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The historic Sunday Rock is a landmark along Route 56 in South Colton.
The historic Sunday Rock is a landmark along Route 56 in South Colton.

Musical pays tribute to Colton's history and legendary rock

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A locally written musical gets a 20th anniversary remake on Colton-Pierrepont Central School's stage this week. Sunday Rock - the Folk Musical was written by Colton resident Evelyn Riehl, who wanted to pay tribute to the town's history and people. Named for the glacial boulder - Sunday Rock - that sits along Route 56 in South Colton, the show is the story of the people who lived in the rough-and-tumble wilderness and townsfolk a hundred years ago. It opens Wednesday night.

Todd Moe spoke with writer/composer Evelyn Riehl and her son, Bill, about the musical, the town and the big rock that many locals say still separates the woods from the world.

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Todd Moe
Morning Host and Producer

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Residents of Colton, New York saved the Sunday rock from demolition during highway construction twice, in 1925 and 1965. Last year, the rock was awarded a spot on the National Registry of Landmarks. Traditional Arts in Upstate New York has also listed it on its register of very special places. The musical Sunday Rock – the Folk Music is named after this famous rock.

“Well, Sunday Rock is an icon in the North Country,” said Evelyn Riehl, who wrote the musical 20 years ago. She has lived in Colton since the late 1940s and said, “It’s glacial erratic, and it’s been there for a long, long time. The first time it was moved, it was moved by the glacier.”

The rock was eventually moved by a 12-horse team to prevent the state department from blasting it out of the way of a new road. Later, Riehl says she remembers the rock being moved by machine. She said, “And everybody was there to watch.  And from then on, it was a social, dividing line between the south woods and, a lot of people say, civilization.”

Riehl says she likes to talk about the villages to the north of the rock. “A lot of work was done by those men for seven days. They didn’t stop on Sunday when they were working in the woods. And the old story is that they hung their britches on the foot of the bed and they hadn’t stopped swinging when it was time to get up again. They worked seven days, no Sunday, seven days,” said Riehl.

Riehl heard the songs and stories of these woodsmen for years. She is a graduate of the Crane School of Music and was a music teacher in the North Country. She began compiling stories and songs from local loggers. Riehl said, “Their stories were so good, and they had so much character, those guys, and senses of humor.”

Riehl’s son, Bill, said, “There’s a well-established tradition in classical music circles to gather folk songs, and Mother comes from that classical music tradition. She was educated at Crane, had her whole career teaching school, and it’s no surprise that a musician, Evelyn Riehl, would pick up on these stories, on the songs, and then do something with them.”

By the mid-1970s and the bicentennial, she decided to return to the lore of Sunday Rock and the history of the town of Colton. Riehl began work on a musical based on the idea of the early days of settlement when Sunday Rock was seen by many as a dividing line between civilization and the wild.

“A basic outline of what interplay between village life and the temporary uproar of the drive going through, and the temporary uproar of the fathers going to work in the woods in the winter. So there was always this dichotomy; they’re doing a different thing than us here back in the village, with the kids and the women,” said Riehl. She retired from teaching in 1976 and spent time RVing with her husband, and said, “That maybe loosened me up some, and we came home and in the summer I started writing and I don’t know, if you’re a creative person, I don’t know of anyone creative who can put their finger on the creative process. It just happened.”

Riehl sat down every night to write the music and dialog for the show. She said, “Before I knew it, I was on the downhill slope and it was really marvelous because I felt good.”

The characters in the musical include Margaret, an Irish widow whose husband was killed before her second child was born. Her brother-in-law stepped in to help her. Riehl said, “She was, if I can use the expression, lace-curtain Irish. And he was in the woods and he was a horseman and he raised and traded horses. And as far as Margaret was concerned, Mike was just on the wrong side of the track. But he was taking care of her family just like it was a part of him. And I didn’t know at the end how I was going to get them together, because I knew I had to.”

Riehl says that there is a second young couple in the musical: Margaret’s daughter, a high school graduate, and a young Frenchman who was raised in the forest at the lumber camp. Riehl said, “And there was this nice, engaging business of exploring each other. And of course, they get together at the end and so do Margaret and Mike.”

The musical features local characters, history and musical flavor. Riehl’s son Bill moved out of the North Country to live in South Carolina, and he has been the musical director of this production of the musical. He said, “The first time I became aware of the show, I was living in New Orleans, and this was in 1976 or 1977. Mom had a couple of tunes, and I had this big old upright piano, and she came to me and said, ‘What do you think of this, what do you think of this?’ Well, what did I know as a barbershop quartet guy three years out of grad school? But the seeds were there.”

Bill lived in a variety of places around the world before retiring in 2006 and moving to his wife’s hometown in South Carolina. There, he discovered that at age 60, you can study for free. He earned a music degree and said, “Then, situation conspired so I thought that I could actually produce this show this summer and, lo and behold, I start looking at Mom’s music not as a son and as a barbershopper, but as a fellow musician. And I tell you, there’s magic in that stuff. And I was lucky enough to have at least a little bit of insight into the musical side, and a great deal of affection for the work of a fellow professional, although I’m doing myself, I’m over-selling my case here because the work that mother did was spectacular.”

According to Bill, the show could not have been produced without the technical and human support of Grasse River Players, the financial infrastructure of the Colton Historical Society and the Colton-Pierrepont Central School. Bill said, “So our idea is to link these three very important organizations, associate producers, in future inter-generational, educational, historical, theatrical projects.”

“Well, Bill says that the tunes are enchanting. I don’t know, but I hope I wrote more than a tune,” said Riehl. Bill replied and said, “And she did. She wrote a lot more than a tune. But what’s particularly striking to me is that the people in this cast, they didn’t know these tunes coming in. But immediately, within hours of their first exposure, her tunes were on their lips. There’s a whole lot more to it than the tunes to be sure, but Mother wrote terrific melodies. But she also wrote a pretty good, integrative story.”

Bill says that there is a synthesis among the songs in the musical, and that they are linked by a recognizable style. He said, “And I think one of the things that Mother would talk about: she calls this a folk musical. And it’s a folk musical because just plain folk can do it. Just plain folk can sing the harmonies and toe-tap the melodies. It’s got that kind of a folk-y feeling, and it’s been wonderful to work with.”

Bill is the musical director for the show, and it is directed by Karen Wells. It includes over two dozen local actors and musicians. It opens Wednesday night and continues through Sunday afternoon.

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