Historians of Columbia County NY
Remembering Ruth Piwonka (1940-2021)
The Columbia County Historians honor the legacy of Ruth Piwonka, a leading historian of Columbia County and the world beyond. Ruth’s wise counsel benefitted this group immeasurably from its organization in 2018 until Ruth’s untimely passing on August 2, 2021. There follow tributes to Ruth Piwonka from two scholars who knew her well.
David William Voorhees, Jacob Leisler Institute
The passing of Ruth Piwonka was a truly tragic loss to New Netherland studies, the scholarly community, and to me personally. As Kinderhook, New York, town historian Ruth demonstrated how local history adds to our understanding of events in the wider historic narrative. In doing so, she placed the local community into its rightful epical context. Her views substantially enriched the research of others. To call Ruth a ‟local” historian is a misnomer, for her knowledge and influence transcends local and regional to become one of universal import.
Ruth, however, had not been formally trained to be an historian, she held an M.A. in English Literature from Indiana University. But after moving to Kinderhook in 1969 she became fascinated by the history and material culture of her adopted community. Throwing herself into community service, she became actively involved on numerous boards and committees. She was, for example, the first director of the Columbia Land Conservancy, where she fought for the preservation of agricultural and natural open spaces in Columbia County. It is in the realm of historical research and preservation, however, that she is best known. She was a particularly influential force at the Columbia County Historical Society, of which organization she served as executive director in 1976-1983. During this period, she published in collaboration with Rod Blackburn A Visible Heritage; Columbia County, New York: A History in Art and Architecture (1977), A Remnant in the Wilderness: New York Dutch Scripture History Paintings of the Early Eighteenth Century (1980), and Remembrance of Patria: Dutch Arts and Culture in Colonial America, 1609-1776 (1988). These wonderful books introduced New Netherland social and material culture to a wide audience.
These works, however, barely touch upon Ruths' enormous outpouring of research. Among others are A Portrait of Livingston Manor, 1686-1850 (1986) and, with Arthur Baker, Wooden Churches: Columbia County Legacy (2003); such exhibition catalogs as Views of Mount Merino, South Bay and The City of Hudson (1978), The Landscape of Montgomery Livingston (1816-1855): a Catalogue of His Work (1980), After Church: Artists in Mid-Twentieth Century Columbia County, New York (1997), and Living in Style: Selections from the George Way Collection of Dutch Fine and Decorative Art, and contributions to numerous books as New World Dutch Studies: Dutch Art and Culture in Colonial America, 1609–1776, and journals as The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, Hudson Valley Regional Review, and de Halve Maen: Journal of the Holland Society of New York.
Ruth was also a consistent friend, and I was honored to be included among them. We often traveled to Rensselaerswijck conferences and other events together. One truly pleasant scholarly experience was working with Ruth on Marybeth De Filippis’s Bard Graduate Center exhibit, ‟Dutch New York Between East and West: the World of Margrieta van Varick,” and the subsequent volume by that name. On October 22, 2009, Ruth and I presented a public conversation on Flatbush in the seventeenth century at the Bard Graduate Center in Manhattan with Peter Miller hosting. Our contrasting personalities resulted in a dynamic and lively discussion and was one of the most satisfying evenings of my life. It was out of this friendship that Ruth helped me to fulfill my life dream. She willingly agreed in 2014 to help establish the Jacob Leisler Institute for the Study of Early New York History in the City of Hudson. She tirelessly aided me through the financial and legal complications of setting the Institute up and faithfully worked on behalf of the Institute’s goals as a Trustee and as Treasurer.
I am deeply grateful to have known Ruth as a colleague, companion, confidant, and mentor.
James M. Bradley, co-editor, The Papers of Martin Van Buren
It is impossible to overstate the importance of Ruth Piwonka to the study of Columbia County's history. More than anyone else, she was responsible for establishing the centrality of Columbia County's role in the early history of New York—even, one could say, of America. The former executive director of the Columbia County Historical Society and Kinderhook's longtime municipal historian, Ruth studied and presented local history from every perspective: politics, culture, architecture, the environment, population, the arts, and business. She was in constant demand as a lecturer, curator, and preservationist. She was dedicated to protecting the environment and rural character of Columbia County through the Columbia Land Conservancy. Her work was celebrated as recently as September 2021, when she was named the 2020 Martha Washington Woman of History, an award given annually "to a woman who has made a contribution to the history of the Hudson Valley through education, promotion, or preservation." That sums up Ruth.
On a personal note, allow me to share how indispensable Ruth has been to my research and understanding of Martin Van Buren. Most books about Van Buren gloss over his childhood and resort to those hoary stereotypes of the "sleepy little village of Kinderhook" where he was born and raised. Ruth had no patience for these tropes. "Whatever you do," she said to me in one of our first conversations. "Don't call Kinderhook 'sleepy.' " When I once suggested a daft theory that perhaps Van Buren was a bit insecure about his Dutch origins in such an Anglo-Saxon world, Ruth replied, "Oh no. And if you write that, I'll be very disappointed in you." I scrapped that idea quickly. She was delightful company: kind, funny, and interesting. But if I said something she didn't agree with, she let me know. Right away.
I'm hardly the only one enriched by her work: in most of the books I've read about Columbia County and the Hudson Valley, the authors thanked Ruth for her time and generosity. Ruth had the finest qualities in a historian: curiosity, doggedness, and a deep aversion to laziness and clichés. She never stopped asking questions and always pushed me to challenge my assumptions. Ruth Piwonka was five feet tall, but she was a giant in her field.