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.
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.
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.)
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
• Horse dealer
• Shoemaker (4)
• Miller (3)
• Cigar Dealer
• Blacksmith (4)
• Scythe Maker
• Hay dealer
• Collier (5)
• Mason (3)
• Carpenter (10)
• Railroad agent
• Station agent
• Baggage master
• Laborer (167)
• Painter (4)
• Attorney (3)
• Butcher (6)
• Hotelier (5)
• Real Estate agent
• Harness maker
• Clergyman (2)
• Teacher (3)
• Physician (4)
• Justice of the Peace
• Deputy Sheriff
• Iron manufacturer
• Wagon maker (6)
• Tailor (2)
• Tinsmith (2)
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