hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture May 2022


Strands of history in a Hudson Valley home

A president, national icon and barrier-breaking writer all had links to property



Within a few years after hosting the wedding of the future president Martin Van Buren, the house at 251 West Main St. in Catskill became the home of “Uncle Sam” Wilson. Paul Post photo


Contributing writer

When Martin Van Buren married his childhood sweetheart, Hannah Hoes, on Feb. 21, 1807, the couple had to cross the frozen Hudson River from the Columbia County town of Kinderhook, where they both were born and raised.

Their destination was a grand Federal-style house built 10 years earlier by Hoes’ sister and brother-in-law, Christina and Moses Cantine.

The house, which stands today at 251 West Main St. in Catskill, would play more than one role in early American history. Within a decade after it hosted the future U.S. president’s wedding, it became the home of “Uncle Sam” Wilson, the inspiration for one of the nation’s most celebrated patriotic symbols.

At the time of his marriage in 1807, Van Buren was a 24-year-old lawyer in the early stages of a political career that would take him to the White House as the nation’s eighth chief executive, beginning in 1837.

His father, Abraham Van Buren, who was politically active during and after the Revolutionary War, owned a popular Kinderhook tavern where travelers and politicians met to gossip and exchange news. The Van Burens were well known and well liked locally, but they weren’t particularly wealthy.

“Martin and Hannah were married in Catskill in part to avoid inviting the entire community of Kinderhook to an expensive party,” explained Dawn Olson, a National Park Service ranger at Lindenwald, Van Buren’s Kinderhook home, now a national historic site.

Over the next 12 years, the young couple lived in Hudson and Albany, and had four children. In his work as a lawyer, Van Buren often investigated the land grants of wealthy families including the descendants and heirs of Chancellor Robert Livingston (1708-90), a member of the Committee of Five (along with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Roger Sherman) that drafted the Declaration of Independence. The Livingston family in that era owned a large portion of the land in Columbia County.

Van Buren’s young family moved to Albany as his political career advanced. He was elected to the state Senate in 1812, serving two terms, and later won election as U.S. senator in 1821 and as governor of New York in 1829. Along the way, he became a co-founder of the Democratic Party.

He resigned the governorship within a year to become President Andrew Jackson’s secretary of state and then served as vice president for Jackson’s second term, beginning in 1833. That set the stage for Van Buren’s successful presidential campaign in 1836.

“Van Buren followed his father’s lead and supported Thomas Jefferson for the presidency in 1800,” Olson said. “Decisions throughout his career were made with a focus on balance of central government and states’ rights.”

Van Buren worked closely with Andrew Jackson when both were serving as U.S. senators.
“He managed Jackson’s presidential campaign and became a trusted adviser to Old Hickory,” as Jackson was known, Olson said.

But at home, Van Buren endured tragedy before he reached Washington. Hannah succumbed to tuberculosis on Feb. 5, 1819, two weeks before their 12th anniversary. The two youngest of the couple’s four sons, who ranged in age from 10 to 2, went to live with Hannah’s sister and brother-in-law in Catskill.


The meatpacker turned icon
In the early years of the 19th century, Catskill had become a bustling place as the Hudson River emerged as a major transportation route.

“A great trade had sprung up, comprised of freighting to New York and the shipping of goods to the interior of the state,” F.A. Gallt wrote in “Dear Old Greene County,” a book of local history published in 1915.

In 1817, “Uncle Sam” Wilson, a tall, gangly meatpacker from Troy, moved his business to Catskill and along with his brother, Nate, rented rooms from Van Buren’s sister-in-law and her husband, the Cantines.

In the War of 1812, Wilson became highly regarded by the 5,000 U.S. troops stationed at a cantonment in the present-day city of Rensselaer, because his goods were packed in solid oak barrels and were superior to the rancid meat provided by some other suppliers.

Wilson’s nephews and other young boys worked for him. When soldiers unloading barrels saw Wilson, they’d say, “Here comes Uncle Sam!”

Wilson also worked as inspector for fellow meatpacker Elbert Anderson, whose barrels were stamped E.A.-U.S. (Elbert Anderson-United States). Another version of the story holds that a worker once asked what the initials E.A.-U.S. stood for and was told they meant Elbert Anderson and Uncle Sam.


Whatever the case, the nickname stuck.
“Those stories are then told to political cartoonists like Thomas Nast, and he’s the one who got it started developing this caricature of what is now Uncle Sam,” explained Kathryn Sheehan, the Rensselaer County and Troy city historian.

“Wilson never knew he was going to be this famous person,” Sheehan added. “But he’s the official progenitor of our nation’s symbol, when President Kennedy signed that into law in 1961.”
After the War of 1812, shipping on the Hudson started to become more expensive, so Wilson moved the base of his operation down to Catskill. The business was on the west side of Catskill Creek near a large rock landmark called Hop-O-Nose that juts out into the water. The firm did so well that the Wilsons soon moved it a short ways downstream to The Point, at the mouth of Catskill Creek, where supplies could be loaded onto river boats.

“Sam returned to Troy in 1823, but Nate stayed in Catskill and died in 1854, 19 days after Sam,” Sheehan said.

The Uncle Sam Bridge, which connects Catskill’s East and West Side neighborhoods, just around the corner from 251 West Main St., is a permanent reminder of Wilson’s ties to the village.


Writer’s refuge to dive bar
By the 20th century, the Cantines’ old home fell into relative obscurity and various stages of disrepair until 1974, when the British-born author Dawn Langley Simmons, an adopted child of the English actress Margaret Rutherford, moved there with her African-American husband, John Paul Simmons, and their daughter, Natasha.

Dawn was the former Gordon Langley Hall, who had undergone one of America’s first sex-change operations in 1968, the year before she wed Simmons in what The New York Times later described as the first documented interracial marriage in Charleston, S.C. Her former Charleston home is on the National Register of Historic Places, and a National Park Service website explains that she “challenged social norms at a time when Americans were demanding greater civil liberties in the 1960s and 1970s.”

But the couple also became targets of threats, violence and hate crime. In Dawn Simmons’ 2000 obituary, the Times described how the couple’s wedding gifts were destroyed by a firebomb and how, some time later, Simmons reported that a white man wearing a ski mask broke into her house in Charleston “and beat her, breaking her nose and foot and necessitating hospitalization.”
Seeking peace and safety, the couple found a more tolerant, quiet setting in Catskill. They made modest improvements to the aging, 6,000-square-foot house, which quickly became too expensive to maintain.

Some time later, John Paul Simmons was confined to a mental institution near Albany. Dawn Simmons spent most of her later years in Hudson, where she was an active member of a local Episcopal church and a leader of its youth group. She continued to support her husband and daughter on her meager earnings as a writer, according to the Times obituary.

In 1978, Guy Chirico, a renowned landscape artist who owned a resort in the town of Hunter, bought the Catskill home and restored it to its former glory in painstaking detail. He opened a fine-dining restaurant, The President’s Wedding, which paid homage to the Van Burens’ nuptials.
The venture was short-lived, however, as were attempts by several subsequent owners at running a tavern in the building’s basement area.

Mike Lanuto, who bought the property in 1993, had more success. He re-envisioned the tavern’s exposed brick interior with Pirates of the Caribbean atmosphere. He named it Captain Kidd’s Inn, for the Capt. William Kidd, the legendary pirate who once sailed partway up the Hudson River and was said to have hidden part of his vast stolen treasure before being tried and hanged in London in 1701.

Visitors to Lanuto’s tavern today are greeted by life-size pirate statues, which he purchased in Florida, and an array of skull-and-crossbones banners.

“We were named the Hudson Valley’s number one dive bar in 2019 by Chronogram magazine,” he said.

His daughter, Natale Lanuto, described how, in 2011, a film crew from Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures was scheduled to visit the property to film a segment about old spirits hanging around the old house.

“Then Hurricane Irene happened the weekend they were supposed to come here,” she said with a smile. “That means Martin didn’t want them here. That’s how we feel about it.”