The Beaverkill Trout Club

by Ed Cerny
© Copyright by Edward C. Cerny III

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Third Annual Dinner of the Beaverkill Trout Club
March 29, 1919



On the ground floor of the Voorhess Farmhouse a large central room serves as an office. The three interior walls of the room each have a door. One opens into an entry hall and sitting room to the east (upstream). A second opens into a dining room to the west (downstream). The third exits into a pantry, which contains a further door opening into a large screened porch; this adjoins the kitchen, and has tables, sinks, refrigerators and other accoutrements for cleaning and preserving fish. On the northerly exterior wall, two large windows overlooking the porch afford views up and down the stream, including of the “Docking” and the “Home” pools. Between the windows, a desk is placed such that its user may view not only the stream but, looking through the windows in the sitting room, also the Clubhouse (or boarding house) building.

The room is well situated for an office, whether to serve the business aspects of running a farm, a boarding house, a fishing club, or all three. Indeed, the room has been used as an office for these purposes since the time when I first visited the Club in 1963. Van Parr once told me it was similarly employed going back to before the First World War, when farming in the Beaverkill valley had started a long decline and the Beaverkill Trout Club, at least as a stand-alone men’s fishing club in corporate form, was in its early days 1.

One day some years ago, as I was passing through the Club office from the dining room, the door into the entry way and sitting room happened to be closed, and I noticed a framed photograph hanging on the wall in a place hidden from view behind the usually opened door. The Club has a lot of old photographs hanging on the walls, but this attracted my attention that day and turned out to be a group portrait with the title: “Third Annual Dinner Of The Beaverkill Trout Club.” The date of the dinner is given as March 29, 1919. Reference to a perpetual calendar shows this to be the Saturday night before the opening of the New York State trout fishing season on April 1, 1919, the following Tuesday.

The scene thus opens on a group of 47 men, with some apparent father and son combinations, posing for a photograph at two long tables laid out with white linen tablecloths. The site of the event obviously is a private room in a hotel or club, apparently in New York City, but what is written out as the location of the dinner has faded to illegibility over the years. The room is illuminated with gas and festooned with American flags, patriotic bunting, and banners declaring “Welcome.” What was this all about?

The prior November 11, 1918, of course, had seen the armistice in Europe, setting the stage for the end of the “War to End all Wars”; but the War, and the involvement of the United States in it, would not fade away for quite a while after the armistice. To understand the setting of the photograph, and of this “annual dinner,” of the Beaverkill Trout Club, one had to recall that

“There were still three million and a half Americans in the military service, over two million of them in Europe. Uniforms were everywhere. Even after the tumult and shouting of November 11 had died, the Expeditionary Forces were still in the trenches, making ready for the long, cautious march into Germany; civilians were still saving sugar and eating strange dark breads and saving coal; it was not until ten days had passed that the ‘lightless edict’ of the Fuel Administration was withdrawn, and Broadway . . . blazed once more; the railroads were still operated by the government, and one bought one’s tickets at the United States Railroad Administration Consolidated Ticket Offices; the influenza epidemic, which had taken more American lives than the Germans, and had caused thousands of men and women to go about fearfully with white masks over their faces, was only just abating; the newspapers were packed with reports from the armies in Europe, news of the revolution in Germany, of Mr. Wilson’s peace preparations, of the United War Work Campaign, to the exclusion of almost everything else; and day after day, week after week, month after month, the casualty lists went on . . . . 2

In March 1919 the first post-war bull market for common stocks was underway, soon to result in unprecedented “million share days” on the New York Stock Exchange. People were starting to get used to the idea of Prohibition of alcoholic beverages, which would commence in July and eventually lead to massive civil disobedience disruptive of many institutions. Walking in Manhattan on a typical day in March 1919 might require

“a roundabout way, for a regiment of soldiers just returned from Europe is on parade and the central thoroughfares of the city are blocked with crowds. It is a great season for parades, this spring of 1919. As the transports from Brest swing up New York Harbor, the men packed solid on the decks are greeted by Mayor Hylan’s Committee of Welcome. * * * [Fifth] Avenue is hung with Flags from end to end; and as the Twenty-seventh Division parades under the arches the air is white with ticker tape and the sidewalks are jammed with cheering crowds. * * * Not yet disillusioned, the nation welcomes its heroes --- and the heroes only wish the fuss were all over and they could get into civilian clothes and sleep late in the mornings and do what they please, and try to forget. 3

With these recollections of what was going on in March 1919 in mind, we can understand a bit more about the photograph and the men in it. The room itself is fixed up with patriotic adornments to welcome the steady stream of troops returning from Europe through the port of New York: presumably there were many festive dinners greeting the officers and permitting them to make their farewells and take their leaves of the City and of each other. Peace is taking hold, wartime shortages of all sorts of things (like latex and rubber, from which fishing waders then were made; and steel wire stock, from which fishing hooks are fashioned) are coming to end, profits are being made, and it is time, once again, to be able to pursue hobby and sport without feeling guilt over war-time idleness.

Maybe in part it is imagination at work, but it seems to me that these men look ready to go fishing with a renewed sense of fun and vigor.

I have spent a little time trying to put names on these faces looking out from the past, with partial success, most of it by comparison of the 1919 group photograph with a series of 40 photographs taken by William Arnold Bradley from 1898 to 1916. Bradley, who was the corporate Secretary and Treasurer of the Club from 1910 to at least 1929, pasted his 40 photos into a booklet, which he printed privately, entitled “Fly-Fishing Reminiscences of My Early Years at the Beaverkill Trout Club,” and introduced with a short monograph describing some of his Beaverkill fishing friends and adventures. He apparently made up fifty copies of the edition, laboriously labeling each photograph in his distinctive handwriting, some 2,000 entries, a true labor of love 4 .

Bradley in the photograph is seated at the far right with his back to the wall. I do not yet know what he did for a living, or when his life ended, but in his monograph he indicates Charlie Campbell introduced him to the Club in about 1907. In his own words,

“Charlie was a member of the Beaverkill Fishing Association with headquarters at the ‘Voorhess Homestead.’ We rode over from Livingston Manor with Alex Voorhess in the ‘covered wagon,’ a matter of two hours, more or less.

“Very soon after my first visit, I helped to organize the present Beaverkill Trout Club which absorbed the Beaverkill Fishing Association; both memberships being merged into one club of which I became Secretary and Treasurer. 5

His monograph sets forth, with a nice, diplomatic precision, a number of claims concerning his own and his fellow members’ development and introduction of modern methods of trout fishing which are of considerable interest to those who love the subject. Again, in his own words:

“While giving close study to the varied methods employed by the leading anglers at the Club, I read much literature on the subject of stream fly fishing in England and Scotland, and my youth perhaps, coupled with an inquisitive mind, led me very early to blaze my own trail respecting tackle and methods of stream angling. I adopted light tackle, fine gut and small wet flies imported from Scotland and with short casts practiced ‘drifting’ my flies over likely places and to rising trout. * * * The results I obtained fishing ‘wet’ encouraged me to experiment with the ‘dry fly’ and if my memory serves I was the first to introduce ‘dry fly’ fishing at the Club, a method now employed by practically all its members. 6

Indeed, and if Bradley’s memory serves as he says, his development and introduction of the dry-fly technique to the Club was a signal achievement. I should mention I have not yet heard his claim seconded by any other source.

On Bradley’s right, dressed in a very Nineteenth-Century fashion, sits George M. L. LaBranche (1875–1961), who founded the eponymous New York Stock Exchange specialist firm which is today run by his great-grandson, George M. L. LaBranche IV. No doubt one thing on his mind at the dinner besides fishing chitchat is whether his firm’s capital will be adequate to ensure an orderly market in the listed shares for which he is responsible given the ever-increasing volume of the emerging peacetime bull market. Unlike Bradley, LaBranche even then was a recognized expert in fly fishing, and particularly in the dry-fly technique, which he says he started to employ in 1899. Having taken the precaution of writing published books and articles on the subject, and having been written about by others, LaBranche was well known to the public by 1919 as a “presentationist,” rather than an “imitationist. 7

Up the table in positions fifth and sixth counting from LaBranche are two brothers, Gail (with moustache) and Lewis M. (without moustache) Borden, whose family owned the large dairy and chemical enterprises of that name. Lewis Borden was not only a founding member but a fine angler who had first gone to the Beaverkill at a time when  “ . . . the club only owned its name and a large wooden sign, inscribed on which was the name of the Club’s predecessor, ‘The Beaverkill Fishing Association,’ from whom it was inherited.

“The roads from the Manor to the Club were hub deep in mud in the spring and none too good in the summer, and horse drawn conveyances were the sole mode of transportation, consuming anywhere from two to two and one-half hours to make the trip one way. Sometimes the roads were so bad that one or more occupants were required to get out and walk up steep hills out of sympathy for an overwrought and underfed team.

“Mr. Alex and Mrs. Voorhess, the latter of whom died early this year [apparently 1927], ran the boarding part of the club and furnished the transportation. The club was but a part of the visiting fishermen, there being ‘those boarders,’ as the club disdainfully termed them and of whom I was fortunately one. I speak feelingly when I say ‘fortunately one’ because my being a boarder was the means of my introduction followed by my election to membership in the great fraternity of good fellowship of men in pursuit of a pastime of which there is none finer, more healthful or more interesting or where fellow or yellow is more quickly developed or as quickly discerned. 8

An obvious enthusiast of sorts based on his somewhat disjointed description, Lewis Borden also was a man of means who was prepared to put his wallet where he found his fellowship. Charlie Campbell names Lewis Borden, together with George C. Mercer, as one of the two “angels” who provided the funds necessary to acquire the farm properties and leases which comprised a large portion of the fishing assets so valued by the Club members for many generations. Not mentioned by Campbell was the fact that Lewis Borden had acquired in 1925, but for his personal use, the farm property owned by Llewellyn Jersey, the so-called “Jersey Farm,” across which flows the “Jersey Brook,” a small tributary of the Beaverkill. Lewis Borden or his estate sold the property to Burr Sherwood, a member, who sold it to Samuel W. Croll, a member, who bequeathed or sold it to Samuel W. Croll, Jr., still a member of the Club, who sold the stream portion of the property to the Club in the early 1990s.

Up at the far end of the table, in position fifth counting from Lewis Borden, is George C. Mercer (1855-1929), a well-liked member referred to as “Uncle George of Hackensack,” who emigrated as a young man from Scotland and founded a successful textile bleachery business in Lodi, New Jersey, with offices in Manhattan 9 . Bradley labeled his photograph of Mercer as “Uncle George of Hackensack, Inimitable upstream wet-fly fisher” and in his monograph mentioned that when he first went up to the Beaverkill “No one seemed to know why George Mercer fishing ‘wet’ upstream caught trout all summer in low clear water,” a true compliment from one fly caster to another. Campbell was even more effusive. In his 1927 essay, after describing his early years on the Beaverkill learning the lore of the Beaverkill from “Uncle George” Curtis, eventually a New York Supreme Court Justice in Binghamton, New York, he waxed on about the early days:

“Among this goodly company I also found our other Uncle George; that canny Scot who has marked every rock and rippling rill from the Docking to the head of the Dugway. I cannot say anything ‘aboot’ him, because he lives to deny it. I hope a merciful Providence will spare him to us a great many years, for his heart grows younger with each passing year, and this he cannot deny 10 .

Campbell also made clear that Mercer was another who was prepared, like Borden, to open his pocketbook in aid of fellowship of this “goodly company”:

“With the increasing popularity of trout fishing, places on the Beaverkill were bought up by men of means and good judgment, and it became apparent that if our group wished to preserve its privileges, we must organize on a more business-like basis. Accordingly, in March 1910, the Beaverkill Trout Club was incorporated and leases were obtained wherever possible. Still later, it became necessary to buy certain farms in order to retain the fishing, and George Mercer and Lew Borden formed the Catskill Trout Club as a holding company and bought the Tidd, Hardy, Davidson, and Sprague farms. After some lapse of time, we felt we should no longer let these two “angels” carry the burdens of the Beaverkill Club. The Beaverkill Holding Corporation was then formed and purchased all four of the farms from the Catskill Trout Club, and took over leases of fishing rights, and of the Voorhess Homestead and Clubhouse. 11


For some reason, Campbell did not mention in this 1927 context what was perhaps the most significant of all of Mercer’s contributions to the Club: that he purchased the Voorhess Farm shortly after the 1919 dinner, and conveyed it in 1921 to a family corporation, Mercer Homestead, Inc. Ever since, the Mercer Homestead leased that part of the former Voorhess Farm pertaining to the stream, including the farmhouse and the clubhouse, to the Beaverkill Trout Club. That lease, of course, as renewed from time to time over many years, has been and is today the keystone of the Club, as is the very cordial relationship of the Club to the Mercer family, the descendants of “Uncle George of Hackensack.”

Down the table in positions second and third counting from Mercer, are two obvious brothers (are they twins?), William L. Willich, a founding member of the Club and its President from 1923 to 1928, and Theodore “Theo” Willich. I believe Theo also was President of the Club at some point, but need to get further into the Club records to iron out such detail. I cannot tell from the group photo which Willich is which Willich (an exercise in consonance and alliteration, for sure!), but they are, aside from being important in the history of the Club and of fly fishing, the members of the family who acquired in about 1918 the farm properties which today extend on the northern bank of the Beaverkill from the twin bridges down to the truss bridge and up the mountain to the end of Ragin Road. I believe that all of the property remains in the hands of one or more of these two members’ descendants.

The next person down the table from the Willich brothers is Dr. William H. Sharpless, an early member of the Club whose photograph appears in Bradley’s booklet above his handwritten description, “Dry-fly Specialist.” There is a undoubtedly a great deal more to learn about him, which I intend to do in part by speaking with his descendants who still populate the Beaverkill Valley, one of whom I know to be none other than his namesake and, I believe, his grandson, Bill Sharpless.

Last, but not least of the faces on the 1919 Annual Dinner photograph I have identified, is Charles J. Campbell, seated down from Dr. Sharpless just behind the first man in the row. Campbell was a Manhattan lawyer who seems to have had a long and successful practice, which included at least one case involving copyright infringement he argued successfully for the composer Victor Herbert before the Supreme Court of the United States, leading to a decision by none other than Oliver Wendell Holmes 12 .

It has already been mentioned that Campbell played perhaps one of the leading roles in putting the Club into an organized form in which it has managed to continue in corporate existence, despite more than a few trials and tribulations, for almost a century. He was the president of the Club from 1910 to 1923. Bradley inscribed his photos of Campbell with the accolade “Wizard with the trout fly.” There is a well-known wet-fly pattern named after him, “Campbell’s Fancy.” Obviously, and however good he was in the art of fishing, he was also an artist in getting along and putting things together.

There is much to be learned about him and the Club from his life, but one of the most interesting stories concerns the Davidson Farm property and the Kaplan family and its holdings in and around Lew Beach.

On March 29, 1919, the date we see Charlie Campbell looking out at us from the Third Annual Dinner of the Beaverkill Trout Club, a long negotiation with the heirs of George Davidson for the sale of the Davidson family farm to the Catskill Trout Club for the then large sum of $10,000 was at last coming to fruition. Thus, in addition to appearing in the photograph ready to go fishing without remorse or guilt after the conclusion of the “Great War,” I believe Charlie Campbell was looking forward to the conclusion of this acquisition, a matter of extreme importance to the Club of which he was then President. In fact, the deeds and mortgages completing the sale were signed, sealed and delivered three days later, on April 1, 1919, with Campbell and Lewis M. Borden signing for the Catskill Trout Club (which then conveyed the Davidson farm, along with the Hardy, Sprague and Tidd farms, to the Beaverkill Holding Corporation in 1923).

That the Davidson Farm acquisition was completed on the opening day of the fishing season was both symbolic and auspicious, because the whole purpose of the purchase was to acquire stream-fishing rights for the Beaverkill Trout Club members. In fact, the Club immediately leased the Davidson farm back to the Davidson family for farming purposes, excepting from the lease only “the bed of the Beaverkill Stream and fifty feet from high water mark on either side of the said stream” (italics added), because that portion of the farm was going to be used for fishing, not farming. The exception from the lease just quoted shows that the Club thought it owned both banks of the stream, and thus had acquired exclusive rights of fishing in that portion of the Beaverkill running, so it was thought, through the farm.

Unknown to the Club, however, Samuel and Lazare Kaplan had a deed that conflicted with the deed given by the Davidson family. The Kaplans acquired their parcel in 1919, ironically from Alex and Effie Voorhees, who still managed the Club; and the deed they gave the Kaplans also purported to convey the bed and both banks of the stream adjoining the Davidson Farm. Which conveyance, which deed, was valid?

There is a complicated and simple way to tell the story of what happened after that, but for present purposes, the simpler version is the better. The issue of the conflicting deeds and, more important, who rightfully owned the streambed and banks, and most important of all, who owned the fishing rights, was tried in the Supreme Court in Monticello to a jury just before Christmas 1925, and the jury found for the Kaplans. The Club started the process of taking an appeal, and also had some long and not particularly friendly discussions with the Davidson family about that fact that a jury had found they had sold something they did not completely own as warranted by their deed. So much the written records show.

Several Club members, who were old enough to have heard the story from actual witnesses to the event, consistently told the next part of this story to me on several occasions.

On the opening day of the Club in April 1926, with the adverse result of the trial well known to the members, there were a lot of very long faces in the Clubhouse, and a lot of pining away that the Davidson water, containing some of the Club’s most popular fishing pools, was no longer available for fishing. At that point, a man drove up, walked into the Clubhouse, introduced himself as Lazare Kaplan, and said, “Look, boys, now that I’ve proven my point, I want you to know that you can fish my water any time you want, and to help you get over any hard feelings about this, I brought down a case of whiskey.” To say the least, this news was greeted with universal approbation by the members, especially since most people by then had gotten over the notion that Prohibition was good for the nation.

The result was that the Club dropped the appeal, did not pursue the Davidson family over the value of the deed they had given the Club, and its members have fished the Davidson water ever since. Lazare Kaplan’s generous gesture was so appreciated that the Club wanted to reciprocate, and this took the form of a resolution to permit Lazare and his sons, George and Leo, to fish the Club’s waters, and use the Club’s facilities, any time they wished, and they did so from time to time over the years.

I never met Lazare Kaplan, but by all accounts he was a very colorful, vibrant and honorable man who had quite a reputation as a diamond dealer and cutter. Leo I came to know fairly well from meeting and talking on the stream and when he would drop by the Clubhouse. I liked him, and was upset when he died at a fairly young age. George I met at the Clubhouse a few times, and did not know well until much later.

Lazare lived to be a centenarian, but after he passed away a few years ago, George Kaplan and Rusty Husted, then Chairman of the Club’s Real Estate Committee, started to discuss an agreement which would close this old real property controversy and make formal the amicable arrangement that had effectively but informally ended it in 1926. This we finally worked out by what was of necessity a fairly complicated agreement involving an exchange of lands and promises.

One day George called me in my office to go over some changes he thought would help the resolution we all desired. At some point I asked George if he had ever heard the story about his father and the case of whiskey, and he said he had not.

I then related the story to him and he laughed, saying that his father was a good man, and a good father in his way, but that you could not appreciate him until you realized that he never believed he was wrong about anything in his whole life. I told George that I had not met his father nor lived as long as he had, but that I had lived long enough to know that no one was right all the time, but that his father surely proved right about his deed and did the right thing as well with the Club on a cold and rainy day in April of 1926. We signed up the agreement a few weeks later.




1.   According to Club records, The Beaverkill Trout Club, Inc. was first incorporated in 1910 along with the Beaverkill Holding Corporation, which was owned by the Club members and served as the vehicle for the Club’s land and lease holdings. The corporate entities, however, continued the fishing and conservation activities of the Beaverkill Association, later called the Beaverkill Fishing Association, started by Royal Voorhess, owner of the Voorhess Farm, and several of his regular boarders, which first filed as a society for that purpose in 1875. Van Put, Edward, The Beaverkill: The History of a River and Its People (Lyons & Burford, New York, 1996), pp. 78-79 back

2)   Allen, Frederick Lewis, Only Yesterday (Harper & Brothers, New York, 1931; Bantam Edition, 1959), pp. 12-13. back

3    Id., pp. 7-8. back

4)   Mac Francis’ book puts the number of copies at twenty-five. Francis, Austin McK., Land of Little Rivers: A Story in Photos of Catskill Fly Fishing (The Beaverkill Press, distributed by W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1999), p. 269. A letter in my possession from Bradley to “John” dated March 12, 1930, however, states “The book was printed last Spring [sic] but its completion was delayed because I found that the pasting and inscribing of more than 2000 prints was more of a job than I had anticipated.” That statement, taking into account that each booklet had forty photographs and lists forty-three members of the Club, suggests that he made up fifty copies. I have inspected four of the Bradley booklets personally: one lent by Steve Lott, handed down from his grandfather Leonard Q. Quackenbush, an early member of the Club; one lent by Roger Lynker, handed down from his great-grandfather Willich, a founding member of the Club and its President from 1923 to 1928; and two copies found in the Club’s safe. Bradley’s monograph in the booklet first was presented in a 48-page book, Constitution and By-laws and List of Members of the Beaverkill Trout Club and Beaverkill Holding Corporation Incorporated, March 1910 (privately printed, Harbor Press, New York, 1927), pp. 40-43, which included a number of essays of “reminiscences” of members. back

5)   Constitution and By-laws, op. cit., p. 40. back

6)  Id., at 41-42. back

7)  Ed Van Put’s book devotes four pages of text and two photographs to LaBranche, op. cit., pp. 175-178. The imitationist tries first to “match the hatch” with his selection of a fly to tie on to his tippet; the presentationist uses only a relatively few types of flies, believing that the perfection of the cast without subsequent “drag” across the surface, the “presentation,” is the sine qua non. Van Parr, from what he told me, see Chapter I, obviously tended toward LaBranchian presentationism, although I do not recall his ever mentioning LaBranche. back 

8)  Id., at 30-31. back 

9)  Hackensack, N.J., Bergen Evening Record issue of Monday, 16 September 1929, p. 2, col. 3. back 

10)  Constitution and By-laws, op. cit., p. 27. back 

11)  Id., at 27-28. back 

12)  Herbert v. Hanley, 242 U.S. 591 (1917) back



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