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.

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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.

 

 

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Welcome to the Historians of Hillsdale Blog!

Hi. We’re Lauren and Chris, newly minted Hillsdale Town Historians. Back in January when Town Supervisor Peter Cipkowski asked us to take on the role we were surprised. We’d moved to Hillsdale in late 2014, which, in historian terms, is about 15 minutes ago. We didn’t think we had the credentials to be Town Dog Catcher.

But Peter seemed flexible about the duties involved, and said we wouldn’t have to be a font of facts and figures. We’ve always liked the idea that town historians practice the art of studying large questions in small places. The historical significance of the region is hard to overstate: the Hudson Valley played a dynamic role in the country’s transition from the colonial era to the Republic, and we were interested in learning more.

So we said yes.

A little about us: we are new residents in Hillsdale. We had a weekend house in Malden Bridge for 20 years and bought a place in Hillsdale in December of 2012 to be closer to Manhattan. Then we both promptly lost our jobs, so that was great timing. But we were fed up with the corporate grind anyway, so we pulled up stakes and moved to Hillsdale in December 2014, just in time for the worst winter in a century. Once again, great timing.

We have complementary skills: Chris is a superior online sleuth and Lauren is a get-out-and-talk-to-people type. We are slowly finding our way around local historic resources. For us, the town website was a good place to start, especially former Town Historian Herb Parmet’s history of Hillsdale. We found A History of Hillsdale by John Francis Collin (1883) available as a PDF online. And because it is digital, it’s searchable. That’s a lifesaver.

The Roe Jan Library has a good selection of reference books. History of Columbia County, New York, by Capt. Franklin Ellis (1876), covers all the towns and hamlets; its chapter on Hillsdale makes up in flowery language what it lacks in absolute reliability. The book isn’t indexed but the chapter isn’t very long – you can read it in one sitting.

Two more recent – and reliable — histories are John L. Brooke’s Columbia Rising: Civil Life on the Upper Hudson from the Revolution to the Age of Jackson (The University of North Carolina Press 2010), and The History of the Hudson River Valley from Wilderness to the Civil War by Vernon Benjamin (The Overlook Press, 2014). These volumes shed light on how political and social forces that led to the American Revolution shaped the region in general, and Hillsdale in particular.

We learned that an 1849 fire destroyed Hillsdale’s town records, making the task of unearthing the past even more difficult than it already is. Some vital statistics are on file at the Columbia County courthouse; some deeds and mortgages may be found at the County Clerk’s office in Hudson. The Columbia County Historical Society and the Roe Jan Historical Society have other resources. And some information can be gleaned from the headstones of Hillsdale’s 15 cemeteries.

We learned about marriage, birth and death records for Hillsdale stored at the Pittsfield Athenaeum. Why? Because in the early days, when Nobletown/Hillsdale was still disputed territory between New York and Massachusetts, clerics from Great Barrington were called in to record these events. Those church records found their way to Pittsfield, the county seat. We haven’t been there yet but it’s on our list.

We’ve found that often the best information comes from Hillsdale’s own residents. It pays to ask questions, and we plan to do that right here in this blog, as well as report on the inquiries we’ve received from people in far-flung places searching for their Hillsdale antecedents. You probably know more than we do, so we hope you’ll give us a hand when we get stuck.

Between us we hope to tackle some unfinished business – like the Hillsdale Oral History Project– and to start some new ones. Like, what’s the story with Harlemville?
There are also projects we just think will be fun. We’re researching the 30 or so Hillsdale streets, roads and lanes named after actual people, inspired by a book we own that gives the origin of street names in Manhattan. Did you know that the ubiquitous Duane Reade drugstore chain was named because it was founded 0n Broadway between Duane and Reade Streets in lower Manhattan? Probably you did, if you’ve ever spent time in NYC. But did you also know that James Duane was the first elected mayor of New York following the Revolutionary Way and that Joseph Reade was a warden of Trinity Church and a member of the Governor’s Council? What will we learn about Collins and Mitchell Streets and Shutts Road? Stay tuned.

We hope you’ll help us fill in the blanks about Hillsdale’s history by contacting us at hillsdalehistorians@gmail.com, or posting a comment on this blog. As they always said on The X Files: The Truth is Out There. Together, we can find it!

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