WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOHN R GREENWOOD
This story began one summer day in 2013 when I visited the Lyrical Ballad Bookstore in Saratoga Springs. A few feet inside the door, I found a shelf labeled "Adirondacks." There I found an 8" x11" book titled "The Hudson River." Being a lifelong fan of both, I rescued the book from its dusty slumber. The 1964 book was self-published by Delaware watercolor artist Jack Lewis and dedicated to Anna Eleanor Roosevelt—yes, that Eleanor. My later research revealed she had invited Jack to the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park and asked him to document the Hudson's length in watercolors and prose. It was filled with Jack's paintings and the descriptions of the subjects and locations painted. The progression started at the Hudson's source and ended in New York City. Many of the scenes from Mt. Marcy to the Port of Albany were as familiar as family.
The opposing page of each painting was broken into three sections. The first was titled Human Interest. Here Lewis explains the painting's subject matter and what may have been taking place. The second section was titled Composition. Here he describes how the mood of the subject influences his color choice. The third section is Philosophy, where he explains what lesson or inspiration, he takes away from the scene he's painting. The combined prose of the three is as beautiful as the scenes he paints. The book and the artist have had an alluring grip on me since I first discovered it.
In 2014 I'd spent a year savoring every entry in the book. One of the entries included a scene from nearby Schuylerville. It was a farmhouse with the caption, "Large Elm, Forster Farm, near Schuylerville." I determined from previous paintings that they were scenes along West River Road in Bacon Hill. This particular scene kept pulling me toward it. The prose indicated it was a family farm, and it included young children. I wondered if I could find it? I Googled "Forster Farm Schuylerville." The very first item on the list was "The Yarn Shop at Foster Sheep Farm." What were the odds that the name in the book was an error? My curiosity peaked one afternoon after work, so I tucked the book into my motorcycle saddlebag and headed for The Foster Sheep Farm on West River Rd. I got a mysterious feeling as I pulled in the gravel driveway—I felt like I'd been there before. It was a classic farmhouse, and it did look just like the painting. Something kept tugging at me, so without hesitation, I parked my motorcycle, grabbed the book, and headed for the door of the yarn shop at the rear of the home. I knocked on the screen door after petting the friendly black and white dog with the brown belly. A voice with an Aunt Bee gentleness said, "Come on in." I found the gesture heartwarming, considering I was a six-foot, 250lb stranger with a leather jacket walking into a yarn shop, and the proprietor never flinched a muscle. She welcomed me in like a lifelong neighbor. This had good karma plastered all over it.
I stood there for a moment, trying to assemble my speech. I wasn't sure how to begin, so I dug right in, "Is this the Forster Farm?"
"No," she said, "It's Foster, not Forster." My heart sank.
Well, I had my foot in the door; I may as well explain the reason for my visit.
I introduced myself and then described this old book full of watercolors from the early 60s that were painted along the entire length of the Hudson. I told them I was trying to retrace the route to see if I could find any of the people or places in the book.
I said, "Here's the place I'm trying to identify."
I had meant to open the book to the farmhouse painting with the large elm tree out front. Instead, it opened to the next page, which had a portrait of a woman holding a young girl.
The woman behind the counter looked at the painting and, without batting an eye, said, "That's my mother-in-law!"
I almost dropped dead in the middle of a yarn shop.
I said, "You're kidding, right?"
"No," she said, that's her. That's my husband Tom's mother, Margaret. She's holding his sister Mary Anne."
She turned the page to the house and the elm tree. "Yes, that's this house. That used to be the side porch, and that elm used to stand right outside the screen door you just walked through.
I felt like Jack Lewis was standing next to me, grinning from ear to ear.
I knew that minute that my Hudson River journey was just beginning, and it would take an army to keep me from documenting it.
But wait, there's more…
My newest best friend, Carole Foster, was about to take this from a $100 scratch-off win to a Mega Millions’ numbers match.
"Let me call my husband Tom, he met Jack, and I think his sister Ellen has an original painting of the farm. It hung here in the house for years. When Tom's mother passed away, his sister acquired it.”
A few minutes later, a white pickup truck passed by the window, and in came the man with more information about Jack Lewis than I could have dreamed possible. After a firm handshake and another quick explanation for my visit, Tom reaffirmed I was in the right place. He said he remembered Jack's visit well. Tom also said the artist stayed with the Foster family for several days. He beamed as he described Jack loading all the Foster children into his station wagon and taking them to Fort Ticonderoga for the day.
This poem written by Betsy Foster was included in Jack's book.
Our Elm Tree By Betsy Foster (age 16)
July 10, 1961, Schuylerville, NY
There is a lovely elm tree standing in our yard. Its branches wave a welcome that no one can disregard. It keeps the sun from blinding grandma when she reads And gladly shields the pleasant lawn for which the baby pleads. So many birds have had their nests among the leaves so green,That keep their tiny little homes as private as a dream. So many dawns have wakened it and dried its dewy head; So many sunsets said 'Good Night' and put the birds to bed. How many pleasant memories the elm trees must possess, And each small leaf and secret holds to keep and not confess. It must be very dear to all for it to live so long. I think it is God's symbol here of beauty, clean and strong. Its strong brown roots grasp Mother Earth as if to prove to all What riches lie in God's good soil to make it grow so tall. Its glorious crown of verdure green stands symbol to us here That any farmer's greatest dream is really very near."
When I spoke to Betsy in June 2014, she confided that her mother Margaret had helped her with the poem.
When I returned to the Foster family farm later that June, birds still filled the trees surrounding the home. The lawn was lush and Ireland green. The old elm may be gone, but its legacy remains tall and intact.
There was another member of the Foster family that I couldn't wait to meet. Ellen Foster was the caretaker of that original painting of the farm Jack had gifted to the family. She had graciously invited me to her home to see it. When I visited Ellen and her daughter at their home in Rensselaer County later that summer, her sister Betsy joined us. I brought a DVD I'd found online that documented Jack Lewis and his work in Bridgeville, Delaware. Sharing each other's Jack Lewis treasures made it feel like a family reunion. I asked Betsy if she had written other poems when she was young. She shyly shared one she had written at age fifteen.
Dreams By Betsy Foster
If I could be a river And flow beneath the sky, I'd watch the busy people In the towns, I'm passing by. And all my joys at night time, when the cities are aglow, Would ripple in my happiness When heaven's lights are low. The buzz of passing streetcars And the bus's brilliant lights Are better than a theater On nice warm summer nights. The day is even nicer If the weather's bright and clear. I feel the touch of country life That proves my home is here. A city's fun to visit When the work has all been done, But "home" is in the country From whence my trip's begun.
After we had watched the documentary, Betsy exclaimed, "I find it strange that I don't recall Jack's visit very well. I thought it would have made a bigger impression on me at the time."
I replied that maybe she was a busy teenager busy with teenage things and might have been preoccupied with what was going on in her life at the time. She looked at me with a gentle smile that slowly curled up. "No, I don't think that was it. I didn't have a life back then. We all had chores to do." She told about mulling over her poems while milking the cows. When done, she would rush in the house, get out her mother's typewriter, and put them down on paper. This is the reality of a family farm.
Showing me one of Jack's original paintings was a wonderful gift the Fosters presented me. More importantly was their generosity in sharing their story, poetry, and homes with a perfect stranger. They did it for Jack Lewis in 1961, and they did it for me some fifty years later.
One last note about Jack referring to the family as the Fosters instead of The Fosters in his book. I first thought it was an error. There were no computers or cell phones back then, only handwritten notes to refer back to. The mystery was solved just a few days ago after this piece had been completed. I was looking at a photo I'd taken 7 years ago at Ellen Fosters. It was a photo of the painting Jack had given the family. I noticed writing in the bottom left corner. I zoomed in on it, and here's what it said.
To The Robert Foster's with all best wishes - Jack Lewis 1961
Jack hadn't made an error with the Foster name in his book; he'd used a slight variation of their name to protect the family's privacy. Or, maybe he did it knowing someone like me might trace his steps one day and it might add more adventure to the hunt.
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