Best Friends and Summertime Memories of Hillsdale

Our guest blogger is Tim Belknap, a former Hillsdale resident. Tim contacted the Historians of Hillsdale in search of information about James Donald “Don” Bell, who practiced law in Hillsdale in the early 20th century. When we heard about his family history and saw the photographs below, we knew it would make for an interesting post. Here’s Tim in his own words:

 

My grandparents, Robert and Elsie Green, had only one child, Lisa.  She married  Robert Belknap in Hillsdale while both were on leave from the service just before the atomic bombs ended WWII.  So instead of having to take part in the invasion of Japan, which seemed my dad’s destiny at the time, he was able to take his new bride back to the Far East and resume his pre-war work as a young oil company executive. Between 1946 and Dad’s retirement in 1969, my parents lived overseas.  In 1949, while my mother was on leave visiting Granny in Hillsdale, I was born in Great Barrington.

Our family — three boys, Mom, Dad and Nanny (who became part of the family and a much loved figure in Hillsdale) lived in London,  Indonesia, and Kenya.  Because of leaves granted to my parents, I spent part of my kindergarten and sixth-grade years at Roe Jan and my entire junior and senior years.  (I attended last summer’s class of ‘67 reunion at the Mt. Washington House.)

I graduated from Syracuse with a journalism degree in 1971 and worked steadily in that profession until 2008, including eight years at the Detroit Free Press and 14 years at Business Week.

After my parents came home in 1969, Mom became the first director of the new Hudson Day Care Center and then worked for many years for Columbia County child services.  Dad was one of the first professors at Columbia-Greene Community College, teaching economics and business.  He died in 1976 and Mom sold the house in Hillsdale in 1985 — I think it just about broke her heart but she needed to downsize.

My wife, Susan, wanted to move  to western NY to help take care of her parents, and after 9/11, I was ready for a change of scenery from NYC.  Having both retired now, we enjoy our ministry as Jehovah’s Witnesses.  We live up by Lake Ontario in orchard country, and our family includes two beagles and Kara, our grand-daughter.

A Little Girl’s Summer Paradise

Imagine stinking hot summers down in the metropolis in the 1920s, with no air-conditioning, the heat baking the asphalt and bricks, soot-stained sweat on your clothes and swimming pools few and far between.  Those families who had the means bought summer retreats up in the Berkshires or Catskills that offered everything a kid could wish for: swimming holes, brooks, big lawns, woods to explore, cool nights, dogs to play with, and long, long days.

Such idyllic summers were enjoyed by a certain little girl, Lisa, born in 1920, who would grow up to become my mother, and her cousin Edward Underhill.  Lisa’s grandparents were Robert and Elsie Green and their summer place was one mile north of  the traffic light in Hillsdale on what is now Route 22 and then was the White Plains Post Road.  Their house was just north of where a bridge takes 22 over a brook before the Hunt Road intersection.  The house, which is still there though enlarged, is on the east side of 22, which was closer to the house then, having been slightly rerouted a few decades ago.

Robert Green would come up on the Friday night train from his job as a heating engineer in Manhattan and rejoin his family for the weekend.  My grandmother stayed up in Hillsdale all of the summer and most of the fall.  Eventually, she became a full-time resident and knew just about everyone in Hillsdale.

Both Lisa and Edward are gone. I hope these photos evoke what a wonderful time a  kid could have on a summer day in Hillsdale.

My grandmother’s house was a converted barn, moved to the site around 1908 from elsewhere on the property’s original nine acres.

The Post Road in the 1920s had little traffic, but there were plenty of trout in the brook.

A cool breeze through the window, a fishing expedition: Robert and Elsie Green knew the ways to please a child.

Plenty of water, plenty of shade — back then there were still elm trees.

A setter seems to look off into eternity. Actually, something has his interest on the driveway. Behind him are the maples lining the road, and behind them is the slope of the old Renwick place on Hunt Road.

Edward and Lisa were lifelong friends. Five decades later, two of their offspring would marry in the orchard not far from the spot where this photo was taken.

 

Young members of the Hendrian Clan come up from the city for a visit. Bait is dispensed, the catch recorded.

Shunned work and a walk in the woods.

Elsie Green, a stalwart of the Hillsdale Garden Club, could name every bird, flower and tree found on the property.

Kids grow up.

 

With the 1940s came the Second World War. Edward was decorated with the Silver Star for valor on D-Day, Omaha Beach. Mom was literally sworn to secrecy — I have a copy of the order — for her service in Naval Intelligence. After the war, Edward and his wife had two daughters, my mom and dad three sons. They got together again in Hillsdale at various times over the years, and their children enjoyed the brook and the woods as much as they did.

The Historians of Hillsdale are grateful to Tim for sharing these memories.

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Hello Central?

The Historians of Hillsdale recently found themselves wondering when the telephone first came to Hillsdale. This information turned out to be a little trickier to find than we imagined, because of the difference between a telephone and a telephone company.

Mr. Bell and his telephone

Recall that in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the first US patent for a device that could transmit and receive intelligible voice communication – the telephone.

Obviously, there were no telephones in Hillsdale (or anywhere else in the United States) prior to 1876. But Bell’s invention spread quickly and in just a few years, phones were common, especially in cities and large towns. But in rural communities like Hillsdale, it took a while for the telephone to become widespread.

Still, as early as 1909, the trade publication Telephony noted the launch of the North Hillsdale & Green River Telephone Company:

“HILLSDALE, N. Y. (Columbia County) The North Hillsdale and Green River Telephone Company has been incorporated with a capital stock of $4500. The incorporators are Edward Harrington (sic), Frank J. Shaw, Frank Mercer, Adam Steuerwald, John P. Gilmore and George De Larmater of Hillsdale; Albert Moore of Austerlitz. Lines will be built through several towns in Columbia county, including Hillsdale and Austerlitz. The eastern terminus will be West Stockbridge, Mass.”

But as we mentioned, there is a difference between a telephone company and a telephone. In fact, the telephone got to Hillsdale 27 years before 1909. The August 3, 1882 issue of the Hillsdale Herald reported:

“Communication by telephone is becoming one of the greatest conveniences of our day, but it is often a long time before an isolated village can secure such advantage. However, it now seems possible for Hillsdale to enjoy such opportunities, which will increase her business in many ways. A line has been in successful operation for about two weeks from West Copake to Copake Flats, with a branch to the Rhinebeck depot, thence to the iron works. Formerly, a telegraph message intended for Copake Flats had to be taken from the wires at the iron works and forwarded by vehicle at considerable expense and delay. Now it is immediately forwarded through the telephone at the nominal price of ten cents and answered at once. This line will soon be extended to Ancram and Ancram Lead Mines, which will increase its business. Hillsdale should at once construct a line to the iron works south, and the state line east, where they can connect with South Egremont and Great Barrington. If Hillsdale will build these two pieces of line, it is more than probable that the Hudson Telephone Company will stretch a line from Hillsdale to Hudson…”

In that era, telephones were directly connected from one place to another, generally between two businesses. If you had a telephone line connected to another business, you could only communicate back and forth. To call someone else, you had to install a second direct line. Obviously, this was an impractical way to build a network, and before long, telephone companies were building centralized switchboards, enabling anybody with a line to talk to anybody else with a line. We’re sure you remember images like this:

(Incidentally, although the electromechanical automatic telephone exchange was invented in 1888, manual switchboards could be found nearly a century later. Hillsdale Historian Lauren had a part time job as a New England Telephone switchboard jockey during high school and college.)

Even though the early proliferation of the telephone was from business to business, residential telephones were not unheard of:

“R. L. Cannon has completed a telephone line from the railroad station to his residence. Efforts are being made to continue the line to North Hillsdale. Cyrenus Tyler is working up the project at that end of the line. The stations [phone locations] at present are at the depot, the Herald office, and Mr. Cannon’s house.” — Hillsdale Herald, July 22, 1880

Richard Cannon was born in 1848 in Maryland and at some point moved to Hillsdale. In the 1890s, he was Hillsdale’s postmaster. The 1900 census lists his occupation as railroad agent, so it makes sense that he installed a phone line between his home and the depot.

Hillsdale Railroad Station

We believe that Mr. Cannon had the first residential telephone in Hillsdale, although given its limited connections, he almost certainly used it mainly for business reasons.

One reason Mr. Cannon’s telephone is remarkable is that it was installed right here in Hillsdale a mere four years after Mr. Bell got his patent for the device.

The advantages of having a telephone were immediately apparent to some business people. This advertisement appeared in the July 3, 1884 issue of the Herald:

The ad reads, “Jas E. Phillip UNDERTAKER. Orders by telegraph to Philmont station, thence by telephone to undertaking office, promptly attended to. Will take entire charge of all arrangements from time of death to interment.”

Although the telephone spread widely and quickly, even in 1940 telephone companies still felt it was necessary to advertise the benefits of long distance phone service:

But as exciting as the arrival of the telephone was to some, not everyone was enthralled. From the February 4, 1910 issue of the Hillsdale Harbinger:

“Mrs. Frost: Who was it that said ‘Peace, Perfect Peace?’
Mr. Frost: Someone whose telephone was out of order.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

In Search of Nobletown

The Historians of Hillsdale love a good mystery and we’ve been trying to solve a big one: where were the boundaries of Nobletown, the predecessor to modern-day Hillsdale?
If you are not familiar with Nobletown or the contentious role it played in colonial times, don’t feel bad. It was new to us too. Here’s some quick background.

Way back in 1664, the British conquered the Dutch province of New Netherland, which included the lands from present-day New York City to Albany. This is why we all speak English instead of Dutch.

From 1624 to 1664, grants from the Dutch West India Company incentivized enterprising Dutchmen like Killian Van Rensselaer to buy vast parcels of land on either side of the Hudson River from local Mahican Indians. The Van Rensselaers and those who followed administered their holdings like feudal kingdoms, where tenant farmers paid rent on, but did not own, the land they farmed.

Still with us? Good, we’re almost done. When the British took over they settled a border dispute with Connecticut by agreeing that the southeast corner of NY/northeast corner of CT would be 20 miles east of Hudson River. (Source: Brook)

The King’s commissioners seem to have thought this principle would also apply to the boundary with Massachusetts. Not so fast, said the Van Rensselaers, who pointed out that their land extended well into the Housatonic Valley – more than 20 miles from the Hudson River.

Fast forward to 1751. The border was still contested. And that year, an unscrupulous Sheffield land speculator named David Ingersoll, smelling gold, discovered that the Mahican Indians who had originally sold land to the Van Rensselaers and Livingstons had in fact never parted with title to certain lands on Taconic Mountain, in the northeast corner of the manor of Livingston and in extensive tracts comprising most of the present towns of Hillsdale, Austerlitz and Canaan. He further ascertained that the Indians cherished a deep-seated resentment against the Van Rensselaers and the Livingstons, who had appropriated these land tracts without paying for them. (Source: Pope, p. 21)

The tenant farmers chafed under the thumb of their landlords and were allured by Ingersoll’s promises that that if they joined in the movement to establish Massachusetts authority over the disputed territory they need pay no more rent to their feudal landlords and could buy their land outright from the Mahicans, who claimed they’d never sold it to the landlords in the first place. (Ibid.)

As we said, we’re trying to figure out the bounderies of Nobletown. Here’s what we are reasonably sure is true:

• Robert Noble emigrated from Sheffield, MA in 1748 or ’49 and settled in the vicinity of eastern Hillsdale. He purchased a five-mile-square parcel of land from the Stockbridge Mahican tribe, which he modestly called Nobletown. He soon became the acknowledged leader of a group whose common purpose was to resist the claims of Livingston and Van Rensselaer. Some of these pioneers (or “squatters”) had located on the upper Green River, others in the present village of Spencertown, and others in the eastern part of Hillsdale (Source: Pope, p. 27)

• Noble built a homestead on or just to the north of the Kinderhook Road, near the Spoor Homestead. Portions of the original Spoor house are believed to be part of a house  located just south of Boice Rd. and east of Rt. 71 in North Egremont (see Map 7, below). Nevertheless, conflicting data suggest that the Kinderhook Road was either today’s Rt. 21 (Cakeout Turnpike) or today’s Rt. 71. (Source: Leveille, P. 79)

• From 1755 to July 1766, the Van Rensselaers organized many attempts to arrest Noble and chase the Nobletown settlers back into Massachusetts. Guns were fired, lives were lost and in the end, the Columbia County Sheriff and 100 men (and some British soldiers) ransacked Nobletown and drove its residents back to Massachusetts.

• The long-disputed boundary between New York and Massachusetts wasn’t resolved until 1783, and not formally until 1787. Hillsdale was established in 1788.

• Captain John Francis Collin, who wrote the History of Hillsdale in 1888, was a serial plagiarist and often a highly unreliable source. Nothing personal.

We have spent many hours at the Columbia County Clerk’s Office; The Columbia County Historical Society; the New York State Library and Archives in Albany; the Pittsfield Athenaeum and (online) the Massachusetts Archives.

Through these resources as well as from numerous books and online sources (notated at the end of this post), we have accumulated an interesting collection of deeds, maps and property descriptions that have helped us narrow the search.

Here’s one of the problems we have faced in researching written descriptions of plots. This is a portion of a description of the boundary lines of Mt. Washington, MA (emphasis ours):

“…eastwardly, on a line of the town of Sheffield; beginning at three oak trees standing in the boundary line between this state and the state of Connecticut, and from said trees, north, twenty-seven degrees east, twenty-one chains and fifty lengths, to a pine tree; thence north, fifteen degrees east, one mile sixty-seven chains and fifty links, to a heap of stones; thence north, twenty-three degrees east, one mile and forty chains, to a tree; thence, north, fourteen degrees west, two miles and seventy-five chains, to a heap of stones…” (Source: Shearn, Pp. 30-31)

You get the picture.

The other problem with historical documents such as deeds and wills is that, unless someone has gone to the trouble of transcribing them, they are hand-written. In some cases, the scribe had magnificent handwriting verging on fine calligraphy; in other cases, the documents appear to have been written by someone who took a “Gentleman’s C” in penmanship, replete with cross outs and spelling errors.

Maps can be more enlightening…and confusing.

Here is a map that purports to show the location of Nobletown.

(Source: Pittsfield Atheneum)

As always, the problem with maps like this one is that they do not provide enough information and context to show where Nobletown would be on a modern map of Columbia and Berkshire Counties. In fact, Berkshire County did not even exist until 1761, when it was carved out of Hampshire County.

But at least one source claims that Nobletown “was attached to Hampshire County.” (Source: Converse) The problem is, where was the Hampshire County border with New York?

Here’s another map that illustrates the conundrum.

Map 2
(Source: Pittsfield Athenaeum)

This map shows the final agreed-upon border between New York and Massachusetts as of 1787. It’s the line farthest on the left. The line to the right is the border in 1761, which is about ¾ of a mile inside today’s Berkshire County, which dovetails with multiple sources claiming that the Massachusetts line at that time was 20 miles from the Hudson River.

Using a modern map of Columbia County, a line drawn 20 miles from the Hudson indeed extends about ¾ of a mile into Berkshire County.

We can get a sense of the northern border of Nobletown from this online article excerpt (emphasis ours):

The “Shawenon Purchase” of 1756 was one of the last defining land transactions between the Stockbridge Indians and these early settlement families. In a deal that signed away the last of their remaining rightful stake in the region, the Stockbridge Indians sold a significant tract of land lying west of Sheffield to a consortium consisting of Ebenezer Baldwin, Aaron Loomis, Josiah Phelps, John and Joseph Van Gilder, Samuel Colver, and others, “for consideration of the sum of 20 pounds paid in hand.” The boundaries of this land in the County of Hampshire were defined as “west of Sheffield, butted and bounded as follows: East Sheffield on the land called the Indian land, on which John Van Gilder and Andrew Carner live, west on the land lately laid to Robert Noble, and others, called Nobletown, and to extend north as far as the said Nobletown to its northeast corner, to run east to Stockbridge west line.” (Source: Egremont Town Website)

Alford, MA was established on the land acquired in the Shawenon Purchase. This map of Alford suggests that a line extended from the northeast corner of Nobletown would indeed intersect with Stockbridge as it existed in the 1760s.

Map 3
Near the top of the map, under the name Jackson, is a note that reads, “Called the North Line of Nobletown. (Source: Pittsfield Athenaeum)

In 1809, the Shawenon Purchase map could not be located and a replica was drafted. Look at how Nobletown is positioned next to Egremont and what became Alford:

Map 4
(Source: Leveille P. 99)

The southern line of Stockbridge (at least as it was in colonial times) and its relationship to Nobletown is clear in this map:

Map 5
(Source: Pope, P. 43)

Now we come to one of the “facts” that we believe we know: Nobletown was five miles square in area. We have identified two sources for this figure. One is Captain Collin’s History of Hillsdale, which we have noted is often an unreliable source. The other source is by Susan Stalker Mulvey, a genealogist who wrote a short chapter on the history of Nobletown in the Mindrum Family History. That’s not a lot to go on, but if we choose to accept the two claims at face value, the question becomes, “Where was the box?”

The right side of the box should be ¾ of a mile inside modern Berkshire County and be five miles long according the map’s scale. The top and bottom lines of the box extend westward for another five miles, and the left side of the box should connect the top and bottom lines, like this:

Figure 1

It’s more of a parallelogram than a square because the eastern (or right) line follows the state line, which runs in a SSW direction.

But again, where does the box go? If we accept that maps 3, 4, and 5 (above) show the supposed northern line of Nobletown, and that, if extended, would become the southern border of Stockbridge, we know how far north the northern line should be. The northeast corner of Nobletown should have been on that line, ¾ of a mile inside today’s Berkshire County.

Using our box, that would put the northwestern corner of Nobletown on Rt. 7D, ¾ of a mile NW from where it intersects Rt. 22. The southwestern corner would be just east of the intersection of Hunt Rd. and Orchard Rd. The southeastern corner has no particular landmark (maybe a heap of stones?) but by connecting the dots, we can complete the box. And it looks something like this (the box that says “Nobletown…Maybe”):

Map 6: Modern map of Columbia and Berkshire Counties (Source: Jimapco, Claverack XtraMart)

Was this Nobletown? This hypothesis has some things going for it. It supports the widely held opinion that Nobletown was where North Hillsdale is today. It also may give a clue as to the location of the Old Kinderhook Road and Captain Robert Noble’s house. Here’s a map that shows the Noble house just north of the road:

Map 7: Captain Noble’s House in relation to the Spoor Homestead (Source: Leveille, P. 79)

The Historians of Hillsdale need your help! Do you have any documents, maps or other evidence that would support or refute our hypothesis? We’d love to know more. Leave us a comment.

 

 

Sources:

Brook, John L., Columbia Rising: Civil Life on the Upper Hudson From the Revolution to the Age of Jackson (2010, University of North Carolina Press)

Collin, John Francis, A History of Hillsdale, (1888, Self Published, Philmont, NY)

Converse, Charles Allen, Some of the Descendants of … Capt. John Bixby, Sr. (1905, Eben Putnam, Boston)

Ellis, Franklin, History of Columbia County, New York, (1883, Everts and Ensign, Philadelphia)

Humphrey, Thomas J., Land and Liberty: Hudson Valley Riots in the Age of Revolution (2004, Northern Illinois University Press)

Kim, Sung Bok, Landlord and Tenant in Colonial New York: Manorial Society 1664-1775 (1978, The University of North Carolina Press)

Leveille, Gary, Eye of Shawenon (2011, Self Published)

Pope, Franklin Leonard, The Western Boundary of Massachusetts: A Study of Indian and Colonial History (1886, Privately Printed; Reprinted 2004, Berkshire Family History Assn.)

Rising, Gerry, Buffalo Sunday News column published on March 15, 2009

Shearn, Evelyn Blum, “A History of Mt. Washington, MA” (1976, Self Published) esp. Pp. 30-31

Stein, Mark, How the States Got Their Shapes (2008, MJF Books, New York)

Town of Egremont, MA website page, “Our History” re: Shawenon Purchase

Posted in Uncategorized | 14 Comments

John Bunyan Bristol: Hillsdale’s Own Hudson River School Artist

Not long ago, the Hillsdale Historians received a request for information about a Hudson River School artist named John Bunyan Bristol. Bristol was a contemporary of Frederic Church and was well respected during his lifetime. His work hangs in the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, the Hudson River Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Adirondack Museum.

John Bristol was born in Hillsdale in 1826. His parents, Abner and Lydia, moved to Hillsdale from New Haven, which had been home to some five generations of Bristols, starting with Henry who emigrated from England in the 1600s. The 1850 US census listed Abner’s occupation as “shoemaker” and while nobody can say for sure why the family moved to Hillsdale, one can assume he expected to face less competition in Hillsdale than in the bustling metropolis of New Haven. According to the Hillsdale town website, the family lived in a house on Old Town Road. Abner and Lydia had two other children, Stephen and Jane, also born in Hillsdale.

Bristol took to painting at an early age and is considered to be mostly self-taught, although he spent about a month as a student of Henry Ary in Hudson. Initially he specialized in portraiture but switched to landscapes when he became frustrated trying to please the sitters. According to Questroyal Art LLC, “Bristol’s style followed that of the Hudson River School painters often described as Luminists; his attention to detail and exquisite use of color depicted lighting in a way that was similar to his contemporaries such as Asher B. Durand and John F. Kensett.”

In 1859, Bristol traveled to Florida and painted a series of tropical scenes that significantly boosted his reputation. But his real passion was the wilderness of upstate New York, particularly Whiteface Mountain and Lake Placid, as well as bucolic farm settings in New England, and these are the paintings for which he is best known.

         

At the age of 38, Bristol moved to the Bronx, presumably looking for a more robust market for his work. Still, every summer he would return to the Adirondack and Green Mountains for inspiration and new settings to paint.

Along the way, he married Caroline Church of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. They had one child, a girl who, in Bristol’s New York Times obituary, was unhelpfully identified as “Miss Bristol.”

Bristol achieved quite a bit of success in his career, and was a member of the National Academy of Design. He was presented with a medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and in 1900 he won an honorable mention at the Paris Exposition.

Yet, he never abandoned Hillsdale for good. According to a social item in the July 18th, 1890 edition of the Hillsdale Harbinger, “John Bristol of New York is stopping at the Mt. Washington House for a time, and we trust will conclude to remain with us, at least a portion of the summer. Mr. Bristol has attained an enviable reputation as an artist, and the presence of himself and family in our community would be a desirable social acquisition.”

The Harbinger also noted Caroline’s passing in 1900. Seven years later, the paper reported (rather blatantly lifting a complete story from the New York Times) that John had been “stricken with paralysis [a stroke] and in all probability will not be able to wield a brush again.” John was removed to the Home of Incurables in the Bronx where he succumbed on August 31, 1909 at the age of 83. He was buried at Woodlawn Cemetary in the Bronx.

If the name Bristol rings a bell, it may be because John’s uncle Stephen was the father of Flavia Bristol. Flavia grew up to become a prominent Hillsdale citizen. Her obituary described her as “one of the oldest residents of the village and one of its firmest friends, always giving generously to all religious and social benefits.”

In her Last Will and Testament, Flavia bequeathed “the sum of $30,000 [more than $500,000 in today’s dollars] for the purpose of creating, continuing and maintaining a free public library in the Town of Hillsdale.” Today, that building is Hillsdale’s Town Hall. Flavia’s legacy lives on in the Roeliff Jansen Community Library, which serves Hillsdale, Copake and Ancram. A couple of years ago, the library’s serpentine driveway was christened “Flavia Bristol Drive.”

If you stop by the Roe Jan Library, be sure to take a look at the three John Bunyan Bristol landscapes and one portrait that the library owns. Here’s one of the landscapes:

We can’t think of a more fitting way to adorn the successor to the “Library that Flavia Bristol Built” than with paintings by her cousin John.

 

(Many thanks to the Bristol Family Association for clarifying John and Flavia’s connection!)

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

The Book Lover: A Visit with Maureen Rodgers

Maureen Rodgers, Bookseller Extraordinaire

Rodgers Book Barn, on Rodman Rd. in Hillsdale, celebrated its 45th anniversary this summer. Founded in 1972, it is relatively young by the standards of the Historians of Hillsdale. It is, for example, 196 years younger than Henry Knox’s “noble train of artillery,” which traveled from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston during the winter of 1775-76 and became part of local history.

But there are similarities. Henry Knox was a 25-year-old bookseller from Boston when he led that expedition through Hillsdale. Maureen Rodgers was a 29-year-old bookseller from New York (by way of London) when she arrived in Hillsdale. Both contended with getting things done on poor quality roads and in lightly inhabited areas. And both succeeded against the odds.

The Book Barn doesn’t need publicity from us – it’s been profiled in The New York Times, The New Yorker and Rural Intelligence, among other taste-making publications. It’s well known to discerning book buyers and is constantly being discovered by area newcomers, who embrace it for its comfortable nooks and crannies, 50,000 titles, and free coffee and tea. But we wanted to know more about Maureen Rodgers, its gracious London-born proprietor, and the story behind how The Book Barn came to be. Here are excerpts of our conversation with Maureen.

“I grew up in London but for much of World War II, I was evacuated to the country to go to school. I still came back during holidays – usually just in time to catch an air raid. My mother Joyce was an ambulance driver and worked in the Docklands. After the war I came back to London, which was gray and grim in those days. We walked to school through the bombsites. Rationing didn’t stop until ’53 or ’54. I went to a local grammar school and teacher’s college. I was a second grade teacher for a couple of years.”

From an early age, Maureen’s wanderlust took her to exotic places. “I always backpacked around – it was an important part of my late teens and early 20’s. It was safe. I would go hosteling with friends. I would work for a year, save my money, and then I’d travel. I took a year’s leave of absence from teaching and trekked through Asia. In 1959-1960 we traveled fifth class on a French boat, the cheapest ticket you could get, and started in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), trekked through India, up into Nepal, crossed to Afghanistan, through Iran – I had the most wonderful time in Iran – and through Turkey.”

After more teaching, Maureen soon had saved enough for another year’s leave of absence. With her friend Hillary, she sailed for New York. “We stayed at the YWCA but they only let you stay for a month, so we had to get jobs and a down payment for an apartment – all in a month! Hillary went back after a year, but I stayed. We are still friends, though, and celebrate our birthdays together every ten years. This summer we both turned 80 and reunited in Iceland.”

Books have always been Maureen’s passion. “I always seemed to work in book-related things: I worked at the library at the New School, I put a library together for a real estate company, I hung around the Fourth Avenue bookshops. When I realized I was going to be in the book business, I started buying and selling books to college libraries; I looked up every college in the US and targeted the ones with the biggest library budgets. But every summer I was broke because the schools didn’t buy books in the summer. So I also apprenticed myself in the antiquarian department of Barnes & Nobles on 17th St.”

“In 1963 I met my ex-husband, Hal Rodgers, a writer and musician. We lived in a loft down by Chambers St. back when you could rent one for $100 a month. In the summer of 1966 we came up to Hillsdale to camp on some friends’ land. We stayed here that entire summer, camping and meeting wonderful people.” Before long, Maureen and Hal knew they wanted to move to Hillsdale permanently. But where? “We needed a house and a barn because I had all these books I was still selling to college libraries.”

They soon found the property that comprises today’s Book Barn. “We bought it for $8,000: five acres, the barn and the house. A very old couple had been living here – they used to take in orphan children to work on their farm. There were stanchions for cows in the barn. At first I was a little concerned about the house being so close to the road. I remember counting the cars –on the weekend maybe 10 cars went by the whole day, and that was upsetting! We were from the city and we wanted quiet. Of course, after we opened The Book Barn a few years later I thought, why didn’t I buy something closer to the main road?”

They moved to Hillsdale full time in 1968. The house and the barn were falling down, there was no hot water and they tried to do all the renovation themselves. “In the summer of 1972, we turned the hay out of the barn and rented a cement mixer. We did it ourselves, we laid down the floor – I remember doing that. Ridiculousness! I mean, ridiculousness, looking back! Why didn’t we just hire somebody? But in those days you just did it yourself. We picked up boards and stacked bricks between them and they became the bookcases. It was a mistake to take out those cow stanchions. They would have made great dividers.”

A Cozy Nook for Readers and Browsers

Maureen’s two daughters grew up with The Book Barn and attended Roe Jan schools. At first, The Book Barn occupied just the first floor and a friend lived on the second floor. “Customers would walk into the building and be greeted by the aroma of her pot smoke drifting downstairs. Eventually she found another place to live, and we expanded upstairs.”

Maureen recalls a big network of used bookstores in the 1970s. “That’s what people did on the weekends – went to bookstores. Aubergine [now C. Herrington Home] had a bookstore in the back barn selling photographic books and big art books. There was much more of a book culture back then. But so many bookstores have gone out of business – in Germantown, in Egremont, in Chatham. Hudson City Books is closing – the building has been sold. So much of the second hand book business is online now, but I’ve avoided creating an online business. I don’t think there’s a substitute for the experience of losing yourself, for an hour or two, among stacks of old books, of sometimes discovering an unexpected treasure. It is quite magical, and I think it’s why people keep coming to The Book Barn.”

A Map of The Book Barn’s Organizational Scheme

As The Book Barn has grown, so has Maureen’s loyal customer base. “All kinds of people come to The Book Barn today. I’m very pleased that in recent years so many young people come in. Maybe it has to do with Hillsdale having become a destination. I still have customers that date back to the early days. One fellow has been coming in since the late 1970s. He’s built a barn for his books. I like to think of The Book Barn spawning new book barns where people can house their own collections.”

Maureen admits that she has had some rather famous customers, though she generally declines to name them. One exception: The late poet John Ashbery from Hudson. “He died just a week or two ago. He was wonderful.”

Anyone else? Maureen smiles. “Of course the two film stars – I can never remember their names, but they’re very nice.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Hillsdale’s Historic Cemeteries, Part 2

Our first guest blogger is Jeanne Kiefer. Jeanne authored most of the content of the Hillsdale Cemetery Report and continues to dig up (no pun intended) rich histories buried in Hillsdale’s Historic Cemeteries. Jeanne lives in far West Hillsdale and takes a special interest in the Krum Church burial site at the intersection of Wolf Road and Harlemville Rd. It is surely one of the prettiest burial spots in Hillsdale but sadly has become a victim of neglect and the passage of time. Here is her detailed account of Krum Hollow’s early days, and its graveyard residents.

HH

History of the Krum Church Cemetery, by Jeanne Kiefer

Jeanne and Zippy

At the corner of Harlemville Road and Wolf Hill Road in west Hillsdale, a small cemetery dozes in the sun behind a low stone wall. Many headstones are tilted or broken and most are so weather-beaten they can no longer tell their stories.

Luckily documentation allows us to fill in some of the blanks. We know the names of at least 103 men, women and children who lived and loved and were buried in what was then known as Krum Hollow, a farming community pioneered by a 17-year-old immigrant from Germany.

In 1745 Martin Krum purchased 800 acres at the rough frontier edge of the vast Van Rensselaer lands centered in Claverack. He and his wife Elizabeth had 10 children and their descendants remained in the area for three more generations, at the center of a thriving settlement of German and Dutch farm families. Krum Hollow seems to have been the earliest community in Hillsdale, although we know little about its first two decades.

In 1769, however, Martin made news. He forced a dramatic break with the long-established and predominant Dutch Reformed Church in Claverack and spirited away a cohort of fellow dissenters. This was so shattering to the Claverack community that they were left without a pastor for six years. Meanwhile, a vital congregation of Dutch Reformed worshipers and German Lutherans gathered in Krum Hollow and eventually built a small church. They must have been surprised when they learned that their July 3rd dedication event took place just one day before the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia in 1776.

One historian describes Krum Hollow as “juxtaposed precariously, halfway between the Dutch and Yankee settlements.” It was a community of German and Dutch speakers struggling to stay out of the battle for possession of the no-man’s land between New York and Massachusetts. This area was claimed by both the great landlords along the Hudson (Livingston and Van Rensselaer) and the rowdy independent Yankees of Nobletown, now Hillsdale. And then the American Revolution came along!

But back to our little cemetery. Church records reveal that the community thrived for 25 years, with 536 baptisms between 1775 and 1800, averaging 31 babies annually over the last decade of the century. 1793 had the bumper crop – 49 baptisms! Then the numbers plummet. The gravestones pick up the story, with the most interments occurring between 1820-40. It looks like the young families were moving away, perhaps for the much better farmland becoming available as the frontier pushed into western New York, Pennsylvania and beyond. (Krum Hollow, among the hilliest places in Hillsdale, must have been hardscrabble farming for a growing family.)

Those left behind in the graveyard are a mixed lot. The earliest interment we know of (there were almost surely earlier ones, now lost) is from 1782 – Johann Gotfried Schumacher was a Revolutionary War soldier who died of exposure. The last is two-week-old nameless infant who passed away in 1851. These early settlers were tough and lived longer than one might think – 35% made it to 60 or beyond and Mary Rood lived to be 96. Then again, there were at least 10 deaths in 1838, including five infants and 12-year-old Reny Krum.

As you might expect, there are more Krums among the grave markers than any other name, 13 in all. But there are also 10 Beckers, seven Harders, five Bortles and five Rivenburghs – 43 surnames in all, including Van Tassell, Stopplebeen and Spickerman. Some first names are also memorable – Alba, Albertis, Barbary, Elnathan, Mahala, Merium, Petrus, Reny, Tunis.

We have documentation on at least 13 Revolutionary War veterans buried in the plot, three captains among them. They served in five different New York regiments, along with Robert Miller of Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys. The oldest volunteer was Captain Jonathon Bixby, born in 1730 and serving in 9th Regiment, 2nd Claverack Battalion, Albany County Militia. The youngest was Elnathan Strong, who was only 11 when the war broke out but received a pension for his service on the Connecticut Line. As far as we know, only one cemetery in Hillsdale has a greater number of Revolutionary War veteran interments. The town plots in all contain about 65 veterans of the war.

Yes, you can learn a lot from stones.

Note: The Krum Church plot is mowed by the town of Hillsdale but is otherwise in poor shape. It would benefit from headstone cleaning and restoration and stone wall repair, as well as signage that honors its history. A few dozen stones are standing, but many more are under the sod or stacked in pieces against the wall. Hopefully, funds will be found to restore this small plot, as well as the other historic cemeteries of Hillsdale.

Research on the Krum Church Cemetery was conducted in 2016 by Jeanne Kiefer. The two most useful resources were the Findagrave website (with photos of many old stones) and the collection of “cemetery books” at the Columbia County Historical Association in Kinderhook. These books, many compiled almost 100 years ago, provide details on the now-unreadable headstone inscriptions in the county’s old cemeteries.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

What’s Scary about Old Cemeteries? Not What You Think

As Halloween approaches, there’s no better time to write about one of our favorite subjects: old cemeteries.

We love old cemeteries. They are restful places for contemplation and reflection. Nothing scares us about old cemeteries, except that they are vanishing by the hundreds from rural landscapes every year, victims of neglect, abandonment or lack of funds.

Maintaining cemeteries is challenging. America is a mobile country and most families don’t spend generations in the same place, tending to the final resting places of their dearly departed. Even back in the mid-1700s, when Hillsdale was first being settled, the lure of land to the west kept people on the move. But old cemeteries are also vital historical and genealogical resources. Many of Hillsdale’s founding families — Foster, McKinstry, Bixby, Collin, Latting, Mallery, Krum, Hatch, Pixley – are interred in the old cemeteries.

In its earliest days, Hillsdale families buried their dead in private or family burying grounds – there were more than forty by 1878. Most of these are long gone, but some family plots can still be found. One of the oldest (and hardest to find) is the Hatch burying ground in the hamlet of Green River. It has been encroached upon by a change in the course of the stream and the stones are broken and nearly impossible to read. The oldest inscription — “Mrs. Isabel, wife of Mr. Elisha Hatch, died July 23d, 1767, in her 43d year” — gives an approximate date of its dedication as a place of burial. The Hatch family came to the area from Cape Cod in the mid-1700’s and was among the earliest families in Hillsdale. Fun Fact: Town Supervisor Peter Cipkowski’s mother was a Hatch.

Another old family burying ground is the McKinstry Family Plot on Hunt Road. John McKinstry was the son of an Ulster immigrant who had marched in 1757 from the bleak frontier town of Blandford, MA to the failed relief of Fort William Henry, where atrocities committed by the Huron tribes against the surrendered British troops were portrayed in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. By 1767 McKinstry had taken up land in Nobletown (North Hillsdale). In 1775 he raised his own militia of Nobletown men to march to the siege of Boston. He and his brother Charles served long and hard in the Revolution and while John moved to Hudson after the war (and reputedly opened the city’s first saloon), Charles remained in Nobletown with brothers Thomas and David, who are also buried in the plot with their wives and children. At some point in the last 200 years all of the stones were laid flat, which may account for the preservation of these poignant inscriptions: “In memory of Tabithy, wife of Col. Charles McKinstry, and her babe 10 days old who died July 16th, 1787 in the 32nd year of her age.” “Olive, daughter of Charles and Tabitha McKinstry, died Nov. 4 1778.” “Two infant children of Charles McKinstry 17…” “Sacred to the memory of Mrs. Nancy, wife of Col. Charles McKinstry who departed this life May 24 1798 in the 35th year of her age.” By the time Charles McKinstry himself died in 1818, he had attained the rank of General, which is duly inscribed on his elaborate headstone, along with a Masonic symbol.

For a town like Hillsdale, which lost the bulk of its early public records in an 1840s fire, the significance of its old cemeteries is hard to overstate. Hillsdale’s cemeteries are history books, and each headstone tells its own story, often filling in some of the blanks left by the fire. There are 15 cemeteries in Hillsdale, a mixture of family plots, churchyard burying sites and one public cemetery. Consider that the remains of 61 American Revolution (AR) veterans are buried in Hillsdale. In Austerlitz, formed in 1818 from a chunk of Hillsdale and smaller parts of Chatham and Canaan, there are another 52 AR interments, bringing the total to 113. That’s almost 20 percent of all known AR interments in Columbia County, and speaks to a time when this region played a dynamic role in the country’s transition from the colonial era to the Republic.

Visiting the oldest cemeteries reveals their poor condition, with smashed, broken or buried headstones the norm rather than the exception.

Notable examples of neglect include the Methodist (“Foster”) cemetery on Pill Hill. This burial ground contains the remains of four AR veterans. Many of its handsome obelisks are lying on the ground, smashed by falling branches. Its headstones tilt like drunkards, pushed askew by overgrown tree roots. Another example is the Old Community (aka Old Orchard) cemetery on Old Town Road. Many of its headstones have sunk below ground and are barely visible. Its oldest grave is Mercy Chase, 1767, and there are six AR vets buried there. Intriguingly, it also contains stones with hieroglyphs that are reputedly Native American tombstones. The Krum Church cemetery, situated overlooking a beautiful pond on Harlemville Road and perhaps the oldest cemetery in the area, is in extremely poor condition. It holds the remains of 13 AR veterans, including an early ancestor of Ron Bixby, the owner of Little Apple Cidery. Its oldest stone dates to 1798.

By the mid-19th century the rural cemetery movement had taken hold in America, and cemeteries were designed outside of urban centers to remove the dead from the immediate realm of the living. Keith Eggener, author of Cemeteries, writes:

“Old church burial grounds were beginning to be seen as inadequate: dangerous, crowded, expensive to maintain, and as carriers of disease. Especially in cities, thousands of burials had taken place on very small plots of ground; these places filled up. You often had burials five or six coffins deep. Sometimes the walls would break down during floods and coffins would break open and bodies would spill out into the street. During times of epidemics—yellow fever, cholera—cemeteries were seen as centers for the gathering of these diseases and their dissemination. By moving the dead out of city centers to places like Cambridge (Mount Auburn Cemetery, 1831) and Brooklyn (Green-Wood Cemetery, 1838), these “rural cemeteries” allowed for much larger burial grounds. Cemeteries increasingly after 1830 were places with winding roads and picturesque vistas … the great rural cemeteries were built at a time when there weren’t public parks, or art museums, or botanical gardens in American cities. You suddenly had large pieces of ground, filled with beautiful sculptures and horticultural art. People flocked to cemeteries for picnics, for hunting and shooting and carriage racing.”

The Hillsdale Rural Cemetery on Route 22, founded 1865, was the first public cemetery in town not associated with a church or family. It conforms, in a modest way, to the ideals of a rural cemetery, with landscaping and winding walkways. Maintained by a cemetery association, it is still in use.

We hope it’s not too late to save the town’s oldest cemeteries. Several years ago Historic Hillsdale created a Cemetery Committee to map and assess the condition of Hillsdale’s cemeteries, and develop proposals for their rehabilitation and maintenance. Here is a link to the condition report. If you have ideas to help save Hillsdale’s historic cemeteries or would like to volunteer for the Cemetery Committee, you can attend to the next Historic Hillsdale meeting on Oct. 22 at 11:00 AM at Town Hall, or leave us a note in the comments section, below..

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Rip Van Winkle and the Legend of Pill Hill

Just north of the intersection of Rtes. 22 and 23, the first road on the left is called Pill Hill. Ever wonder why?  Here’s the answer.

In 1945, President Harry S. Truman called upon Congress to address the severe lack of rural healthcare facilities around the country. Not long after, Senator Harold Burton (R, Ohio) and Senator Lester Hill (D, Alabama) sponsored the Hospital Survey and Construction Act (or the Hill–Burton Act), which passed in 1946.

Columbia County was among the regions deemed in need of assistance. Like many rural counties, ours did have a few country doctors, but there were few specialists and even fewer modern healthcare facilities. The Hudson City Hospital (renamed Columbia Memorial in 1949) was the premier healthcare facility in the county, but it was too small to adequately serve the needs of the county’s 42,000 residents. (There are 63,000 residents today.)

In 1945, Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn established the Rip Van Winkle Clinic in Hudson to provide area residents with affordable, high quality medical care. One of the clinic’s patients was Eleanor Roosevelt! (More on that in a moment.) Thanks to a Hill-Burton grant in the early 1950s, he was able to establish satellite clinics in Germantown, Philmont and Hillsdale.

“Essy” Esselstyn had no difficulty attracting excellent physicians from downstate to these clinics. The clinics provided doctors with the chance to make a significant contribution to the health and welfare of rural communities and allowed them to raise their families away from the urban and suburban sprawl of New York City and Westchester County.

The Hillsdale branch of the Rip Van Winkle Clinic was located in a stately Victorian house called Edgewood, which was built around 1880 by George M. Bullock. Bullock co-owned a feed, grain and lumber business called Bullock & Herrington, later and to this day known as Ed Herrington, Inc. (Edmond Herrington owned the house in the early 1900s.) Edgewood eventually became the Rip Van Winkle Clinic and was directly across the street from the Old Methodist (“Parla Foster”) cemetery, an odd pairing when you come to think about it.

In the late 1950s, several medical professionals joined the clinic with their families, including Drs. Stuart Cooper, Joseph Fusco, John Waldo and Irma Waldo, and Patrick DelGrande. The access road to the cemetery was extended, and construction began on several houses. (The Historians of Hillsdale now live in the house where Dr. Cooper raised his family.)

The new road was christened “Doctor’s Drive.” But it wasn’t long before it was nicknamed “Pill Hill.” In 1976, Dr. Fusco and several other Doctor’s Drive residents petitioned the State to officially change the name (which many felt was a bit pompous, not to mention a sort of “X-marks-the-spot” for burglars) to Pill Hill, and it remains so today. The clinic, however, closed in 1964, leaving recent arrivals to Hillsdale to wonder about the peculiar name. Now they know.

An item from the February 23, 1961 issue of the Chatham Courier featured the Hillsdale Clinic. The headline of the story was, “Blasts at Bunny, But Hits Friend.”

“A Bronx hunter who shot at a rabbit near Copake Wednesday morning missed the cottontail but loaded a hunting companion with buckshot.

“According to State Police, Daigo Mangano, 27, 1085 Rhineland Ave., the Bronx, saw the rabbit as it sped out from underneath a bush and he fired twice with a 12 gauge shotgun.

“The blasts failed to hit the quarry but penetrated the body of Nunviato Valenti, 32, 1951 Haight St., the Bronx, who was walking 125 feet ahead of Mangano. At the time of the shooting, the victim was hidden by a heavy undergrowth of bushes, State Police were told.

“Valenti was removed to the Hillsdale office of the Rip Van Winkle Clinic where he was treated by Dr. Stuart W. Cooper of the clinic staff. He was then taken to Columbia Memorial Hospital where the pellets were removed.”

And the bunny dined out on that story for months!

As to the Eleanor Roosevelt connection, she was a prolific newspaper columnist and wrote a syndicated column called “My Day” from 1936 until her death in 1962 – some 7,000 articles in all. In her May 11, 1953 column, Mrs. Roosevelt tells of her visit to the Rip Van Winkle Clinic in Hudson:

“NEW YORK, Sunday—I spent last Thursday visiting the Rip Van Winkle Clinic in Hudson, N.Y., which was set up to try to answer some of the problems of rural medicine. This clinic, whose medical director is Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, is now six and a half years old, and is an interesting example of group practice with branch centers in a rural county.

“The purpose of the clinic is to make available to rural communities the best medical care at a cost which at least 90 per cent of the people can afford. To do this, of course, it is necessary to create an atmosphere that will attract well-trained young physicians to rural areas.

“In my childhood I lived just south of the Columbia County line, and I am very familiar with some of the problems of this area of the Hudson Valley. The county, which is 35 miles long and about 25 miles wide, has a population of 42,000. The income of the area is derived largely from dairying and fruit farming. There are some mills and small industries. The roads are good and are kept open in winter. The level of income among the farmers is perhaps a trifle larger than in some of the other counties of the state.

“Care was taken not to disrupt the security of the already existing medical economic structure of the county. Those belonging to the group practice clinic replaced older physicians or physicians who were leaving. They did not come in as new competition.” (She went on to tell of her visit that day to Columbia Memorial Hospital, describing it as a “modern, fireproof hospital.” A ringing endorsement if ever we heard one.)

But in a later column, dated July 18, 1955, she was a little less enthusiastic:

“HYDE PARK—I think I can say that Thursday was for me rather a waste of time. I went for a physical check-up to the Rip Van Winkle Clinic in Hudson, where a most comprehensive and thorough job was done in what I think would be considered record time. Yet, is there anything duller than doing things about your health when you feel completely well and, as far as you can see, are completely well! They tell me, however, that when people reach old age they should go and have periodic physical examinations. Since this is the thing to do, I suppose I should feel satisfied that it is over, and perhaps I will never have to do it again.”

The Historians of Hillsdale wish you a wonderful rest of summer. We’ll see you back here in September. Click the “follow” button at the top and you’ll get new posts by email.

(As always, please leave additional information, corrections or amplifications in the comments section below.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Hillsdale Historic House Tour Takes a Modern Twist

The Historians of Hillsdale are nothing if not modern. We may spend a lot of time investigating the 275+ year history of this town, but we do most of that work online. We live in a mid-century modern house, we blog, we’re on Twitter and Instagram, and at least one of us has experimented with juicing. We like to think we’re pretty much in the know.

Which is why we’re so excited about the August 12 Hillsdale Historic House Tour. From 11 am to 3 pm, six Hillsdale “Historic Houses of the Future” will be open for public viewing. The tour will cover the best of 21st century design, energy efficiency and green building techniques and include a talk by Hudson-based architecture firm BarlisWedlick about designing Columbia County homes for the 21st Century.

After reading the press release we confess we had to Google “net zero house,” “certified passive” and “autoclaved aerated concrete.” But that just reminded us how a few years ago we’d never heard of FindAGrave.com, either. Or the term “snow rake.” It may not be too long before techniques used in the construction of these six homes – techniques like geothermal heating and solar panels –are as familiar to future home builders as historical styles like Greek Revival, Gothic Revival and Arts & Crafts are to us.

For a glimpse into the future of Hillsdale homebuilding, and perhaps some inspiration for your own home, buy tour tickets at hillsdaleny.com/housetour. $40 provides admission to the six tour homes, a box lunch prepared by Simons Catering, and the BarlisWedlick lecture. Tickets may also be reserved at Passiflora and the Hillsdale General Store and will be available for pick up at Hillsdale Town Hall on August 12, starting at 10:45 am.

Proceeds from the tour will go towards the preservation of the East Gate Toll House and will provide funding to repair and maintain the town’s historic cemeteries.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Thoughts on the East Gate Toll House

Have you ever come upon a problem that caused you to feel stumped? You’re not alone.

In the latter part of the 18th century, the young United States was hobbled by horrendous roads, which made it difficult or even impossible for farmers and manufacturers to move goods to market. American roads at the time were rough and unreliable, often no more than obstacle courses hacked out of the wilderness.

Farmers in Berkshire and Columbia Counties faced the problem of transporting their produce and livestock to the Hudson River for shipment to the rapidly expanding New York City metropolis. They would load their goods in wagons and follow a crude cart path that traversed the county from east to west. The path was created in what was then virgin forest: it was nothing more than two ruts in the dirt, punctuated by 18-inch tree stumps woodsmen left behind after felling the trees to clear the path. The tree stumps were just low enough for a wagon to clear.

That is, if the weather was dry. When winter snows melted and spring rains turned the path into a muddy morass, wagons would sink down into the muck, get caught on a tree stump, and leave the unlucky farmer to wonder how he’d get out of the predicament. It was called being “stumped.”

A 1799 act by the New York Assembly authorized the creation of the Columbia Turnpike Corporation for “improving the road from the city of Hudson to the line of Massachusetts, on the route to Hartford.” The corporation sold shares of stock to finance the construction of the Columbia Turnpike. Before the Civil War, the turnpike took the easiest course, which resulted in the development of mills, tanneries, blacksmith shops, taverns, and post offices in Hillsdale, Bain’s Corners (Craryville), Hoffman’s Gate (Martindale) and Smokey Hollow (Hollowville). Today, the turnpike follows Route 23/23B.

Three toll houses were built: West Gate, a handsome limestone building still standing in Greenport on Rt. 23B; Middle Gate, once in Martindale near the Taconic Parkway but now long gone; and East Gate, a wood frame building just east of Mitchell Street in East Hillsdale. Tolls collected at these toll houses paid for the upkeep of the turnpike and the passage to the river became much easier.

Even so, some farmers shunned paying the tolls and carved out a crude path to avoid East Gate. It was aptly called Shun Pike Road, a name it retains to this day.

The toll houses remained in operation until 1907, when the county bought the rights from the Columbia Turnpike Corporation. East Gate became a private residence and was occupied by at least two generations of the Decker family, after which it was acquired in 1970 by Eldena Jenssen who dreamed of rehabilitating the place.

In 2016, the East Gate was placed on the State and National Historic Registers, and a group of local residents came together to consider how this important artifact in the social and economic development of Columbia County could be rescued and restored.

The first step was to acquire the toll house, but how to finance the purchase left the committee, well, stumped. That’s when Copake Falls resident Edgar Masters stepped up and made a donation that allowed the purchase of the toll house and the Friends of East Gate (FoEG) was born. The first order of business was to get an engineer into the toll house to assess what is needed to stabilize and weatherproof the building. Since no tax dollars will be used to finance the work, the FoEG must rely on private donations. Just when we thought we would be stumped again, a donor generously contributed the funds to start Phase I of the work. If you would like to contribute to the restoration of this important part of Roe Jan history, please visit http://www.friendsofeastgate.org.

The Friends of East Gate will seek input from the community about how the restored East Gate toll house can be a community resource in the future. In the meantime, there’s an exhibit at the Roe Jan Historical Society this summer, “All Roads to the River” with a lot of rich historical information about the role the Columbia Turnpike played in the development of America in the early years of the Republic, and a replica of the original toll gate! Don’t miss it!

And if you have noticed the banners hanging on the East Gate toll house and wondered about them, we hope this post keeps you from feeling stumped!

Recent Queries:

A Rochester, NY, man is researching the Davis family. Specifically, he is looking for information about the parents and siblings of Calvin W. Davis (1816-1901). He has visited the Pill Hill cemetery and found the grave of Elisha Davis, who may have been Calvin’s father. Elisha was married to Batesy Davis. If you have any Davis ancestors or know someone who does, please let us know.

A Hillsdale resident is researching the old post office on Anthony Street. There is some confusion about the date of its construction (1945 or more likely the turn of the century) and when the building, which was built at ground level, was raised onto a new foundation and why. Any information would be appreciated.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments