Hail to the Chiefs: 100 Years of the Hillsdale Fire Department

 

The Internet is amazing. You start out looking for one thing, only to find something else so fascinating it sucks up the hours you were planning to spend on the first thing.

This happens to us a lot. This week we were researching historic buildings in the Hillsdale Hamlet. No sooner had we typed “Dimmick’s” into Google than up popped “Our History & Past Chiefs,” a page from the Hillsdale Fire Company website. The page was compiled from handwritten notes delivered at the fire company’s 75th Anniversary Open House in 1993, which makes 2018 the Hillsdale Fire Company’s centenary. Happy 100th Anniversary, Hillsdale Fire Company!

The Hillsdale Fire Company is an all-volunteer organization and depends on public support to respond to emergencies, 24/7, in Hillsdale, Egremont, Copake, Austerlitz, and other communities in a 43-square-mile area. A big thank you to Richard Briggs and all the Hillsdale volunteer firefighters and auxiliary members for keeping our town safe.

Here is a link to the history page. It’s a delightful read, full of arcane fire engine facts and gossipy asides. A few of our favorites:

• The Hillsdale Fire Company was formed in 1918, the same year the U.S. entered World War I.

• The company’s first fire truck was an Obenchain-Boyer on a Ford chassis. A February 1919 underwriter’s report said the truck had “no pump, no hose and no nozzles.” What the …?

A restored Obenchain-Boyer Chemical Truck. When new in 1921, it cost $1,648.68, about $21,000 in today’s dollars. A new chemical truck today will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so the Obenchain-Boyer was a bargain!

• From 1918-1928 the company’s fire alarm consisted of a railroad locomotive metal tire, split and hung from a tree limb by Dimmick’s Store (today’s Hillsdale General Store). A hammer was left conveniently nearby.

• It’s no small irony that during the first half of the 20th century the company lost significant property and equipment to fire. The Hillsdale Fire Company met at the Masonic Lodge on Cold Water Street until it burned down in 1927. The company’s first fire truck was stored at Conklin’s Garage, which burned down in 1940. A drug store owned by first Fire Chief Harry Cornell burned down in 1983.

• A large siren, which could be heard for miles, was mounted on the roof of the second Masonic Lodge (built 1928) on Cold Water Street. Before direct dial phones arrived in 1952, people reported fires by calling telephone operators at the A.M. Johnson Telephone Office on Anthony St. The operators activated the rooftop alarm and firefighters called “Central” to learn the location and type of call.

• A “new fire house” was built in 1931 (today’s Columbia County Sheriff station). Just like today, there was very little parking in the hamlet and many men had to walk to the calls. The building was heated by a coal-burning furnace, which members took turns tending. Wet coiled fire hose that was stuck in the coal bin started a fire in the coal by spontaneous combustion. The cellar ceiling was charred badly, but no other damage was reported.

• In the summer of 1947 a cargo truck flipped on Route 23 and Molasses Hill at the Massachusetts state line. Bystanders looted the truck’s contents while Massachusetts State Troopers arrested the Hillsdale Fire Chief for having unregistered vehicles (fire trucks!) in the state.

• In 1954 Fire Chief Everett “Stub” Shadic, responding to a call from his home across from the Hillsdale Library (today’s Town Hall), commandeered a bike from a youngster to make better time. The bike had hand brakes, which he did not know how to use, and he sailed past the firehouse and through the ball field, coming to rest in a ditch.

• A wild duck was removed from a chimney on Mitchell St.

• Summer grass fires from lightning strikes were frequent. At one grass fire the owner flailed at the fire with a pine branch, which fanned the flames and set his pants on fire.

• One lady got angry at firefighters who trampled her tulip beds to extinguish a grass fire near her barn.

• In the early to mid-20th century, picking up a wet hose in a manure-covered barnyard after a lightening fire at 3:00am was a rite of passage for young fire company volunteers. This tradition declined, along with the number of active farms in the area, in the second half of the 20th century.

We all depend on our local fire company. Whether abandoning their cozy beds in the wee hours, or taking time of from work in the middle of the day, these men and women put their own lives on the line in some cases to save ours. And they do this not for pay, but because it’s necessary and the right thing to do.

This is the season to make end-of-year charitable contributions. We are making a donation to the fire company and urge you to do so, too. There are never enough volunteers. You don’t have to don a turnout suit and race into a flaming building to be a valued volunteer. Check out the Hillsdale Fire Company Facebook page for ways to help.

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Envisioning Education for Everyone: The Harlemville Schoolhouse

Almost 140 years ago the tidy, bright green building at the intersection of Harlemville Rd. and County Route 21C was constructed as a public schoolhouse for the residents of Harlemville, a hamlet in northwest Hillsdale.  In 1880 Harlemville numbered 100 people and had two stores and a hotel.  Very little evidence of that community remains, except for the schoolhouse.

Today the building houses the Art School of Columbia County (ASCC), a non-profit community group serving more than 1500 Columbia County residents with free and low-cost art programming for all ages.

We’ve always wondered about the the Harlemville Schoolhouse and were delighted to find a lively history of  the building in “Columbia County History & Heritage,” the magazine of the Columbia County Historical Society (Spring/Summer 2018). Written by Kathryn Kosto, ASCC’s Executive Director, “Education and Community: The Harlemville Schoolhouse” is illustrated with period photos that were new to us. It’s a well-researched look at public education in a rural New York community circa 1880. Click on the link below to read the full article.

harlemvilleschoolhouse-ilovepdf-compressed

It’s almost unheard of for a building to retain its original purpose after a century and a half, yet the little green schoolhouse continues to educate and serve the community. The ASCC has been offered the donation of the historic 1880 Schoolhouse and the surrounding 0.81 acres. To receive this gift, ASCC must raise $20,000 by  year’s end to ensure the structure has funding for future maintenance needs.  If you’d like to donate to the Art School’s Capital Campaign, and support its vision of “envisioning art for everyone,” click here.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lost and Found: The Middle Gate Toll House on the Columbia Turnpike

Martindale Toll Gate aka The Middle Gate

In 1776, the population of New York City was 25,000, second only to Philadelphia in the 13 original American colonies. But that changed quickly. By 1830 more than 185,000 people called themselves New Yorkers.

With growth of that magnitude, it was essential to maintain a steady supply of food coming into the city. This was great news for the farmers of the Hudson Valley and Berkshire regions, who produced an abundance of crops and livestock. And these farmers had, in effect, a superhighway for transporting their goods to the city: the Hudson River.

The only problem? Getting from east to west meant traversing a tree-stump ridden cart path that was icy in the winter and muddy in the spring. In 1799 the New York State legislature passed a bill authorizing the establishment of a corporation whose mission was to build and maintain a road from the Massachusetts state line to the Hudson River. The corporation was funded with $25,000 ($475,000 in 2018 dollars) in investment capital for construction; ongoing maintenance and investor dividends would be funded through toll collection.

The legislature authorized the construction of three toll houses along the 20 mile length of what became known as the Columbia Turnpike. These included the East Gate Toll House in Hillsdale, one mile west of the Massachusetts line, and the West Gate Toll House, 1.5 miles east of the Hudson River in the city of Hudson (the area is now Greenport). Both of these structures still exist. A third toll house, known as the Middle Gate, was built somewhere between the East Gate and the West Gate, but it vanished long ago.

The Historians of Hillsdale took on the challenge of identifying the location of the long-lost Middle Gate. It has been a fascinating puzzle to assemble, and we still may be missing a few puzzle pieces, but here is what we discovered.

Finding the toll house location on old maps was not difficult: it’s plainly shown on 1851 and 1858 maps of Columbia County. (The full-size 1851 map is in the Hillsdale Town Hall, and can be seen on the “History” tab at http://www.hillsdaleny.com.) Interestingly, the 1851 map shows the projected path of the New York & Harlem Railroad, which didn’t actually arrive until 1852. The Martindale Depot wasn’t built until 1854. That’s why the 1851 map does not show the Martindale depot, but the 1858 map does. Here’s the portion of the 1858 map that shows both.

So we knew the location of the toll house, but we didn’t yet know the “location of the location.” It’s almost impossible to transpose features from the 1858 map onto a contemporary road map, such as the 2014 Jimapco map of Columbia County.

To find the Middle Gate Toll House, we first had to find the Columbia Turnpike. Many people believe that the Columbia Turnpike faithfully followed today’s Rt. 23 from end to end. But the original turnpike diverged from today’s Rt. 23 in several places. One of those places included the location of the Middle Gate.

The locations of the Martindale Depot and railroad tracks on the 1858 map were significant clues. The depot was eventually taken apart and rebuilt as a house in Philmont, but the evidence of the railroad, in the form of a track bed, remains.

Harlem Division engineer Vic Westman drew this picture of the Martindale Depot. It was dismantled in 1949 and the wood was used by a railroad employee to build a house in Philmont

As we said, the railroad came through Hillsdale in 1852 and continued on to Chatham. But from Hillsdale to Martindale, the railroad followed the course of the Columbia Turnpike. There is a good reason for this: steep hills are anathema to both turnpikes and railroads. A helpful resource is a topographical map. If you are unfamiliar with topo maps, the brown wavy lines are called “contour lines” and in this map the space between any two lines indicates a rise or decline in elevation of ten feet. The closer the contour lines are to each other, the steeper the grade.

Here is a section of a 1904 topographical map that shows both the railroad and turnpike meandering between steep hills and staying on relatively level ground, following a course that corresponds with the 1858 map.

In 1972, the PennCentral Railroad (successor to the New York Central Railroad, which itself was the successor to the New York & Harlem Railroad) rather abruptly terminated service north of Dover Plains. We say abruptly because there was no forewarning of the closure. People from Philmont who got on the train in the morning to head into the city were gobsmacked to discover that their return commute would end in Dover Plains! No way to run a railroad, we say.

While passenger service ended at Dover Plains, freight traffic continued northward until 1980. Sometime after that, the railroad began the task of pulling up the rails, ties, signals and other equipment. What remained was the track bed, which for a while served as a footpath. Eventually, it became overgrown in most places, but fortunately not everywhere. (Over the ensuing years, a lot of the track bed has been purchased by the Harlem Valley Rail Trail — more on that later.)

One of the minor miracles afforded to historians is Google Maps. Here is screen shot showing the ghost of a track bed:

The vestiges of the old Harlem line are still visible, and they lead right to our next landmark: the Rt. 11 overpass.

This is a picture of the overpass looking north as Rt. 11 continues up to Philmont.

Based on measurements of both the 1858 and 2014 maps, we are confident that the depot was located on the north side of the overpass and slightly to the east. (If anyone knows the location of that house in Philmont built from the old depot, please let us know.)

Back to Google Maps. Note the beaver pond that sprang up about 15 years ago. Much of the land in Martindale where the railroad (and turnpike) used to run was designated an official wetland by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in the late 1980s, which may be why no effort has been made to, if you’ll pardon the expression, drain the swamp.

The railroad (and turnpike), however, were there, right on the edge of the land now swallowed up by the pond. We know this because you can clearly see in the photo below the telephone (telegraph?) poles partly submerged in the water. Obviously, they were not installed that way — the beavers had not yet arrived, evidently. But telegraph lines were often placed along a railroad right-of-way. We assume that these wires are no longer in use, since if one came down in a storm it would require a boat to access the pole from which it fell. But getting information from Consolidated/Fairpoint/Taconic Telephone is as difficult as getting good service from them. (Rim shot. We’re here all week.)

The photo below shows a pole and wires mysteriously disappearing into the woods. They are immediately adjacent to the old train bed.

We were denied access to walk the property along the rail bed, where we thought we might come across the foundation of Middle Gate.  Undeterred, we found the December 9, 1891 issue of the Chatham Courier, which had an item on the history of the Columbia Turnpike. The excerpt reads, “Another [tollhouse] at what was once known as “Todd city,” a small settlement of half a dozen houses, a mile east of Martindale.” We believe that the author was generalizing and that Todd City (and thus the Middle Gate) was a mile southeast of Martindale. By the way, this is the only reference to Todd City we’ve come across, and we have found no records of anyone named Todd in the area.

We believe we have located the site of the Middle Gate Toll House to within 100 feet. X marks the spot on this map. It is disctinctly possible that the foundation of the toll house, if it still exists, lies beneath the waters of the beaver pond.

Map reproduced with the permission of JIMAPCO, Inc. Copyright 2014

Look at the dotted line that cuts through the first “a” in Martindale and continues in a southeasterly direction, tracing the route of the railroad. According to the legend on the Jimapco map, it is a “bike path/trail.” Well, we’ve been there and in the words of poet Ron Chappell, “There ain’t no trail.”

Since the 1980s, there has been an association working to build a rail trail from Wassaic to Chatham (46 miles). We rang up the folks at Jimapco and asked if it is possible that Jimapco might have included the projected route of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail in their most recent map (2014), even though the trail does not yet exist in the marked location. The representative said, “Very likely,” especially if the plan for the trail was well along at the time the map was printed (Jimapco maps have a five-year lifespan). “We work with communities and organizations to understand what’s happening or what will happen,” the representative told us. “Otherwise our maps could be out of date as soon as they roll off the printing press.” It is extremely likely that Jimapco inserted the projected path of the rail trail.

The inclusion of the “trail” on the Jimapco map confirms that in the Martindale vicinity, the railroad — and thus the turnpike — were several hundred yards north of today’s Rt. 23. The turnpike took similar diversions in Craryville and Hollowville, then known as Smokey Hollow.

As always, if you have any thoughts or additional information on any of this, we welcome your comments below.

A note on our methods: You may be curious about how we were able to extrapolate locations and distances from the 1858 map to the 2014 map.

The 1858 map includes a scale. Not all old maps do. Modern maps, like the 2014 Jimapco map, always have a scale bar. You can use a ruler to measure distances, but it’s incredibly tedious and the arithmetic can be brutal. Thankfully, we have a device called a map wheel, which has an adjustable scale. One preset scale is 1:63360, or one inch to one mile (there are 63,360 inches in a mile). But it is also possible to simply trace the scale bar and tell the device that (in the case of the Jimapco map) the distance traced is five miles. From there, it’s fairly simple to move from one map to another by constantly adjusting the scale. We wouldn’t use it for surgery, but it’s pretty accurate.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Of Floods and Picnics: Mysteries Abound

July 23rd, 2018 was 130th anniversary of the Great Flood of Hillsdale. On that morning, a cloudburst dumped 12 inches of rain in one hour on Austerlitz and North Hillsdale, and as far west as Craryville. By comparison, during the worst of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Houston, TX, received four inches of rain per hour (although obviously for a much longer period). The point is that 12 inches in an hour is a lot of rain, and almost instantly, all of the creeks and rivers in Hillsdale were inundated.

At the time, there were quite a few structures dotting the banks of these waterways, including sawmills, gristmills and other industries that required hydropower. As the waters rose and picked up speed, virtually every one of these structures was washed away. The water carried debris into Copake, where the flood’s sole casualty drowned.

One would be tempted to think that such a dramatic event would be big news. But after searching the digital files of the Hillsdale Harbinger and the Register Star, as well as The New York Times, almost nothing appeared in print about the flood. The only reference we found was an historical mention some years later in a news clipping from an unnamed newspaper on file at the Columbia County Historical Society.

Considering that the Harbinger devoted quite a lot of space to covering whose Aunt was visiting from New Jersey and who was recovering at home from a nasty chill, one might expect that a flood would be worthy of at least a mention. And in fact, floods were covered extensively in the Harbinger. Search the archives for “flood” and you will learn all about the Johnstown Flood in 1889, which admittedly did kill 2209 people, but also of floods in Kansas, Texas, and many other unfortunate places. But not in Hillsdale. Go figure. (If anyone has more extensive information, please add it as a comment below.)

Meanwhile, one of things we enjoy about researching a given subject is that you come upon so many things that are completely unrelated but really interesting.

While digging around for information about the 1888 flood in the achives of the Columbia County Historical Society, we came upon a photocopy of an undated article from an unnamed newspaper with the headline, “Time Has Erased All Signs of Once Popular Hillsdale Picnic Grounds.” The article was written by Hillsdale resident Palmer Vincent, who worked as a postal clerk in the early years of the 20th century. He was also a noted local photographer – a selection of his photos can be found on the Hillsdale town website in the “History” tab.

In the article, Mr. Vincent recalled that White’s Hill, the highest point of land in Hillsdale, took its name from John White, who farmed the hill for many years. At the top of the hill, one was treated to a spectacular vista. A twelve-foot high tower was erected and from its perch it was said that one could see five states.

“A trip to White’s Hill was as exciting to yesteryear’s teenagers as a visit to Radio City Music Hall for today’s sophisticated youngsters,” said Mr. Vincent. “Preparations were made for days as picnics were planned and dad was asked if the Morgan mare and a rig might be available for the Sunday outing.” (Because of Mr. Vincent’s reference to Radio City Music Hall, one can infer that he wrote this remembrance after 1932, the year the Music Hall opened.)

Mr. Vincent recalled that one of the more daring things to do, if you were a boy, was to carve a heart in the wall of the tower with a jackknife and put your initials and those of your girl within its borders. “And that old tower, its sidewalls and benches were well carved!”

Why was the picnic ground abandoned?  In all likelihood, we’ll never know for sure. Alas, the tower and picnic grounds have vanished, but if you or someone you know has any recollections of White’s Hill, please add them in a comment below.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Vanishing Act

Lauren:

We’ve written about Hillsdale cemeteries before, but my imagination has been captured by one in particular: the McKinstry Family Plot on upper Hunt Road. Its beautiful headstones, many still legible, have lain mostly undisturbed for more than 200 years. Many of them date to the American Revolution era.

Reading history, one might be forgiven for thinking the only people alive in America during the 18th century were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and the other Founding Fathers. The writing of history is asymmetrical. Women, by and large, are not included in historical narratives because history favors the lives of public figures, and women were not allowed to be public figures.

But the gravestones in the McKinstry plot fill in the gaps, a little, about the lives of two women who lived and died in Hillsdale, on the fringes of history.

John and Jane Dickie McKinstry came to the American colonies in 1740 from Ulster County in Northern Ireland. They had five children — Thomas, John Dickie, Sarah, Charles and David – and in 1772 they moved from Blandford, MA to Hillsdale.

John Dickie McKinstry saw service during the French and Indian War, and all four McKinstry sons served during the American Revolution in the Albany County Militia, 9th Regiment. The historical records tell us John was at Bunker Hill and participated in “all the principal northern battles,” only to be captured by pro-British Indians at The Battle of The Cedars in Canada. Bound to a stake, with bundles of sticks piled around him, about to be immolated, McKinstry remembered that the hostile Indian chief, Brandt, was a Mason. John communicated to Brandt using the secret Masonic sign and was immediately released. For the rest of his life John McKinstry hosted Brandt at an annual dinner at the Hudson Masonic Lodge, where the two old combatants retold the story.

John’s younger brother Charles is also found in historical records – as a Lieutenant in the Albany Ninth Militia during the war, as colonel of the Hillsdale militia after the war, as Hillsdale Town Supervisor and New York State legislator, and as the owner of a noted tavern at “the foot of the Cakeout Hills” … where “all the prominent public business of the town, civil and military, was done.”

We know a fair amount about Charles McKinstry’s public life. But we know almost nothing about his private life, except for what can be read on the gravestones:

Charles McKinstry and Tabitha Patterson married in 1774. She bore him eight children and died giving birth to the ninth. Tabitha was 32. This seems shocking to us today, but in the 18th century, on average, a white woman could expect to become pregnant between five and 10 times, and to give birth to between five and seven live children. One in four children died before the age of ten.

In a remarkable biography, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, historian Jill Lepore pieces together the small, sorrowful, impoverished life of Jane Franklin Mecom, Benjamin Franklin’s youngest and favorite sister, from letters the two wrote each other throughout their lives. Their paths in life were irrevocably shaped by their gender. Benjamin Franklin ran away from home at 17 to escape an indenture. His life was measured in worldly accomplishments – statesman, politician, inventor and genius. Jane, only 11 when he left, was married at 15 to a mentally and financially unstable man eight years her senior. She bore 12 children, only one of whom survived her. With her husband in debtor’s prison much of the time, she took in boarders and made soap to earn money. She stayed in Boston and buried her parents, then was forced to flee when the British took the town. Her life was measured in a litany of grief she called her “Book of Ages,” a register of the births and deaths of her children.

Benjamin Franklin wrote, in Poor Richard’s Almanack, “One half of the world does not know how the other half lives.” He didn’t know how right he was. From Book of Ages:

“Men waged wars, but for women each birth was another battle. No woman dared imagine herself spared, not by grace, not by wealth; pain was her portion. Even if she survived childbirth, she could scarcely expect that her child would. Queen Anne, who ascended to the British throne in 1702, was pregnant seventeen times. Six of her pregnancies ended in miscarriage, six in stillbirth. One son and daughter died the day they were born. Anne Sophia, not yet one, was carried away by smallpox, along with her sister Mary, not yet two. William reached ten, only to be taken.”

Five of Tabitha’s children – all under 13 – survived her. There was only one thing for a widower with five children to do, and that was to marry again. Major Charles did, in 1790, to Nancy Norton of Farmington CT.

Nancy died delivering her fifth child, who also died. Charles was a widower again, this time with nine children. But Nancy’s headstone reveals something else: Charles was now a Colonel. And town records show he had been elected Hillsdale Town Supervisor. He had lost two wives, but his life went on. His personal sorrows did not define the rest of his life.

Colonel Charles married a third time, to Bernice Egliston of Great Barrington. A stepmother to nine children, she bore two more, one of whom died at 11 months.

Charles’s headstone reveals that he died in 1818 with the rank of General. Bernice lived until 1845 and is buried in Great Barrington.

Unlike military rank and official titles, domestic sorrow is not to be found in a town’s records. Tabitha and Nancy McKinstry lived short, limited lives (by today’s standards) but are still worthy of remembering. Lepore writes, “It’s important to note what gets saved, what gets lost, what gets remembered, what gets forgotten. And what the consequences are of each of those losses.”

This could apply just as well to the McKinstry stones themselves, now vanishing due to age, weather and neglect. What place should they hold in our lives today? With what degree of tenderness will we gather up and preserve their dust?

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

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.

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 | 19 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