Roxbury’s Doctor Doolittle

“Mr. Ed,” the 1960’s television comedy featuring a talking horse, actually originated in the Catskills. The series was inspired by the 25 Mr. Ed stories authored by Walter Brooks, who wrote most of them while living in Roxbury, Delaware County, from 1938 to 1958. In addition to over 100 other short stories, he also wrote 26 children’s books starring Freddy the Pig. Freddy and a supporting cast of wild and domestic animals could talk, leading some to call the series the American Winnie-the-Pooh.

Walter Brooks was born in Rome, New York, in 1886. Although the Ed and Freddy stories are set on farms, Stephen Collins, Brooks’ stepson, explains that Brooks “was not a farm boy. He grew up in a well-to-do, cultured home.” After college, Brooks worked in advertising, and then went on to work as editor and journalist for The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Saturday Evening Post, among other publications.

His first wife, Anne, died in the late 1940s during surgery. His second wife, Dorothy Collins, was a biologist who came to Roxbury from Scotia (near Schenectady) and who liked the area so much that she took a teaching position there. Pauline Hopkins, a neighbor and artist, was instrumental in bringing Dorothy and Walter together. According to Diana Halpern, Dorothy’s daughter, “One day, Walter said to Pauline, ‘Pauline, I know you like that miniature tea set which I have. Every time you get me together with Dorothy Collins, I will give you a piece from the set.’” In a recent conversation, Hopkins said she got the entire set before Walter proposed to Dorothy.

Brooks’ first Freddy book, Freddy Goes to Florida, appeared in 1927, a series he continued until just before his death on August 17, 1958. The moment when Brooks decided to write about Freddy or Ed is hard to pin down. Halpern speculates that he “started writing Freddy books for his own entertainment.” Hopkins observes, “Walter built Freddy in his mind and made Freddy do what he wanted him to do.”

Stephen Collins says, “Brooks always wrote plain, direct English. His books had easy-to-read, clear prose.” Hopkins remarks, “You could find the same dry humor in his writing that was in his conversation. He had fun with his books, he did not write just for profit.”

Brooks had a gift for bringing animals and humans together in a fictional yet plausible universe. In Horse Sense, Ed pilots a speedboat. Today, special effects people would spend millions on robots or computer simulations to put a horse in a speedboat. In 1938, in fewer than 100 words, Brooks convinced readers that a horse could drive a speedboat!

In Freddy the Detective, Freddy dons “a false mustache, a pipe, a cap like Sherlock Holmes’s…and an old suit.” I have no clue how a pig could wear clothes, but when reading about Freddy, it’s the most natural thing in the world to see a pig wear a disguise.

Beneath the fun and magic, however, is substance. Stephen Collins remarks, “In the books you see the values of friendship and decency; in one story a jailer treats prisoners so well they do no want to leave.” Michael Cart, who is writing a biography of Brooks, observed, “Freddy will walk the extra mile for any friend… He is always considerate and there are a lot of ethical dilemmas to face in the books.”

In “Do You Know Wilbur Pope,” from the July 4, 1942 Saturday Evening Post, Ed says to his owner Wilbur, “We make a good team. We agree in our tastes and disagree in our opinions, and arguments make life more interesting if you know that before you come to blows you can always settle ‘em with a bottle of beer.”

When Wilbur gets in business and marital binds, Ed often has incriminating information and offers to help Wilbur get out by using blackmail. But instead of blackmail, Wilbur and Ed do the right thing. Brooks makes their nemesis look so silly that they must do the right thing for Wilbur and Ed.

It was art that brought Brooks to Roxbury and the Catskills. As Michael Cart explains, “Walter and Anne came to Roxbury in 1937. Anne, an artist, wanted to study at the nearby Burro Ranch Art School. They fell in love with Roxbury. Travel guides in the 1930s and 1940s described Roxbury as one of the most charming villages in the Catskills.”

Brooks built a summer cabin, and a small lean-to in which to write, on the Walcutt property that overlooked the upper East Branch of the Delaware River and the hills beyond. In 1948, Brooks and Anne moved to a house on Roxbury’s Main Street; the “house,” he discovered, was actually two houses joined together, and the back house dated to the 1840s.

Brooks was also an antiquarian bookseller. His stepson recalls that he had nearly 10,000 books, “stacks upon stacks,” that ranged from an uncut set of Marcel Proust to a collection of English ghost stories.

Although the Freddy series was set in “Centerboro” and the Ed stories in rural Westchester County, a careful reader will find Roxbury throughout Brooks’ works.

After Bob and Sharon Cucinotta, the present owners of Brooks’ house, bought it from Stephen Collins and Diana Halpern in 1996, Bob began to research its history and to read the Freddy books to their children. He recognized the names of former owners and neighbors as characters in the boos; for example, Hylon Doty, who bought the house in 1858, became “Aaron Doty.”

Cucinotta also discovered a horse stall in the barn behind his house and said, “I always wonder if the stall helped inspire Brooks when he wrote the Ed stories?”

Although Brooks died nearly 50 years ago, he still has a strong presence. The Friends of Freddy is an international organization that promotes Brooks’ writing and researches his life and times. Two Catskill publishers help sustain Brooks’ Catskill connection. Wray Rominger, the owner of Purple Mountain Press, is an avid Friend of Freddy. When the series’ original publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, stopped publishing the books, Rominger’s enthusiasm inspired Peter Mayer of Overlook Press in Woodstock to acquire the series and to republish the books.

Peg Ellsworth, Roxbury Town Historian, advises that Dorothy Brooks ensured that her husband’s Roxbury would endure. Ellsworth recalls that “In the 1980s Dorothy spearheaded the time-consuming work of getting the 75 main buildings on Main Street listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places.”

At the Roxbury Library, the Friends of Freddy have made generous annual contributions to the library’s children’s collection and funded a display devoted to Brooks. Librarians Dian Seiler and Alice Iacovelli work with readers of all ages to introduce the to brooks’ writing, and at times they attract new readers with programs devoted to Freddy.

Despite the passing of time, Brooks’ writing remains fresh. And thanks to family , friends, the Friends of Freddy and village residents, Brooks, his writing and Roxbury remain accessible and remembered. So , if when driving in or near Roxbury on a misty autumn day you think you see a pig in a deerstalker cap or Wilbur and Ed resting beneath a stately tree, you just may not be imagining it!

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