Unraveling the Many Layers of New York’s Most Reclusive—and Feared—Community
Photos by Nadia Shira Cohen
Dick with his grandsons, closing his makeshift pig pen for the season as winter approaches. Dick Smith, known as the "Grandfather" of Oniontown, breeds pigs in order to sell them for slaughter.
There are certain places that, by their very nature, seem forsaken. Afghanistan is one. Another lies an hour and a half north of New York City outside the bucolic little Hudson Valley hamlet of Dover Plains. It’s a place called Oniontown. Despite its name, Oniontown isn’t an actual town—it’s more of a mountainside enclave filled with a haphazard collection of run-down trailers on a dead-end dirt road. The settlement has a notorious reputation that conjures up words like hillbilly, inbred, and drugs. Residents have a hard time finding jobs in town because of their addresses. There are stories about people throwing onions onto the court when the local high school basketball team plays away games. While in the past 100 years women attained suffrage, segregation was ended, and civil rights were established that protected minorities, the century-old stigma toward Oniontown has remained remarkably intact.
In Dover Plains, the very word Oniontown causes people to frown, as if confronted with a foul smell or some unpleasant, long-repressed memory. Historically, Oniontowners seem to have always been thought of as somehow “less than” people in Dover—gap-toothed hillbillies who dwell in a kind of medieval mountain darkness. “Subhuman,” as a few locals put it. Even Dover’s post office, less than a mile away, doesn’t consider Oniontown to be worthy of receiving mail.
No one, not even the residents of the settlement, can definitively say where Oniontown’s peculiar name originated. Some believe it’s a derivation of Youngintown, on account of people in the settlement having so many children. Others say it’s because people there smelled like onions. A third faction suggests that onion was once slang for “uneducated.”
In the 1800s, poor white tenant farmers settled in the area. The earliest mention I could find of Oniontown appeared in the 1908 book Historic Dover: “One mile south of Dover Plains is a little settlement, composed of two classes—males that don’t do anything and females that bring up the children and take the business off the old man’s hands.” The little smattering of trailers and homesteads seems to have always held an inexplicable draw for outsiders. In 1947, International News Service reporter James L. Kilgallen ventured up to Oniontown and penned a trio of articles about the outpost with headlines like “Escape from Atomic Age: Real Life Tobacco Road 100 Miles from Broadway,” “No Radio or Auto Disturbs Hillbillies of Colony, a Century Behind Times,” and “Woman of 39 has 13 Children.” In his articles, Kilgallen made fun of Oniontowners for being scared of cameras and not being well-versed in Shakespeare, while simultaneously praising their simple, pastoral way of life: “Picture a community without an electric light, without a radio, without a movie house, without a bathtub, where the kiddies rarely get to eighth grade in school, where illiteracy abounds… rough hard-bitten Oniontown is primitive.”
In the final piece of his series, Kilgallen and his photographer drive away from Oniontown, past lavish country estates, and the photographer invokes the noble savage, saying, “I doubt if a lot of rich people who live in those estates are happier than the people we saw in Oniontown. You don’t find Oniontown worrying about income taxes or the atomic bomb.” Twelve years later Kilgallen returned to the settlement for a follow-up piece, brilliantly titled, “Quaint Oniontown Still Hides Behind Its Patched Rag Curtain.” The community still didn’t have electricity.