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Peeling Oniontown

There are certain places that seem forsaken. Afghanistan is one. Another lies outside the bucolic little Hudson Valley hamlet of Dover Plains. It's a place called Oniontown.

 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. Ethel Smith with her great-grandson. For most of its history, the residents of surrounding areas quietly judged the Oniontowners but left them alone up on the mountain. “Most locals know there’s no point in going up there,” a state police investigator told me. But recently, the demographics of the region have been changing. New York City homebuyers have plowed through Westchester and Putnam into traditionally working-class Dutchess County, ever in pursuit of cheaper, more bucolic upstate idylls. And in the past few years, suburban youth have taken to venturing up to gawk at the supposedly inbred hillbillies who’ve been popularized by urban myth. In early 2008, a shaky video called “Oniontown Adventures” appeared on YouTube. In it, three young jokers drive up a dirt road in an SUV at dusk, pretending like they’re reenacting a scene from Deliverance while commenting on the “little inbred hick village.” A guy in the backseat sarcastically says, “We’re gonna die.” The one in the passenger seat raises a pickax and says, “I’m gonna take one of those fuckers with me” as they blast twangy country music to pump themselves up. Once they cross the invisible border into Oniontown, everything seems to take on a preternatural significance. They roll down the windows and snap cameraphone photos of the trailers and trash. One guy spots a chicken on the dirt road and shouts, “Oh my God, look—a fucking chicken!” Then the video begins to slow down as the camera zooms in on a shadowy figure standing out in the woods. “That’s the sketchiest person I’ve ever seen in my life,” one of the boys says. Another shouts, “Look, I think there’s someone in the window!” This is followed by a couple Blair Witch slow-motion shots of other people standing in the woods. In the end, nothing really happens except a few terrible jokes and even worse laughter, concluding with one of the kids saying, “Didn’t they all look dazed? It’s like they are oblivious to the rest of the world.” Later that summer, perhaps inspired by the bro-trio’s now-popular YouTube video, two teenagers from the wealthy town of Mahopac ventured into Oniontown with a camcorder to poke fun at its residents. They weren’t so lucky. Oniontowners wielding bricks and rocks attacked their car, and both of them ended up in the hospital. The incident made national news, adding to the place’s infamy. The situation was exacerbated by state police investigator Eric Schaeffer’s ominous warning to the press: “Anybody that doesn’t belong there, anybody that’s not a resident, just stay out of Oniontown.” All of the commotion only served to make people more interested. Adventure-seeking teenagers, inspired by videos with titles like “A Day in an Inbred Village” and “Return to Fishkill,” arrived in droves, undeterred by the fact that their excursions had a good chance of being followed by a trip to the ER. In one clip, a teenage interloper’s camcorder points at the car’s floorboard, and all you can hear is girls screaming at the top of their lungs: “Oh my God! Fuck off! Leave us alone!” Below the clip, the video poster explained, “Some guy started chasing us down the road in his car and they blocked me and threw a rock at my windshield… these people are physco [sic].” Oniontown became a kind of real-life haunted house for bored suburban teens, albeit one with serious consequences. One girl got a brick to the side of her head. Car windows of Oniontown’s unwanted “fans” were routinely smashed, their passengers dragged out and beaten. Others have been chased around by cars full of Oniontowners, careening their vehicles into trees or escarpments of rock while trying to escape. Eventually, the local police contacted Google and had many of the videos pulled off YouTube, but the damage had already been done. Oniontown had gone viral. One police investigator told me, “Kids were coming from all over—Westchester, Fishkill, Cortlandt Manor. When we would pull them over they’d say they were lost, but they’d have Google Maps directions to Oniontown in the backseat.” Another investigator asked me, “What would you do if someone came into your neighborhood and started doing donuts and making fun of where you live and calling you names? People came in and messed with them, and so they reacted and then other people reacted back and it just snowballed from there. It wasn’t local kids. YouTube perpetuated it.” Dick Smith's hunting rifle lies on the dining room table. What lies at the heart of this dark star? What was the root of this fascination and fear of rural poverty? Where does a bad reputation come from? I set out to get some answers. I started my journey in Poughkeepsie, a glum city in that upstate Rust Belt sort of way. I met Betsy Kopstein Stuts, executive director of the Dutchess County Historical Society, in a centuries-old house near the center of the decayed and boarded-up downtown. Unpaid volunteers—elderly gentlemen and college girls—circulated in and out of her dusty office, looking like movie extras as they carefully catalogued centuries of Poughkeepsie artifacts. Betsy sat on the other side of a massive desk cluttered with papers, seeming bemused by my interest in so marginal a place as Oniontown. “We just don’t have a lot of facts. There are stories,” she said. What kind of stories? “That they’re inbred. That they built a Planned Parenthood nearby there in Dover because the girls out there were getting pregnant at 12 and 13. That Oniontowners are ten to a house and the police won’t go there. If you try to go out and talk to them, they’ll slip out the back and scatter into the woods. You can rarely do any interviewing with them or get any kind of story. That’s why there’s so little known about them—they don’t let anyone in.” I asked Betsy, a native of Poughkeepsie, what she had heard growing up. “It was the kind of place you didn’t want to go at night,” she said. “You went with a group, never alone. And you definitely didn’t go in there unprotected.” Betsy explained that she believed the community had chosen their own isolation—that they had shut themselves off to the world and paid the price of stigmatization. “The relationship between Dover and Oniontown is terrible to this day,” she continued, “If you move into a neighborhood and there’s one person there who doesn’t mow their lawn and doesn’t paint their house and leaves trash outside, how do you feel about that person? You reflect and say, I wish that person weren’t here.” But is it fair the way people talk about Oniontown? “No, it’s definitely not fair. But can you stop people from talking? Can you stop rumors? You just can’t.” A No Trespassing sign for a gun club on Oniontown road.


My “access” to Oniontown originated with a common form of journalistic chicanery—the friend of a friend. To be honest, I had some pretty serious reservations about asking a group of people who had basically fought a guerrilla war for their privacy if I could come up into their homes to poke my nose around and ask them scrutinizing questions. But somehow, as the journalist always does when thinking of the paycheck at the end of the rainbow, I managed to suppress my misgivings and watched my fingers dial the telephone number. To my surprise, Patty Smith and her mother-in-law, Ethel, the oldest living resident and “Queen Bee” of Oniontown, told me to come on up. By 11 AM, I was going up the infamous dirt road to the settlement.

Just through the cattle gate, past a flurry of NO TRESPASSING signs, stood a burned-out house, like a warning: Beware all ye who enter. The gnarled, charred husk of a structure had twisted into itself like something from an Edvard Munch painting. Oniontown proper was just a few steps ahead. It was as bleakly unimpressive as I had expected: just a steep little dirt road pocked with a couple of trailers that overlooked the entire valley—the Metro North train tracks, highway, and cliffs beyond. A couple of little kids played in the junk-strewn dirt yards. I told one of the little girls that I was looking for Ethel, and she ran inside a trailer. A pit bull eyed me suspiciously from across the road as I waited under the eaves. After a while, the door creaked open to reveal a tough-looking kid, with a flat-brimmed hat and a big belt buckle adorned with a marijuana leaf. “Ethel doesn’t want to talk right now,” he said. “She’s not feeling good.” He glowered in my direction. I asked when I should return, and he shrugged and muttered something about staying away from Oniontown, shutting the door in my face. I walked up the stark little hill to Patty’s trailer, but no one was home. After standing around on the dirt steppe for a bit, surveying the nearby pit-bull kennels and skeletal mountain tree line, I headed back to Dover to meet Renny Abrams, the town judge, at his bustling country store and gas station. Abrams, kindly and white-haired, bore an uncanny resemblance to an elderly Johnny Cash. He also had Cash’s nebulous politics—after an hour of talking to him I couldn’t tell whether he was right- or left-leaning. As a town judge and a business owner, he had a lot of experience dealing with the Oniontowners. Dick Smith’s pigs chowing down on some donuts. “When I was a teenager they were always bullied,” he said. “I remember experiencing some situations where a certain girl would be deemed ‘less than accepted’ because of her Oniontown status. But they, more than anybody, supported me when I started this store. They shopped here, they were our friends—to this day I am indebted to them. They’re not looking for something to set them higher in some social arena. They’re genuine. They’re real.” In small towns and insular communities, news spreads quietly and rumors proliferate amid the shadows. Abrams described how isolated events that were somehow related to Oniontown had stacked atop one another, reinforcing people’s prejudices. “Someone gets arrested for drugs—‘Oniontown is a drug den.’ Someone’s arrested for killing a deer out of season—‘Oh, they’re lawless up there.’” In the end, he concluded, it was unlikely that Oniontown could ever rectify its horrible reputation. “How do you get it all back? How do you get out from under it? How do you heal Oniontown?” He sighed. “I don’t think you can. It’s going to be that way forever. After all the people are dead and they bulldoze the place, the whole mystery will still be there.” Later that afternoon, I ventured back up to Oniontown and, as I approached, saw smoke coming from the stovepipe of Patty and Dick’s trailer. I knocked and was greeted by a hard-looking middle-aged woman wearing a flannel shirt and big spectacles. Patty welcomed me inside. A little Christmas tree was set up in the corner, and a massive woodstove kept the place tropically warm. A TV in the living room played Big Daddy via satellite. It was utterly normal. She introduced me to Desaray, her 19-year-old granddaughter, who had dropped out of school and was crashing with them for the time being. We sat on the couch, and Patty shared photos of her extended family—a lot of her relatives were in jail or had passed away. There were pictures of Desaray’s mother, Bambi, who was serving time for burglary. “We’re hoping she’ll get out before the New Year,” she said. Desaray’s 17-year-old brother, Joey, was also behind bars for an unrelated burglary. After perusing her photos, Patty brought over the stack of the day’s mail and retrieved a thick envelope, a prison letter from Joey. Inside were two long, handwritten missives, and the granddaughter and grandmother sat down to read them. “Awww. That little shit. It seems like he’s doing good. Listen to this,” Desaray said. How is OT? Any drama? It’s OT! Of course there’s drama! Laugh out loud. Patty continued reading her own letter, looking morose. “He wants to know what we had for Thanksgiving dinner.” Desaray Duncan in her bedroom. At dusk, a truck pulled up in the dirt outside. It was Dick Smith, Patty’s husband, fresh off his 12-hour shift spreading manure. In his late 50s, Dick was a proud, tough man, born and raised in Oniontown. I found him outside by a container unit, talking to a guy named Kenny, who was innocuously holding two vacuum-sealed bags of weed. Kenny chatted about a drug raid that had gone down in town the night before. “They had dope, crack, meth, everything,” Kenny said. “I kept telling them, when the cops are driving back and forth in front of your house every day, it’s going to go down soon. A lot of bad shit—they’re going away for a long time.” “Look at you, man.” Dick pointed to the bags. “Oh, it’s just weed. It’s nothing serious.” With that, Dick retired to the trailer to shave and get cleaned up. Once he was relaxed in his favorite armchair, we spoke about his hometown: “Everyone thinks you’re lower class, no good, second-rate. You get picked on and beat up. They say you’re inbred, and next thing you know you’re fighting with three or four guys. You learn to fight and take care of yourself. I’ve been fighting all my life. My hands and knuckles is scarred and broke from fighting.” I asked him how it had been when he was in school. “The kids pick on you. You grow up watching your back. They come up behind you and punch you in the head. A lot of people hide the fact that they’re from here. The stigma has always been there. My dad remembered it. My grandkids deal with it.” I felt comfortable enough to bring up the YouTube videos, and Dick was unrepentant about the way these unwelcome visitors had been driven out: “Older people used to run you out with a shotgun here if you weren’t invited. Now if you come in and act right, you’re all right. But if you come here looking for trouble, you’ll get trouble.” We stopped talking. Dick’s attention diverted to the reality show Storage Wars while Patty and Desaray made venison gravy in the kitchen. After the show concluded, Dick changed the channel, stopping on the climax of Total Recall—the scene where Quaid blows up the control room and everyone’s eyes are bugging out of their sockets from decompression and exposure to the Martian atmosphere. “What’s this?” Patty asked. “Total Recall,” Dick said, looking entranced. “They make him believe that the outside world would kill him.” After everything crumbles, Schwarzenegger and the female lead step out into the sunlight. As the triumphant music is cued, they move together for the final passionate kiss. Dick abruptly changed the channel. “It’s only on TV,” he scoffed. “What is?” Patty asked. “The happy ending.” Dick Smith plays with his granddaughter Hannah. Later that night, Patty gave me a ride in her Jeep back to my motel. Zooming down the dark mountain road with the car heater blasting, she told me that her father hadn’t wanted her to marry Dick because he was from Oniontown. “A lot of people are prejudiced, and I just don’t understand how they can be,” she said. “You have to get to know the person. You can’t judge them based on where they’re from. It’s gotten worse in the last couple of years.” When we reached the motel, she wished me goodnight and I got out. Famished, I walked down the main road until I found a place called Four Brothers Pizza Restaurant, apparently the only place in town that was still open. Inside, the restaurant was completely empty. Teenage waitresses paced behind the counter, spraying Windex on countertops and organizing stacks of napkins, trying to look busy for their manager. I sat down at the counter and ordered a beer. I asked two waitresses what they knew about Oniontown. “I heard it’s really dangerous,” one said. “Two kids from my school are from there—both of them got expelled,” said the other. “My boyfriend’s friends went up there and people shot at them.” “It’s a meth area. A whole lot of meth.” The bearded manager overheard the conversation and shuffled over to put in his two cents. “I know why it’s called Oniontown. It’s because that field on the other side of the tracks used to be filled with wild onions. Then there’s the whole incest thing. You see red-headed mulattos walking around in the little towns around here, and you know where they came from.” “But how can it be incest if the people are mixed race?” I asked. “The incest wasn’t at that initial stage,” he explained authoritatively. “It happened later on down the line, with the first cousins.” Patty prepares Easter baskets. The next morning I walked across Dover Plains past the wooden churches and Dunkin’ Donuts to a place called Murphy’s Auto Parts, where Oniontown Road begins its ascent. Dick had told me to speak with Warren Wilcox and Fred Murphy, the last surviving descendants of the original Oniontown families. I found them in the dusty office at the back of the auto-parts store. Warren was reluctant to talk. “Oniontown is dead,” he said. “All of the original people died off. We keep to ourselves and don’t want to be bothered.” While some people mentioned that inbreeding was the problem with Oniontown, others nervously discussed the residents’ supposed “intermingling,” or race mixing. Oniontown was all white until the late 60s and 70s, when several of Ethel Smith’s young daughters married black men and brought them back up to the mountain. “It’s those niggers up there that are causing the problems,” Warren said. “No one used to come in and bother us.” The YouTube incidents inevitably came up. Fred sat, folding his arms as he said, “If people came up into your yard and did donuts and called you a fucking nigger and a half-breed, what would you do?” After I left the auto parts store, I walked up the road to Oniontown, stopping periodically to pick up some rocks, in case I encountered pit bulls. The paved road dead-ended, and I spotted Desaray and her friends out in the middle of a big empty field. Desaray said she had gotten locked out of Patty and Dick’s trailer the night before. Rap-rock blared out of her young, pregnant friend’s SUV and the group stood around outside the car smoking, comparing tongue rings, and calling one another gay, passing time in the way that only young people can. They listened to Lil’ Wayne and booty-danced to a song that sounded like some kind of warped remix of “Cotton Eye Joe,” which I would soon learn was about titty-fucking. Then that popular Kid Cudi song came on and they sang along: Tell me what you know about dreams, dreams/ Tell me what you know about night terrors, nothing. I caught a ride with Desaray and her friends back up to Patty’s trailer. Desaray took me to her room and showed me her Joose and Four Loko collection. Like her grandpa, she said she had fought her way through school. “Kids would just sit there and push you and sometimes just punch you in the back of the head. I got jumped in eighth grade because I’m from here—a couple of girls came up and said my whole family was nothing but a bunch of inbred niggers and I just lost it.” I asked Desaray how people found out where they were from. “We normally keep it to ourselves that we’re from here. But it somehow came out in school that I was from Oniontown. After that certain people didn’t talk to me.” Desaray told me she was having a difficult time finding a job. Having an Oniontown address didn’t make it any easier. “The post office doesn’t deliver, so we all have PO boxes in town. But a lot of places around here want your mailing address and your home address. If they want both, it sucks. Because of our reputation we have to suffer everyone else’s stupidity.” A basket of plastic flowers and an American flag hang over Ethel Smith’s window. In 2008, Desaray moved upstate for a while with her dad. The Dover school system had always put her in remedial classes and held her back. But at the school upstate she said she had absolutely no problems. When she returned to Oniontown, it was in the midst of the influx of YouTubers. “I wasn’t back for five minutes when one of them pulled up. We would just be trying to do our own thing, and you’d hear someone shout ‘YouTuuuube.’ You’d hear it and you wouldn’t want to hear it. We would get three cars in here a weekend, like we were some kind of freak show.” She explained how they would defend against the scourge. “We would lock the cattle gate and shut them in here. They would of course roll up their windows and lock the doors, but as soon as they came in here the windows were gone anyway. My cousins would ask them, ‘What are you here for? You want to film us?’ And some would say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ And others were like, ‘No, no, no… wrong turn.’ Then my cousins would decide if they were lying or not. It’s been a lot better lately.” The countermeasures worked—Oniontown’s reputation is now more intimidating than ever before, and people once again fear for their lives to go there. Desaray’s cousin Jamal was a driving force in pushing out the gawkers. During my visit to Oniontown, Jamal had radiated nothing but ire and disdain toward me, perhaps with good reason, seeing as how I was camped outside his house like a paparazzo trying to get an interview with his grandmother Ethel. Desaray had a talk with Jamal and told him I was “cool,” and soon enough I was hanging out with the skinny 19-year-old kid in a flannel shirt and a fur winter hat. Jamal had grown up in Brooklyn, in the Cypress Hills Houses. His mother was from Oniontown, and they had left the city to be closer to family after his father left them. He knew what people said about Oniontown, but he didn’t think much of it. “These white boys up here call you inbred, call you niggers up here and shit. Makes you want to go to jail.” When Jamal was 13, he crushed a Dover kid’s skull during a fight and went to jail for 18 months. He said that he felt like the legend of his brutality might have played a part in attracting people coming up to the settlement. When he returned home from jail, the YouTube phenomenon was in full swing. “Every single day they were coming up here. We had to shut them down. I don’t want to be video-camera’ed like some kind of fucking animal.” Jamal said he planned to stay in Oniontown as long as Ethel was still breathing. “She’s our heart up here. She keeps us stable. Alive in a way, I guess you could say. We call her the Warden.” As Jamal and I smoked cigarettes, we looked out at the bleak vista—gray skies, a burned-down house, trailers. He sighed, “There aren’t any fucking monsters up here. Normal people, normal lives.” By 5 PM it was dark outside. I made one last abortive attempt to interview Ethel, waiting in the now-familiar eaves as voices murmured on the other side of the door, discussing. “She doesn’t want to talk,” reported a droopy-faced woman. Having been thrice denied by the Warden, I took my cue to leave. Dick and Patty were off at court—apparently some manure had fallen out of the back of Dick’s truck and hit a cop car, which resulted in charges of driving with an unsecured load. Without a ride down the mountain, I said goodbye to Desaray and began the long, dark walk down the empty road, beneath the black silhouettes of mountains and clouds backlit by the moon. As I walked I thought about how if you’re not part of their world, playing society’s games and making up stories to tell about yourself, those stories will eventually be made up for you by others. And I thought about how there may be places set back from the world, away from glowing floodlights and prying eyes staring out of car windows, but there is nowhere to go to escape the murmur of their endless talk. And I thought about how the world is a spinning top, plowing forward through the chaos of time, all of its weight precariously balanced on a single, ever-spinning tip called reputation.