Greg Chorvas is the superintendent of the town’s parks and recreation department, which oversees the maintenance of what is officially known as the Cantine Veterans Memorial Complex. For some, such an endeavor might be just a job, but as Chorvas grew up in Saugerties, Cantine Field is something of a labor of love.
“Growing up in the village, I did spend a lot of time at what was just a couple of ball fields here,” said Chorvas. “It wasn’t a complex what we know of today.”
The sprawling complex, its fields and bleachers and courts for tennis and basketball is more modern than one might think, at least in its current incarnation. For something that’s been a part of Saugerties for as long as anyone can remember, what you see today is only a few decades old.
Cantine Field began, rather humbly, more than a century ago. In the late 1800s, Cantine Field was known as the Town Driving Park. While the area was owned by the Cantine family, it was open to the community as a recreational area. In the 1930s, while still a publicly-used but privately-held piece of land, Cantine Field was given an extensive upgrade as a project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which, to village historian Majorie Block, evokes the efforts of our current government
“[There was] a lot of work done in the 1930s through Works Progress,” said Block. “It was kind of like the stimulus today.”
The construction, which employed many out-of-work locals, was completed in 1937, and included a grandstand at the complex’s main baseball field and the addition of two more ball fields.
Martin Cantine, who owned and operated the Martin Cantine Paper Company, officially handed what was then a 31-acre property over to the town of Saugerties on May 8, 1938, along with a sizeable monetary donation for its maintenance. It was officially named “Cantine Field,” and for decades it served as it does today, as a community park for organized and recreational sports, leisure and other essential quality of life endeavors ordinarily associated with the great outdoors.
A series of events in the 1970s helped cement the park as the crown jewel of the community, beginning in the early part of the decade when the Knaust Estate donated 39 acres of land adjacent to the original Cantine Field to the town, more than doubling it in size. The donation was made on condition that the field also commemorate Saugerties veterans. It was then named the Cantine Veterans Memorial Complex, a new name for an old park that was about to take on new dimensions thanks to the dedication of one of its greatest supporters, the late Jack Keeley
“That started in approximately 1977,” said Greg Chorvas, town superintendent of buildings and grounds, who recalled how Keeley helped the town apply for funding through the Palisades Interstate Park Commission under the Land, Water and Conservation Fund in the amount of $96,000. The town was awarded the 50 percent matching grant, and an additional $96,000 non-matching grant was obtained a few months later through a combination of federal and state public works grants, thus fulfilling the community’s matching obligation for the initial grant.
“Then things started to roll,” Chorvas said.
The pair of grants enabled Cantine Field to add six more ball fields, two of which were lighted. Also a result of the funding was the construction of the large pavilion beyond the left-center fence of the original baseball field. The money also helped lead to the building of the senior center, other playgrounds and basketball courts, shuffle boards courts and parking lots, and countless other additions to an already immense park.
The Cantine Veterans Memorial Complex continued to grow, with various athletic organizations which used the fields pitching in to improve them. And in 1990, then-supervisor Vernon Benjamin and his administration began buying an additional 67 acres to the north of Cantine Field, a process that continued through 1991.
The following year, $65,000 was raised to help complete the Small World Playground, a complex wood playground at the new far end of Cantine. And in 1998, the Kiwanis Ice Arena came to fruition, giving an athletic complex which had few limitations another piece in its extensive puzzle.
Cantine Field continues to be used today, both as a home for little league and Babe Ruth, for some of the teams of Saugerties High, and for recreational leagues in numerous sports. Schools from Greene County have used the fields while their own were still buried under snow at the beginning of the spring season, and Ulster County Community College has called the primary baseball field its home on more than one occasion.
And there are the non-sports uses, including the community’s biggest event, the annual Hudson Valley Garlic Festival, which brings as many as 50,000 people to the town and village in a single weekend. Though some from outside the community might look at such a massive event as overwhelming, there was precedent set in Saugerties nearly 20 years ago, when two separate events set the table for what was to come.
“Back in 1993, in the course of over 2 and a half weeks of August , we had the Ulster 300 musical celebration, and then literally less than a week later for the span of three days, we had what was billed as the Giant German American Tri-centennial Celebration of the Hudson Valley. It drew tens of thousands of people. Those were two one-time events. Since that time there have been a few others, but nothing in comparison to what happens now.”
All of these events, the festivals and car shows, the out-of-town softball tournaments and the Mets camp for kids, they all bring in revenue.
“Where I think there’s uniqueness that stands alone is how much of this has evolved over 30-plus years through the efforts of the community, and more importantly through non-taxpayer derived funding,” Chorvas said. “I’m not talking municipal grants; I’m talking monetary amounts of money that come in to my department through Little League, Babe Ruth, AYSO, Kiwanis. There are so many, I’m afraid of missing some.”
But even more important, perhaps, than the money Cantine brings in is the spirit of community, one which Chorvas said is clear in his own staff, as well as those who use the park itself.
“The facilities that we’ve got, that can only have come to be through the efforts of the community,” Chorvas said, noting that not only have different leagues and organizations donated money on top of their usage fees to help maintain Cantine Field, but they also donate their time. This Saturday, both the local Little League and Babe Ruth organizations will hold their annual cleanup days, picking up litter and debris, painting and repairing dugouts, reinstalling protective netting and preparing the fields for games.
“There’s a lot of pride and a lot of sense of community ownership, I guess is the best way to put it,” Chorvas said. “When you devote so many years, so much time, so much dedication, I think one would only naturally be overprotective. And I think it’s one of the reasons that we don’t have the major vandalism of other communities, especially to the south of us. I’ve heard some horror stories. It’s a shame.”
Chorvas feels that sense of community, too.
“I’ve always said I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “I love what I do here. I love Saugerties. I love the community. And I feel that, besides my job and my responsibility to my job, I have a responsibility to the community and the residents. If someone is going to grow up in the community, one needs to give back to the community.”
Block, who also grew up in Saugerties, feels it too.
“I think places like Cantine Field and Seamon Park, they really become a part of your life,” she said. “At my age, I can still remember going to Cantine Field and listening to the Battle of the Bands on the 4th of July. I swam in the pool there, and my grandchildren are now swimming in that pool.”
According to a survey conducted in 2007, an estimated 40,015 people use Cantine Field each year.
“This is actually participants,” said Chorvas. “There were 14 different groups and organizations who utilize the complex. Little league that year had 975 boys and girls, including handicapped program.”
Chorvas added that the number did not include spectators and those not engaging in organized athletics.
Block, who clearly has a great sense of history, noted that Cantine Field means as much to the community today as it ever has.
“A lot of people don’t have money, and the economy is bad,” she said. “But Cantine Field is a safe haven, and it’s continued to be a safe haven. That’s important.”