First installment in a series
The phone rang one afternoon in 1999 at my makeshift Stop the Plant office—a third-floor walkup in the back, donated by realtor Steve Kingsley. On the other end was a gravelly, well-measured voice: “This is Milt Meisner. You got my wife all riled up at some meeting last weekend in Claverack. Meet me at the diner in Hudson at 8 am tomorrow.” Click.
Oh jeez, I thought, here we go. Fearing the worst from the tone of his phone call, I braced myself for an earful of pro-SLC slogans, which were then saturating all local media: full-page print ads, radio ads, and hokey TV spots. (One of these featured a 1950s-style housewife removing a sheet of chocolate chip cookies from the oven, saying to her kids in a sing-song voice, “I just don’t know how anyone could be against it!”)
By now I was getting used to meetings where I’d have to shoot down a litany of company lines: about how “the plant” was supposedly going to create lots of new jobs, be squeaky-clean, and hidden from public view. Each claim was easily debunked with facts straight from SLC’s own application—except that the company’s misleading p.r. had firmly lodged these ideas deeply in many residents’ consciousness.
All I knew about Meisner at that point was that he had farmed in the area for a long time, had a farmstand on 9H&23 in Greenport, and that his wife Rosalyn had been at a meeting that weekend in the home of Irma Brownfield and Frederick Rostock on Route 23B.
The 20 people crammed into the living room heard a presentation from me and Dr. Ira Marks—who had delivered a large percentage of the babies born in Columbia Memorial Hospital for several generations—about the health effects of the proposed coal-fired St. Lawrence Cement plant. The pollution, we’d noted, would largely move from west to east, directly over Claverack.
So the next morning, we drank coffee in a booth the Columbia Diner, which was then run by a cook with the unusual nickname of Chewie. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Milt was already deeply skeptical of the cement company’s claims. “Roz” had relayed much of the content of the meeting in detail, and he simply wanted to hear some of the details firsthand, and quiz me in more depth. I learned, among other things, that at one point he had worked some of the scarce tillable land on Becraft Mountain adjoining the former Atlas Cement quarries—and that he was considered by many to have been the first organic farmer in the County.
According to his Register-Star obituary in 2010, Milt was actively involved in NOFA, Agway, the Cooperative Extension, the Dairy League, and helped found the Hudson Farmer’s Market. Born in Hudson in the 1920s, and a graduate of Hudson High, Milt wore a number of other hats besides farmer, including realtor, co-owner of a car dealership. His seemingly gruff demeanor—which usually included a well-worn baseball cap and tinted glasses, reflecting many hours spent outside in his fields—belied his warm commitment to his community, including involvement in both the Greenport synagogue and Meals on Wheels.
Meeting Milt in this way reminded me to never judge a neighbor by their demeanor or demographic profile. People from all walks of life either already doubted the cement company, or could be convinced to abandon their support, if they could just get more accurate and balanced information than was available in the local media. He and Ros were steadfast supporters of our cause from start to finish, and their involvement gave many others the courage to get involved.
Note: My remembrance of Ira Marks, who himself died in 2011, can be found here.