Austerlitz History Center Salutes “Pop” Sweet
New Exhibit Opens July 9
The Austerlitz History Center in Spencertown will open a new exhibit on the life and career of George R. “Pop” Sweet, the Famed Fiddler of Fog Hill, on Saturday July 9 from 9 am-2 pm. The Sweet exhibit will remain on view for the remainder of 2022.
In 1930, from the remote Fog Hill section of Austerlitz, Pop Sweet launched a career as an old-time fiddler and square dance caller that brought him wide renown in Columbia, Dutchess and Berkshire counties. There was hardly a hamlet where Pop Sweet and his Huckleberry Pickers did not play during the 1930s into the 1950s. Granges, fraternal lodges, dance halls, restaurants, taverns, campgrounds and even barns all resonated with the joyful sounds of Pop’s fiddling and calling.
Sweet’s fame extended beyond the local region. He was called by the founder of the National Folk Festival “the best caller in the United States,” a title he earned at the Philadelphia Festival in 1943 when he was selected as the best square dance caller out of a nationwide field of more than 130.
The Austerlitz History Center’s exhibit traces Sweet’s musical career and features a soundtrack that includes recordings of Pop’s fiddling and calling from 1947 that are now housed in the Library of Congress. Explored as well is Sweet’s colorful persona as a genuine backwoods character: a hunter and trapper, pursuer of the “Black Beast of the Berkshires,” and long-time Groundhog Day forecaster.
The exhibit also plays tribute to the Sweet family: six generations of musicians dating back to the 1830s. Sixth-generation musician Bobby Sweet, a well-known Berkshire singer, songwriter and bandleader, will perform with his band at Spencertown Academy’s Community Day, also on Saturday, July 9, 2 pm at Spencertown park. Community Day celebrates the 175th anniversary of the Academy’s historic home and the 50th anniversary of the Academy as an arts center.
Accompanying the exhibit is a richly researched book on Sweet’s life written by Tom Moreland, Austerlitz Town Historian. It includes a detailed chronological review of Pop’s square dances, listing more than 300 appearances in more than 150 venues scattered among some 70 localities.
In 2018 the Austerlitz Historic District and the Spencertown Historic District were added to the National Register of Historic Places, a listing of historically significant sites and districts maintained by the United States Department of the Interior.
The History Center tells the history of Austerlitz in a series of six wall displays covering successive periods of time. The first explores the initial settlement of the area from the 1750s to 1799, while the last covers the twenty-first century to date. Each wall lists the notable events during its era, and includes maps, artifacts or other visual material pertaining to the era.
A dramatic centerpiece in the room is the restored 1915 chemical fire engine, courtesy of the Spencertown Fire Company, which had it beautifully restored a few years ago. The old town hall was in fact built in 1915 principally to house this very equipment, the first fire-fighting apparatus in the town, acquired after the 1914 fire that destroyed the general store and nearly consumed much of the village.
Another important display consists of two sets of portraits of Sherman and Lydia Griswold, donated by the James Rundell family. Sherman Griswold was by far the largest landowner in the town at the height of the sheep boom in the 1830s. The paintings occupy both sides of wooden boards. On one side are portraits of the Griswolds by Ira Chaffee Goodell, a prolific itinerant artist who visited Spencertown in the early 1830s. On the other side are the Griswolds as painted a few years later, in quite a different style, probably by James E. Johnson. Johnson’s iconic painting Salting Sheep (c. 1836), showing the Griswolds in their Sunday best feeding salt to their sheep, with their house and barns on Beale Road in the background, is present in the form of a handsome reproduction donated by the Columbia County Historical Society, which holds the original.
The Center also displays the original Proprietors Book of the Spencers Town proprietorship, a Massachusetts-chartered entity which functioned from 1757 until the area was determined to be part of New York in the early 1770s. The book records the meetings of the proprietors, and its contents have been transcribed and annotated.
A wall display entitled Austerlitz Archeology presents artifacts recovered in the town soil by Max Cane. His findings, from a site on Dugway Road, feature coins and other objects dating as far back as the earliest settlement of the area in the mid-1700s.
The History Center, which also includes the historian’s office and files, is located next to the new Austerlitz town hall, the 1836 Spencertown Methodist Church which was acquired and repurposed with funding from the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.
Town Historian Tom Moreland is available by email (link above) or phone (518-392-3260 ext. 306) to answer inquiries concerning any aspect of Austerlitz history, including genealogical questions. He is also interested in receiving for the Town any information, documents, photographs or artifacts pertaining to Austerlitz history or any of its prior residents.
The Austerlitz Historical Society, located at Old Austerlitz on Route 22 in Austerlitz, maintains a reference library for the study of local history. To make arrangements to visit the library call the Society's, at 518-392-0062.
This page contains a short history of Austerlitz excerpted from the fuller history written by Tom Moreland as part of The Old Houses of Austerlitz, a book published in 2018 by the Historical Society. That book, available from the Society on CD-rom, also contains individual histories of each of the 168 houses and other existing buildings in Austerlitz that were constructed between the 1760s and 1888.