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Oak Hill & Vicinity: Gardens of the Month

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By Mary Lou Nahas

For Capital Region Independent Media

Lakenhurst, an early boardinghouse where Oriana Atkinson stayed when she first came here. Local gardener Jimmy Layman now has a thriving garden there. Contributed photo

The Clematis Garden Club has honored a group of gardens on one end of Oak Hill by designating them collectively as the Garden of the Month for August 2023.

The Clematis Garden Club was formed on May 14, 1940. Mrs. Ralph Stevens of Oak Hill was the first president. The group held many flowers shows in Smith Hall.

Now a Federated Club, the group promotes interest and pleasure in creating beauty through the study of plant development, landscaping and flower arrangement. It stimulates civic concern for the protection of water sources, wild flowers, birds and trees. Terry Buel is the current president.

Let me share the story of these gardens and the properties they occupy. On Oak Hill Road just past St. Paul’s Church is the property where Jimmy Layman has been gardening since about 1990.

Flowers and plantings surround the former Lakenhurst property, now tended by Jimmy Layman. Contributed photo

There was once a boarding house on the property called Lakenhurst. If you look carefully at the post card pictured above, you can see outlines of the present house. The cars are, of course, gone.

Oriana Atkinson wrote in “Not Only Ours,” “In 1928 there was one sizeable boarding house on a side road [in Oak Hill] operated by Mrs. Lucien Wade. She could accommodate about twenty boarders.” That is where Oriana stayed when she first came to the area to buy her farm.I don’t know if Mrs. Wade found time to garden, but Leslie, her son who lived across the street, did.

Today Layman has a large garden on the property that he keeps meticulously groomed. He most enjoys perennials, but also plants vegetables in a fenced-in garden and has pots of lettuce and various summer herbs on his deck. He especially likes hydrangeas but he also has coneflowers, hostas, roses and other shrubs.

Jimmy Layman’s  gardens now flourish on the site of Lakenhurst. Contributed photo

On Route 81 you come to the Yellow Deli, which is being honored for the plantings about the deli and the house next door, which was once the Guy and Hattie Mulberry home (Guy was the highway superintendent and the son of the man who had the bottling works, I am told). Since there is not a lot of ground space, the area is beautified by hanging baskets and pots, with some beds in front of both buildings. These all change with the seasons.

The building was known as the Lyman Tremain Opera House, Odd Fellows Hall, Sam’s Oak Hill Kitchen, Karl’s Oak Hill Kitchen, and the Yellow Deli at different times in its history. The Beers 1867 map shows a scale factory and other commercial buildings on that site. These burned before 1890.

The Twelve Tribes keep the plantings at the Yellow Deli and the Mulberry house, pictured, fresh for every season. Contributed photo

The Lyman Tremain Opera House, constructed about 1895 and named after Oak Hill’s most prominent citizen, was used for parties, dances, plays, even minstrel shows. It was said to be the largest social hall in the area. 

About 1903 the building also came to be used as the Lyman Tremain Lodge No. 265 of the IOOF (Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a non-political fraternal organization that promoted fraternal and recreational activities, reciprocity and charity. Their 1909 yearbook lists well over a hundred local members, most every prominent man in Oak Hill and Vicinity.)

During the 1930s and 1940s the Grange used the building for their meetings and square dancing, as their hall had burned down.

In April 1949, the Cascade Lodge No. 427 Free and Accepted Masons purchased the building. Before that time the Masons, another fraternal organization in town with many of the same members as the Odd Fellows, had owned what became Smith Hall.

The Masons sold the Lyman Tremain building in 1980 and it stood empty until February 1990, when it was purchased by Oak Hill Associates, Sam Stickler, Cameron Mackintosh, Richard Jay-Alexander and Bob Billig, who had worked together in the New York theatre.

But it was really Sam’s project. He had owned a house in Oak Hill since 1985 and loved the area.  Sam was born in Kirkwood, Missouri, in 1955, and had imagined being a restaurant owner since he was 3 years old, his sister Sara recalled. He talked three of his friends from the theater —producer Cameron Mackintosh (“Cats,” “Les Miserables,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Miss Saigon”), executive producer Richard Jay-Alexander (“Les Misérables,” “Miss Saigon”) and musical director Bob Billig (“Les Misérables,” “Miss Saigon”) — into investing in the restaurant.

In May 1991, the restaurant was opened. It was an extension of Sam’s theater background; he had a kitchen built on the stage and put a window in front so people could watch their food being prepared. He combined his knowledge of the stage with his interest in food services. The restaurant advertised “Rural American Cooking” and there were lines out the door, people remembered. His obituary on Sept. 1, 1992, in the New York Times, was headlined: “Sam Stickler, 37, dies; Supervisor of Musicals.” 

The next owner was Karl Dratz. He and the Dratz family purchased the building and in September 1993, reopened as Karl’s Oak Hill Kitchen with Karl as the chef owner.

Karl grew up in Oak Hill, graduated from Greenville Central School, Class of 1973, and the Culinary Institute of America, Class of 1975. He worked in many hotels, resorts and restaurants, and operated Karl’s Oak Hill Kitchen for 10 years. Karl had many talents, including making gingerbread houses. For one event in Oak Hill, he made a replica of the Oak Hill Methodist Church to raise funds to assist in the restoration of that building.

In 2005, the building was purchased by the Twelve Tribes, a religious organization that supports itself in ways that allow its members to work together, without the need to seek outside employment. When they purchased the building it “underwent another restoration to bring it back to its original purpose to bring people of all walks of life together on a common ground of laughter and good times.” They ran it as the Oak Hill Kitchen for six years and in 2011 transformed it into The Yellow Deli, which offers sandwiches, salads, soups, desserts and non-alcoholic beverages. Today the restaurant draws customers from a wide area.

Amaya, once the DeWitt Hotel, has formal plantings to go with the current renovation. Contributed photo

The DeWitt Hotel was built about 1865 by W.F. DeWitt, replacing or incorporating an earlier, smaller hotel that once occupied the site. The scale and prominence of the building is a tangible reminder of the industrial boom period of the hamlet and reflects the burgeoning prosperity associated with Oak Hill during the mid-19th century.

Once called the Oak Hill Inn, it advertised: “Situated in a beautiful spot in the Catskill Mountains. Lovely view of surrounding country. Large lawn, plenty of shade. Woods near, where one can roam and breathe the scent of the beautiful hemlock and pine. On New State Road —Route 81. Empire Stage passes house twice daily. Coming direct from Brooklyn and Times Square, New York City. Mail twice a day.”

“Taxi will meet guests at Catskill — or take Kelsey’s Bus from Catskill to Oak Hill.”

“Accommodations: Nice airy rooms, neatly furnished; clean, comfortable beds. Our table is of the best — Milk, Cream, Eggs, Poultry and Vegetables from our own large farm. Chicken dinner twice weekly. We have our own private swimming pool and tennis court. House lighted by electricity. Running hot and cold water. Baths and shower baths. Saddle horses for riding.”

“Week-end Tourists Specially Invited. Garage accommodations.”

“Rates: Two or more in room, $14.00 each, weekly. Singles rooms, June and July, $16.00.  August, $18.00. Children, $12.00. Daily rates, $3 per day. Accommodates 40. We would advise making reservations early. Mrs. J.W. May, Oak Hill Telephone New York. “

When it closed the building fell into disrepair, as did much of Oak Hill. When Sam Stickler came to town in the 1990s and turned the old Lyman Tremain Lodge Hall into Sam’s Oak Hill Kitchen, he also bought and restored this building as the DeWitt Hotel Antique Center. Fran Cox remembers working on the sills underneath the building and seeing charred remains of old timbers from the first building, which had burned long ago.

In 2014, Dorothea Wallisier and Diane Ormrod purchased the building, remodeled it and ran it as The Dewitt. Today the building is called Amaya.

In the summer of 2022, it was redesigned as a luxury guest house, “boasting seven bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms, multiple outdoor and indoor living spaces, Amaya is the perfect place for family gatherings, friends, weekend trips, company retreats and intimate private events,” says the current owner. 

The new, professionally installed landscaping is formal, mostly shrubs, in keeping with the style of the current building.

Local residents Colin and Daniel are creating a series of gardens on each side of the Cheritree/Thomson house. Contributed photo

Across the street is what has been called the Cheritree home, a Greek revival-style house built circa 1843 by Sheldon and Olive Botsford Cheritree. Many Oak Hill residents lived there over the years. Once slated for demolition, it was restored by Doug and Sancie Thomsen, who sold it to Dorothea Wallisier. Current owners Colin and Daniel have been working hard in the short time they have owned it to install gardens:

“As it currently stands, we have three gardens on our property,” they said.  

“A Woodland Garden (facing the house, it’s on the left tucked behind the driveway), which include ostrich ferns, cinnamon ferns, heucheras, columbines, hostas and Asian grasses.” 

“A Cottage Garden (in front of the house on the embankment) with fox gloves, salvias, lilacs, spring bulbs, butterfly bushes, irises, alliums, hydrangeas, peonies, dapple willow, bleeding hearts, topiaries, astilbe, liatris, and clematis (not currently blooming) and baptisia. There is also a bird bath.” 

The grounds of the Cheritree/Thomson house. Contributed photo

A Cut Flower Garden (in front of the barn on the right side of the house) with dahlias, peonies, sweet peas and poppies.” 

They have done an amazing amount of work in a short time.

Next door, Brian Feit and Debbie Proper live and garden in what is sometimes called the “new house” or “the modern house.” According to Dorothy Beechert Jennings, whose family built it,  the house was built in 1965. It was a national home: all the pieces provided and then put together by Bill Jones and his crew.

Brian Feit and Debbie Proper have amazing vegetables and flowers in their beautifully maintained gardens at their house built in 1965. Contributed photo

Brian and Debbie grow both flowers and vegetables because as Brian says he likes to eat fresh vegetables. They also have many pots of flowers and hanging baskets on their porch. Along a small creek that runs between their property and the house next door, they have designed and planted a flower garden. Their lawn is always meticulously tended and Brian even mows the neglected lawn across the street. Debbie helps some of the Clematis members, including me, in their gardens.

The garden tended by Brian Feit and Debbie Proper. Contributed photo

Thank you, Clematis, for recognizing these gardens in Oak Hill. The club is open to new members and visitors. It meets on the third Friday of the month at 1 p.m. at the American Legion Post in Greenville.

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