Blog for the Common Man

It can be tempting to think of our town history in terms of its founding fathers, historic houses, and seminal events. But like the history of most small towns, those people, places and occasions serve as punctuation marks in the text of otherwise ordinary lives.

While Hillsdale indeed has had its share of larger-than-life figures, it was the citizens who did not make it into the history books who made Hillsdale into the place we love today. A case in point would be Thomas I. White.

Thomas White was born on March 13, 1829 in Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island. Prince Edward Island was then a part of British North America, and under the rule of King William IV. (The British North America Act of 1867 created the Confederation of Canada.)

As a young man, Thomas moved to New York City, where he worked as a carpenter for seven years. In 1852, the New York and Harlem Railroad arrived in Hillsdale, and not long after, Thomas did too.

Thomas put his carpentry skills to use immediately, opening a wagon maker’s shop. Over time he expanded, adding a livery and blacksmithing services. In 1859, Thomas, age 30, married Miss Mary Jane Haywood, age 24. The following year they had a son, Allen.

Thomas made a practice of driving his wagon to the Hillsdale depot to meet every train. He would take arriving passengers to their destinations, in effect serving as Hillsdale’s first taxi service. But Thomas also had some exciting moments in his wagon.

In 1893, as reported in the Hillsdale Harbinger, Thomas was unloading gravel for road maintenance when something spooked his horses.  They bolted and ran in the direction of Pulver’s clothing store (today’s Roe Jan Brewing Company), with Thomas holding on for dear life. As the horses approached the store they turned sharply, flinging Thomas out of the wagon and against the building, which cut his left hand badly. The horses then returned to their stable without further incident.

The Whites were prosperous and well known and liked in the community. Thomas and Mary Jane counted among their friends Mr. and Mrs. Freeland Pulver, Freeland being the noted Hillsdale clothier.

In 1903 the Hillsdale Harbinger reported that Mrs. White had received a visitor – her nephew, Parla Foster of Port Chester, NY. It seems likely that Parla was a descendent of another Parla Foster, a Hillsdale founding father.  After the war, Foster had settled in Hillsdale and went on to serve as Town Supervisor. He built the first Methodist church, and also the handsome brick house that today is the home of C. Herrington Home + Design. It’s not clear how Mary Jane White was related to the Fosters, but we do know that at the age of 19, she lived in a boarding house in Hillsdale that was owned by and lived in by William Foster and a whole passel of Fosters.

On Friday, April 22, 1907, 78-year-old Thomas met all the trains as usual. He went home, newspaper in hand, but complained of a severe headache. His vision was impaired and he could not make out the words in the newspaper. He went to bed but succumbed to a stroke and died before morning.

From White’s obituary in the Harbinger: “He will be greatly missed by the traveling public here to whom he had been a familiar figure for years. He was a straightforward, conscientious man, one who, while not taking a large part in public affairs, lived his life in a quiet way, doing all that he did as well as he knew.”

As important as the contributions of people like Parla Foster and Refine Latting (whose tavern is today’s Hillsdale House) were in founding our town, it was people like Thomas and Mary Jane White who made it a community.

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The Millionaire Next Door: John K. Cullin

Most residents of Hillsdale probably drive right by the Civil War monument in the center of town without even noticing it anymore. But the “Soldiers and Sailors Flag Bearer” memorial is worthy of notice because it is the sole Civil War memorial in Columbia County. That seems odd because although Hillsdale sent more than its share of men off to the war, so did many other towns in the county. In all of Columbia County, only Hillsdale erected a monument to honor their service and only then because of the generosity of one man.

On the front of the monument’s pedestal is the following inscription:

1861 – 1865

The monument sits on what was once known as the Village Green. Today, that triangle of grass is known as Cullin Park, although hardly anyone knows that since there is no sign. (More on that later.)

The Soldiers and Sailors Flag Bearer Monument

In honor of the dedication of the monument, Thomas B. Evans (aka “The Bard of the Berkshires”) wrote an ode to Cullin that included these lines:

“The flag that John K. Cullin defended

When he marched from his old native town –

That Grand Army veteran departed,

Who donated that granite and crown,

Two statues of bronze so heroic

Of the soldier and sailor we love

The American free soil beneath them

The American blue sky above.”

And then (big finish here),

“John K. Cullin will long be remembered

He fought not for Glory or Fame,

He fought for his Flag and his Country

And well may we honor his name.”

We’ve always wondered about John K. Cullin. Who was he? Where was he from? And how did he become a man of such means that he bequeathed $10,000 (about a quarter of a million dollars in 2020 money) to fund the monument?

John K. Cullin

John Cullin was born in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in 1837, where his mother was visiting her parents. The Cullins lived in Glasgow, Scotland, where John’s father ran a business. After Cullin Sr. passed away, 10-year-old John and his mother emigrated to America and settled in Hillsdale. It’s not clear what brought them here but it may have been a relative who was already in Hillsdale.

John learned the harness trade from harness maker James Doherty, but at the outbreak of the Civil War, he enlisted in the Fourteenth New York Volunteers. (It’s worth noting that he would have been mustered into the army on the village green, the very site of the monument he made possible.) According to “New York in the War of the Rebellion,” by Frederick Phisterer, the Fourteenth Volunteers joined the Army of the Potomac, and was heavily engaged in the Battle of Gaines Mill, where the regiment experienced some 225 casualties.

John was mustered out in 1864 and returned to Hillsdale. He was immediately hired as a clerk at the Hillsdale Mercantile (now the RoeJan Brewing Company) on Anthony Street, where he became close friends with Freeland Pulver, also a clerk. Pulver eventually bought the Mercantile and reopened it with his brother. John worked at Pulver Bros. for eight years before relocating to Troy in 1872 to work for George Bristol & Company, a dry goods firm. (George’s sister, Flavia, was herself a prominent resident of Hillsdale and in 1918 bequeathed $30,000 to build a public library, housed in what today is the Town Hall.) So close were George and John that John held power of attorney of the Bristol estate until he died.

To describe John Cullin as parsimonious is to be way too kind. He could, as they say, squeeze six cents out of a nickel. In middle age, he would declare, “I cannot afford to smoke.” But it paid off. Despite working as a retail clerk for most of his life, he managed to amass a considerable fortune, which he distributed liberally in his later years and posthumously through his estate. For example, in his latter years John, a lifelong Mason, donated the funds to build Hillsdale’s Masonic Hall. (It was lost to a fire in 1927.)

The original Masonic Hall, lost to a fire in 1927

John died at the age of 78 in 1915. At the time, he was living in Rock Ledge, FL, where he had moved for health reasons. In addition to the $10,000 he left for the monument, he bequeathed a total of 19 gifts to individuals and institutions totaling some $15,300 (or $400,000 today). Included in these gifts were pictures, books and $2000 (today’s $50,000) for the Hillsdale Public Library.

And after all that, probate records how that there was a considerable residue — $3.3 million in today’s dollars —  that he left to his nephew, Herbert Cogswell of New Haven, CT. Interestingly, Freeland Pulver was the executor of Cullin’s will.

The Bard of the Berkshires said it best:  “And well may we honor his name.”

So it seems quite appropriate that just as John Cullin honored his fellow warriors with a monument, we should consider honoring John Cullin and his generous contributions to Hillsdale with a permanent marker identifying Cullin Park and the significance of the monument.

For more information about the monument and its dedication, click here.

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The Bernsteins of Hillsdale

We recently stumbled on an interesting piece of Hillsdale trivia: one of our more prominent residents was the legendary composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Bernstein, of course, was a fixture at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home, Tanglewood, for some 50 years, starting in 1940. At first, he studied under BSO Music Director Serge Koussevitzky. But within two years, Bernstein was promoted to Koussevitzky’s assistant. And it appears that it was Koussevitzky who introduced Bernstein to Hillsdale.

We’re not sure when that happened, but thanks to a helpfully annotated photograph, we do know that the Bernstein family (“Lenny,” Felicia and toddler daughter Jamie) spent the summer of 1953 in a house in Hillsdale, presumably while he taught at the Tanglewood Music Center. Unfortunately, we have no idea where this house was, or if it still exists and we are hopeful that our readers can shed some light on it. UPDATE:  Since publishing this post, we have heard from Margo Potrzeba, who lives in this house and was told in 1978 when purchasing the home that the Bernsteins had stayed there.  It’s on Ten Broeck Road. At the time, it was owned by Dr. and Mrs. Stone and it was called “Clearbrook.” (Of course Dr. and Mrs. Stone were played by Carl Betz and Donna Reed. Um, just kidding.)

Here they are in what appears to be the Roe Jan Kill, but again, it is hard to be certain. The Library of Congress notes that it is Hillsdale. UPDATE:  Ms. Potrzeba believes that this is the swimming hole across the road from the house.

The Bernsteins moved on after that summer, and it seems they took a house in Lee, Massachusetts, in the ensuing years. But that was not the last of the Bernsteins in Columbia County: Nina, the youngest daughter, owned a home in the Town of Chatham for many years.

If you have any memory of the Bernstein’s time in Hillsdale, or recognize the house, please leave a comment below.

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Looking Back, Looking Forward

As we greet the New Year, the Historians of Hillsdale decided to look back over our first 2.5 years in the role.

We’ve very much enjoyed being the town’s historians. Although we have only lived in Hillsdale for five years, we have been residents of Columbia County for almost 25 years and have always been interested in learning about the area’s history.

Many people are not aware that New York State requires that each of its towns appoint a historian. That means that there are 932 town historians in the state, with 17 of them in Columbia County. In addition, there are a number of local historical societies (such as the Roe Jan Historical Society) that operate independently from the town historians.

New York State actually provides very little guidance as to the functions and responsibilities of the town historian. The New York State Office of State History (who knew?) has published a six-page document that is as detailed about what a town historian is NOT, as it is about what it should be. For example, the document states that the local historian is not:

• An antiquarian. No collecting of artifacts or documents that rightfully should be kept by museums or historical societies
• An archivist. Records management is the Town Clerk’s responsibility.
• A genealogist. We are not authorized to, nor do we, conduct genealogical research. (We can refer people to contract genealogists.)

And so on. What we are charged with includes:

• Research and Writing. This we primarily do through this blog.
• Teaching and Presentations. We have made presentations on historical matters at the Roe Jan Historical Society, the Roe Jan Community Library and to Taconic Hills Central School students.
• Historic Preservation. We serve as trustees of the Friends of East Gate and are advocates for the preservation and restoration of our town’s toll house.
• Tourism promotion. The document notes that traveling history buffs (or “heritage tourists”) are the largest segment of the tourism industry and spend more time and money on their trips than other tourists. Our annotated map of the original Columbia Turnpike is the kind of resource heritage tourists seek.

Each of the 17 town historians in Columbia County has an individual interpretation of the state guidelines. We have chosen to interpret our role as storytellers. Rather than focusing on names, dates, and chronologies, we investigate aspects of Hillsdale’s history that interest us, chiefly through secondary research, talking to people who’ve been around for a while, and a fair amount of Googling. It’s a personal, rather than academic, approach, but it works for us and we hope it works for you, too. We’re partial to the idea that town historians practice the art of studying large questions in small places. Here are just a few of the questions we’ve tackled in this blog:

• Our search for the original location of Nobletown, which led us to an understanding of the century-long border dispute between NY and MA, which wasn’t settled until after the Revolutionary War
• The location of James Agee’s grave, which became an appreciation for the novels, poetry and screenplays of this commanding literary voice from the mid-20th century.
• The dubious Hillsdale claim on Elsie the Cow, which turned into a lesson on branding that advertisers would do well to study today.
• The history of the “Old Agway,” now about to open as the Roe Jan Brewing Company – a textbook example of thoughtful building rehabilitation and reuse.

About a year ago, Austerlitz town historian Tom Moreland convened the first ever meeting of the 17 town historians of Columbia Country. We meet quarterly to discuss issues affecting local historians (resources chief among them – few towns set aside funds to support the work of the town historian) and ways that we can bring our respective towns’ histories to a broader audience.

In recent months, several of the group have had articles on local history published in The Columbia Paper. Hillsdale Historian Lauren Letellier had an article on the McKinstry family burial plot – one of the oldest in town — appear on the front page of the paper – an encouraging indication that history is interesting and important. In addition, Main Street Magazine has reprinted several of our posts on its on-line version.

Just last week, we were interviewed on WGXC in Hudson by Rob Gelles on the role of Town Historian and some of things we’ve researched and written about. You can listen to it by clicking here.

We have also been working with a website called “Hear About Here” to create an interactive version of our Columbia Turnpike map. We’ll note its availability in a future blog post.

In 2020, Hillsdale will have been incorporated as a town for 232 years, and its history goes back much further. That’s why it seems fitting to end 2019 with a quote by the noted Filipino historian and scholar Epifanio de los Santo y Cristobal:

“Today’s events are tomorrow’s history, yet events seen by the naked eye lack the depth and breadth of human struggles, triumphs and suffering. Writing history is writing the soul of the past … so that the present generation may learn from past mistakes, be inspired by their ancestors’ sacrifices, and take responsibility for the future.”

We always welcome suggestions for topics or questions about Hillsdale’s past. Just email us at We wish you a happy, healthy and historic 2020.

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The Perils of Parsimony, 1881

via The Perils of Parsimony, 1881

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The Perils of Parsimony, 1881

The following cautionary tale was published in the November 24, 1881 issue of the Hillsdale Harbinger.


“The Badgerleys coming here to spend Thanksgiving?” said Mrs. Nettingley. “Not if I know it.”

Mrs. Nettingley was a close-fisted and calculating matron, who lived in a handsome house in a stylish neighborhood in New York and was one of those who, as her maid-of-all-work expressed it, “would skin a flea to save the hide and tallow.” Mrs. Nettingley liked to make a show, but she had a deep-rooted aversion to spending money. And entertaining company on Thanksgiving day was one of the things that could not be accomplished without the latter concomitant.

Mr. Nettingley, a little, weak-minded man, who viewed his big wife with respectful admiration, looked dubiously at her. “But, my dear,” he said, “how are you going to help it? They’ve sent word they are coming.”

“I’ll go to your sister Belinda’s up in Saugatuck County,” she replied.

Mr. Nettingley felt of his chin. “They haven’t invited us,” said he – “That is, not especially.”

“Oh fiddlesticks!” said Mrs. Nettingley. “Belinda’s always glad to see me and the children. And as for staying at home to gorge Mrs. Badgerley and her six children, and Mr. Badgerely’s two sisters, I won’t do it. Why, such a turkey as they would expect would cost three dollars, at the very least. Get me a timetable, Nettingley. Send word to Mrs. Badgerley that I’ve gone away to spend Thanksgiving.”

Mr. Nettingley, who never dreamed of opposing his wife’s will in this or any other matter, wrote the letter accordingly and put it in his coat-tail pocket, where it remained. For he forgot all about it. Mrs. Nettingley packed her own things and the things of the four little Nettingleys, and took the afternoon train to Scrag Hollow, in Saugatuck County.

“Mamma,” said Theodora Nettingley – the juvenile scions of the house of Nettingley all had high-sounding appellations – “it looks all shut up and lonely. I don’t believe anyone is at home.”

“Pshaw!” said Mrs. Nettingley. “People in the country always live in the back of the house.”

And carrying a heavy carpet-bag in her hand she trudged around to the rear door, followed by Theodora, Lavinia, Evangeline and Gervase, each lugging a similar bag.

Nobody responded to her repeated volley of knocks, but presently a little old woman, who had come from a neighboring cottage to the well for water, was made to understand what was wanted. “Mrs. Peckfield? Said the little old woman, in a high-pitched, shrill voice, which so often accompanies deafness. “You’re her cousin from the city, come to spend Thanksgiving? Well, if that ain’t too bad! Mrs. Peckfield started this very afternoon for Ladd’s Depot; got some relations as lives there.”

“That’s very strange,” said Mrs. Nettingley. “I telegraphed her that I was coming.”

“Couldn’t a gotten the telegram, I guess,” said the little old woman.

But Mrs. Nettingley knew better than that, for under the corner of the piazza there lay a torn envelope of the Western Union Telegraph! And she knew that Mrs. Peckfield had fled from her, just as she, Mrs. Nettingley, had fled before the Badgerley family.

“But I’ll be even with her!” said Mrs. Nettingley, grinding her false teeth. “I’ll go to Ladd’s Depot. What are the names of her relations there?”

The little old woman, after some meditation, said that it was Jones. At least, she thought it was Jones. She wasn’t quite certain. It might be Smith. Or it might be Thompson. But she believed it was Jones. And she believed they lived on Thorn Street.

It was a long walk back to the railroad depot, and the four little Nettingley’s were tired and cross, but they fortunately succeeded in reaching it before the last northward train started. But it was an express and didn’t stop at small places like Ladd’s Depot, as Mrs. Nettingley found to her cost when she paid five dollars for a hack to take her back to Ladd’s Depot.

On inquiry, it was found that there were about a half dozen families of the name of Jones at Ladd’s Depot. The first place to which they drove on Thorn Street was a tenement house, where they all had scarlet fever.

“Oh my!” said Mrs. Nettingley. “Drive on, quick! This isn’t the place.”

The next was a clergyman’s house, where a full-fledged prayer meeting was going briskly on.

“This isn’t the place either,” said poor Mrs. Nettingley, waxing more and more in despair.

And the third was a vinegar-faced old maid, who lived with her married sister and had never heard the name Peckfield in her life.

“What shall I do? Said Mrs. Nettingley

“Better go to a hotel,” said the hackman, who himself was beginning to get out of patience.

“But it costs so much,” said Mrs. Nettingley. And tomorrow is Thanksgiving day. Is there a train back tonight?

“Tonight?” said the hackman. “Why, it’s past eleven already! And my horse has got the epizootic, and I couldn’t keep him out no longer, not for nobody. But I s’pose I could take you to the 12:30 night express for a little extra.”

And this moderate specimen of the tribe of hackmen consented to be satisfied with eight dollars.

“Ma,” whispered Gervase. “Where are we going?”

“Home!” said Mrs. Nettingley, pronouncing the word as if it were a peanut shell she was cracking. There was one comfort though – the Badgerley family would have been repulsed by that time; and, after all, cold beef was cheaper than turkey at thirty cents a pound.

It was one or two o’clock the next day when she reached her own door, having paid in hack and car fare enough to buy half a dozen ten-pound turkeys, and with jaded and fretful children, a violent headache on her own score, and one of her traveling-bags lost.

“I’ll stay home after this,” said Mrs. Nettingley to herself. “Eh? Parlor window-blinds open? People talking! I do believe Nettingley’s got company for Thanksgiving after all!”

And her heart sank down into the soles of her boots. It was quite true. Abby the servant-maid, with red and flurried face, opened the door.

“Abby!” said Mrs. Nettingley. “Who’s here?”

“Lots of people, Ma’am,” said Abby, looking guiltily over her shoulder.

“Where are they?” demanded her mistress.

“In the dining-room, ma’am.”

And Abby threw open the door, thereby disclosing a long table with three huge turkeys well browned and savory, a chicken pie that was a small mountain itself, and a glass reservoir of cranberry sauce, that set Mrs. Nettingley calculating at once as to the probable amount of dollars sunk in its crimson bellows; while seated in hospitable array around the board were Mr. and Mrs. Badgerley, the two sisters, and six children, Mr. and Mrs. Smithers and seven little Smitherses and six Leonards of Maine, second cousins of her husband – twenty-six in all – including her husband.

Mrs. Nettingley and her children sat down and ate their Thanksgiving dinner with what appetite they might.

“My dear,” said the sacrificed lamb, “what was I to do? They didn’t get the letter. They said they had come to spend Thanksgiving and I of course ordered dinner. What else could I do?

“Do?” repeated Mrs. Nettingley in the bitterest of scorn. “Couldn’t you close all the blinds and lock the front door and go down cellar and pretend not to be home? I’ve no patience with you.”

Three days afterward the three youngest Nettingleys broke out with scarlet fever. The seven little Smitherses took it of them – the maid took it to the Smitherses, and Mrs. Nettingley had her winter’s work before her.

“I wish to goodness I had remained at home,” thought Mrs. Nettingey.

And the amount of thankfulness she felt that year was not oppressive, in spite of the Governor’s proclamation.

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The Writing Life: James Agee in Hillsdale

James Rufus Agee, May 27, 1909 – May 16, 1955

James Agee was a commanding literary voice in mid-20th-century America: an extraordinarily versatile writer who in his lifetime won acclaim as a novelist, poet, and screenwriter. He is buried on a farm in Hillsdale.

That’s not big news. But we’ve also been told for years that he never actually lived in Hillsdale.  That seemed odd.  Why would a person who never lived in Hillsdale decide to be buried here?

We set out to see if we could verify that one way or another.

James Rufus Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1909. He adored his warm, nurturing, hard-drinking father, who was killed in an alcohol-fueled car crash when Agee was just 6. Raised by his emotionally distant, deeply religious mother, Agee was enrolled in 1919 at St. Andrew’s, an Episcopalian boarding school for boys on the remote Cumberland Plateau of south-central Tennessee. Although Agee was at best a middling student, it soon became evident to his teachers that he possessed an extraordinary aptitude for language and he was given the run of the school’s library, a rare privilege.

In 1925 Agee left Tennessee for Philips Exeter Academy. Despite his otherwise lackluster grades, Agee excelled in English, earning straight A’s. The strength of his writing was enough to win him a scholarship to Harvard College. At Harvard, Agee began smoking and drinking heavily, habits that became addictions he could never shake, and that would ultimately kill him. While placed on academic probation several times, he still managed to be named both class poet and president of the Advocate, Harvard’s literary journal.


James Agee, 1937

After graduation Agee landed a position as a staff writer at the fledgling Fortune magazine. His poetic gifts and ambitions as a writer clashed with the conventions of business reporting and he lapsed into depression, flirting with thoughts of suicide. In search of a topic to match his literary ambitions, he arranged for a six-month leave of absence from Fortune to report on the lives of destitute sharecroppers in Alabama. He was paired with the photographer Walker Evans, whose work documenting the hard times of Depression-era farmers had made him one of the foremost chroniclers of the era.

During Agee’s long leave in Alabama, the political winds at Fortune shifted rather dramatically from pro-New Deal to conservative right. When the magazine declined to publish the essays it had commissioned, Agee assembled the drafts into the book he had long anticipated writing, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, published in 1941. America, poised on the brink of war, was ill-prepared for such a demanding and provocative work, and it was a commercial and critical failure. It wasn’t until 1960 that critics hailed Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as an American classic.

Agee left Fortune to join Time magazine as book reviewer and film critic. In 1942 he moved to The Nation where his film criticism found a growing circle of intellectual admirers, including W.H. Auden, who wrote “In my opinion, [Agee’s] column is the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today.” As a film reviewer, he brought a level of perceptiveness and curiosity to the analysis of cinema in the 1940s that championed everything from mainstream Hollywood hits to B horror movies to slapstick comedy and eccentric, auteur-driven masterpieces. His film criticism for Time and The Nation was collected posthumously in Agee on Film, which is studied by film students and scholars to this day.

Intent on earning money as a screenwriter, Agee used his status as a film critic to ingratiate himself with Hollywood directors he most admired, such as John Huston and Charlie Chaplin. He eventually wrote screenplays for (among others) The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, The Night of the Hunter and, most famously, The African Queen.


Agee lived at 172 Bleecker St. in Greenwich Village in the 1940’s and 50’s but in 1948, he and his third wife, Mia, purchased a 130-acre farm on Rodman Road in Hillsdale (the property is now listed as 19 acres). It was in dreadful condition: the roof leaked and the farmhouse had neither electricity nor running water. But to Agee the landscape was reminiscent of the hills of Tennessee, which he had always loved.

Agee did indeed spend time at the farm, beginning in the late summer of 1948 and for several months almost every summer until his death in 1955. During these stays Agee was usually battling deadlines and attempting to stop drinking. He worked furiously on many projects, including articles for Life magazine, two novels (including A Death in the Family, about his father’s demise, for which he was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize) and a bizarre screenplay about nuclear war that he wrote for his good friend Charlie Chaplin, which never saw the light of day.

By 1955, Agee’s health had declined such that he discussed with Mia his wishes for a burial at the farm. He told Mia that he only wanted a simple stone, with an engraving of a bird, the Egyptian symbol of the afterlife.

Agee died of heart attack on May 16, 1955 in a taxi on his way to see his doctor in Manhattan. He was 45 years old. After his funeral in Manhattan three days later, a group of mourners drove to the farm in Hillsdale where the burial took place in the afternoon. The burial site, located a hundred yards behind the farmhouse, overlooks the rolling hills and is marked with a simple stone, which lacks the bird carving he had requested. May 19, 1955 was a beautiful spring day in Hillsdale. Agee’s favorite flower, the lilac, bloomed everywhere, filling the soft air with its sweet scent. His children snipped some of the lilacs and tossed them onto the coffin.

Unmarked stone atop Agee’s grave on his Rodman Road farm



James Agee: A Life, Bergreen, Laurence, 1984, E.P. Dutton, New York

Remembering James Agee, Maddon, David, 1974, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, LA

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Hillsdale Goes to Work

Americans will soon be celebrating Labor Day, so it’s a good time to look back on the history of work in Hillsdale.

From Hillsdale’s earliest days, farming was a major occupation, although not an easy one to pursue. The rocky, thin soil and the hilly contours of the land made Hillsdale a less-than-perfect spot to grow crops. In fact, the steep population decline Hillsdale experienced in the latter years of the 19th century and early 20th century was in some part due to soil erosion. Heeding the words of Horace Greeley, young men and their families pulled up stakes and “went west” to the more fertile fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio and beyond. During that time, there were few newcomers moving in to stabilize the population. Hillsdale’s population — which had been at an all-time high of 4,700 in 1800 — hit rock bottom in 1930, when the Federal census recorded only 968 residents.

Many farmers who did stay turned to dairying, for which our hills and dales are much better suited. Butter production became a major force in the town’s economic development, all the more so when the railroad came through in 1852. Prior to that, dairying had been mainly a local business, with each dairy serving a radius of only a few miles due to the perishable nature of milk. With the arrival of refrigerated rail cars in the late 1860s, Hillsdale’s dairymen could serve markets as far south as New York City. Fresh milk replaced butter as the predominant dairy product as production grew substantially through the 1880s and 1890s.

The Hillsdale Plow Company (center) and Milk Depot (right) on Railroad Lane (later called White Hill Lane)

In his 1883 “History of Hillsdale,” Capt. John Collin notes that a variety of mills operated along the Green River and Roeliff Jansen Kill in the early 19th century. Collin’s grandfather, also John, was born in Milford, CT and relocated to Hillsdale from Dutchess County probably in the years immediately following the Revolution. He is believed to have erected one of the earliest mills in Hillsdale in 1788 when he built a dam on a small Roeliff Jansen tributary near Route 23 (then known as the Sheffield Rd.) in East Hillsdale. Collin bought a second mill site in 1791 from Robert Van Rensselaer, upstream from the first on what is today Collins Street. There he constructed saw and grist mills, and what became the Collin homestead. A fulling mill was already operating on the site.

Fulling mills were used in the production of wool. Hand-sheared wool would be brought to the mill, where it was soaked in water and fed through a water-powered hammering device that cleaned the wool and made it thicker, or “fuller.” (Incidentally, this process originated in Europe, where the wool was soaked in a tub of animal urine, which dissolved the lanolin to which the dirt and soil adhered. Boys would then jump in and stomp on the wool to clean and full it. This method was eventually abandoned after mechanical advances, and presumably because it was disgusting and the pay was piss-poor.)

The fulling mills also carded the wool, at first by hand with spiked paddles (think of a pair of oversized dog combs) and then by the use of a carding machine. Carding was like combing; it straightened the fibers and further cleaned them. Once processed, the wool would be spun into yarn and used for myriad purposes. A worker in a fulling mill was referred to as a “fuller,” the origin of that surname.

By 1875, Hillsdale’s sheep farmers were producing some 17,000 pounds of wool per year. Several textiles mills were built. One, operated by just two men, produced 600 pounds of flannel and cloth annually.

Fulling Mill

Carding Paddles

Carding Machine

Iron ore was discovered in Hillsdale as early as 1800, although mining was never a big business here.  But the furnace at the Copake Iron Works required a huge amount of charcoal and while it’s hard to imagine today, the hills around Green River and North Hillsdale were denuded of their trees.  Several charcoal pits sprang up in Green River, their product shipped by cart to Copake Falls.

Hillsdale had several blacksmiths, making everything from horseshoes to hinges. The first is thought to have been Jared Winslow, whose shop was in Green River.

Where there are cows, there is leather and there were several tanneries in town. The first, in the western part of the town, was built by Refine Latting. Latting also built and operated an inn that is still around more than 200 years later: The Hillsdale House.

Tourism also played a big role, particularly in the years following the Civil War. Hillsdale became a prime summer resort, and sustained several hotels, most notably the Mt. Washington House. The observation tower erected on White’s Hill, from which one could gaze upon four states, was an immensely popular spot. (See our post about it here.)

Over time, a number of retail establishments sprang up to serve Hillsdale residents as well as folks passing through. One of the earliest was opened in 1784 by Daniel Penfield, a Connecticut native who saw an opportunity to serve the growing traffic on the “Old Sheffield Road,” the precursor of the Columbia Turnpike. Unfortunately for Penfield, the store only lasted a short time, having been burned down by an angry mob during Shays’ Rebellion. (Worry not about the Penfields. They moved to New York City and made a fortune, and then founded the city of Penfield, NY, near Rochester.)

Harlemville and Green River each had several stores, but these establishments have either disappeared completely or the buildings have been converted to other uses. But many of the stores located in the center of Hillsdale hamlet are still there, anchored by the Hillsdale General Store. That building was originally Dimmick’s, a general merchandise emporium. The Hillsdale Mercantile appeared in the mid-19th century on White Hill Lane along with a number of shops, hotels and boarding houses. It remained in business under several owners until 1987. (It’s now being converted into the Roe Jan Brewing Company. See our post about the history of the building here.)

Ad from 1891 Hillsdale Harbinger

Ads from an 1891 Hillsdale Harbinger

John Collin’s son, also John, was a cabinetmaker. Collin’s “History” helpfully lists the occupation of every Hillsdale adult male (and one female whose occupation is listed as “widow”). The list, as of 1883, includes:

• Farmer (401)
• School Commissioner
• Saloonkeeper
• Horse dealer
• Shoemaker (4)
• Miller (3)
• Cigar Dealer
• Postmaster
• Blacksmith (4)
• Scythe Maker
• Hay dealer
• Collier (5)
• Tanner
• Grocer
• Mason (3)
• Carpenter (10)
• Railroad agent
• Station agent
• Baggage master
• Laborer (167)
• Engineer
• Painter (4)
• Attorney (3)
• Butcher (6)
• Hotelier (5)
• Clerk
• Real Estate agent
• Harness maker
• Clergyman (2)
• Teacher (3)
• Physician (4)
• Justice of the Peace
• Deputy Sheriff
• Miller
• Iron manufacturer
• Bookkeeper
• Jeweler
• Wagon maker (6)
• Publisher
• Printer
• Undertaker
• Tailor (2)
• Tinsmith (2)
• Artist
• Widow

What’s surprising is how many of these occupations still exist today in and around Hillsdale. As to the others, the advent of the automobile, electric power and mass production in the early 20th century doomed them to obsolescence. There isn’t much call for wagon and harness makers anymore, and we haven’t had the need of a railroad agent since 1972.

Dairying has all but disappeared in Hillsdale. Dairy farms that once stayed in the same  family for generations were sold off as children of the farmers pursued college or less physically demanding, more lucrative employment. On the other hand, the abundant cornfields now lining our country roads show how modern farm equipment allows today’s farmers to plow through the glacial rock that was so difficult to till two centuries ago.

Not surprisingly, the “buggy whip factories” of the past have been replaced with new businesses.  The arrival of broadband in Hillsdale is attracting web designers, software engineers and a growing number of professionals who now have the infrastructure to work for firms throughout the world from their homes in Hillsdale.

In whatever way you make your living today, the Historians of Hillsdale wish you a happy Labor Day.




“Looking for Work: Industrial Archeology in Columbia County, New York,” Stott, Peter H., 2007, Columbia County Historical Society, Kinderhook, NY. We were greatly aided by this book. Peter Stott spent 20 years researching every farm, factory and mill in the county. The book’s 19 chapters detail his findings for every town in Columbia County and the City of Hudson.

“A History of Hillsdale, Columbia County, NY”, Collin, John Francis, 1883, E.J. Beardsley, Philmont, NY

“History of Columbia County, New York,”  Ellis, Franklin, 1878, Everts and Ensign, Philadelphia

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Rent Riots, Rebels and Revolution: How Hillsdale Helped Win the American War for Independence

At the southeast corner of Routes 22 and 23 stands Hillsdale’s Revolutionary War memorial, which was erected in 1977. Compared to the imposing Soldiers and Sailors monument in the town square, it is modest in size and design. It’s likely that many people drive by without ever noticing it. Many who pass it regularly may have forgotten it’s there.

But Hillsdale played a dynamic role in the country’s transition from the colonial era to the Republic. In the town’s 15 known cemeteries lie the remains of 61 American Revolutionary War (ARW) veterans. There are likely more, whose stones have been lost to time and neglect. Austerlitz, formed in 1818 from a chunk of Hillsdale and smaller parts of Chatham and Canaan, has another 52 ARW interments, bringing the total to 113. Columbia County records 588 ARW veteran burials, meaning that almost 20 percent of all known ARW veterans in the county are buried in what was once Hillsdale.

Why did Hillsdale send so many men to war? One reason may have to do with the area’s pre-revolutionary history.

Back in January 2018, we wrote about the history of Nobletown, the forerunner of Hillsdale. In that post we noted that for many years the boundary between New York and Massachusetts had been in dispute. While the English-ruled Bay Colony contended that its western boundary was more than a mile west of today’s state line, the wealthy and powerful Van Rensselaers claimed that their New York manor lands included the thousands of acres of Rensselaer County and the land between the Hudson River and the Housatonic River (today’s Columbia County, extending into what is now Berkshire County). Much of this disputed territory had been acquired from the Mohican Indians through opaque land deeds that only further muddied ownership claims. The dispute lasted well over a century. (For an excellent history of the land disputes and border wars that followed, see Gary Leveille, Eye of Shawenon: A Berkshire History of North Egremont, Prospect Lake, and the Green River Valley, 2011)

The Van Rensselaers ruled their feudal-like patent by renting land to tenant farmers (leaseholders), quite different from the concept of individual land ownership (freeholders) prevalent in New England. The Van Rensselaers had little luck convincing their tenant farmers to settle in the hill country borderlands. The land was hilly and less attractive for farming, unlike the richer soil closer to the Hudson River. Also, the “distance from the Hudson River appeared to make commercial farming unfeasible and …[several years later] because potential settlers … were afraid of controversy with the New England colony over the land.” (Sung Bok Kim, Landlord and Tenant in Colonial New York, University of North Carolina Press, 1978, p. 283) Thinly populated, the area became a takeover target for Massachusetts, which was eager to push its border westward and encouraged its citizens to settle in the region. “Boston officials welcomed New York Dutch farmers if they supported Massachusetts’ territorial aspirations. It was a win-win situation for both the Bay Colony and for New York tenant farmers looking to escape the feudal system and enjoy actual land ownership.” (Gary Leveille, Eye of Shawenon, p. 71)

The Van Rensselaers (and the Livingstons to the south) resisted the encroachment vigorously, attempting to subdue the rebel tenants and Yankee squatters with force. In January 1755 the Nobletown rebels declared publicly that they owned their land under the authority of Massachusetts, provoking Van Rensselaer to form a posse to capture the rebellious tenants. Instead, they found themselves surrounded by the tenant militia and beat a hasty retreat. In May 1755 Van Rensselaer tried again, unleashing a company of armed men to clear out the Nobletown squatters. Robert Noble wrote “…our Houses have been torn down about our Ears, burnt before our Eyes, our Fences thrown Down, our Corn Fields laid waste we have sown but others have reaped, Husbands and heads of Families Carried to Gaol [jail] without Law …Wives and children left in the Wilderness unprovided for as the Ostrich’s young … You Don’t wonder If our hearts faint…” (Massachusetts Archives, Volume 6, pp. 615)

Hostilities intensified with retaliation on both sides. Finally, in June of 1766, Van Rensselaer assembled a band of about 140 experienced British soldiers led by the Albany sheriff to drive the interlopers out. Nobletown went up in flames and its residents fled to Egremont and Great Barrington.

This passage, from John L. Brooke’s Columbia Rising: Civil Life on the Upper Hudson from the Revolution to the Age of Jackson, describes the enduring impact of that event on the people in the border districts that included today’s Hillsdale:

“The peoples of the disputed hill districts north of Livingston Manor and east of Claverack were staunchly whig, and in their story lay a great lesson in the Revolutionary balance of consent and civil society. The inhabitants of Nobletown and Spencertown were still in contest with the Van Rensselaer family over the title to their land, and, since the Van Rensselaers supported the patriot cause, this struggle could well have drawn the hill people to tory allegiances. But the people of the east Claverack hills were the least touched by loyalism in the region and the most militant and united supporters of American Independence. In the summer of 1766 the settlers at Nobletown had lost everything at the hands of British troops called in by the … Van Rensselaers … Their accounts of the violence in 1766 must have underlain the militancy of the … hill town settlers against both the British and the claims of the Van Rensselaers to regional authority. The Nobletown-area militia regiment, the Ninth Albany, was clearly one of the most dependable in the county and was called up time and again to march to Kinderhook, to the Manor, across the river to the Helderberg hills, and up the Mohawk Valley to overawe suspected tories and to defend the state’s western frontier.”

After the war, many of these veterans settled in Hillsdale, accounting for the town’s high percentage of AWR graves. The veterans became leading citizens of the town, opening stores and businesses and serving in local government. Town fathers Parla Foster and Ambrose Latting were veterans, as were others whose names are now commemorated by town road signs: Collin, Hunt, and Rodman.

The relatively small Revolutionary War memorial belies the outsized role that Hillsdale residents played in our nation’s fight for independence. We owe them a debt of gratitude, on July 4th and every day.

(For a list of known ARW veterans buried in Hillsdale and Columbia County, see DAR Volumes I & II in the Roeliff Jansen Community Library Reference Room.)

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Don’t Have a Cow!

Over the years, a number of celebrities have lived in or visited Hillsdale. Some were not famous when they lived here but achieved celeb status elsewhere. But Hillsdale was always “home.” A case in point was Hudson River School painter John Bunyan Bristol, who was born in Hillsdale but achieved prominence in New York City. Even after he achieved worldwide recognition, he still spent summers at the Mt. Washington House. We wrote about Bristol in this post.

Some believe that one of Hillsdale’s celebrities was Elsie the Cow, the famous mascot and logo of the Borden Milk Company. We’re sorry to report that the real Elsie the Cow never made her way to Hillsdale, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some Elsie history here in town.

Our story begins in Norwich, NY, where Gail Borden was born in 1801.

After a few years, the family moved to Kentucky, and then to Indiana. In his early 20s, Gail followed his brothers south, eventually working as a surveyor in Mississippi. By 1835, Borden – now married – had settled in Texas, working first as a surveyor and then as a newspaper editor, which is interesting since his only formal education took place during his two years in Indiana, and that was spent learning to be a surveyor. How he ended up editing a newspaper is still a mystery.

Borden was an inventor, although not always successful. One of his inventions was a “terraqueous machine,” a kind of sail-powered amphibious wagon that could both thunder across the plains and glide into the waters of the Texas coast. Accounts of his first – and only – journey are not kind.

In 1849, Borden turned his attention to meat. Specifically, he created a meat biscuit similar to Native American pemmican. The meat biscuits were immensely popular during the California Gold Rush because the 49ers needed compact, lightweight, non-perishable supplies and Borden’s meat biscuits fit the bill. Borden actually travelled to the 1851 London World’s Fair, where his biscuits were well received despite the fact that they looked like an old pop tart and from all reports tasted like the box the pop tart came in.

Doesn’t this look yummy?

(A lot has been written about Borden and we commend our readers to the library or Internet for more comprehensive study.)

Sailing back from London, Borden was horrified to see that several children aboard the ship had died from drinking tainted milk. He wondered if there was a way to preserve milk indefinitely, and found inspiration from the Shakers with whom he had spent some time, possibly in Kentucky. He recalled that the Shakers had developed a process of evaporating fruit juice by vacuum and making it “shelf-stable,” as we would say today. Borden used a similar process and invented condensed milk. In short order, he founded the New York Condensed Milk Company.

Borden opened factories across New York State, including in Craryville, Copake and Ancram.

By 1858, Eagle Brand Condensed Milk was a trusted brand and selling briskly. During the Civil War, the Union Army supplied the troops with Eagle Brand, an enormous windfall for Borden.

Borden died in Texas in 1874, but the New York Condensed Milk Company lived on and in 1899, the company renamed itself Borden Milk Company in his honor.

Still with us? Here’s the Hillsdale connection:

The cartoon logo of Elsie the Cow was created by Borden’s director of advertising, Stuart Peabody, in 1936.

Peabody was a lifelong Hillsdale weekender with a farm on Taconic Creek Rd., off of West End Rd.

(Some sources credit New York advertising agency maven David William Reid with inventing Elsie. It’s often said that “success has a million fathers; failure is an orphan.” In any case, if Reid did indeed come up with the idea, it most certainly would have been at the direction of his client, Stuart Peabody. So we give Peabody credit, and so does Advertising Age. However, a New York Times obituary states that a Borden illustrator, Walter Oehrle, actually drew the cartoon, again at Peabody’s direction.)

In a few years, Elsie became the most popular company mascot ever. The logo can still be found on Eagle Brand cans in stores across the country, and the Elsie logo is considered to be an icon of advertising history.

In the 1930’s, Borden Milk Company invented a new-fangled milking machine called the “Rotolactor” , which it proudly displayed and operated at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. During one demonstration, it is said, a girl asked the Borden representative, “Which one is Elsie?” Thinking fast, the Borden man looked around for the friendliest looking cow and selected a Jersey named “You’ll Do, Lobelia,” born in Brookfield, MA in 1932. Rechristened and festooned with a necklace of daisies, “Elsie” became the biggest hit of the World’s Fair.

Elsie began making celebrity appearances throughout the Northeast, but demand for Elsie extended throughout the nation, and it soon became clear that there was a need for a few more Elsies, strategically located around the country. Sad to say, “You’ll Do, Lobelia” died in a tragic accident in 1941 and is buried in Plainsboro, NJ. Here’s the headstone.

“You’ll Do, Lobelia
A pure bred Jersey cow
One of the great Elsies of our time”

You can go see it if you happen to be in Plainsboro and find yourself with absolutely nothing else to do.

The remaining ersatz Elsies soldiered on, appearing at War Bond rallies, store openings and fairs across the country.

But did Elsie ever grace Hillsdale with her bovine charm? There is no evidence that she did, although some residents recall visiting “Elsie” at the Peabody farm. Obviously, anyone can name a cow Elsie, and perhaps Stuart Peabody did.

But just like George Washington, the real Elsie the Cow never slept in Hillsdale.



(The Historians of Hillsdale thank Peter Hazzard, Jamie Carano and Peter Cipkowski for providing photos and info for this post.)

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