by Bill Batson
I met Rockland County’s newest author when she was 85 at a book talk I gave at Valley Cottage Library. “I’m writing a book and you’re going to help me self-publish,” she informed me. “Sure,” I replied, thinking I would never hear from her again. Two years later, I answered a call from an unknown number and heard the party say, “I’m done writing. Let’s get this published. You promised.” That determined voice was a force of nature named June Sundvik.
My bluff had been called I never expected June to call back. The way forward required acknowledging a tragedy. June sought my guidance because I had self-published Nyack Sketch Log Volume I. However, without the wisdom and dry wit of Jim Hershberger, my tome would have never made the book store shelf. Jim was a retired executive who made it his second life’s mission to provide tech support to historical societies and non profits and tail-gate every Giants home game. Jim vetted printers, compared notes with other self-published authors and helped me organize my sketches, essays and thoughts. The only way that I was able to help June was by reverse engineering what Jim did for me. Jim passed away on November 11, 2016. His loss is profound, but so is the continued resonance of his generosity.
June Sundvik was able to draft like a cyclist in the wake of Jim’s hard and smart work, channeled through me, to publish an exceptional local history entitled Life on Old Mill Road from 1750 to 1950. Her family moved to Valley Cottage from Teaneck, New Jersey to a property that her grandfather, Carl Anderson, purchased in 1927. Her father, Gustav Svahn, was a very prominent builder responsible for 10 homes on Old Mill Road and many others throughout the region.
With the help of fellow Swedish immigrants, Svahn built a garage, a flat-roofed four-bedroom house, dug a pond, created a cause way and an island in the pond, and expanded the original flat-roofed house to three-stories with a cathedral ceiling living room, among other structures, for his family. The man-made and augmented natural features were so impressive that Charles and Ann Lindbergh were seen admiring the property from the road.
In July of 1928 Gustav and his wife Clara made June, the youngest of three. June’s personality was clearly shaped by her father’s blizzard of building. In how she wrote about her father, you can see the genesis of June’s aesthetics, resourcefulness and resilience. “Besides being a builder, lhe oved gardening and flowers,” she wrote of her father. “He landscaped the property with plantings; some were formal, but most were placed in natural settings. The hillsides were dotted with daffodils, climbing roses grew around the pond, and rock gardens were tucked away along the paths.”
His prolific construction projects also betrayed a playful aspect. He built a miniature lighthouse, a shed for their beloved swans, Hansel and Gretel to winter in, a playhouse for the children, houses for the dogs. June’s hobby horse was deployed as a weather vane on a barn. His daughter June, pictured here playing at the base of the lighthouse, would go on to become an accomplished weaver and water colorist and now, a published author.
Life on Old Mill Road
by June Sundvik
Book talk, signing and sales
Meet June at the Valley Cottage Library, 110 NY-303 on Wednesday, November 15, at 2p.
June will describe her research process, read some passages, take questions and sign and sell her book.
Her book is on sale for $15 at Pickwick Book Shop, 8 South Broadway in Nyack, at the Valley Cottage Library and at my Bill Batson Arts booth on Thursdays at the Nyack Farmers’ Market.
June has witnessed the steady migration of families through the many homes that her father built along Old Mill Road. Like a builder, she has constructed her narrative on a strong foundation of primary source research.
This story started many years ago when I was taking home an old neighbor friend, Catherine Daniels, who had been helping me clean house,” June said. “She asked me if I was interested in some old books and artifacts from the old Fisher farm, which also had been torn down in 1933. She began writing in earnest when she was given a wooden chest full of old deeds and title search from her sister, Stina. Because I lived on Old Mill Road almost all my life, and remembered many of the families I decided to tell the story about their lives and the history of the homes they lived in. Although I included a few homes on the West Nyack part of the road, I concentrated on those that were in Valley Cottage, beginning where the Kill Von Beaste flows into the Hackensack River, north to Kings Highway.
The result is, like June, artistic and sturdy. Her words are illuminated by historic family photos, many carefully restored by Dr. Arnold Roufa. She narrates with the economy of a no-nonsense story teller who gets out of the way of her subjects. One of my favorite extended passages (1,144 words) is a an oral history taken by a granddaughter, Dotty Larson describing her grandmother’s somewhat scandalous, poignant and epic love affair with a man she was hired to serve as a housekeeper and cook.
Her final job was when she became the housekeeper/cook for Lester Polhemus on Old Mill Road in Valley Cottage. They became something of a love match between two adults who had buffeted in life and were happy to be in each other’s company for the final stretch.
The little house where Susan and Lester lived had only two rooms with an attached summer kitchen. It was full circle for Susan because it was similar to the one she lived in as a child in Glen Cove. It had no electricity, no running water, and was heated by a large iron wood stove that had become popular after open-hearth cooking became outdated. For furniture, there was an oak gate leg table, straight back chairs and a large floor to ceiling wooden breakfront with glass doors and drawers below for storage. A daybed was used for sleeping or seating in the main room. The bedroom had a large feather bed draped in white quilts and pillows. There was a hand-crafted blanket chest made of pine by local artisans.
There is a contemporary photo of their love shack taken by her son Carl Sundivk. The structure still stands off old mill road and should have a plaque.
As much as one might find a strong influence of the father in June’s life, Old Mill Road it self became her mentor. A litany of creatives seems to gravitated to the spot that the Lindberghs found so alluring.
During the last 50 years these extraordinary artists live on Old Mill Road:
Clement and Maurice Heaton
Clement Heaton was born in England to a family of glass makers, and decorators and had connections with William Morris. He works were sold in London, Paris,Vienna and Berlin. He bought mill house he was able to build the framework for his stained glass windows, and there he was able to make important windows for St John’s Cathedral in New York.
His son Maurice continued the art of glass making and develops a method of enameling on glass. With a group of fellow artists he founded the Rockland Center for the Arts, and even had a studio named for him. He was honored by the Smithsonian by having a piece of his work in their glass collection.
A renowned stained glass maker, moved from France to the US in 1951. Pinart transformed darker stained glass images by creating new glass scenes that allowed light to enter the churches. His works can be seen in the National Cathedral in Washington.
George was an artist who studied in Paris and Florence. He was fascinated with the mountains in Norway and spent many summers there, painting them. He was the son of the famous Rube Goldberg, and while living on Old Mill Road had a large celebration for his father’s 80th birthday in the field across the stream from the house
Sickles shared a studio with Milton Caniff who was working for the Columbus Dispatch. Both men moved to New York City and worked for the Associated Press, where they worked together for two years, often drawing each other’s comic strips. He had an impressionist style of inking and proved to be adept at using a shading called zipatone. When LIFE published Hemmingway’s Old Man of the Sea, Sickles was the illustrator. Some say he was the best illustrator ever.
George was an actor on Broadway and Hollywood. He was a good friend of Vincent Price, and at one time they had an art gallery together. George was well known for his part as Rita Hayworth’s husband in Gilda.
There are too many stories that surround us and not enough story tellers. From my experience sketch logging in the effort to preserve and animate local history, I met June and more recently 16 other Rocklanders who are telling their tales full of the pathos and profundity at the continuing education program offered by the Learning Collaborative at the New City JCC. I was invited June to speak to the group on six occasions, but she had to cancel each visit because of her health, and a book talk at Valley Cottage Library because of ill health. I am very hopeful that they will all attend her Wednesday, November 15 talk at 2p in the Valley Cottage Library. I am hoping that June’s example will encourage others to liberate their family photos from dusty albums, dare to scribble down some thoughts, or sketch out some memories and cook up some books full of the recipes for living that we all inherit or invent, but often fail to pass down.
Not as skilled as I am in “getting out of the way,” I’ll let June have the last word:
“Every road and every house has a story, which is ongoing, and what I have written is only a small window into the lives of the neighbors that lived on Old Mill Road starting with the early settlers of the 1850s and through the changes that were made and homes that were added for the next 100 years to the time that the reservoir was built. Much of this information came from old records, and the fact that I knew many of the families, as we were a neighborhood, often depending on each other.
I consider myself lucky to have been part of these creative people, who helped me develop interests far beyond everyday life.