It was here the town’s founder and namesake, Zadock Pratt, employed a series of itinerant stonemasons to carve his life story in a cliff face overlooking the Schoharie Valley.
Before spastically shooting out of your desk chair, calling out of work, and frantically looking for your car keys, I must warn that Pratt’s Rock does not have the majesty of South Dakota’s Mt. Rushmore. However, it’s OUR Mt. Rushmore, damnit, and the remains of the 19th-century pleasure park have an eerie, beautiful quality to them, as though the civilization that created them collapsed, and the carvings are all that remain.
Of course, this is not too far off. Prattsville boomed in the mid-1800s because of a multitude of tanneries in the area, including the world’s largest at the time, but the town’s population has fallen from about 2,000 to 700 in the decades after the industry collapsed.
Zadock Pratt was the owner of this giant tannery, a self-made businessman who was part of the archetype of successful capitalists who profited off their own ambition and the limitless resources of the American frontier.
He was born in Stephentown, New York in 1790, according to “Bare Trees,” a biography about Pratt’s business life authored by Patricia Millen. His father moved him and his six siblings to Jewett in Greene County, where he worked with his family tanning hides, part of the product’s journey from skin to shoes.
After saving up, he set off on his own in 1824, moving to the Schoharie River Valley, which he was attracted to because of its “despised hemlock forests,” according to the book, using the us-vs-nature language of the time.
Prattsville was very much out in the boonies at the time. There was a scattering of German Palatine settlers in the valley, who survived off subsistence farming, but it was Pratt who brought industry, and workers, to the valley.
Pratt built what was at the time the world’s largest tannery in these hinterlands, said historian Carolyn Bennett of the Zadock Pratt Museum.
“Up to that point, nothing was really mechanized, or [produced] in the factory model, but the Industrial Revolution was coming into being, and so [Pratt] applied the factory model to his tannery, and he employed about 100 men,” she said.
The new methods allowed Pratt to turn out leather goods comparable in quality to their European counterparts, and the Catskills and their hemlock-thick hillsides became a center for tanneries in the Northeast. By 1835, 40 percent of New York’s tanneries were in the Catskills, according to “Bare Trees.”
The park consisted of terraced oriental gardens, a style Pratt observed during his travels to the Korean Peninsula, Bennett said.
A path, smooth enough to be accessible by baby carriage, wound sinuously up each terrace until it reached a plateau overlooking the Schoharie Valley — a spot once used as a lookout by the Schoharie Indian Tribe, Bennett said.
The carving of Pratt’s Rock began in 1842 and continued for 20 years, undertaken by a series of five itinerate stone carvers. Pratt was altruistic, but didn’t believe in handouts, so he employed jobless masons to work on the cliff face as a way of helping them out. At least one of these masons, Andrew W. Pearse, got the job because he was begging for money on the streets of Rensselaerville, according to signage at Pratt’s Rock. Pratt would not give him money, but asked what his trade was, and offered him a job crafting the monument instead.
Pratt’s Rock is a testament to Pratt’s life and accomplishments, a permanent alter to his achievements in life. After making his mark in tanning, he went on to become a congressman,
serving two separate terms, during which he helped create the federal Bureau of Statistics. A carving of the attainment can still be seen emerging from the trees and moss that have encroached on the site since its heyday.
The modern-day way up Pratt’s Rock, which is more of a hiking trail than the original smooth path, begins with a monument to several of Pratt’s horses and dogs. Obviously an animal lover.
If you continue on the trail, you can see Pratt’s name carved in stark letters on the cliff face, as well as a monument to his son, George, who was mortally wounded during the Civil War’s Second Battle of Bull Run, according to Bennett.
Pratt originally intended to be buried in Pratt’s Rock. The masons carved a tomb out of the cliff face to hold his remains, but the area kept flooding, and the project was never completed.
But Prattsville had started to contract before Pratt’s death in 1871. All the hemlocks within 10 miles of the tannery had been felled, their bark peeled off, and the wood left to rot, according to “Bare Trees.” Without this resource, Pratt’s tannery closed in 1845, and most of the more than 50 large tanneries in the Catskills followed suit, until the industry was dead after the Civil War.
Now on the National Historic Registry, Bennett said she is pushing for the town to return the pleasure park to its former glory. The stone carvings aren’t going anywhere, and they might one day be revealed to the light.
Pratt’s Rock can be found off Route 23 in Prattsville, just east of the Prattsville United Methodist Church. The Zadock Pratt Museum can be found here.