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Story ID:10062
Written by:Frederick William Wickert (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Musings, Essays and Such
Location:Middleburgh New York USA
Person:Joe Beretz
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OurEcho Preface This post deals with a mature theme or contains explicit language. While the post is not extremely violent or pornographic, it does contain language or explore a subject matter that may offend some readers. If you do not wish to view posts that deal with mature themes, please exit this post.
By Fred Wickert

In March of 1974 I went to work as the new Chief of Police in the Village of Middleburgh, New York. Middleburgh is a rural town on the banks of the Schoharie Creek, or on some maps, River. There are times when it is wide but quite docile and then there are other times when it is a raging torrent, considerably wider than intended. It is located in the Catskill Mountains at the intersection of state Route 30 and State Route 145.

The town is a little like the river, sometimes docile and sometimes raging almost out of control. The little town had five churches, and there was a bar for every church. When I first went to work there, well wisher’s told me a long list of characters and potential trouble makers I should watch out for. One of these individuals was a man named Joe Beretz. When I asked some of the local Sherriff deputies about them, Joe was not among their list of concerns.

I couldn’t help wondering why the difference in attitudes but I would learn after a while. As it turned out in the five years I worked there, I never had a bit of trouble with Joe. He was one of my favorite people.

Joe was a big hard working man of Hungarian decent who played dumb and at the same time was pretty shrewd if you know what I mean. I used to be amused because Joe owned two of the bars in town. He was in the logging business and owned a saw mill. To go along with his saw mill which was out of town a half mile or so, he had a business in town that folks called the Box Factory. At the time fork lift flats were made there. There was a big demand for soft wood lumber such as Pine, Spruce, Fir and Hemlock. There was not such demand for hardwood timber. When Joe bought a wood lot it had a mixture of trees. Some of them were soft woods and some were hard woods and he needed a market for them. Industry uses a huge number of fork lift flats. They need to be tough and rugged so they are made from hard wood. Joe found a market that took ten or fifteen truck load’s of them a week, delivered. He sawed the logs in to slats the right width in his saw mill and trucked them to the box factory. There he had a crew of men who cut the slats to the right length, assembled them in to fork lift flats and stacked them outside. He had a large truck with driver. The truck went back and forth hauling those flats to the buyer.

Joe had built a beautiful home on Huntersland Mountain Road where he had his family. Joe was proud of his family. He had several sons and he loved those boys more than anything in the world. I had a Ford pickup truck with a cap on it but wanted a little larger truck. A retired NYC cop owned a gas station with a couple of stalls for repairing cars on the outside edge of town. He had a Ford one ton flatbed truck he wanted to sell. We made a deal and swapped trucks. Joe’s oldest boy, also Joe, had just turned 16. He wanted my old pickup truck. Joe let him buy it. Joe then came to see me. He asked me to keep an eye on his boy. He wanted me to pull him over once in a while, not to harass him but just so he knew I had my eye on him, so I obliged. Young Joe and I became friends because he knew why I stopped him from time to time.

The more I got to know Joe the more I liked him. I thought of him as a jewel in the rough. He always dressed the same. He wore a beat up sweat stained felt hat, a faded green and usually sweat stained shirt, pants that varied in color between gray, green and brown. They were always held up by a pair of suspenders and he always wore a pair of logger’s boots with raw hide laces. Joe was bald with a narrow mustache. He was actually a big tall man but he was stooped over just a little to hide how tall he was. Joe was a mighty strong man and even the town tough guys who thought they could whip all comers never messed with him. They knew better.

Joe had a little back trouble. I thought it was from a lifetime of logging work, but I was wrong. I learned one day how it happened. Joe was working on a wood lot in Albany County. He had just come out of the woods and it was a little after dark. He never carried his wallet with him in the woods for fear of losing it. The police pulled him over. They asked for his license and registration. He explained what he has been doing all day and that he never carried his wallet. The police decided to arrest him. They were going to hold him in jail until somebody could bring his license to the jail.

Joe gets a little stubborn sometimes. He informed the police officer that he had done nothing wrong to deserve such treatment, and by God he was not about to let any two bit cop put him in hand cuffs. The cop called for help. When there were four of them there they tried to subdue him to put cuffs on him and he resisted. He tossed those four cops around like play toys. They called for more. It took eight cops to finally subdue him and take him to jail. They locked him in a cell. He gave them the name of a lawyer and asked that the lawyer be called. The lawyer got a judge to issue an order to let him out of jail. When they went to get him out, he had bent the bars with his bare hands far enough to get out of the cell and he was working on the bars to get out of the cell block when they found him. It was a really stupid thing on the cops part. All they had to do was ask his social security number and date of birth and they could have obtained his driver’s license information on the radio. There was no need to arrest him.

In the process of bending those bars in the jail cell he hurt his back. It took a long time but he finally found a chiropractor in the town of Windham that could give him some relief. One night he was on his way back from Windham in his 4-wheel drive truck and the front end of the truck started giving him trouble. He had all he could do to keep the truck in the road. The state police stopped him. The trooper knew him and asked, “Joe, are you drunk?” Joe replied, “No but my damned truck is.”

There was an onion grower in Westchester County who had bought a large number of fork lift flats. He had not paid for them. Joe decided to take a ride and go see him. The man told him he could not pay him until he got paid for the onions they were in the midst of harvesting. Joe told him in that case he was going to have to get a lien on his onions. The man begged Joe not to do that because it could cause trouble with his marketing of the onions. Joe told him if he filled the back of his truck with bags of onions he could give him another week to come up with the money. It was late and I was checking a business where we had a number of burglar alarms recently. It was right next to a traffic light. Joe pulled up to the light with his truck. When he saw me he pulled over to the curb. He got out of his truck, told me what had happened and then handed me a 20lb bag of onions. He told me to take them home to my wife. They were beautiful big yellow sweet onions and we really enjoyed them. I saw him drive around for about two days with his truck full of onions and then suddenly it was empty. I never did find out where they went. My guess is he found a market for them.

No one really thought of him that way except maybe me, but Joe was a pretty good actor. Most of the community had a low opinion of him. They had him pegged as a dirty man who was half drunk all the time. They looked at him as a man who was over the hill and stubborn as a mule and really rough with no polish to him at all. The funny thing is, they were wrong, and Joe was happy with that because that is just what he wanted them to think. The truth is that Joe was a pretty shrewd man. He was no body’s fool at all and could get the best of them any time and they never knew what hit them. Joe had some peculiar ways but he was a good business man.

He was a good man too. If you treated Joe as an equal and with a little respect, he treated you the same way. He did things all the time that most people knew nothing about. He had men working for him that could not get a job anywhere else because they drank too much or because the town’s people were down on them. He knew a man has no self-respect if he doesn’t work for a living. He had a streak of goodness in him too. He did things most knew nothing about. He felt sorry for old men with nothing to do anymore. Men whose luck had run out and men who had nothing left and were too old and/or broken to work anymore. Joe owned a pond in a beautiful setting in the mountains outside of town. He had built the pond himself and the area was known as Brooky Hollow. Once a year, Joe threw a party by the pond in Brooky Hollow for all these old men in town. He didn’t advertise it and most folks never knew about it. He had a homemade bar-b-q pit on the property. He quietly went around and contacted these old men or had a couple of his boys do it, and told them to be ready in the morning of a certain day. He or one of his men picked them up at the appointed hour, and took them to Brooky Hollow. He usually bought a half a pig for the occasion, and cooked it on the bar-b-q. He had a good supply of beer, what he called sody pop, and often a supply of hard apple cider. He said he wanted to give these poor old codgers a day once in a while where they could talk to each other, tell their stories, and go pee behind a tree when they had to go without somebody yelling at them every time they turned around. He wanted them to have a day when they didn’t have to worry about their problems and nobody was going to push them around because they were in the way or made a mess or did something they couldn’t help. Joe believed they should have at least one day a year they could remember and enjoy themselves, and he reminded us that it could easily be their last one.

Joe owned a saw mill and he had a logging business. He had cut a good many logs off his land at Brooky Hollow, but he carefully selected which ones to cut and which ones to leave behind. Every year Joe gathered a bunch of Black Walnuts. He had a sawdust pile by the saw mill that all who worked for him understood was to be left untouched. He planted those nuts in the decaying sawdust. It was the perfect medium for it and they sprouted there in the spring and started to grow. Joe dug them out of the sawdust and replanted them where he had cut timber on his land, and often where he had cut on land where he bought timber, with the land owner’s permission. Joe told me it was his plan to leave this world a little better than he found it. He planted thousands of Black Walnut trees that when they are grown will be highly valuable for furniture making. One day he came in to the Municipal Building looking for me. He was carrying a dozen Black Walnut seedlings wrapped in soaking wet newspaper. In the back of my office on the second floor was a small room with a sink and hot and cold water. The Village Highway Superintendent took care of the village water supply and he tested water samples there a couple of times a day. I was not there but the Village Clerk placed them in a waste paper basket and carried them upstairs and laid them in the sink in my office. When I came in she told me about it in near hysterics over the water dripping out of the newspaper on to the carpeting. She let me know with her demeanor that she did not at all appreciate it. She was one of those in town who did not approve of Sawmill Joe.

The village rested on the banks of the Schoharie and part of the land the village was on soon began to rise as it got farther away from the river. At the back side of the village it rose steeply up Cliff Street, the longest side street from the center of town. The end of the street at its highest point was at the bottom of a stone cliff. There was an old hotel there appropriately named Cliff Cottage. It had long ceased to be used as a hotel. Joe Beretz bought it and turned it in to a bar. Inside the door was a very large room with a massive bar and stools running along the left wall. There were a number of tables and chairs in the room, a juke box and considerable room on the hard wood floor to dance if anyone wished to do so. Along the back wall was a very large stone fire place. The fire place was large enough it could take at least a four foot log. Since Joe owned a logging business and a saw mill, fire wood was really no problem. A good supply of it was available.

Joe designed a heating system I admired greatly. Using two inch iron pipe, he built a fireplace grate that stood about six inches off the floor of the fire place. Joe placed some large cast iron radiators to the left and right of the fire place with pipe going along the base of the wall and out from the fire place grate. There was one pipe that extended straight up in to the chimney flue. He had a float system to open a valve when more water was required, to allow water in, and then shut itself off when it reached the proper level. When cold weather came and heat was needed, a fire was built in the fire place. The water inside the pipes that served as the grate got hot. Heat rises. As the water got hot the heat forced the water to rise and it went out through the pipes to the radiators. The radiators became hot and radiated heat out in to the rooms of the building. The cold water that had been in the radiators was pushed out by the hot water, and it returned to the fire place to be heated. Heat and gravity did all the circulation work so no pump or electricity was required. After a time, the fire in the fire place got a little too big and too hot. As that happened the heated water in the pipe that went straight up in the chimney flue began to rise. There being no cap on the end of the pipe, water eventually overflowed from the end of the pipe and splashed down on the fire, cooling the fire down a little. When the fire cooled down, the water did not raise high enough to come out the pipe any more. The fire didn’t get put out because the water stopped falling on it before it got put out. Every time the fire got to high and hot, the water automatically dampened the fire and it kept itself under control. It was the most perfect heating system I ever saw, and the only one of its kind that I ever heard of. Joe Beretz came up with the idea, built it the way he wanted, and it worked. I don’t know if anyone else beside me ever noticed.

There was an old brick building on Main Street across from the movie theater. I think once upon a time it had been a furniture store. When I was a boy in high school it had been a restaurant and I am not sure, but I think it may have had a bar together with the restaurant. It was a three or four story building and all the upstairs floors were apartments. There was a wide set of concrete steps going up from the sidewalk to get in the ground floor, actually making it a few feet above the ground. That could have been built that way due to occasional flooding when the Schoharie over ran its banks. The building came up for sale and Joe Beretz purchased it. He applied for a liquor license. He wanted to open a bar there.

Some of the upper crust of the town had a hissy over that. To begin with, there was already Kelly’s Bar on Main Street next door to the Municipal Building. Across the street from Kelly’s was the Main Rail bar on the corner of Main Street and Rail Road Ave., and a half a block up Rail Road Ave was the Wagon Wheel bar. Then way up on the hill was the Cliff Cottage on the end of Cliff Street. The upper crust had the feeling the town didn’t need any more bars. Besides, if Joe Beretz had anything to do with it, it was not going to be one of the nicer type bars. One could be certain of that. Right there on Main Street across from the theater, it was bound to bring in more “Riff Raff”. And the town didn’t need any more of that.

There was a more narrow building to the right of the building and then, coming up the street was a church. The church was way back from the street with a long sidewalk. There was a state law that did not allow a bar to be within 100 feet from a church. The church was actually more than a hundred feet away, but some of the town fathers thought with a little creative measuring they could convince the state liquor board that it was within a hundred feet and the license was to be denied. Someone on the state liquor board told Joe Beretz about the phony measuring scheme. Joe saw me on the street and decided to tell me about it. He told me that if his license were denied because of a phony measuring scheme that he was going to fight back. He said he was going to charter a bus in Albany, go to Pearl Street in Albany and pick up a bunch of those wino drug using niggers, give them a bottle of wine each plus five dollars apiece afterwards on the way back to Albany and take them to church there on Sunday morning, and do it again every Sunday until he got the license. I laughed, knowing what an uproar that was bound to produce. I knew Joe well enough to know he wasn’t bluffing either. I can’t say for sure, but I have a hunch someone else heard what he said and tipped off the powers that be. His liquor license was issued two weeks later and Joe didn’t charter that bus. The bar soon opened with a new sign hanging on the front of it. The sign said, SAW MILL JOE’S. It became a popular bar among the so called, “Riff Raff.”

Joe himself often spent the evenings sitting at his own bar. Patrons often said things within Joe’s hearing they might not have otherwise but they believed Joe was too drunk to remember. That was a big mistake for two reasons. First, Joe was never as drunk as he seemed to be. It was an act. Oh yes, he had a drink or two, but he could hold them and he was never as drunk as it seemed. Second, it was a mistake because Joe never forgot anything, drunk or sober. He always remembered every little thing in minute detail.

I heated my house with wood. I usually cut my own. I was about out and I was afraid I was not going to have a chance to cut any wood before I ran out. Joe told me he could send me a load of wood. I told him I didn’t have any money and couldn’t pay him for it. He said not to worry. He said I could pay him whenever I could. He said just be sure you pay me before the last piece is burned. The next day his truck showed up at my house with a load of wood on it. The guy driving said he was ordered to bring it to me and where did I want him to dump it. I told him where to dump it and when I saw Joe again I thanked him. He told me not to worry about it. Soon after, I resigned my job as police chief. I never saw Joe after that. Sometimes I saw young Joe. He always asked when I was going to pay him for that load of wood and I told him I wasn’t. I told him I was going to pay his father. He said he was the one who sent the truck to my house. I told him maybe so, but only because his father ordered him to, and that I was only going to settle with his father.

I never finished burning that wood. I had a few pieces of it in a building out behind my barn. I was determined not to use that last bit of wood until I had paid Joe for it. I thought about it every now and then and told myself I had to go look Joe up and pay him for that load of wood. Sadly, I never did. One day there was a flood. My house was over two hundred years old and had never been flooded. It just never got that high before. There was nothing to worry about. Until that flood that is, but that one resulted in my losing my home. I had to get reestablished in another home somewhere.

I had heard about Joe now and then. I heard he tragically lost all but young Joe, of his boys. First his next oldest got killed. About three years later his two youngest were killed in a tragic accident. I knew Joe had to be devastated because he loved his boys more than life itself. His sun rose and set with those boys of his. My heart went out to him and I wanted to go see him, but thought maybe that was not the right time. One day I bought a parrot from his brother. His brother told me he wasn’t doing so well. I told myself that I had better go see him and pay for that wood with interest before it was too late. Then it was too late. I heard that he had died.

His son Joe, the only son remaining I understand is still in the logging business. I still owe for that load of wood. My wife has died and I am in my eighties and crippled up now. I guess I had better look Joe Junior up one of these days and pay for that load of wood, plus interest. I just hope Joe won’t die of shock when I do, but if I don’t get it done pretty soon, maybe it will be too late.

Joe Beretz, otherwise known as Sawmill Joe was a good decent hard working man. He treated other people a lot better than other people treated him. He was one of the most genuine people I have ever known. I always liked his son Joe. I hope he turned out a lot like him, but then again I think the mold got broken after they made him, the Old Hungarian as he liked to call himself. No matter what other people might have said or thought about him, in my book, they don’t come much better than he and I am happy and proud to have called him my friend!

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