by Bill Wykoff
Sharing just a few of the pleasantries of my summer life at Yankee Lake. I dedicate this to my grandparents and my family who provided the foundation for lives filled with love, fun and family togetherness.
Like many others, our summer home was shared by the entire family, and all of our summers were filled with fun, love and family time. It was a pleasant change from living in the city (Bronx/Yonkers). The summers at the Lake were filled with swimming, boating, grilling, toasting marshmallows over the open fire, huckleberry pancakes, and just living the simple life in nature. We had our daily sporting activities—whiffle ball in the road, tire inner tube races on the Lake, and occasional badminton game in the back yard. We also had lots of fun skimming flat rocks across the Lake to see who could make them skip the most times. I can never forget the fly swatter we kept in the kitchen that was put to good use. Life at the Lake made all our senses come to life: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes and the touches. Do you remember wearing old sneakers in the Lake when you went swimming? I wore an old pair of black Converse sneakers laced ankle high with the soles half coming off, but they lasted that way for several years. I remember stepping out of the water and walking in them—squoosh, squoosh... I remember the day I first learned to swim. Uncle Walt said it was about time I learned so he pushed me off the dock into the water—I could have made the Summer Olympics.
Our house was located on Westbrookville Road (Pinekill Road) and owned by my grandparents, Joseph and Elizabeth Walzer. They built the house in 1936 and William “Uncle Bill” Walzer, Grandpa’s brother, built the house next door to it. My grandparents had three children, Walter, Eleanor and Doris. Doris married Bill Wykoff, my Dad, and Eleanor married Neb Wilson. Alan is their son and he owns the house now. They also had Barbara, Rob and Jimmy. Walter owned a summer house on Masten Lake but also joined us at Yankee Lake from time to time. I was the oldest of all the grandkids and cousins and the elder of my siblings, JoAnne and Don. Uncle Bill had a well drilled so he had spring water to drink. For years we did not have a well, so every day we had a routine of going next door to fill up our water pails. Can’t ever forget the ladle we used to dip into the pails to fill up our glasses with that fresh, good-tasting water. Also, Uncle Bill built a “two-seater” outhouse—never could understand that! We had the single-family version that we named “Mrs. Murphy.” Grandpa was a man of his faith so he, his brother and family went to Mass in Wurtsboro every Sunday morning.
We all did our share of keeping up the place, especially upon opening it up for the summer. All the window shutters had to come down and be stored in the outhouse. They were all identifiable by an assigned metal number nailed at their bases. For the first week or so, we raked the “tons” of leaves that had fallen on the property during late autumn and winter. Since Grandpa had been a NYC fireman before serving in World War I, he kept the fire barrel burning just about all summer. I don’t believe we had trash pickup in those days, so he burned most of our garbage. He also kept a compost pile in a wire cage he had built. What he didn’t burn, the weasel got at night. But we had fun working together, too. Grandpa and I removed many large bolder-rocks from the backyard over the years by splitting them into slabs using a sledgehammer and chisel. We did not have any power tools to use. The slabs made great stepping-stones for walkways around the property. Over the years they collected moss, which put the final touches on them as being part of a country home.
It took time getting ready to go to the Lake from our Bronx home. Mom had the wash going all the time, packing suitcases and boxing up lots of food. Usually, the night before leaving, Dad would water down the front yard with the hose about nine o’clock or so. Then, about midnight, he and I would go outside with flashlights and catch night crawlers in the yard. Usually the giant worms would retreat to their holes as soon as the light shined on them, so we had to be quick. Dad had to work during the week so he would try to catch them every week before he came up on weekends. We only had one car so on Friday evenings we would car pool a ride to the overpass in Wurtsboro and wait and wave to Dad as he drove by below us. When we got to the house my first question to Dad was, “Did you bring the night crawlers?” He wasn’t always able to do so. Across the street from us in the Bronx were two multi-family homes with a vacant lot in between that stayed kind of swampy. I would wade through muck and pick lots of cattails that we used as “punks” up at the Lake to chase mosquitoes away. They worked well but so did Grandpa’s pipe and Half/Half brand tobacco. His brother, Uncle Bill next door, smoked the same.
We had a super whiffle ball game going one day and I remember “lefty Jo,” my sister, clobbered the ball but fell flat on her face on first base and broke a front tooth. We used a rather large flat rock that was embedded in the ground for our first base. She also busted her lip a little bit. I really felt badly for her, but the game went on! We didn’t have much traffic to contend with during our games but when we did, we could usually hear cars approaching while they were two bends in the road away from us. We were a bunch of pretty good athletes. As we grew up, Rob became a AAA player with the New York Yankees, Jim broke his ankle one time too many playing sports in high school or he’d be playing pro-ball, my brother had a tryout with one of the mid-western MLB teams and was offered a baseball coaching job at a University, and I was offered a football scholarship from coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama—“Roll Tide.” Isn’t hindsight always twenty-twenty!
I was 16 years old when my family was transferred to Sylacauga, Alabama from the Bronx. Since then, I have been back to the Lake only a couple of times or so. We relocated to Houston, Texas in the 80's where we still reside and still dream of returning to Yankee Lake. My wife, Jane, and I have been married forty-four years, and we have four children: Gregg, Chris, Jessica and Joshua. We last visited the Lake in autumn 1975, when Chris was one year old. That’s too long to be away!
My cousins from both sides of the Walzer family would spend their entire summers enjoying the Lake. I remember a group of us used to walk to Andy’s (Barnes) at night to buy all sorts of treats: Bazooka, Black Jack and Teaberry gums, licorice, strips of pin-dot candies, root beer barrels, Bonomo’s Turkish Taffys, little wax bottles filled with syrup, fountain drinks, root beer and birch beer sodas, candy cigarettes, red hot jaw busters, triple scoop ice cream cones with sprinkles, and other treats. Who can forget the taste of the original Cokes from the bottles that had been sitting in ice? Mom always enjoyed the Mary Jane candy bars and I was amazed as to how they were packaged. If we happened to be at the store at the right time, the owners would let us scrape out the empty ice cream containers. We used to scare the girls with stories of the bats flying overhead as we walked there in the dark.
We used to rent boats and buy night crawlers to fish with at Bill Cockrell’s Bait Stand. He had a little place just off the right side of the dam. Mr. Cockrell always had the heads of large fish nailed on trees by his stand, and a story always went with each one of them. We were located where the islands were directly in front of our dock and the dam was to the left of us. I still remember some of the family names up there—O’Leary, Aumiller, Cassidy, Euler, Hruby and Pelio. Ritchie Euler was my best friend. I remember the iceman selling us block ice for the “ice box.” He carried the blocks into the house using ice tongs. And the Dugan man selling us pastries and Entenmann’s snacks, cakes, etc. Crumb cake and donuts were our favorites, but only when they were available on the truck. The Dugan man was a very nice young man, and if I remember, he doubled over in the winter and cut firewood for a living. I remember the vegetable man and his truck—fresh corn on the cob, squash, watermelons, cantaloupes, but his homegrown tomatoes were the best. I can hear the milkman honking his horn telling us he was next door and on his way. I can still hear the sounds of the Dugan man shuffling around the racks of pastries in the back of his truck and the milk bottles rattling in the milkman’s truck as he drove down the road.
I remember each telephone pole up and down the road had a football shaped, numbered metal tag on it. It gave each pole an identity. I remember all the “Posted! Keep Out!” signs on trees, and all the rock piles built by (I assume) the Indian tribes or the early settlers that occupied that part of the country years ago.
I remember the deer coming to the side of the house to drink water from our rain barrels. I remember catching hundreds of the little orange colored lizards [red efts] after the rain. In the evenings, we could hear the “whipper wills” and the “hoot owls” as they provided us with lots of background sounds. Can’t forget the Monday night Westbrookville Auctions—we never missed a one. The auctioneer was a Mr. Veirland, and to me, he very closely resembled Judge Wapner on TV, “The People’s Court.” One Monday night I bought a “job lot”—a large cardboard box of books for twenty-five cents. The box contained a complete twenty-five-volume set of vintage literature, The Ritpath Encyclopedia of Early American Literature. Several years ago I donated them to a high school and received many thanks. I’ve been told Mr. Veirland would hold an annual auction at his home in Otisville, but I never attended. Some of the family did.
I remember Dad would stop our 1952 Plymouth in the road whenever he would see a deer and feed it a cigarette. Deer loved to eat tobacco. They would come to the car window and Dad would hold the cigarette out and they would eat it from his hand. We would see these deer grazing in the fields on the left side of the road as we headed to Port Jervis to visit family. Dad was from the Suffern and Port Jervis area. I can remember the dirt road narrowing down to just one lane when we crossed the wooden bridges, and all the dust the car would make as we drove. For the most part, the road had lots of craters, making the ride very bumpy and also in many spots it sounded as if we were driving over an old fashioned “wash board.”
On hot days when the sun would soften the asphalt road a bit, I can remember twirling a stick round and round on the asphalt to make a tar ball stick. Popsicle sticks were great to use. The asphalt road in front of our place ran out about twenty-five yards from the house, and there it turned into the dirt road. We were the last house on the road at that time.
We could hear the katydids sounding off when it was hot. Butterflies would fly from one tiger lily to another sipping the sweet nectar. We could take a deep breath and smell the cedar and pine trees in the woods and listen to the wind blowing through the trees. When we had an approaching storm, we could hear the thunder as it rolled off the mountains into the valleys. And when it did rain, we played checkers, cards, and board games to pass the time away. Oftentimes, I would take some bark off a birch tree and make little canoes from it. All I needed was a knife, scissors, some thread and a sewing needle. I would spend hours making butterfly nets out of old broomstick handles, coat hangers, and some old curtain sheers Grandma gave me. JoAnne and I caught many beautiful butterflies and we have some of them still today that have been mounted and framed. But, when it did rain, it was always fun putting on a swimsuit and running around in the rain. I remember every Friday night we would have a fish fry. Grandma would cook all the fish I caught during the week. Believe me, she cooked lots of bass, sunfish, white and yellow perch, rock bass and an occasional pickerel. I can smell them right now cooking on the stove. Remember making popcorn with vegetable oil in the frying pan with a lid on it? I do!
Just down the road from us about a hundred yards or so, was a small cabin hidden in the woods. We called it “The Hideaway.” It could not be seen from the road but had a small pathway leading up to it. It must have been a hunting cabin abandoned years prior. The door was always open, so we would go in and rummage through the mess. Tin cans everywhere telling us those were the rations of winter hunters. I picked up one of the cans that the lid had been cut off but with the lid stuck back on the top. My brother told me to go ahead and open it because it felt like something was in it. I was scared to, but I thought, it could have been a roll of money or something in it so I better look inside. It wasn’t money. It was an old dried up rat! Don will never let me live that one down. The path leading up to the cabin was never overgrown as we walked it so much. Also, even as dirty as it was, winter hunters must have inhabited it for short periods of time. Our Lake house was broken into by hunters many times over the years so that’s why I feel the “hideaway” cabin must have been used by winter hunters. However, whoever broke into ours was always kind enough to clean it up before leaving. They would also leave us a note each time thanking us so much. I believe one time they even left money so we could buy new locks. Good criminals they were!
One of the fondest moments in my memory of the Lake was the time I shot a fifty-two inch eastern diamondback rattlesnake that had been sun bathing on the road. Ed Walzer, Uncle Bill’s son, spotted it and hollered for me to come with my rifle. When I got to him, I was maybe twenty to thirty yards away from the snake and really didn’t know which end was the head or the tail. I didn’t want to get too close to it. I figured the end that was facing the middle of the road was the head. I was right. The bullet from my 22 caliber Mossberg rifle was right on target and hit the snake in the head. It was a tricky shot because I didn’t want the bullet to ricochet off the road into the direction of any houses down the road from it. A photo of the snake and me made front-page news in the Wurtsboro newspaper the following week. I think it was about that same year that Barbara was using the outhouse and couldn’t get out because another rattlesnake was all coiled up in front of the door. Most of us were down swimming in the Lake and didn’t hear her screaming her head off. The snake finally moved on! I think Barbara had to go to the bathroom the second time after that!
Remember the old ringer type washing machines? How about the backyard clothes lines? What about the women washing their hair with the rainwater collected in the rain barrels? We did not have running water or an indoor bath for years. Every now and then we would load up the dirty clothes and take them to the Laundromat in Wurtsboro or Monticello. With the large family we had, the outhouse stayed very busy and so did the “honey pot” that each night sat on the steps going upstairs. But the best part of it all—we had fun as a family. It was a simple life at its best. We did have a little black and white TV and usually watched cartoons on Saturdays and the "Nightly News" at five. I can still hear the theme song of The “Nightly News”— “The Emancipator.” Occasionally, the guys would watch Mickey, Roger, Whitey, Bobby, Elston, Yogi, Ken, Moose, Clete and the others when the New York Yankees played. At night, while we walked to Andy’s, the grownups would play cards and most times we could hear the cards being shuffled until the wee hours in the morning. Of course, there was lots of cigarette smoke, too.
Seems to me my life at the Lake was all about fishing. I’ll share some of my experiences with you of those times. When I was real young I would fish with a pole that always had been kept up in the attic. I don’t know who made it but it worked for me. If I were to guess, I’d say Uncle Walt made it. It was made from a long tree branch that had an eyelet on the tip. The reel was made from an empty fish line spool fixed in place with a long screw and had a rigged crank handle. It had black nylon braided line on it. I didn’t actually own a real pole until I was about eight or nine years old. Dad and Uncle Bob Edwards, Dad’s brother-in-law from Port Jervis, took me to Port Jervis one day and bought me my first pole. It was a white fiberglass pole and had a South Bend bait-casting reel on it. I was so proud of it! I would spend day in and day out fishing from the dock. That was the Lake to me during my younger days.
One day my brother, Don, and Dad were fishing around the islands in a boat. Don was rowing, and if I know my Dad, he is in the back seat trolling. They were having a great time as usual, but then the unthinkable happened—a fisherman’s nightmare. Dad had to go to the bathroom the bad way and they were way out from one of the islands. Don remembers Dad asking him several times to please row to the island a little faster. Finally, about ten feet from the bank of the island, Dad’s dilemma worsened. At that moment, Dad took two leaps from the back seat, landed on the front seat and jumped from the boat into the Lake and, taking only three steps across the water, he disappeared behind the big rock on the island. When he returned to the boat, Dad’s shoes had not even gotten wet! Figure that one out. Did he walk on the water? Ironically, though, that island had been referred to for years as “Heyny Island.” I can’t help but to say this—Mom always told us before we left the house to go any where, “to go before we went”! So true, but Dad got caught somewhere in between. I think it may have been from all the watermelon he ate the night before, or it could have been from the can of sardines he snacked on. I can just see him opening the can using the key that was affixed to the can. A few turns and the lid was off.
Another day I was fishing from the dock while the others were swimming. I was just fooling around and having fun since I was out of worms. I caught a little bug and used it as bait hoping it would catch a fish. It did, I caught a small two-and-a-half inch sunfish. I had an idea since I was all out of live bait. I put a little bigger hook on my line and used the sunny for bait. I cast it out into the water away from the swimmers. My red and white float kept on popping up and down from the movement of the bait. That did not bother me nor concern me much. Then, while my eyes strayed from the float, everyone yelled at me to look as it was taking off big time and took a dive deep down underwater. I knew I had something on it that would make me proud to take to Grandma. It wound up being a 27-inch, six-and-a-half pound pickerel! My line didn’t even have a metal leader on it. We ate it with all the other small pan fish I caught that week.
Another day Uncle Bob Edwards, his son Bobby, Dad and I were fishing in a boat. Uncle Bob had heard that occasionally you could run into a school of white perch. We fished the Lake and found a school of them. We marked our bearings and trolled back and forth over that spot the rest of the day. Our markers were to line up with the shed on top of the dam and a certain house across the Lake from it. Then, we had marked two other spots on the other shorelines of the Lake. Each time we trolled over that spot, we would say, “get ready” and sure enough, the perch would start to bite. We were using double blade spinners with a worm and a treble hook. Salmon eggs also worked well. We took home seventy something fish that day. We fished that locale several times on different dates and caught our fill of the perch each time.
On another day, the same four of us were night fishing in the cove just off to the right of our dock. We were using juicy night crawlers and a float on the line set to a foot deep. It was dark, so we had to use flashlights to locate the floats in the water and to monitor fish activity. Uncle Bob knew the Lake very well and knew how to fish it. That night, we pulled in ten or twelve lunkers—all largemouth bass weighing over five pounds each.
One day my Uncle Walt, Dad and I were fishing up and down the shore miles across the Lake from our dock. It was a slow day for some reason. We tried top bait, bottom, and live bait but not too much action. I remember a small causeway between that shore of the Lake and another body of water on the other side of it. It could have been a pond. I really don’t remember, after fifty years or so being away from the Lake. We walked up and down that narrow causeway and happened to notice thirty or forty large pickerel on the bed. Wow, who could ask for more—we didn’t even scare them but then they would not even bite either. We would dangle worms, artificial bait, and even cut a piece of red velvet, stuck it on a hook and dangled it in front of their noses. Nothing happened. We even tried to get them irritated and riled up thinking they would get mad and bite trying to defend their nest. We thought about grappling them with a large treble hook but could not bring ourselves to stoop down with that tactic. I realized seeing all those fish lined up that way, Yankee Lake was full of fish, just a fisherman’s haven. It was getting late just about dusk and we had miles to row back to our dock. Uncle Walt was telling us stories and jokes all the way back while Dad, as usual, was trolling with his “trusty” black jitterbug. Uncle Walt was a policeman with NYPD, so he had tons of stories to share with us. It helped pass the time. Darkness fell upon us pretty quickly and there was not much light provided from the sky or shores. The water was calm and the air was quiet. All we could hear was the bubbling, popping noise of the jitterbug trolling in the water behind the boat. Dad did not get a single bite the entire way back until we got about one hundred yards from our dock. All of a sudden, pow, splash a big lunker hit his jitterbug. It hit just as we were passing a tree stump sticking out of the water that had been there for years. Dad was happy that his patience persevered and made it a great outing for us. That largemouth bass was about five to six pounds.
We used to fish up and down the dam using buffalo spinners. I remember Dad, Uncle Bob Edwards, and Dad’s bother Bob (both from Port Jervis) spent the early morning fishing the dam area and caught a stringer full of five pound or larger pickerel.
Another day, Uncle Bob wanted to fish the Lilly Pads that were located just out from the dam and in front of the first island. He had brought a large live frog to use as bait. It took him a little while but he rigged up a harness with a hook to wrap around the frog. It worked just fine so we quietly rowed over to the pads where he gently placed the frog on top of one of the pads. He then released lots of slack from his pole as we rowed away from the pads. We got about twenty yards away when he tightened up the slack and yanked the frog into the Lake. Pow! Kaboom! The lunker jumped out of the water with the frog in his mouth and dove straight to the bottom of the pads. Uncle Bob was never able to catch that bass as it had tangled itself around the pads. Now, that was the one that got away!
Going down the road towards Port Jervis, I remember a brook or small stream running parallel to the road. I caught several trout from it from time to time. Dad and Uncle Bob would teach me to quietly walk up to the brook and make sure I wasn’t casting any shadows in the water. I would fish with a little worm on a small hook and would extend my pole out over the water and allow the worm to cross over rocks. The trout could not be seen as they were actually hiding behind the rocks taking cover. The largest one I caught was about a pound. I would say they were the best eating but so were the sweet tasting pickerel although they were harder to eat because of their bones.
I guess I could go on and on about fishing, but I have one more last fish tale to share. I would fish around the dock and over into the cove area while on an inner tube. I would tie fishing line on my toe and dangle the line into the water. Having enough bait was a problem. So, one day I just spit on the hook and dangled it in the water and caught a sunfish! Those who saw me were laughing their heads off. This could only happen at “fish friendly” Yankee Lake.
I was afforded a younger life of pleasant memories so different from what the majority of the kids in the world have to look forward to today. I am so thankful for the summers we spent at Yankee Lake and for our happy hearts today filled with those moments, and memories of having been together. Family, fishing and having fun was what the Lake was all about. Although my grandparents are no longer with us, their many sacrifices have made a special life for us all. I often share my memories with my four kids and nine grand kids. We hope to return to Yankee Lake very soon and can’t wait. Perhaps I can rekindle those memories in my heart. I often feel I was blessed so much during my younger life at the Lake, and I hope the Yankee Lake Preservation Association and all its residents will continue to keep this a special place for years to come for more memories to be made and shared by others. I am so thankful that the Walzers, Wilsons, and Wykoffs had the opportunity to grow up together in a love bond environment that will last forever.
I dedicate this to my grandparents and my family who provided the foundation for lives filled with love, fun and family togetherness. A special thanks to Mom who passed at ninety-three years old, and Aunt Eleanor, her sister, who passed just a few years later, also at ninety-three. Dad, Uncle Neb and Uncle Walter have also passed, but our memories of them will last forever. Grandma lived to be ninety-eight years old.