The Poorhouse Project - BlueStone Press
May 23, 2019

The Poorhouse Project

At 102, Accord woman inspiration for monument

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Summer days ahead beckon to us. Swimming, hiking, biking. The Ulster County Fair – ice cream, Jamaican food, Greek food, iced fruit drinks, crafts to buy, exhibits to see.
How many of us enjoying an afternoon at the fairgrounds know that we are walking over a burial ground?
Yet that is the case. Some area residents may still remember a time when the present-day Ulster County Fairgrounds, on Libertyville Road south of New Paltz, was the site of what was called the County Home for the Elderly Poor (closed in 1976). However, even those residents are probably unaware that originally the building was a poorhouse, founded in 1828. The earthly remains of 2,300 people or more whose lives ended there are interred in those broad fields. They have had no public acknowledgement; but now, that’s about to change. A statue in bronze called “The Poorhouse Monument: Aging Woman,” by New Paltz artist Trina Greene, will be unveiled next month at the fairgrounds.
Greene, reached by phone, commented on how she came to create “Aging Woman.”
“I I deliberately don't say ‘old.’ I think the people at the poorhouse became older than their years, because the conditions were so harsh,” Greene said. She was approached several years ago by Susan Stessin-Cohn, a New Paltz town historian, and was asked to design a memorial.
“Susan and Fawn Tantillo were finding bones at the Ulster County Fairground, where the poorhouse was. Susan eventually discovered that there were 2,300-plus unmarked graves there, by the river,” said Greene. Tantillo worked for Mike Hein, Ulster County executive at the time.
County funds were found to commission Greene’s artwork. “Susan asked me to build it, and it took me about two years,” Greene continued, describing the statue thus: “She is barefoot, wearing a shawl over her shoulders, but the shawl becomes a shroud as you walk around her. One side of her face is blurred. The shroud has butterflies and dragonflies and grass on it, which symbolizes the field in which she will be buried. She stands in for those paupers who’ve never been honored in all the many years they’ve been in the ground – there are no names.”
The model Greene used for this work is Annette Chait Finestone, an Accord native who recently celebrated her 102nd birthday. Greene and Finestone both live at Woodland Pond, a New Paltz senior residence. “That was how I knew her,” explained Greene. When work on the sculpture began, “I guess she was about 98 at the time. What I particularly used was the shape of her head and the pose she took.”
The choice of Finestone for a model was pure serendipity; her history as a social activist makes her an ideal individual to serve as a symbol for the destitute.
“Friends and neighbors are well aware of Annette’s passion for promoting women’s rights, racial justice and protecting our natural environment, pursuits she shared with her late husband of 58 years, Max Finestone,” said NY Assemblyman Kevin Cahill in a recent news release. Daughter Laura Finestone commented, “She has been involved in local and national politics, the food pantry, been a fighter for equal rights, a member of the NAACP, an incredible hostess, a fundraiser, an employer of local kids helping them pay for college, a local business owner.” Memorably, she made a trip to El Salvador with the Woman’s Convoy in 1989 delivering medical supplies, “certainly a highlight” of her life, said Laura. She reported that her mother is “very proud” to have been the model for the poorhouse monument. “Equal rights have always been her top priority.”
According to a special section on the history of the poorhouse at ulstercountyny.gov, “Thousands of individuals, including the indigent, the destitute, the insane, the intemperate, transient farm workers, freed slaves, unemployed canal and aqueduct builders, ‘debauched’ women, unwed mothers, the friendless, the elderly, the disabled and the sick, called this site their home.” If you couldn’t support yourself, for whatever reason, you were sent to the poorhouse – not just in Charles Dickens novels, but here in Ulster County. Though the poorhouse was created ostensibly to care for the indigent, inhumane treatment and corruption were common. It was not a place that anyone would choose as a permanent residence; but for many, that was what it turned out to be.
Strength and weariness animate Greene’s arresting “Aging Woman,” already installed on its permanent site but hidden inside a large carton until its unveiling ceremony (there was no official date set at press time). It will stand in front of the swimming pool and changing building at the fairgrounds. There will also be a kiosk with an explanation of the memorial’s purpose, including the unsavory history of the poorhouse and a discussion of the problems of poverty that still exist here in the Hudson Valley and beyond. Swimmers and sunbathers may pause for just a moment to read, to think, and to wonder.

Event information: “The Poorhouse Monument: Aging Woman,” by Trina Greene,  will be installed at the Ulster County Fairgrounds on May 15. The unveiling includes a talk on the history of the poorhouse by Susan Steven-Cohn at 5 p.m. and the unveiling at 6 p.m.

 

Update to the April 5, 2019 BSP print edition story: On 4/14/19, Annette Finestone passed away at Woodland Pond in New Paltz. A May 5 memeorial celebration is planned. Her feature obituary as follows was printed in the April 19 edition.

 

Annette Chait Finestone: 102 creative and active years

Annette Chait Finestone passed away on April 14, 2019, three weeks after her 102nd birthday. A native of Accord, Annette was well known and beloved in the region.

Born on March 25, 1917, to Sasha and Sara Chait, Annette spent her youth in Accord and New York City before leaving for the University of Wisconsin, where she earned a degree in political science. During WWII, Annette worked for the U.S. government in Washington, D.C.

In 1946, out of a spirit of adventure, she left her job in Washington to move to Japan as part of the U.S. post-war reconciliation effort. She served for 18 months and spent much of her spare time traveling the countryside documenting Japanese life with hundreds of vivid photographs. Her extraordinary photographic series has been exhibited in Ulster County, Washington, D.C., and Japan.

In the early 1950s, after a four-year stint working for the Employment Service in Manhattan, Annette returned to her childhood home in Accord with her husband, Max Finestone. They took over her parents’ small hotel and for over 25 years expanded it into the successful and popular Catskills resort, Chait’s Hotel. Chait’s was a beloved destination for generations of families, and was known for having a diverse and eclectic clientele, a “hideaway for talented and creative guests.”

Throughout the years Annette was a committed activist for peace, nuclear disarmament, civil rights, and social and environmental justice. She was a board member of the Town of Rochester Food Pantry and active in the Democratic Party.

In June 1989, she joined 68 other women to deliver material aid to women’s groups in Central America. Driving and delivering 22 vehicles filled with supplies as part of the Women’s Convoy for Peace became one of the defining experiences of Annette’s life.

In 2009, Annette and Max became inaugural residents at the Woodland Pond retirement community in New Paltz. Annette was actively engaged in the community and derived great satisfaction from her life there and the many friends she had.

Annette Finestone’s memory will live on in the work she has done, and the very many people she has touched and known through the years. Annette’s husband, Max, predeceased her in 2011. She is survived by her sister, Dorothy Goldsmith, daughters Laura and Lisa, son-in-law David Skillicorn, grandchildren Eva Chait Bilderbeck (John) and Michael Skillicorn (Abby), great-grandchildren Celine and Oscar, nieces and nephews, and countless dear friends.

A public memorial celebrating Annette’s life will be held at Woodland Pond in New Paltz at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 5. In lieu of flowers, Annette asked that donations be made to the Rosenberg Fund for Children. www.rfc.org, or Family of Woodstock Inc., www.familyofwoodstockinc.org.

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