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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Rip Van Winkle and the Legend of Pill Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the bunny dined out on that story for months!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 War 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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