Part businessman, part philanthropist, Zadock Pratt certainly left his mark in (and on) the Catskills.
A King of the Catskills
Zadock Pratt was a shrewd businessman, a military officer, a congressman, a champion of the poor, and the founder of charming Prattsville. And then there are those rocks.
By Richard Buttlar
If you owned a pair of shoes in 19th-century America, chances are they came via the Catskills. The bark of the mountains’ hemlocks provided a seemingly inexhaustible supply of tannin, needed to turn cowhide into leather. The price for all that footwear was steep: acre upon acre of breathtaking forests fell to the woodsman’s axe. To halt this onslaught, voters approved the 1894 “Forever Wild” amendment to the state constitution, creating the Catskill Forest Preserve.
It should come as no surprise that the tanlords — the men who pocketed the profits from all that chopping — today enjoy reputations ranging from infamy to utter obscurity. Except for Zadock Pratt. Take it from Alf Evers, that great chronicler of the mountains: “Pratt slew more hemlock trees...; his tannery stank just as much as any other; the debris his men left on mountainsides gave rise to as many destructive forest fires — yet he is remembered with affection and as a human being.”
Pratt had a long way to go to become one of the Catskills’ legendary figures. Coming from a family of industrious New Englanders, he learned the tanning trade from his father, Zadock Senior, who cobbled shoes and farmed on the side to make ends meet. Young Zadock added to the family coffers by picking huckleberries. In 1801, the Pratts moved from Rensselaer County to Jewett, Greene County, where the 11-year-old helped his father in his new tannery, worked in the fields, and sewed leather mittens.
Pratt’s formal schooling was rudimentary at best, but he learned to read and write and add and subtract — essentials for succeeding in business in those days. More important, however, were the lessons he gleaned from his parents. “His father imbued him with a deep sense of patriotism, honesty, and devotion to duty. His mother instilled him with the principles of her Christian faith and of ethical duty and responsibility,” states one biographical account. Above all else, Pratt’s steadfast adherence to these ideals is what set him apart from his fellow tanlords.
Pratt served a one-year apprenticeship with a saddle maker, then went into business on his own, making harnesses. Within a couple of years, the hardworking young man had saved up enough money to open a general store. To increase future savings, he slept beneath the counter, avoiding room rent. In 1814, shopkeeping took a back seat to serving his country, as Pratt enlisted to fight the British in the War of 1812. As a company steward in Brooklyn, he still managed to turn a tidy personal profit: He won the contract for supplying the army with 100,000 oars, crafted of ash from the Catskills.
When the war ended, Pratt continued his shrewd business practices. By 1824, his bank account bulging with $14,000, he decided to become a big-time Catskills tanner — but where? At the reins of a one-horse wagon, he set off exploring. One day he pulled up in a hamlet on the mountains’ western flank. It had everything he needed — an endless supply of water from the Schoharie Creek and Batavia Kill, and surrounding forests blanketed with hemlocks. After plunking down $1,300 to purchase a sizeable tract of land, he assured his new neighbors that he planned “to live with them, not on them.”
As his tannery took off, Pratt more than lived up to that promise. “While most tannery settlements in the Catskills were shantytowns where buildings were run up hastily with no hope that they would last longer than the time it would take to use up the neighboring hemlocks, Zadock Pratt made his town one in which the lowliest worker could take pride,” states Evers.
In fact, Zadock Pratt was a civic dynamo. He funded construction of three new churches, a schoolhouse, and a number of small industries, including a woolens mill and furniture-making factories. He had the main street lined with shade trees and sidewalks, and provided attractive housing for his employees at modest cost. Considered one of America’s first planned communities, the renamed Prattsville quickly earned the nickname “the gem of the Catskills.” It’s still a very pleasant village.
For his own residence, Pratt erected a grand home whose portico was supported by six tall columns. More than anything, this Mount Vernon in miniature, located on the town’s main drag, signaled that Pratt intended to remain in town long after the last of the hemlocks had vanished. (Today, it’s the Zadock Pratt museum, which showcases Pratt’s life.)
Pratt took special interest in the poor and struggling. At the bank he established in town, he provided loans based not on potential collateral, but the appearance of a man’s face and especially his hands. Those who looked like they worked hard got money. It’s said that once, when out in the woods, Pratt encountered a young man in desperate need of funds. Pratt’s pockets were empty, so he picked up a flat stone and scratched on it a makeshift check. “Take that to my bank in Prattsville and they’ll give you the money,” he said. The check was cashed promptly.
Pratt also never stopped serving his country. He kept his hand in the young nation’s military affairs, serving as an officer in the state militia. (Around Prattsville, he was known as “the Colonel.”) He served two terms in Congress, and made good use of his four years in Washington. He proposed both a transcontinental railroad and establishment of the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, and in 1838 was instrumental in reducing the cost of postage from 25 cents to 5 cents. The only thing Pratt wasn’t successful at was marriage. His first three wives died within a year or two of their weddings; his fourth wife divorced him. The fifth time down the aisle finally proved a charm: the 20-year-old bride wound up outliving her 70-year-old husband.
Pratt died in 1871, but he left a stunning visual reminder of his contributions to the region. Sometime in the 1840s an itinerant stone-cutter or sculptor passing through Prattsville asked the tanlord for a handout. Pratt refused to give him money outright, instead offering him a job — carving what would amount to the Valley’s largest and most unusual memorial.
Located on a cliff just outside of town, this Mount Rushmore of the Catskills features huge bas-relief representations of everything from Pratt’s tannery building and a hemlock to a horse (steeds were used to lug hemlocks from forest to tannery) and a bare arm wielding a hammer, meant to symbolize Pratt’s belief that he succeeded by “hard knocks.” There also is a memorial to Pratt’s only son, George, who died of wounds suffered in the first Battle of Bull Run, during the Civil War.
The carvings are painted white, to stand out from the dull gray rock. And to make it easier for visitors making the uphill trek to the cliff, benches have been hewn out of the rock, providing comfortable way stations with pleasant views of the valley and creek below.
Even in death, Zadock Pratt is looking out for the people of Prattsville — and anyone else who comes to visit.
At left: Zadock Pratt in his prime. This bas-relief carving of a bare arm on a cliffside near Prattsville (above) symbolizes Pratt’s belief that he succeeded by “hard knocks.” Housed in the philanthropist’s former home, the Pratt Museum (below) showcases the important events in Pratt’s life
Zadock Pratt Museum Closed for the season, the museum will reopen in the spring. Call for further information. Prattsville. 518-299-3395.