays his Bouckware
White realized that he was not capable of changing the world. He dismissed his radical activities as part of a "collective insanity" that afflicted the country during World War I and admitted his own mortality. He desired only to end his days peacefully on his mountain, but a stroke forced him to move to the Home For Aged Men in Menands. He died there on January 7, 1951, and his ashes were buried in a fissure near his Helderberg castle.
Illustration from a pamphlet advertising Bouckware
Bouck White on Wikipedia
The Helderberg Castle
Books by Bouck White on Google