The forest and the trees
If a stranger had stumbled upon us, I’ve no idea what they’d have thought.
We were about 35 of us, in the woods off state Route 30, in a semi-circle, being devoured by mosquitoes while listening to various people make short speeches.
But who were we and what were we doing there?
Well, we were folks with long-time connections to Paul Smith’s College, and we were there for the dedication of the Hoyt-Peroni Forest.
And that raises another question, namely what is the Hoyt-Peroni Forest?
In order to understand that, I first need to tell you who Hoyt and Peroni were, which is my pleasure.
Hoyt was Gould Hoyt; Peroni was George Peroni, and both of them taught for decades at Paul Smith’s, starting in the school’s infancy in the early fifties. They were the two focal forestry teachers and when students talked of forestry classes at PSC, they inevitably mentioned Hoyt and Peroni in the same breath. But even though they were inextricably tied together in their common setting and vocation, they were two very different people.
Each was about the same age, each had been in the army in World War II, each put time in both the classroom and the field. But there the resemblance ended.
Gould was Paul Smith’s master of ceremonies – even when there wasn’t a ceremony. He loved the limelight and ran all the college assemblies and the forestry meets. He had wonderful timing and delivery, along with a voice that needed no microphone. He loved to entertain, whether announcing the woodsmen’s meet in Boonville for thousands, or telling a story to a single person. I heard dozens if not hundreds of Gould’s stories, and can’t recall him repeating more than a few.
He also trained and took care of the horses.
Horses? What horses?
Paul Smith’s has horses. They’re not the fru-fru finishing school nags, they’re there to teach young gentlemen and women to learn to ride English and the rest. Uh-uh, Paul Smith’s is a forestry school and its horses work for their oats. They’re draft horses and they skid timber out of the woods, as well as to pull various wagons on the roads. The college has a Draft Horse Club and the students learn the ins and outs of working with horses. And all this was Gould’s doing. Bob Brhel is now in charge of the horses, having studied long and hard under Gould.
Gould was also a master builder, and it was he who built the college stables on the Keese Mills Road.
Then there’s George Peroni.
While Gould basked in public forums, George was much more of a private person. He was every bit the storyteller Gould was, but he never sought out an audience. And no need to, since people like me sought out him and his stories.
George seemed much more serious than Gould, and certainly he was a man of purpose. As a teacher, he had no superiors. There were other teachers I’d rate as good as George, but damn few. There were none who were better.
His sense of organization was legendary. George had everything nailed down, in every course, in every class, in every day. I remember Don Collins (another teacher of George’s caliber, but with a nonstop mischievous sense of humor) telling me on the first day of the semester that George already had finished his final grades.
“Really?” I said, playing along with Don.
“Yeah,” he said. “But he’s finished them for next semester.”
But beyond being organized, George was available. If a kid wanted to learn, George was there to teach him. And if students had problems, he’d tutor them after class, at night, in his home. The only child left behind in his class was one who wanted to be.
Creighton Fee, another old-time PSC hardcore, once summed this up by saying, “If you can’t learn from Peroni, go home.”
Beyond that, he was a compulsive reader with a phenomenal memory and grasp of history who was a delight to learn from informally. Since history is my hobby, I spent many hours talking with him about it, and aside from his grasp of the details, he had the delivery and was a delight to listen to.
So what about the Hoyt-Peroni Forest?
Well, as I said, it’s there, off state Route 30, right next to the Lake Clear School. But 65 years ago it wasn’t.
So if it wasn’t a forest, what was it?
It was just 40 acres of land that’d been first logged, then used for subsistence farming, and by the early 50’s wasn’t much of anything. But that all changed thanks to Hoyt, Peroni, and their 12 indentured helpers.”
What happened was this: Hoyt and Peroni decided to plant a forest in that plot and while it had a long and wicked learning curve, it also provided the best source of free labor since Emancipation – students.
At the dedication, one of the students who’d helped plant that forest was the main speaker.
He’s Bob Ringrose, who not only was a student at PSC, but taught there as well. Bob told of various trials and tribulations of planting and establishing a forest on land that wasn’t hospitable to it, but in true Old Paul Smith’s Style, he also told a story that trumped the growth of the forest itself.
Hoyt and Peroni’s students had two things in common: They were hard workers, and they were perennially broke. So the head of the forestry department, Dean Rutherford, had a brainstorm that’d use the former to alleviate the latter.
Since the guys knew how to plant trees, the dean decided to send out feelers to companies that needed plantings. If he found them, the students were in business. And find them he did, the most memorable one being in Massena.
It was memorable because they had to plant 25,000 trees in three days.
When Bob said that, we were all silent, as the numbers sank in.
Twenty-five thousand trees? In three days?
Finally someone said, “So you did it?”
“Sure did,” said Bob.
Then someone else said, “What’d you do, jam three of them in each hole?”
Bob, a man of the driest humor and the fewest words, really outdid himself this time.
With a puckish twinkle in his eye, he waited a beat or two, and then said, “Three?”
I will always remember that as the most thorough explanation never delivered.