A Magazine About Food, Art & Exchange In Midtown Kingston, Published By The Hudson Valley Current.

ROCK SOLID REBELS: ROSENDALE’S FLOURISHING UNDERGROUND

Under our feet is a 32 square mile swath of limestone stretching from Kingston down to High Falls. And from 1825 till 1910, the earth here gave up sixteen million bags a year of the finest natural cement you could buy.

The cement industry literally made the town of Rosendale. Rosendale cement, was used in foundations all over the region and in the Erie Canal, the Brooklyn Bridge, the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the Capitol, the NYS Thruway, the Croton Aqueduct, and many more structures. It’s been said that Rosendale built New York City.

The last natural cement mine in Rosendale ceased operations in 1970. By then, a great deal of space had been carved out underground and used for various things. Iron Mountain, founded in 1951 in a former limestone mine, has become a $5 billion “data management” company with 1,000 facilities around the world; its carefully guarded Rosendale facility contains fallout shelters built at the height of the Cold War.

But there’s a much friendlier cave in Rosendale, the Widow Jane Mine at the Century House Historical Society, and to understand how it came to be an entertainment venue, you need to know a little about A.J. Snyder, Rosendale’s last tycoon—and Dietrich Werner, the first historian of its cement industry.

Either man is worthy of a book, but here’s a taste. A.J. was a descendant of Jake Snyder, who’d started the whole cement thing by turning his flour mill into a cement mine. (For details of Old Rosendale, this writer is indebted to the stories told by Walter G. Williams, available on the Century House Historical Society website.) Jake and his neighbors prospered, and Rosendale became an industrial boomtown with 14 mills and a huge working class population. 

Rosendale cement gave way to the faster-setting Portland variety around 1910. One Samuel Coykendall sought to consolidate the 14 mills of the declining industry into one and enlarged his own fortune considerably in the process. In all of Rosendale, only one cement operation resisted Coykendall’s maneuvers: the fiercely independent Snyder brothers..

“He controlled everybody’s life in the county,” said Williams of Coykendall. “And all the time he was amassing this huge wealth, he was after the Snyder brothers to sell out to the new Consolidated Rosendale Cement Company but the Snyders said ‘No! We don’t want to have any part of it!’”

Coykendall, having bled Rosendale for all it was worth, eventually shuttered the Consolidated Rosendale Cement Company and put five thousand people out of work. The Snyder brothers soldiered on for a time, but when they died, the family’s holdings fell into the hands of Aunt Minnie.

Enter A.J., just 21, determined to make cement. Aunt Min refused to turn the operation over to him, so A.J. hired an anonymous immigrant to go buy it for him at auction, aggravating Aunt Min no end.

Aunt Min had been right: it was a tough business; A.J. had to turn back to farming for a while. It turned out, though, that A.J. was also right: Rosendale Cement still had—and has to this day­—qualities that made it superior for certain masonry uses.  A.J. and his Cleveland partner did well with Century Cement until the Great Depression, after which the Widow Jane Mine became a mushroom farm, harvesting five tons a day from 1935-1960.

After A.J. died, a mischievous genius of a plumber.electrician/historian/activist named  Dietrich Werner and his equally brilliant wife, Gayle Grunwald, purchased the estate and developed the homestead and its furnishings, archives, carriage houses, antique carriage collection, Widow Jane Mine, canal slip, and about 20 acres of land into a historic site. The Snyder Estate Natural Cement Historic District was established in 1992. 

There are plenty of reasons to visit the Snyder Estate, which is open to the public for self-guided tours. And the Widow Jane (there actually was a Widow Jane) welcomes a vast variety of doings. Taiko drummers, musicians, actors, poets and sound healers now enjoy its one-of-a-kind acoustics. One year, a “Rave in the Cave” drew hundreds and scandalized prudes for miles. “What a remarkable venue– I haven’t seen anything so visually stimulating and acoustically entertaining since my days in The Mansion on Miami Beach.” writes a visiting Floridian on Tripadvisor.”I could have stayed all night!”

Come visit—you’ll find lots more information at Centuryhouse.org.

Sun and Stone 2021 with Joeski & Mike Dearborn