The Community of Levi Calhoun

Liz Alfonso sat behind a folding card table in the cool October afternoon. Spread before her were a poster with several photocopied newspaper stories and photos, a sheaf of membership forms for the Town of Lloyd Historical Society, and various pens and clips to keep things orderly.

“Would you like to join the Lloyd Historical Society?” she asked as I walked up to chat. Liz is even harder to turn down than her husband, Danny-a legend in his own time as a champion-seller of raffle tickets for various charitable organizations.

As I pulled out my checkbook, I eyed the poster. “We’re also looking for donations to put a proper marker on Levi’s grave…” she said before I had put pen to check.”He’s only got what he hand-carved into his father’s stone, you know.”

I looked at the photo of Levi attached to the poster soliciting donations for the headstone. Suddenly, I was five years old standing at the edge of an unpaved Swartekill Road. It was 1949.

“Poison Ivy.” Levi said knowingly as his clear light blue eyes surveyed the ravages of the plant’s oil on my arms. There was hardly a photo of me as a child that didn’t portray me scratching a poison ivy rash on some part of my anatomy, or covered with calamine lotion.

“Stay put,” he said, carefully laying his bicycle on the grass next to our drive. He walked down past the Auchmoody Cemetery into the Great Plutarch Swamp. As he disappeared in the cattails (this was before Loostrife when we still had diversity in our wetlands), my mother joined me.

Levi returned with several stalks of a lush plant—roots, leaves and flowers. As he walked toward us, he crushed the plant, turning it into a pulpy mass, juice running over his, not exactly manicured hands.

My mother blanched as he proceeded to rub the ooze down each of my outstretched arms. It felt fine.

“Jewel Weed,” he announced when I was oiled to his satisfaction. Smiling toothlessly, he mounted his bike, and was off. My mother was off. In an instant, the Jewel Weed was off. With water running over my arms, my mother explained it wasn’t the medicine she doubted, just the delivery system.

We found a fresh stand of Jewel Weed, followed Levi’s example, and re-anointed my arms. To this day, calamine lotion is relegated to my “winter” remedy for poison ivy. (You can get Poison Ivy in the winter. The oil is in the vine, as well as the leaves.)

At the memory of Levi’s incredibly aquamarine-blue, smiling eyes, my checking account dipped a little further.

My mother said Levi tended bee hives near our house and that was why he traveled our road so regularly. It may also have been that he knew where the ginseng grew, or some other exotic that was paid for by the ounce. A true naturalist-mountain man, Levi knew his plants, which explains why my mother didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak. But there was so much more to Levi and his lore than just his woodsy culture.

When one of his sisters did not come to school for a very long stretch one winter, the truant officer asked Levi where she was. Levi announced the girl had died and was stored up in the barn until the ground thawed.

The last time I saw Levi was in 1976. He was clean. Hair, face, hands, clothes. So clean, it took me a moment to recognize him, but then he smiled. He had just come out of the hospital he said. I had heard he was hit by a car while riding his bicycle. We chatted. Parted.

“Levi’s died,” my late mother-in-law, historian Bea Wadlin said with gravity. A legend gone. It was Spring. April 4, 1976. I thought of his once stored sister and was glad for him. “There’ll never be another Levi,” Bea said. For sure.

But there are plenty of Levi stories, and we keep discovering more.

Levi Lore. Born January 20, 1889. Grew up dirt poor or dirt rich, depending on how you think about it. Mutli-siblinged to the tune of 18. As an adult, lived in a bunch of shacks with his goat, dogs, chickens and whatever. Married once in 1912, but the new wife couldn’t cook, so he took to the bachelor life. Served in World War I, honorably discharged. Name appears on the flag pole monument in the Hamlet of Highland. He never had electricity nor indoor plumbing, nor modern transportation. The latter didn’t matter. Levi could run. And did.

According to the late Peter Harp in his book, Horse and Buggy Days, “One morning he (Levi) took off, ran to Rosendale, then through High Falls, Stone Ridge, Olive Bridge to Ashokan Reservoir, across the weir, around the north half to the great reservoir, then back home in 8 hours.”

Levi lore also recounts his “horsing around.” He would pull a light sulky-type wagon, whinny and neigh, and prance, just like a horse in harness. From Peter Harp, “At times he would race the trolley, (a trolley ran between New Paltz and Highland until 1925), and due to the many stops the trolley made to take on and discharge passengers, the race would end nearly even.”

After Levi’s death, a story in the April 28, 1976 Highland Post tells of Levi’s neighbors and close friends, George Utter and Sue Thomas “…who visited him a few times each week to check on him and as much, to learn from him.” They took Levi to the movies once to see Grizzly Adams. “Levi yelled out right in the middle of the movie, ‘I know more than he knows, I did that last week.’ He wanted to get up on stage and tell the crowd about living off the land.” Just think what they might have learned.

There are stories about his races, one even turned up in the New York Times, and stories about his natural cures, and stories about his hermit-like existence, and stories about the wise or funny things he said.

But the magic, I believe, of this simple man is that he was like the shuttle weaving a colorful, warm, tapestry of our community. In traveling on his bicycle throughout Highland, Esopus, and New Paltz he wove us into a more cohesive, more interesting fabric. He gave us a common ground that didn’t threaten or force, require or request, but was simply played out for us to enjoy and share with one another.

A month later, Liz handed me the newspaper article from the Poughkeepsie Journal. November 11, 1997, “Vet can now rest with grave marked in stone. Lloyd pays tribute to WWI soldier.” it read.

Area resident, John Jacobs, is quoted in the Journal article by journalist Bond Brungard, “Levi asserted to me that it was OK to be eccentric, that you didn’t have to be a square peg in a round hole, that you can make your own square hole.”

About $500 was collected for the $250 headstone. The rest of the funds will be used to publish some of the Levi stories and to make copies of photos of Levi for the Historian’s office. Liz said someone is going to organize the Levi stories and we’re going to make a book…

“Yes, Liz,”I said, “we are.”

I didn’t really know Liz Alfonso well before all this, although our sons played soccer together and we’ve attended any number of social functions over the years. But, now I know something that’s deeply important to her. We share this thread. Levi Calhoun’s community grows.



With thanks to Dot Yess, Liz Alfonso, George Utter, Terry Scott, the folks at The Highland Post, Lindsay Sullivan, and all the others to whom Levi’s legacy is important.